The Six Things The Most Productive People Do Every Day

Productive

I admit I stole this title. But I didn’t read the article. I didn’t want to be tainted by “the most productive people”.

So I decided to write down what six things I do every day that help me with productivity. I think I’m somewhat productive. I help run a few businesses. I’ve written a book or two a year for the past 11 years. I speak a lot. I write articles. I’ve also had more than enough time to ruin a marriage, find a new marriage, lose a house, and…other stuff.

But I also feel lazy a lot. Like, sometimes I’m tired so I take a nap in the middle of the day. Or sometimes I get writer’s block. A lot of people say “writer’s block” is a myth but I get it. Then I feel very unproductive.

About six years ago I would say I was 100% unproductive. Everything I did would cost me in either well-being or money. People say “money isn’t everything” and they are right. But money helps you pay bills. I’m divorced with two kids so I have bills to pay.

So what is “productive”? Things that either increase my well-being: my feeling of growth or competence in a field I love (for instance, writing), my relationships with others, and my sense of freedom (which could (but not always) involve money).

Freedom can also come from needing less, so then you need less money.

Important to note that these three items of well-being are not goals. I will never be “competent”. A day is productive if I GROW in competence. If I grow in my relationships. If I grow in my feeling of “choosing myself” – my freedom to make my own decisions in life instead of catering to the decisions and tastes of others.

My six things (please help me and add to my list):

READING

Reading is maybe the most productive thing you can ever do. Here’s what happens: when you die at the age of 100, you’ve just lived one 100 year life. When I read a book in a few days time, I just absorbed an entire life, curated, of someone I admire or respect.

It’s like every book I read is a mentor. How many mentors do I have? 1000s. Thank god I have a podcast. Because after I read a good book I try to get the author on my podcast with the excuse that I want to give him or her more exposure. But the reality is I just want to ask questions like a little kid to someone I admire.

SLEEPING

I used to admire people who say, “I only need 3 hours of sleep a day”. Only later do I find out that most of these people are borderline mentally ill. Think about it the people in your life who say they only need 3 hours of sleep. I’m not going to accuse them of anything since I don’t know them.

But be honest. Maybe they are a little..?

Why is sleeping productive? There’s brain science about rejuvenating neurons, etc. I read that somewhere. There’s all sorts of studies that people who sleep more get sick less, have more willpower, are less at risk for cancer, etc.

But there’s something else. Dan Ariely, a guest on my podcast, says that the brain’s peak performance happens 2-4 hours after you wake up. Meaning: if you wake up at 5am, then from 7am to 9am, your brain is at it’s most productive.

So here’s what I do. I wake up at 5. I’ll read (or take a walk), until 7am, and then I’ll start writing. Writing is the activity I love most. I’m a little kid again when I write. So I want my brain to be at it’s peak. So from 7 – 9am I’ll write.

THEN, I do a trick. Many days (when I can) I’ll take a 1-2 hour nap around 1 or 2 in the afternoon. Then I know that two hours later my brain AGAIN will be peaking. Maybe not as much as before. But enough. So I’ll write again. This is why I do my Twitter Q&As at 3:30 (every Thursday). Because I know my brain is supercharged then.

I know that if I do the activity I love most when my brain and body have the most energy then that will create the most value, create the most opportunities for me, improve my competence and improve my freedom (because of the opportunities generated).

EAT AT HOME

I don’t like to eat out. It takes so long. And then you have to wait for the bill. And I always feel bloated and I hate salads in restaurants. So Claudia and I make simple meals (Claudia has been super inspired by Rich Roll and his wife Julia Platt so lately all the things we eat come from their book Plantpower) and we are done in about 10 minutes, two meals a day. So I probably save an hour or two by not eating out or not eating junk that will bloat me and make me less productive.

THROW STUFF OUT

A few months ago, Claudia and I threw out almost everything we owned. What do we really need? I like reading on the kindle. How many sheets do we need? We never have guests. How many clothes do I need? I was carrying around clothes I hadn’t worn in forever.

Our house was totally empty. It was really nice. I felt like a breath of fresh air was going through my head. Einstein says (as an insult), “if a cluttered desk means a cluttered mind, then what does an empty desk mean?” I’m okay with that, Albert! I don’t mind having an empty mind.

It makes room for new things, new connections between my memories, new things for me to enjoy. Less things to obsess on. Cleaning the outside and cleaning the inside reduce stress. Every day I try to throw things out. It makes me feel good. It also make me feel like I need less. Throwing things out tells my brain, “you don’t need this anymore” so my brain stops wanting things.

