Self Improvement

Stop Looking for the Secret to Productivity. There Isn’t One

Dann Albright 22-06-2016

It has become very fashionable to offer “secrets” online: the secret to making more money, the secret to being happier, the secret to weight loss — you can find “secret” tips for just about anything. Including the secret to more productivity (that’s one I see all the time). If you just follow this one tip, or buy this one product, or use this one app, you’ll be exponentially more productive than you were before.


But do you want to know the real secret?

It’s that there’s no secret to increased productivity. There are some simple rules, some effective systems, and a lot of practiced discipline.

Don’t fall for all the hype.

Selling Secrets

The reason you see so many “secret keys” to something you want is simple: it’s a good advertising strategy. It gets people to click on your tweet or share your Facebook post.


People are always looking for faster, more efficient ways to do things, especially when they’re hard, which is why they fall for this marketing trick Do You Think Twice About These Online Shopping Traps Before You Buy? Retailers and marketers are using cutting-edge behavioral psychology to get you to buy their products, whether you need them or not. Do you know how they're targeting you? Read More . People think that if they just know the one killer tip that’s promised, their productivity will skyrocket and they’ll get more done, be happier, and make more money.

Why do people look for the secret path to their goals, whether productivity, weight loss, time management, relationship-building or anything else? Because those things are hard. Maximizing your productivity isn’t easy, and neither is finding a long-term partner. They take time, a lot of effort, and can involve a lot of frustration, too, which is why people want a shortcut.

I have bad news: there is no shortcut. And a lot of the tips contained in the articles that promise them is bad productivity advice 4 Popular Productivity Tips That Should Be Ignored Some of the productivity ideas sold to us are sometimes unfounded, and often mistaken. Let's debunk a few of these productivity myths by showing that the opposite may just as likely be true. Read More .

Why Being Productive Is Difficult

There are a lot of different ideas that people have about why being productive is difficult. Many people find that our current technological culture — which is full of up-to-the-instant news, social networks, and online games — is highly distracting, and that makes it hard for them to concentrate. Focusing on a single task Single- vs. Multitasking: What's Best for Productivity? Multitasking is a common method to increase productivity. Turns out it's not necessarily the silver bullet for productivity. The key is to know when to multitask. Read More can feel impossible when there are so many other great things right at your fingertips.


Other people lack the motivation that’s required to stay productive throughout the course of a day; maybe they don’t like their job or their current task, or they have difficulty managing their energy levels at certain times, and that affects their motivation. Some people feel overwhelmed by the massive amount of stuff they’re supposed to get done and are paralyzed by it.

There are as many obstacles to productivity as there are people, and you’ll have to identify your own reason that you aren’t getting as much done as you want to. Spending some time journaling about it might help you figure out why you’re having difficulty, and that’s a great first step.

Maybe, the fact that accomplishing a lot of stuff is hard is pushing you to find the secret of productivity, or at least the best system or app out there to help you get things done.

The truth is much less exciting. But that is where you need to go.


Systems, Environment, and Discipline

Of course, what helps you be productive isn’t going to be the same thing that helps someone else. But if you read about productivity, you’ll see that a lot of it comes down to three important things:

  1. Systems
  2. Environment
  3. Discipline

First, let’s talk about systems. A lot of different things can fall under the “systems” category, from time management strategies to productivity apps. But what’s most important is that you find one or two that work for you and stick with them. I, for example, really like the Pomodoro system How a Simple Pomodoro Timer Made My Life Better The Pomodoro Technique is one of the simpler time management life hacks. Break through distractions with the help of 25-minute chunks and a timer. It could be a life-changing routine change if it suits you. Read More to help keep me on track, especially in the mornings. You might need another time management system, but having one in place will be a big help.

We’ve written before about choosing the best productivity app for you The 5 Commandments for Choosing the Right To-Do App for Productivity Different people organize in different ways. So choosing a to-do app really depends on what kind of person you are. Here are five commandments you can think about for your own productivity system. Read More , and about how you might even decide to just go with pen and paper.


The important thing is that you find one that works and stick with it. I use Habitica, because the gamification aspect Points For Everything: How I Tried to Win At Life With Gamification My brain is stupid. It thinks I can get done tomorrow what I need to do today, and that I can do this afternoon what I need to do this morning. It puts everything off.... Read More keeps me coming back. I’ve tried a number of other methods, but Habitica seems to work best, so I’ve stuck with it. It’s that simple.

You can try every new productivity system and app that comes out, but many of them are gimmicky or rely on ideas (sometimes even research) that don’t have a whole lot of substance behind them. There’s no app or time management protocol that will magically turn you into a productivity machine. Just find one that works and doesn’t get in the way of what you’re trying to do.

Second, an often neglected component of productivity: your environment. Not just your physical environment, either; your digital environment makes a big difference, too. If your environment isn’t conducive to productivity, it’s not going to matter how good your system is or how disciplined you are. A busy office is a tough place to keep your mind calm and stay focused Reclaim Your Focus: 5 Ideas To Deal With Short Attention Spans We have more information available than every before, but this ironically has damaged our ability to absorb any of it. However, you can take action to improve your attention with a few simple steps. Read More , but you’ll need to do that if you want to maximize your productivity.

