Back to basics: The simplest 4-step program for more productive days

We’ve all done some crazy things in the name of productivity. Get up at 5 am? Check. Cold showers? Check. Meticulously schedule every moment of the day? Check. (Someone even once hired another person to slap them whenever they got distracted!

We can’t help but want to get more done. Our days are a hectic mess of meetings, calls, tasks, and deadlines. Yet it’s not like our workloads have changed to accommodate this increased pace.

It’s no wonder that when we interviewed over 500 professionals, only 10% said they feel “in control” of how they spend their time. We crave control but get quickly overwhelmed and end the day asking, “what did I even get done?”   

But so-called productivity ‘hacks’ and masochistic strategies claiming to give you an ‘edge’ are a classic case of solving the wrong problem. Instead, to truly increase your daily productivity, you have to focus on the fundamentals. 

Back to basics: A 4-step program for fixing your productivity fundamentals

On a farm or in a factory, productivity is defined as increasing your output without an associated increase in time or resources. In the office, productivity is about consistently getting important work done. 

It’s not about doing more. It’s about being effective with your time. 

If you can consistently complete even just two hours of truly productive time a day, you’ll do more in a week than most people do in a month.

This might seem like an over-simplification, but it’s not. Most people who do more end up feeling like they’re always behind because those hours aren’t being spent effectively. They’re bouncing between tasks, calls, emails, and meetings and never really focusing on what pushes the needle

In other words, they’ve forgotten (or never knew) the four fundamentals of productivity: 

  1. Understand where your time goes (and how you’re wasting it)
  2. Optimize your daily schedule for your most productive work (and know what that is)
  3. Build habits and routines to automate your day
  4. Block distractions and optimize your work environment

If you do all four of these things, you’ll radically transform the way you work. But while they might sound easy at first, there are nuances to each that need to be explained in order to make the most of them. 

Productivity fundamental #1: Understanding where your time goes

If you want to lose weight you track your eating. If you want to save money you track your spending. And if you want to be more productive you track your time. 

To be productive, you need to know where your time is currently going. And once you start tracking your time, it becomes painfully obvious that it’s not going where you think it is. 

This is called the intention/action gap. In other words, how we think we spend our time is often at odds with how we actually do. 

This causes all sorts of issues, but one of the worst is that you think you have more productive time than you do each day and so you say yes to everything. 

But without knowing how you spend your days, time has no scarcity and therefore no real value.

But time is your most valuable resource. 

A time audit is a simple exercise that helps you understand how you actually spend your time now so you can create proper goals, build a better daily schedule, and focus on the habits and routines you need to change.

In its most basic sense, a time audit follows 3 steps: 

  1. Write down your intentions (this is how you want to spend your time)
  2. Look at your personal data (this is how you actually spend your time)
  3. Create an Action Plan to put those two back in alignment

The key here is to use accurate personal data. Productivity isn’t a guessing game and the more precise you can be, the more likely you’ll stick to your goals. 

This is where RescueTime becomes essential.

RescueTime observes and categorizes how you spend your time so you know exactly how much and when you’re doing certain activities. 

For example, my intention is to spend 50% of my day on writing activities. But my RescueTime report shows that, on average, I only spend 43% of my time writing. 

Now, I have the data I need to set a proper goal and create an action plan to bring that number up. Without it, I’d still be going through each day thinking I can do it all. 

More about how to understand where your time goes:

Productivity fundamental #2: Optimizing your schedule

Most people overestimate what they can get done in a day and underestimate what they can do in a week, month, or year.

Being productive is all about seeing the big picture and understanding that progress builds. The more good days you can string together, the bigger the return you’ll get. 

Now that you know where your time is going and how you want to spend it, the next fundamental is knowing how to turn that into a daily schedule. 

The right schedule tells you what a good day looks like. It’s an idealized version of how you want to spend your time that acts as a guide to each day. 

The biggest mistake you can make is to sit down and just write a schedule. No one else can tell you how to best spend your day. Instead, just like you used data to help with your time audit, you need to use data to create the right schedule for you

To do this, you need to first do two exercises:

  1. Find your personal productivity curve. This is a detailed report on when your peak productive hours are and when you’re most likely to be hitting a slump. This allows you to schedule your most important work when you’re most productive and less tasking work like emails and meetings when you’re naturally more tired. 
  2. Time-block out your day. With this information, you can create a time-blocked schedule. This is where you break up your day into “blocks” of 30–90 minutes for different tasks, such as deep work, daily tasks, shallow work, and breaks. It’s a lot of work, but is a powerful way to make the most of your day. 

Again, both of these are about understanding your ideal day. You won’t always stick to it, but simply by knowing it, you’ll be able to get more done. 