NO NEWS

Someone asked me a few weeks ago to comment on “the situation in Greece”. Is Greece still a country? I had to look it up. I guess they are going to default on their debt. So what? This gives TV people something to argue about. I’m happy for them.

People are wired to notice lions much faster than they notice apple trees. That’s why we are alive. Because our ancestors knew to RUN and the people who don’t exist would have had ancestors who never ran.

Since there’s no more lions chasing us down Main Street, the news tries to find other ways to trigger that fight or flight reflex.

I don’t need to fight or flight in order to improve competence, improve relationships with people, or improve my freedom. So no TV. No news. No web surfing. No books about current events. No talking to people about current events. No conferences about what’s going on in the world.

NO MEETINGS

I never went to a meeting where someone gave me a check at the end. I’ve never traveled to a meeting where it resulted in me making money or being happier.

Most meetings can be summarized in a two line email.

I’ll go to a meeting if it’s with my friends. That’s fun and improves my relationships. But I never go to any other meetings.

What if you are an employee and you have to go to a meeting? Try to get out of it. Or go for part of it. Or insist you only go if there are no chairs at the meeting (meetings will be faster then). Or find a job where there’s less meetings. Or show your boss there’s evidence that company’s with fewer meetings make more money.

NO PHONE

I talk on the phone maybe once every other day. Again, the two line email thing works in most cases.

EMAIL

I like Neil Strauss’s approach. He has one hour a day scheduled for emails. His wife has his password so he can’t even log on to email before that hour.

I don’t email for an hour. My emails are mostly to readers with quick questions or to people I am inviting onto my podcast. I don’t email anyone else.

I DO use texts though. Because they are faster. And I can text answers to people’s questions in my spare time while riding a cab or waiting for my kids or whatever. My phone number is 203-512-2161. Sometimes I answer questions via text and sometimes on my podcast, “Ask Altucher”.

Again, if you’re an employee somewhere you might be in the habit of responding quickly to email from, say, a boss. But try to cut it down to end-of-day when your brain is moving a bit slower and you don’t need it as much.

ONLY do the thing you love most during your peak productive hours.

Hmmm, I just realized I gave eight ways to increase productivity. Since I’ve broken the rules (nothing wrong with that) I’ll add a ninth.

EXPERIENCES

We’re the sum of our experiences and not our material things. Experiences stay with us forever and build us into who we become. Material things get lost or thrown out or lose their usefulness.

A good experience for me is: where I meet friends, where I learn something new, where it’s material I can write about. These experiences last with me forever and I carry them around in a little closet in my heart. If an experience doesn’t belong there, then I don’t do it.

What if you have to? Like if your brother or sister is getting married. Well, if it’s in one of the categories above, then ok. But it’s almost never in the categories above so I don’t go.

What if your boss sends you to a conference.

Then I have a trick you can use. Instead of being depressed and saying, “Ugh, I have to go to this conference” I change “I have to” to “I get to”. Like, “I get to meet a lot of new friends.” And then I actively try to meet new friends.

I can’t always do the above things. And then my gut reaction is saying “Ugh, I have to…”. But If I always change “I have to” to “I get to” then I can usually turn the experience into something productive.

Today I have to take my kids to dance recital rehearsals.

But then I get to see them dance.

  • | Or show your boss there’s evidence that company’s with fewer meetings make more money.

    Would love to show my boss(es) this research, James. Dug around a bit, but this article came up first in Google for that phrase/associated keywords. Want to be respectful of your time, but would love if you could point me in right direction — especially if peer reviewed.

    • Hey Ryan,
      Try this book by Al Pittampalli – http://www.amazon.com/dp/1936719169/
      Also check out resources on author’s website – http://modernmeetingstandard.com/resources/

      • Thanks, @mohitpawar:disqus. I’m very familiar with Al’s book, have read it multiple times and tried to get stakeholders I work with to read it as well.

        The bottom line is that meetings make people feel like they’re accomplishing something. It also enables people to delay decision making rather than take ownership and get to work. Two things that are common in today’s corporate environment.

        • That’s great @RyanStephens.

          I am sure you are aware about how Jeff Bezos famously gets his executives to write six-page narratives and then all attending read these memos before kicking off a meeting. That’s one great strategy.

          http://blog.idonethis.com/jeff-bezos-self-discipline-writing/

          May be you can propose something similar to your boss. Chances are that he’ll fancy being the next Bezos and accept it :) Better invest time in finding clarity of thoughts than listen to boring corporate speak.

