Almost every issue you have with being productive comes down to a lack of either time, energy, attention, or motivation. These four elements–what we like to call the TEAM framework–are the very foundations of how you get things done.
- Time: When are you going to get things done? Think about your schedule, time management techniques, and the systems you put in place to control your day.
- Energy: How are you going to spend your time in the best way? Energy is all about prioritization, setting the right goals, and creating rituals and routines that empower you each day.
- Attention: What are you going to do to stay focused? How will you avoid distractions, find flow, and create an environment that supports focus?
- Motivation: Why are you doing any of this in the first place? Motivation is the missing piece that ties it all together. If you’re unmotivated or suffering from burnout, it doesn’t matter how much time, energy, or attention you have.
Yet while it’s relatively easy to have one or two good days full of time, energy, attention, and motivation, keeping up with all these factors for the long run is a whole different beast. But it’s not impossible.
With a bit of planning, purpose, and dedication, the TEAM framework can become your foundation for long-term productivity.
Time: How to find more time to work on what truly matters
There’s a reason that time is at the start of the TEAM framework (and not just because it makes the best acronym).
Time is a zero-sum game. The more you spend on one task, the less you have for anything else. That’s why having control over how you spend your time each day is such an important skill.
Unfortunately, 90% of people say they don’t feel ‘in control’ of their time and only have a few hours each day to really focus on important tasks.
Winning back control over your time will influence every other factor in the TEAM framework. So where do you start?
First, understand the limitations of the day
Controlling time starts with getting real about how much of it you really have each day.
You might be at work from 9–5, but how much of that is available to you for focused work?
Psychologists call this The Planning Fallacy. Simply put, this is where we underestimate how long tasks will take to do and overestimate the time we have available to us to do them.
Instead, understanding your available time gives you a clearer picture of what you have to work with.
At RescueTime, we think of available time as what’s leftover in your normal workday once you subtract meetings, communication time, and attention residue (i.e. the time it takes you to regain focus after a distraction or interruption).
Available Time = Your regular workday – meetings – scheduled communication time – attention residue
In most cases, this only leaves 2.5–4 hours a day for you to work with. While that might be somewhat depressing, it gives you a solid foundation to work from.
Next, add more structure to your schedule
The next step once you understand your time limitations is to try and give yourself more available time. And the best tool for this is your schedule.
A daily schedule is a scaffold that allows you to do your best work. The more you can start each day with a schedule full of how you ideally want to spend your time, the easier it is to ignore interruptions, turn down distractions, and avoid seemingly ‘urgent’ tasks.
The method we suggest for filling your schedule is called time blocking.
Time blocking is when you add dedicated blocks of time to your schedule for Focus Work (like designing, writing, coding, or anything else that requires long periods of uninterrupted time), Other Work (like emails, calls, and scheduling), meetings, and breaks.
However, time blocking your schedule can be a lot of work to keep up with. It can also be impossible if your work culture is heavy on meetings and constant collaboration.
Instead, think of time blocking as a template. There are some blocks that are suggestions and some that are required.
If you still struggle to stick to a schedule like this, then even just focusing on the core principles of time blocking will help you see most of the benefits:
- Schedule at least one block of interruption-free time for Focus Work. At least once a day, schedule 30–90 minutes where you will focus only on an important task. Close your email/chat and go into do-not-disturb mode during this time (we call this a Focus Session).
- Batch your communication time and choose specific moments when you’ll be available. Instead of being ‘always on’ pick moments of the day when you’re on chat or responding to emails.
If you can do these two things, you’re guaranteed to have more time in your day for important and productive work.
Finally, get rid of the time-wasters in your day
Once you understand your limitations and have a time blocked schedule, the last piece of the time puzzle is removing as many ‘time wasters’ as possible.
Time wasters include the more obvious distractions–like getting sucked into social media or reading the news. However, the less obvious (but more dangerous) time wasters are tasks and responsibilities you shouldn’t be doing in the first place.
These ‘productive’ time-wasters make it seem like you’re doing important work. But at the end of the day, you’ll look back and feel like nothing got done.
Removing or putting aside these tasks, meetings, or responsibilities is one of the greatest time multipliers you can use as it actively makes more time and space in the future.
To do this, look at your calendar, schedule, and to-do list and ask a few questions about each item:
- Can you eliminate this task/meeting?
- If not, can you automate it?
- Can it be delegated to someone else?
- Does this task/meeting need to be done now?
In many cases, 50–80% of the things on your to-do list can be either eliminated, delegated, or set aside for later on.
Energy: Prioritize your tasks, time, and health
Once you have enough available time, the next step is knowing what tasks should be prioritized during that time.
Just as you have limited time each day, you have limited energy to focus on important and mentally demanding work. Yet energy is something most of us ignore when it comes to our productivity.
