How to be more productive

I believe that I have identified the single most important factor in achieving maximum productivity.

get-a-grip on productivityI have spent the last 20 years researching how to be more productive. I've read tens of books. From the classics such as 'The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People'[1] and 'Getting Stuff Done'[2] through to the unusual like 'How to Get a Grip: Forget namby-pampy, wishy washy, self-help drivel. This is the book you need'[3]. I have tracked the latest developments in psychology and neuroscience and watched scores of TED Talks.

I Googled every aspect of productivity – planning, triage, how to stop procrastinating, building habits, setting SMART goals, managing tasks, developing resilience, effective meetings, assertiveness …

I clicked on hundreds of search results. I trawled through articles with titles like "21 Tips to Become the Most Productive Person You Know" and "8 Simple Tips That Will Improve The Way You Use Email", just to make sure that I had considered every potential tip, technique and tactic for being more productive.

As I began pulling together all my research to produce the Productivity Edge course, it became clear to me that all the task management systems, planning approaches, productivity tips, habit-building methodologies and so on, were worthless without one critical factor: intensity.

How to be more productive – Intensity!

“Intensity clarifies. It creates not only momentum, but also the pressure you need to feel either friction, or fulfilment.”[4]

How to be more productive - intensity = productivityIntensity means single-minded – and I mean single-minded – concentration with maximum effort and unflinching determination. It is the antithesis of multitasking. It means doing things with 100% conviction rather than simply going through the motions.

You can achieve so much more in an hour of resolute, purposeful, focused work than in a day of casual coasting. And at the end of that hour you are likely to feel positive and enthusiastic, with a real sense of achievement. Contrast this to the ‘meh’ feeling and lethargy you get at the end of a day when you have performed way below your best.

You will achieve more

neuronWhen you are not fully focused on the task, your mind wanders. Thinking about what’s for dinner as you write a report, will require new neural connections to be formed and the connections associated with the report are lost. When you return to thinking about your report, you have to fire up the connections all over again. This takes effort and there is the likelihood that not all the connections will be made; you will lose the nuances. You will probably have to go over what you have already written. In short, without intensity, it takes you longer to produce poorer quality work.

Intensity means that you are working smarter, not harder, accomplishing more in less time.

Imagine how much more you could achieve if you could reach the level of intensity described by Bertrand Russell in his autobiography:

"Crompton Davies arrived and I took him into the garden to say how-do-you-do to his host. Whitehead was sitting writing mathematics. Davies and I stood in front of him at a distance of no more than a yard and watched him covering page after page with symbols. He never saw us, and after a time we went away with a feeling of awe.”

Whitehead was experiencing what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as flow:

"being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."[5]

carlos santana in the zoneFlow, what athletes refer to as being "in the zone", is when we perform at our absolute best. And when we are happiest.

"the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen."[6]

But flow cannot happen without intensity.

For Cal Newport, the answer to the question, 'How to be more productive?', involves more than increasing the quantity of work. Quality is critical. In “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”, he suggests that the amount of high quality work produced is based on the formula:

Time Spent x Intensity of Focus

So what gets in the way of intensity?

The Obstacles to Intensity

1 – The initial effort

Working with intensity is not easy and particularly not at the beginning. Shawn Achor in the The Happiness Advantage states:

“we are drawn—powerfully, magnetically—to those things that are easy, convenient, and habitual, and it is incredibly difficult to overcome this inertia. Active leisure is more enjoyable, but it almost always requires more initial effort—getting the bike out of the garage, driving to the museum, tuning the guitar, and so on … The same energy, both physical and mental, is needed of people to overcome inertia … Otherwise, human nature takes us down the path of least resistance time and time again.”

rocket launchThus, intensity doesn’t mean more effort, it means concentrating the effort into a smaller space of time. 

By doing so, you reach the threshold required for change to take place. It takes most effort at the beginning, just like a rocket blasting off, but this early effort is rewarded as you see real change.

2 – Shallow is easier and becomes habitual

There are two linked attitudes, indeed expectations, in the digital world that are inimical to intensity:

  • the need to be always connected, online, available
  • multitasking

Professor Clifford Nass of Stanford talking of people who multitask all the time said:

“[they] can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand … they’re pretty much mental wrecks … And unfortunately, they’ve developed habits of mind that make it impossible for them to be laser-focused. They’re suckers for irrelevancy. They just can’t keep on task.”[7]

digital distractionAnd to a greater or lesser extent, we are all addicts of distraction. We are hard-wired to seek out novelty, even if it just another irrelevant email or another picture of a cat on Facebook. To quote from Cal Newport again:

“To summarize, I’m asking you to treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated.”

How to Achieve 'Intense' Productivity

Recognize you have a choice

There will be days when you find intensity difficult to achieve and you will find excuses for yourself; ‘too tired’, ‘just can’t concentrate’, ‘this is boring’. But the truth of the matter is that, it is your choice. Certainly it will be easier on some days that others but it is still a choice. If it is boring, then remind yourself that it will be over more quickly if you attack it with vigour. When you are not fully engaged in what you are doing, your senses are dulled; your life is like a black and white movie with the sound turned down. Why accept that when you can have high resolution 3D with surround sound? Every hour spent in a dull, unfocused state is an hour wasted. An hour in which you could be having fun and/or moving closer to your vision.

barbell methodLeo Babauta uses the metaphor of lifting weights:

“I've found the barbell method—lifting the heavy stuff but for short periods—works for lots of things in life. From productivity to relationships to finances to losing body fat to business growth, the hard stuff really matters … I've learned that in lots of other areas, the hard stuff that people avoid is what matters most. It's what's most effective.”[8]

I know this and yet there are still times when I find myself in a torpor, going-through-the-motions. There are 2 related approaches that I find useful on such occasions and which you may find of benefit. The first should be a habit that you cultivate for all aspects of your work.