    • @ryanstephens:disqus

      If I were you, I would try looking closer to home: Start taking down the Minutes of Meeting for everything you’re involved in – document what was discussed, who was involved, but most importantly, the outcome of that meeting!

      Document every time a meeting is scheduled without a clear agenda, when the decision maker(s) weren’t present, when they were there but weren’t engaged…

      Be prepared to offer effective alternatives. If you get a meeting invite and you believe this could be resolved over email, write one and see if you can get a responsive answer. If you do, cancel the meeting and keep track of all the useful things you were able to get done with the time you didn’t waste in the meeting and you’ll have all the evidence you need!

      I hope that helps!

  • I live in corporate america every day, and in my company there is (besides the obsession with pre-meetings, prep-meetings, meetings, post meetings, and follow up meetings) a pathological desire to bring a PowerPoint slide deck to every meeting. Even if the topic is “how to generate less junk”.
    I have instituted a rule with my team: NO POWERPOINTS, and if absolutely necessary to have slides, no more than 17 words per slide. I think we all are a bit happier than before.

    • I think that’s a very sound practice! I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of Edward Tufte, but he’d written (among many other things) about how useless PowerPoints are at communicating important information.

      I would also agree that most meetings are a waste of time. Not necessarily because the meeting shouldn’t take place, or that there aren’t genuine reasons to meet, but like PowerPoint or any means of communicating ideas for that matter, most people never learned how.

      I have a hefty acrylic cube-shaped paperweight I commandeered from the desk of an ex-employee. Apart from being an effective bludgeoning weapon, it doubles as a gavel! Whenever one of my colleagues begins to ramble off-topic, I just bang it on the desk loudly until I get their attention, change the subject, and get on with it. This also works for getting the boss the stop playing on his iPhone and pay attention to the discussion to or about him… :)

      Keep in mind that I’m an American living and working in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, so my unconventional approach to meeting moderation probably wouldn’t fly in most environments ‘state-side…

  • Zukov Tooker

    I agree most meetings are a waste of time but there are situations when face to face interaction is the best method.

    I would replace “No meetings” with “No written business plans more than one page in length.”

    As someone once said, “Genuis is simplifying the complicated.”
    Business plans just complicate the simple.

  • 9 lifestyles I also strive for, except I try to substitute an afternoon walk for sleep, and I check email WAY too often. Can I add one? No TV sports. In fact, Diane & I stopped watching TV altogether 5 years ago. Highly recommended.

    • Gary

      I agree about NO TV…I have not owned a TV now for over 4 years…also I go to the gym at 5 am and if I am the only one in the room I turn all TVs off.

  • lan

    are you for real James?

  • Stimpy

    Good discussion as always. I know what the biggest productivity killer is — addiction. It is a joy killer and makes the pursuit of competence and achievement difficult.

  • It’s amazing. I just realized that I don’t know how to manage my time at work. And that about meetings ..well I’m confused.

  • Jeremy

    no news, no web surfing? then when am I supposed to read your blog and get inspired!

  • Jibola Sogbein

    Only thing I never agree with James on is the sleeping :-)

  • Rama Prasad

    To add on to the list, limiting Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram to once in a day

  • Andreas Stullkowski

    Don’t forget: Good Music. Either making or listening.

  • Mar Kennedy

    Throw stuff out , that’s so Wayne Dyer :)
    I want to find out about books you recommend, I will surf the net for that!
    BTW if you get up at 5 at what time do you go to sleep?

  • ‘Someone asked me a few weeks ago to comment on “the situation in Greece”. Is Greece still a country?’

    Ha ha yes, Greece is still a country. I am from there, I live there and trying to apply your ideas, way of living there. You know something? Just as you mention here in this post, if you just ignore all of these ‘news’ of how bad the country is going and just try to improve,by reading, by creating ideas, by trying to apply them, by trying to improve 1% each day then you realize that this, bad debt situation in Greece, affects you each day less. And I am not referring to money (that you gain more etc). Regardless of if you gain more or less money or if you are in debt etc, focusing on improving yourself each day and being productive, no matter what, is making you understand that even, in a country like Greece now, there is a way out.

    • Powerful word, especially given the context. See James 1:2-4

  • Anna

    Great post! After reading the brave new world revisited, I unplug my cable. It’s been over a decade. I binge on science fiction flicks via amazon prime occasionally. Sleep a ton, read a ton, move and not missing anything. Thanks, James.