More about optimizing your daily schedule: 

Productivity fundamental #3: Building the right habits and routines

According to researchers from Duke University, up to 40% of our behaviors on any given day are powered by habits and routines. This means that even with the best intentions (and schedule), you’re still not in control of nearly half of your day. 

The right habits guide your day to be more productive without you even realizing it. While the wrong habits can quickly disrupt even the best intentions and schedule.

So how do you build good habits and break bad ones? 

In his book The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg defined the three stages of any habit:

  • First is what’s called The Cue. This is the trigger that initiates your habit.
  • Next comes The Routine. This is the action you take or the habit itself. 
  • Finally, you have The Reward. This is the benefit your mind gets from taking that behavior that solidifies it into a habit.

In order to change a habit, you need to both remove or replace the cue and the reward.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you want to stop your habit of checking Twitter throughout the day so you remove it from your phone. Yet a few hours later, you find yourself logging into Twitter through your browser or re-downloading the app. 

The problem is that you tried to remove the cue without understanding the whole habit.

Your brain is a pleasure-seeking device. When an action makes you feel good or satisfies some craving it wants to do more of it. The problem is that those satisfying feelings can come from anything—finishing a task, sleeping in, or checking Twitter.

In order to build the positive workplace habits we’re talking about here, you need to focus on both the trigger that gets you started down that path and the reward that turns that behavior from a one-time action into an unconscious one. 

You can’t just get rid of Twitter. You have to know why you turned to Twitter (the trigger) and what craving it satisfies (the reward). 

So let’s go back to the example. Whenever you catch yourself checking Twitter, stop and immediately look at what you were doing before and ask why you did this. In my case, I discovered that I check Twitter whenever I’m stressed about a current task. 

Over time, the little kick of dopamine I get checking my notifications built a habit of avoiding difficult work by checking social media.  

To be more productive, I need to transform the entire habit. Here’s how this might work: 

  • Cue: I get stressed when I work on difficult projects.
  • Routine: Instead of checking Twitter, take a short walk to decompress and reset my brain.
  • Reward: I still get a hit of dopamine hit from the exercise.

You can do this for any habit—good or bad. You just need to understand them, why you do them, and how you can change them to be more in line with your goals.  

More about changing habits:

Productivity fundamental #4: Banishing distractions

The final productivity fundamental is building the right environment—both physically and digitally. Our environment is the ‘invisible hand’ that guides our days and our actions. 

Think about the habits we just spoke about. In many cases, the trigger for your habit is something around you. Whether that’s your phone beside you on the desk or your open inbox beckoning you to check it every 6 minutes

To be productive, you need a distraction-free environment so that the easiest thing to do is complete the work you want to. Again, this starts with data and self-reflection. 

What’s taking away your attention and needs to be removed? 

When you think about distractions, the first thing that comes to mind is probably things like emails, calls, meetings, or coworkers popping by to say hello. 

All of those distractions we just mentioned are what are called external distractions. They’re when something or person comes along and interrupts your focus. And while you might think those are the main issues to solve if you want to stay focused, they really aren’t.   

When UC Irvine Professor Gloria Mark studied what takes people away from focused work she found that it wasn’t just external distractions and obligations. In fact, Gloria and her colleagues found that we’re just as likely to interrupt ourselves as to be interrupted by an external source.

These are called internal distractions. And they’re much more dangerous and harder to deal with than changing your device notifications and blocking social media sites.

Internal distractions come from our need to ‘keep up’ and our fear of missing out. 

To be productive you need to learn how to mitigate both of these. Stanford professor BJ Fogg calls this “designing for laziness.” The more you can make good actions easier, the more likely you’ll be to do them. 

  • For external distractions: Place your phone in your bag or another room. Close your inbox and chat app until specific times of the day. Wear headphones to block out noises. Schedule specific ‘heads down’ time where people won’t bother you. 
  • For internal distractions: Set expectations by talking to your coworkers about when you’re available for calls and meetings and when you’re not. Block distracting websites using FocusTime to make you aware of when you’re distracting yourself.
  • For your work environment: Remove clutter from your desktop (both physical and virtual). Try to find sources of natural light and fresh air. Bring in some greenery. Keep a sweater around if you don’t have control over your temperature. 

The more you can design your environment, the more productive you’ll be. 

More about blocking distractions:

These 4 fundamentals will radically transform your productivity 

On the surface, these four steps sound simple to execute. But in reality, they take time, effort, and consistency. There will always be things that get in the way, new distractions or changes to deal with, and days where you don’t feel motivated. 

But if you nail the basics and build a system to keep you accountable, you’ll be able to stay productive no matter what life throws your way. 

Jory MacKay

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


  1. Jory, thanks for sharing these productivity tips – I once read knowledge workers need to learn about productivity before any other work skills!

Leave a comment