Productivity is often mentioned in one breath with time, but they are two concepts that should not be combined. Time is absolute, productivity isn’t. Productivity is about energy, about being in the flow. That has nothing to do with the number of hours you work.

Being in the flow seems like something intangible, but I look at it differently. A lot of it has to do with the right preconditions. It is mind-set, a way of organising. I experiment with this on a daily basis and notice that I get a lot out of it. A clear head, for example, to think about things that are truly important. These are my golden rules:

1. No e-mail in the morning.

Email is productivity killer no. 1. It rules your life. As soon as you open your email you go straight into reactive mode and the contents of your inbox determine what you will be starting your day with.

For that reason I try not to check my e-mail in the morning. I’m a morning person. I like to get up early, have a shower, breakfast with my wife and kids and then get working. Not with a list of little to-do’s or e-mail but with that one big job I want to be working on that day. It gives me a feeling of being in control rather than being controlled.

Checking and answering e-mail two or three times a day works well for me. Not one or two e-mails at a time, but 30 or 40. And back to a nice, empty inbox each time. Things I have to deal with go directly to Asana, my to-do app that I use to prioritise. That stops me from reading the same e-mail five times and thinking about it the same number of times.

2. Trust the tools that work for you.

For many years I have been using a number of apps that I cannot live without. Each individual app has its own specific purpose. It is a precondition for each app that all the data is stored in the cloud so I can access it from anywhere. The main apps I use are:

  • Evernote. I have used Evernote for years as an archive function for absolutely everything. All my contracts, admin, notes, everything is in Evernote. Whenever I’m looking for something I find it in Evernote.
  • Pocket. This has been my favourite app for years for all the articles and news items I come across on the Internet. I’m not saying I end up reading all the articles I save. That isn’t necessary, provided they have a place where I know I can find them if ever I want to.
  • Kindle/Instacast. I read books on my Kindle. I highlight sections that are important to me so I can find them later in summary form. It takes me approximately an hour to get from my home to my work. I often use that time to listen to podcasts about subjects that inspire me. In the car I very consciously don’t work on urgent to-do lists; rather, I use this time to give free rein to my thoughts. A calm instead of a harried mind by the time I arrive at my destination.
  • Asana. After trying at least 30 different to-do apps, Asana and I have been best friends for quite some time now. Asana has a number of getting-things-done principles built in as standard. Being asked to indicate specifically what I consider important today, in the near future and in the longer term is the perfect way for me to set priorities. As soon as I think about an action I need to take I immediately put it in Asana, using my phone or laptop. Later I will decide when to perform the action in question.

Feedly. There are quite a few sites and blogs that I like to follow. I collect this content via Feedly. I like having the information fed to me instead of having to go and find it. I try to consistently free up some time every day to let myself be inspired by these articles.

3. Buy a Moleskine

You mean one of those paper notebooks? Absolutely! Because in addition to my MacBook Pro I always carry a physical notebook as well. Sometimes I enjoy just having that one little book with me. My Moleskine is full of little notes and scraps of information: a comment I picked up in a recent conversation, or maybe just a quote from an advertising campaign I saw somewhere when I was out and about. I have occasionally pulled over and parked up because I really wanted to write down that one particular thought or idea. It may seem contradictory with all the online options we have available these days, but I really enjoy it.

4. Fewer meetings

Try to say ‘no’ to meetings more often. And definitely don’t agree to meetings of which the purpose is not clear in advance. In my experience those really are a waste of your time, especially if they are scheduled right in the middle of your productive hours. A meeting must always have a clear purpose that has been agreed in advance, including the presence of someone who has or accepts the responsibility to take on the agreed action points. Only then do meetings make sense and is it useful to spend your time on them.

Sometimes it is nice to deliberately schedule ‘production days’. Days without meetings, so you can work on one thing. Paul Graham wrote a spot-on article about this.

5. No voicemail

I try to limit the number of places from which I respond. Facebook messages, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, e-mail, voicemail … different places that all demand my attention and make me feel unsettled. A few months ago I completely turned off voicemail on my phone and I have to say, it is working really well. I always call back people I know right away, and people with unknown numbers often send a message or app if it is really important. To me, it is one less medium that I have to keep thinking about. I find LinkedIn messages or whatever a lot easier to ignore, and I am happy to do so.

6. Decide what is really important to you

Long to-do lists make you feel important, they give you a sense that there is still so much for you to do. But what is really so important about that point that has been on your list for three months already? Stop fooling yourself and decide what is really important to you. There are probably a lot of people around you who will be happy to pick up the other items on your list. No? In that case, picture what would happen if that particular item never gets done. In 9 out of 10 times the world will simply keep turning.

This is a point I have struggled with myself. Long to-do lists were an excuse for me. Now I have a lot more time to really think about things. To deal with problems more holistically instead of looking for short-term solutions.

Work in progress

I continue to enjoy ‘tinkering’ with my productivity. It keeps me occupied. I often ask other people how they deal with their productivity and experiment with some of the things I learn. If I have new insights I will share them with you, and I hope you will do the same.