How the people who make productivity apps stay productive at work

With ballooning to-do lists, non-stop requests, and constant communication, who doesn’t want to get more done each day? Yet while the promise of workplace productivity is to work smarter, not harder, most of us do both. The time we save being better at our jobs just means we have more time to work.

But this isn’t a sustainable way to work (or to live).

At RescueTime, we’ve spent the last 10 years creating resources and tools to help you do more meaningful work each day. And we definitely have our own opinions about how to be productive at work.

But what about all the other people working to help you get the most out of your day?

In this post, we asked leaders at 3 productivity app companies to give us their best pieces of productivity advice.

Productivity is about strategy. Not output.

Productivity strategy

While most of us think of productivity as simply “getting more done,” it’s not that simple.

Instead, most people we talked to rarely talked about doing more work, but about “getting the right things done”. And that means focusing on long-term team productivity, not just personal output.

“I think of being productive and setting my team up for success as the same thing,” explains Bethany Hills, a product manager at automation software company Zapier.

“As a product manager, I’m always conscious of my productivity because it directly impacts the rest of my team. For example, if I’m not working a few days or a week ahead to prep user stories my engineers won’t have the information they need to execute.”

And while this makes sense, it also brings up one of the hardest questions about being productive at work. How do you balance your need to hit personal milestones while also ensuring you’re not holding anyone else back?

For Bethany, this comes down to not just focusing on an ever-growing list of to-do list items. But spending time going through your tasks and choosing the ones that are:

  1. Most impactful
  2. Can be realistically completed in a day

One of the hardest things about being strategic with your work is that our brains are wired to choose short term gains over our long term goals. According to Beeminder founder Daniel Reeves, this is thanks to a psychological tendency called Hyperbolic Discounting:

“When buying groceries online for delivery tomorrow people buy a lot more ice cream and a lot fewer vegetables than when they’re ordering for delivery next week. In other words, our preferences are inconsistent—in fact, logically contradictory—over time. Your ability to weigh the costs and benefits (yumminess, healthiness) is severely compromised when some of those costs or benefits are immediate.

“That same dynamic plays out not just with our diets but with many aspects of our lives. Exercise, of course: ‘I’ll go to the gym next week when I’m less busy’. And productivity: ‘I’ll watch one more Youtube video and then get down to work’.

“More generally, we’re derailed by what’s shiny and distracting and immediately gratifying at the expense of what’s most important to be working on for our long-term goals.”

Key Takeaway: Take the long view when trying to boost productivity

When we’re trying to get “more” done, it’s easy to just focus on what’s on our plates today. However, what most productivity experts agree is that to be truly productive, we need to look long term.

What are the tasks you can do today that will have the biggest or compounding returns later on?

Are you choosing to do work because the immediate benefit of completing it is enticing, even if it won’t help you in the long term?

Take the time to really understand the tasks you’re working on. While it might be hard to not be constantly producing, that time spent planning and prioritizing is always more productive than churning out low-impact work.

Always deal with “rocks” before “pebbles”

Productivity - rocks

When it comes to daily productivity, it’s not always easy to focus on the long term. There are always urgent tasks that come up and in the heat of the moment, we all make bad decisions. This is where the productivity experts we spoke with said it’s important to know the true priorities of the work you’re doing.

As MeisterTask CEO Michael Hollauf explains, you can think of your day like an empty jar that can be filled with rocks, pebbles, and sand. You’ll fill your day no matter what. But the order with which you fill it is what matters:

“If we fill our time (the jar) first with small tasks (sand and pebbles), like emails, chat notifications, and quick tasks, then there will be no time left for the bigger things, like values, company strategy and family.”

Doing important work first is something I’m sure most of us have heard of (and is a tactic supported by productivity experts like Tony Schwartz and David Allen). However, depending on your position, this isn’t always easy. Or realistic.

“When you’re leading a company and many of your team members depend on you for advice or sign-off, ignoring their emails or internal messages can mean your company grinding to a halt,” explains Michael.

To deal with this, you need to find a way to balance between the rocks and the pebbles of your day.

At Zapier, Product Manager Bethany Hill uses a simple automation to make sure she’s capturing her “busy work” in a way that she can deal with quickly and periodically:

“A good example of this is a Zap that is widely used at Zapier. When I star an message in slack it gets automatically added to my to-do list in Todoist. It’s a small thing but it means I don’t have to take the time to create to-do items for myself. And in a busy week that adds up to time saved and things that don’t fall through the cracks.”