We assume that getting things done is a scheduling problem. Find more time and fill it.
However, thanks to our individual Circadian Rhythms, we cycle through regular peaks and lows of energy throughout the day. The more you fight against these factors, the harder it is to get things done.
For example, when you try to do mentally challenging work when your energy levels are low you’re going to take longer than you want to, struggle to stay focused, and produce worse results.
But if you can match your energy levels with your priorities, you’ll get more done in significantly less time.
As entrepreneur Srinivas Rao told us:
“What matters more than the length of time you put into a thing is actually the intensity of focus. Because if you have an intensity of focus you can actually reduce the amount of time spent doing it to get the same or better results.”
Increasing your energy comes down to a few factors:
First, prioritize your time during the day
To optimize your day for energy, you need to know when your best hours are.
As psychologist Dr. Rod Friedman explains in his book The Best Place to Work:
“Most people typically have a window of about three hours where they’re really, really focused.”
Finding that window of time takes a bit of experimentation. But you probably already know the best place to start.
Begin with broad strokes. Are you a morning person, night owl, or something else entirely? Think about the times you’re most likely to really dig into problems. These are the moments where you should block out time for Focus Work.
If you don’t know where to start, try one of these tests to discover your body’s underlying energy flow.
Next, prioritize your task list
Too many of us get swept up in spending our days on the wrong things. We get urgent emails asking us to update docs or frantic messages from coworkers that send us spiraling for hours.
Or, as legendary management consultant Peter Drucker so aptly puts it:
“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”
With your schedule prioritized for energy, pick the right tasks to work on.
We’ve written full guides on how to properly prioritize your work. However, the key lessons are:
- Use a Master List to capture all of the ‘things’ that want to take your attention away.
- Separate the ‘urgent’ tasks from truly important ones using the Eisenhower Matrix or the ABCDE method
- 80/20 your day by choosing only the highest-value tasks for your highest-energy times
Finally, give your body and mind enough fuel and rest
Prioritizing your tasks and times helps you utilize the energy you do have. However, you can give yourself more energy by changing your lifestyle.
If you don’t prioritize downtime, get enough sleep, and generally keep your mind and body in good shape, you’ll always be running on empty.
We’ve rounded up advice on how to ‘fill your energy well’ in this guide:
Attention: Singletask and rebuild your ‘focus muscle’
It doesn’t matter how much time and energy you have if you’re constantly getting distracted.
Attention and focus are what allow you to stick with your plan and work through problems. Unfortunately, the way most of us work isn’t very friendly to our focus.
We leave ourselves vulnerable to constant interruption from calls, meetings, emails, and well-meaning coworkers. Or let our minds wander to social media, news, and other distractions.
However, mastering your attention is a superpower.
Research has shown that an hour of deeply focused attention–or Flow–is up to 500% more productive than when your focus is scattered.
That means with the right time, energy, and attention you can actually get more done in just 2 hours than most people do in a day!
Commanding your attention comes down to 5 elements:
- Control over your technology. your phone, social media, email, and other digital tools have an outsized impact on your ability to focus. To make them more focus friendly you need to remove both their external distractions (like optimizing your notifications, removing “infinity pools” from your phone, and blocking distracting websites). As well as the internal or emotional triggers that cause you to check them constantly.
- A focus-friendly environment. Tools and apps aren’t the only things that sap your focus. Your environment is the ‘invisible hand’ that guides your attention. Find a space that allows you to truly focus and then clear out the clutter that competes for your attention. You can also use music, sounds, light, and even plants to make a more focused work environment.
- Getting rid of multitasking. It’s scientifically impossible to do two things at once (aka multitasking). Doing one thing at a time is not only more productive but leads to less stress and anxiety. But it’s not just ‘tasks’ that we multitask. Many people spend 40% or more of their day jumping between productive work and emails or chat, which is just as bad for your focus. Close your inbox or quit Slack when it’s time to really focus.
- Setting clear expectations around communication. According to our research, knowledge workers check their email or chat on average every 6 minutes during the workday! This isn’t just a ‘too much email’ problem. It’s a cultural one. Try setting better boundaries around your email or have a data-driven conversation with your boss about how being ‘always on’ chat and emails is impacting your overall productivity.
- Taking more breaks away from your computer. Focus isn’t just about what you do. Taking breaks, walking in nature, and getting fresh air all improve your attention. If you find it hard to add long breaks to your schedule, try using microbreaks instead.
How to rebuild your focus muscle: Start small and set a timer
A controlled environment, better tech habits, more breaks, and less multitasking and email will help rebuild your focus. But it can be a lot to try to tackle all at once.
That’s why it can help to think of your focus as a muscle. You (hopefully) wouldn’t go to the gym and try to pick up the biggest weight there. Instead, it takes time and effort to build your strength and see progress.