Set and adhere to deadlines in your work

No exceptions! Knowing that you have a limited amount of time for a task is a wonderful way to concentrate the mind. Keep in mind Parkinson’s Law:

“Work expands to fill the time available.”[9]

Deadlines mean that once the deadline has passed you are not allowed to think about the topic. In order to do this successfully, you must initiate a 'shutdown ritual'. This involves capturing the current status and next actions that you will take in this area.

Deadlines and shutdown rituals should be applied, not only to when you finish work for the day, but as you move from blocks of work within the day. We can continue to work at a high level of intensity by working on different topics. In the words of Arnold Bennett:

“The mental faculties are capable of continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change – nor rest, except in sleep.”

Let me emphasise: you must be strict about adhering to deadlines. If you make exceptions, then your brain knows that there is the possibility of going back and so it doesn’t let go. So when you next begin a deep work session, your unconscious brain is operating on the basis of: “it’s okay, if we don’t finish, we can do something later.”

The Pomodoro Technique

In essence, you work for 25 minutes (a Pomodoro (Italian for tomato, in this case, sliced)) and then break for 3 to 5 minutes. After 4 Pomodoros, you take a 15 to 30 minute break. The Pomodoro Technique works for many people because it breaks activity into manageable chunks. Instead of scaling mountain, I have only to climb for 25 minutes; there is an end in sight very soon. There are many free apps and timers to help in applying the technique. An extensive free book is available from the developer of the technique at: .

Measure yourself on productivity, not busy-ness

busyness“Being busy is a form of laziness – lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”[10]

Ask yourself: ‘Is what I am doing, great fun or moving me towards my vision?’ If the answer is ‘No’, is there something more productive or enjoyable that you can do instead?

Don’t multitask

Okay, I know that I am repeating myself here, but it really is fundamental to recognize that multitasking is the enemy of productivity.

“Switching from task to task, you think you're actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you're actually not. You're not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly.”[11]

Bill GatesInstead adopt the approach of Bill Gates who was described by Walter Isaacson as being a:

“serial obsessor”

Eliminate distractions

If you are working a 09.00 to 18.00 day, and your boss allows it, turn off notifications for incoming emails and check your email just 4 times each day at 09.00, 12.00, 15.00 and 17.30. If a matter is urgent people will call you. Schedule replies to email; do not let them interrupt your workflow. Often you will find an issue is resolved without you becoming involved. 

When you need to work completely distraction-free consider an app such as SelfControl[12], Freedom[13] or a browser extension such as StayFocused[14] to restrict your access to the internet.

Make intensity the default

Rather than scheduling blocks of time for intensive work, make this kind of work the norm and instead schedule times for undemanding, shallow work. This subtle shift in how you view your day can have a profound effect.


Intensity is also the key to personal growth

The relationship between intensity and growth isn’t linear.



As you can see from the ‘hockey-stick’ chart, it is only when intensity passes a certain point that the real gains are made. Think back over how many books and articles that you have read – how many of them do you remember? How many of them have changed the way you think and act in everyday life?

Unless you go beyond simply reading, there isn’t sufficient intensity to generate change; the new neural pathways don’t persist. [It was frustration at my own failure to change, despite copious reading, that led me to see the need for a more focused approach and the development of The Personal Edge Program ]

Bruce Lee Intensity

The importance of intensity is shown in many fields. Anders Ericsson has conducted substantial research into elite performers and has found that there is little evidence of so-called ‘natural talent’. What separates those at the top of almost every field from the rest is ‘deliberate practice’. 

Daniel Goleman building on Ericsson’s work says:

“Daydreaming defeats practice; those of us who browse TV while working out will never reach the top ranks. Paying full attention seems to boost the mind’s processing speed, strengthen synaptic connections, and expand or create neural networks for what we are practising.”

I would really welcome your thoughts, comments and experiences related to the difference that intensity – or lack of it – has made to your productivity and personal growth.


[1] Stephen Covey

[2] David Allen

[3] Matthew Kimberley

[4] Marcus Buckingham

[5] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

[6] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

[7] Quoted by Cal Newport in Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

[8] The Hard Stuff Often Matters Most

[9] Cyril Northcote Parkinson in a humorous article in The Economist in 1955.

[10] Tim Ferriss

[11] Earl Miller, Professor of Neuroscience, MIT

[12] Self Control (Mac App)

[13] Freedom

[14] StayFocused (Chrome App)

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Face-to-Face Training may not be so effective …

A typical face-to-face training session consists of a presentation by a facilitator, followed immediately by an activity to apply the learning. There is little time for reflection or deeper analysis and, as a result, activities intended to deepen learning, like role plays, tend to be superficial. There’s a quick debrief and then on to the next topic. No chance to go away and experiment in the real world in situations where there is something at stake. At the end of the training day, you’re exhausted and any learning from earlier in the day is rapidly fading.

There is a limit to how much knowledge can be crammed into the human brain in a single day.

And then, when you return to work, you have to catch-up on all the stuff that accumulated while you were away. Often, you don’t even try to apply your learning – you’re too busy getting stuff done and within days the training is a fuzzy blur.

What a waste of your time – and money!

Face-to-Face Training is Expensive

The online content in each edge course, if delivered face-to-face, would normally require 2 to 3 days and cost several times our individual and group courses. Plus, if delivered off-site, there would be additional travel and accommodation expenses and time away from work.