Want to learn how to automate your productivity using Zapier and RescueTime? Check out these 7 easy productivity automations you can start using today.

Key Takeaways: Focus on high-priority work and ruthlessly delegate the rest

One of the most common pieces of productivity advice you’ll hear is to try to only do the right work. If you can make sure you’re spending the majority of your time on high-impact tasks, you’ll be in a better position to see real progress every single day.

To do this, you have a number of options—each one depending on your role, responsibilities, and company dynamic:

  • CEO/leader. If people are waiting for your sign-off, getting through those is more productive for the company than putting them off. In this case, MeisterTask’s Michael Hollauf suggests clearing out all your small tasks—emails, Slack messages, and short meetings—first thing. That way you can focus for the rest of the day.
  • Team lead. If your job is a balance between managing and making, you’ll need to intersperse your rocks and your pebbles. That means using a technique like Zapier’s Bethany Hills and capturing questions and messages in a place that you can work through methodically when you choose to.
  • Maker. If the bulk of your high-impact work is getting things done, it’s probably a better bet to do the most important ones first. As Beeminder’s Daniel Reeves explains, you should choose one “must-do” task for each day and commit to doing it before anything else.

Proper teamwork can be one of your biggest productivity boosters

Productivity teamwork

One of the biggest trends that came out these interviews was the focus on team productivity over personal productivity. However, in most workplaces, we’re judged by our individual contributions. And breaking out of that “me first” mentality can be a struggle.

However, if productivity is all about getting more done then true productivity happens when people are working together properly. As MeisterTask CEO, Michael Hollauf explains:

“In the early days, when it was just two or three of us, being productive meant coding a new feature or writing a blog post. Now, with almost 40 people working around the world, we have specialist people for each of those tasks. So, being productive has shifted more towards enabling others to be productive.”

You can also look at this is as being accountable for your core work.

When you work with other people, you have certain responsibilities for keeping a project moving smoothly. Maybe it’s coding a feature set of designing some new UI elements. Whatever it is, it’s most likely not the seemingly urgent tasks we spend most of our day on (like email or Slack conversations).

It can be hard to ignore the pull to respond instantly to that Slack message. But the more you’re able to focus on the core work you need to do, the more productive you and your coworkers can be.

As MesiterTask’s CEO explains, this is where time tracking becomes such an important productivity tool:

“By tracking the time each task takes, we’re able to judge whether we’re spending time productively. For example, as CEO I shouldn’t be spending lots of time on programming, when I’ve hired specialist people to do it.

“By reviewing the time-tracked reports in MeisterTask (or using it alongside an external tool like RescueTime), I can understand where I could be delegating better or where I’m spending too much time on low-impact work.

“As a team, this enables us to be more strategic with our work. We’re able to look at past time-tracked reports when choosing how to prioritize future work, focusing on high-impact tasks with a low time commitment.”

Key Takeaway: Schedule time for your core work and find ways to enable those around you to be more productive

There’s a delicate balance between the need to be available and doing focused work. And it’s not always easy to tell someone you need to be left alone to get “real” work done.

However, we found a few solutions after interviewing hundreds of RescueTime users about how they handle interruptions from focused work:

  • Schedule dedicated time for more complex questions. If a question is going to take time to find a solution, it’s better to schedule dedicated time for it. That way everyone can prepare and make sure it’s not interrupting their core work time.
  • Decide on which form of “non-urgent communication” you’re going to use. It’s easy to get derailed during the workday from communication. By using a certain communication tool for only “not urgent” messages, you’ll know what you can ignore.
  • Have set office hours for questions. If your job involves being available to others for questions, set aside dedicated time rather than being always around.

Has our obsession with productivity become unhealthy?

“There will be days that you are busy and stressed. But that’s not a state you should aspire to live in. It’s not sustainable,” explains Zapier’s Bethany Hills.

Productivity isn’t just about doing more. It’s about feeling accomplished at the end of your day. And that means setting boundaries so everyone stays healthy, happy, and ready to get back to work the next day.

As MeisterTask’s Michael Hollauf explains:

“Numerous studies have shown the real emotional and physical outcomes that workaholism, and burnout, can have on team members. However, I don’t think workplace productivity necessarily needs to go this way. By instead focusing on achieving a good work/life balance, the emphasis can be on working productively only during specific working hours.

“This clear separation between working life and home life will, in turn, make your team members more productive too, as they’ll be more well-rested and happy during working hours. It’s a positive cycle.  And team leaders need to ensure that balance is encouraged and achieved.”

How do you stay productive throughout the workday? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter.

Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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