The same goes for your focus. When you’re trying to rebuild your focus muscle, start small, and use a tool like RescueTime to track your progress.
Here’s how it works:
- Block out time in your schedule for Focus Work
- Use the tips above to create the best possible environment for focus (i.e. quit email/Slack, remove distractions, etc…)
- Pick a single task to work on that will get all your attention
- Set a timer for a short period of time (25–50 minutes to start)
Not only does single-tasking like this help you avoid the trap of being busy but doing nothing, it also helps you stay motivated.
Thanks to The Progress Principle, seeing progress on meaningful work is one of the best ways to boost your happiness and help you keep going with your day.
Speaking of which…
Motivation: How to harness the power of consistent productivity
If we were machines, time, energy, and attention are all we’d need to be consistently productive. (However, we’re not.)
Motivation is what ties everything in the TEAM framework together. Without motivation you’ll find yourself procrastinating, focusing on the wrong work, frustrated, and on the fasttrack to burnout.
Psychologists describe motivation as “the desire to act and move toward a goal.”
To increase your desire to act, you need to know what drives it. Simply put, there are two types of motivation:
- Extrinsic motivation is being motivated by rewards like pay, praise, or fame.
- Intrinsic motivation is being motivated by internal rewards like a sense of accomplishment, internal drive, or enjoyment.
Unfortunately, while extrinsic motivation is easier to find, it’s less powerful than intrinsic. To stay motivated, you need to have an internal reason to come to work each day.
Here are a few ways you can find motivation to push through your hardest tasks each day:
Identify your core values (and revisit them regularly)
It’s so much easier to stay motivated if you know what intrinsically motivates you in the first place. Is it helping people? Being creative? Seeing your designs come to life?
If you’re unsure, an easy exercise is to take a few minutes and write down 3–5 of your core values. Here are a few examples (you can find more on a list like this):
Let’s say one of your core values is ‘leadership’.
Knowing this can help you reframe why you’re slogging through spreadsheets as you move up the ladder to senior management or why you’re putting in extra hours to launch your own company.
If you’re still unsure about your values, studies have found that recalling past experiences dealing with hard tasks—both good and bad—can help. Why did you work so hard to finish that task? There’s an intrinsic motivator hidden somewhere in the answer.
Use ‘job crafting’ to align your work with your core values
There’s probably a good chance that your core values don’t match up with your current work. And while the bigger answer would be to look for a career that does, you can also try and adjust how you currently spend your time.
Job crafting is the process of auditing your current position through three specific lenses:
- Task crafting: What’s your day-to-day? Can you take on tasks outside your job description in order to expand your skills in the way you want?
- Relational crafting: Who do you spend time with during the day? Can you connect and collaborate with new teammates or different departments?
- Cognitive crafting: How do you think about your job? For instance, can you change your title to reflect the more intrinsically motivating aspects of your role?
These minor changes can help you shift the way you think about your job and help motivate you every day.
Try the 5-minute rule to get over ‘the motivation trap’
Motivation isn’t just about big lofty values and job crafting. Sometimes you just feel unmotivated. Rather than think there’s some inherent issue with your job, try just starting.
One of the biggest myths about motivation is that we need to feel motivated before we can do anything. Psychologists call this the motivation trap:
“Motivation does not precede action, action precedes motivation.”
It often only takes forcing through a bit of initial discomfort in order to get motivated and push through procrastination. Instagram founder Kevin Systrom calls this the 5-minute rule:
“If you don’t want to do something, make a deal with yourself to do at least five minutes of it. After five minutes, you’ll end up doing the whole thing.”
Before throwing up your hands, try just doing it for a few minutes.
Set up a system to track your progress
Lastly, one of the most motivating things you can do is see progress on big projects. Unfortunately, the nature of most knowledge work (like writing, designing, and coding) means that it’s hard to ‘finish’ a project on your own.
However, seeing small wins–even just making progress–is a huge motivator. As author Jocelyn K. Glei writes:
“Most of us make advances small and large every single day, but we fail to notice them because we lack a method for acknowledging our progress.”
Lastly, don’t ignore how much your team impacts your TEAM
Time, energy, attention, and motivation are powerful tools. But you don’t always have total control over improving them.
So much productivity advice ignores how your ability to get things done is dependent on both external and internal factors.
The TEAM framework can be influenced both by your external situation–your environment, schedule, responsibilities, or work culture. Or, by internal issues like a lack of motivation, procrastination, self-distraction, or poor time management skills.
You might have tons of energy, laser-like focus, and clear motivation, but if your schedule is swamped with meetings and you never have more than a few hours a day to really focus, you’re going to feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and like nothing ever gets done.
As you work through each step of mastering the TEAM framework, don’t ignore the role that culture and workplace play in each of them.