Reducing visual clutter Clearing Out Clutter Is Good For You — But Why? Decluttering is a great way to start the year feeling fresh, and it gives you a big sense of accomplishment — but there's more to it than that. This simple habit can improve your life. Read More , eliminating distractions, cutting down on the chance of interruptions — all these things are important in maintaining a productivity-enhancing environment. The “cluttered desk, cluttered mind” and “empty desk, empty mind” maxims do work for some people, but most of the people I’ve talked to about this prefer having a clean desk to get work done on.


And the same goes for your computer. If you have a crazy number of documents open, are being totally overrun by rampant tabs, and have emails and IM notifications pinging every 30 seconds How To Turn Off Distracting Tech Notifications Almost Anywhere These days, we're constantly barraged with email updates, system alerts, and annoying texts from hypothetical neighbors named Brad about how he got his pet chinchilla stuck in the dryer vent again. But for some reason,... Read More , you’re not going to be able to stay focused long enough to get into the zone on any particular task.

Close down apps and tabs that are distracting you and focus on what you’re doing instead of constantly multitasking 3 Ways To Stop Multitasking & Stay Focused To Be More Efficient & Productive [Windows] At MakeUseOf we have written countless articles on how to multitask. As it turns out, however, multitasking messes with your brain. Research shows that people who multitask a lot are "more susceptible to interference from... Read More (and don’t forget that there are plenty of browser extensions that will help you stay focused).

Of course, everyone has their own preferences for a work environment, but if you’re struggling with productivity, try clamping down on visual, audio, and any other kinds of distractions. It should help.

Finally, we have what might be the most important factor: discipline. As we’ve discussed previously, willpower is a limited resource, and when you run out, it’s really hard to stay disciplined and accomplish the things you want to get done. Practicing being disciplined is one way to increase your ability to stay focused and increase your resistance to being distracted, and regular meditation can help, too.

One of the best things you can do to increase your willpower and get more done is to not deplete your reserves on things that don’t matter. Develop a routine where you don’t have to decide what to wear in the morning, what to make for breakfast, or which way you’ll drive to work.

Turn tasks into routines.

You’ll save on the amount of willpower you have to spend on them every day, freeing up valuable resources for staying focused on your work.

In “How to Work the Willpower Muscle How to Work The Willpower Muscle Some people don't have the willpower problem. What makes those productive people different? As it turns out, there's plenty of research on the subject, and the answer turns out to be pretty simple Read More ,” we listed a number of other good ways to level up your willpower, like setting achievable goals, not multitasking, treating willpower like a skill, and taking on harder tasks earlier in the day.

Many people also find journaling to be very helpful in improving their discipline and concentration; grab a simple journaling app or a notebook and get to it! You might be surprised at how much of a difference it makes (if you’re not sure what to write, check out these easy-to-use journal templates How to Jumpstart a Journaling Habit with 7 Simple Templates If you have a journaling template, you have a big advantage: you don't have to figure out what to write! Templates are time-savers and they also reduce the friction of starting. Read More to get started).

There’s No Secret

In the end, there’s no secret to being productive: it just comes down to choosing the right tools, simplifying where you can, and effectively applying willpower. It’s not always easy, especially in an ecosystem where every new app is pitched as the greatest thing ever Why Procrastination Can't Be Cured By Task Management Apps [Opinion] For the longest time I’ve struggled with time management, and in some aspects I still do. One of my many methods in “overcoming” my lack of time management was to use task management applications. I... Read More .

But you’ll steadily improve if you can find a tool or even two tools that work, create an environment that’s conducive to getting stuff done, and develop your willpower. You won’t double your productivity overnight, but you’ll make progress. And that’s what’s important.

What do you do to maximize your productivity? What systems and habits do you use on a regular basis, and which have you tried in the past? Share your best tips in the comments below!

Image Credit: Who Is Danny via Shutterstock.

Related topics: Motivation, Productivity, Time Management.

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  1. Michael Mason
    June 23, 2016 at 5:13 am

    My favorite trick to be more productive is to schedule regular breaks. All work and no play makes Michael a dull boy.

    • Dann Albright
      June 27, 2016 at 3:19 pm

      Yes, that makes a huge difference for me, too! I was using the pomodoro system for a while, and those breaks helped a lot. Now I'm taking more frequent, but even shorter, breaks. I think that's a really commonly used one, and it tends to help a lot of people.

  2. Anonymous
    June 22, 2016 at 11:54 pm

    You mean we should skip all those MUO articles about "Tools That Improve Your Productivity"? :P

    • Dann Albright
      June 27, 2016 at 3:19 pm

      No, tools are great. That's I'm trying to say here. It's "secrets" that are a waste of time. :-)

  3. Anonymous
    June 22, 2016 at 7:29 pm

    Do this one crazy trick to become more productive...

    Don't become a victim to analysis paralysis...the act of examining and trying so many productivity methods, that you get nothing done. :)

    • Dann Albright
      June 27, 2016 at 3:18 pm

      It's not uncommon to spend a ridiculous amount of time searching for the perfect productivity system. :-) If more people knew that you just need a GOOD one, and not THE BEST one, they'd probably get a lot more done!

      • Anonymous
        June 28, 2016 at 1:21 am

        I agree! If they only understood that there isn't a BEST. :) I use several depending on the mission at hand.

        • Dann Albright
          July 7, 2016 at 1:55 pm

          Yeah, using different methods at the same time can be really useful, too. I often combine a relatively simple task manager with a notebook; that seems to be the best combination for me, as the notebook lets me jot a lot of things other than tasks that are helpful for my productivity. As long as you know the best system for your current project and situation, you're set!