How To Be Productive: The Beginner’s Guide To Productivity

Life Listed is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more.
After spending over 100 hours researching, testing and using a vast number of productivity techniques, tools, books, and software, I have chosen the following productivity resources as the best of the best. This guide starts with the assumption that you know nothing about productivity and walks you step-by-step through a streamlined process for learning to be productive. This guide is a distillation of only the truly valuable resources that you need in order to master the skill of productivity in your own life.

Part 1

The Key Concepts of Productivity

To Begin, What Exactly is Productivity?

Productivity describes various measures of the efficiency of production. In popular culture, this is frequently used to describe the efforts of individuals and the speed at which they produce work. Technically speaking, a productivity measure is expressed as the ratio of output to inputs used in a production process, i.e. output per unit of input. Productivity is a crucial factor in production performance of businesses, individuals and nations.
While there are many distracting concepts that encompass the field of productivity, the key concepts below are the most important concepts for you to understand in order to improve your productivity in the most efficient manner possible.


An aim or desired outcome or result (Ex. I want to run a kilometer in under 10 minutes)


Something that prevents someone from giving their full attention to another task or action. (Ex. A phone call that rings as a potential runner is stepping out the door to run)


An assessment of past events and/or experiences (Ex. A runner who views their previous running path in an effort to find a better one)


An individual unit of work. (Ex. Put on shoes)


Concentrated thoughts and action (Ex. A runner who concentrates their thoughts on their current run)


A group of two or more actions/tasks (Ex. Go running)


A regular practice (Ex. The reoccurring event of a runner who repeats a run)
This list covers the key ingredients of productive work. Don’t worry, you are not expected to fully understand the concepts above simply because you were provided with summaries. The rest of this guide is designed to teach you those concepts through direct learning exercises and projects.

Part 2

The First Steps You Should Take To Become More Productive

In order to really understand a skill and make it part of your life, you need to take the ideas you have read about and practice them in a meaningful way. The exercise below is designed to enable you to dive into the world of being a productive person while giving you all of the learning resources you will need as an aspiring student of productivity.
  1. Make a focused commitment to complete this entire exercise to the best of your ability – Starting off by making a commitment is an important step because it puts positive pressure on yourself to follow the entire process. Following the entire process gives you access to the entirety of the positive results. Your first step in this exercise is simply to write (either on paper or via computer) the following sentence “I, NAME, have committed to following this entire exercise one time to the best of my ability.” Don’t worry, there are no tricks here, this exercise is valuable but straightforward.
  2. Choose one important task that you want to get done – While you can choose any task that you deem is important, you will likely receive the most value from picking a known task that has both been on your mind as a to-do item and one that you believe will generate a positive outcome for you. Your second step is to write the title of that task under the commitment you made in step one.
  3. Go somewhere where you can eliminate distractions – Go to a place that you know will be quiet for the next hour or longer. If this is not possible, find earplugs or headphones. Remove, turn off or cover any visual screens, windows or devices that you believe might distract you.
  4. Actively eliminate distractions – Let it be known to others that you are seeking privacy. This can be done with a handwritten sign or simply by telling others that you need some time to focus and work. Lastly, silence any devices you may have with you. If a computer is required to do your task and you absolutely need Internet access, promise yourself that you will not succumb to distracting websites or services throughout the duration of this exercise. You can, however, visit these distracting websites during your break time that is described in step 9.
  5. Turn on some music to promote focus – Use lyric-less, calming music to help drive and maintain the focus you will need. You can find free focus music here: (Free classical music playlist, Free trance music playlist)
  6. Break your important task into sub-tasks – In order to make your important task more manageable, break it down into the required steps for completion. For example, if your self-assigned task is to pay your phone bill, make a list of the required sub-tasks. In this example, these might be finding the URL or mailing address for the phone company, determine how much money is owed, pick a payment method, send payment method to phone company.
  7. Set a timer for 25 minutes – 25 minutes is not an arbitrary number. It comes from a very simple and popular productivity method called the Pomodoro technique. The Pomodoro technique is a productivity technique that breaks work commitments into segments of 25 minutes of work followed by 5 minutes of rest and distraction. This cycle, 25 on and 5 off, is then repeated as needed until the given task is completed. Google offers a free web-based timer that you can use for this purpose.
  8. With distractions eliminated, take the first sub-task of your important task and diligently work on it until completion or until 25 minutes have passed (whichever comes first) – This is the implementation of the Pomodoro technique.
  9. After 25 minutes have passed, take a five-minute break – This gives your mind a break makes this entire exercise much more manageable and maintainable. To make sure you don’t get distracted for longer than 5 minutes it is a good idea to set another timer so that you know when your distraction time has come to an end for the given cycle.
  10. Continue repeating steps 8 & 9 until you have either completed your task or made as much progress on your important task as possible within a single workday.

Part 3

Your Next Learning Exercises

Now that you have practiced the basics, you are ready to take your learning to the next level. In order to master productivity you are going to need to do a lot of additional practice and then supplement this practice with the consumption of proven techniques and concepts. The following section of this guide will show you what the best productivity resources that are available and link you to the people who are developing this field. You are now ready to dive into productivity head first!

Push Your Understanding Further By Doing The Following:

  1. Read the seminal book on productivity, Getting Things Done (or watch this overview video). This book is uniquely valuable because it teaches 90% of everything you need to know in order to be incredibly productive.
  2. Read this other seminal book on productivity, Deep Work (or watch this overview video). It picks up where Getting Things Done end by applying the key concepts of productivity to our quickly changing world.
  3. Optimize your working space for focus. Use the instructions in Getting Things Done to do this. At a minimum, find a quiet workspace and/or use headphones, earplugs, signs, tough conversations or physical barriers to develop a space that enables you to focus.
  4. End your night by making your prioritized to-do list for the next day. If you are unsure of how to do this, read the book Eat That Frog and use the process described there.
  5. Use your list from the night before and use the Pomodoro technique (described below) to complete them.
  6. Assign yourself a 30-day productivity challenge (see section below).

Complete a 30 Day Challenge To Build And Cement Productive Habits:

Complete one of the following learning challenges:

  • I will do the Pomodoro Technique at least once every weekday for the next 30 days.
  • I will complete the entire Getting Things Done process (this includes building your workstation and personal productivity system) and use it daily for 30 days in a row.
  • I will end every night for 30 nights in a row by creating a prioritized to-do for the next day.

Practice Each Of These Productivity Techniques:


The Pomodoro technique is a productivity technique that that breaks work commitments into segments of 25 minutes of work followed by 5 minutes of rest and distraction. This cycle, 25 on and 5 off, is then repeated as needed until the given task is completed.

How To Practice This Technique

  1. Set a timer for 25 minutes and work diligently until the time is up.
  2. After 25 minutes have elapsed, rest for 5 minutes in order to give your mind a break.
  3. After that 5 minutes have passed, start another 25 minute round of work.
  4. Continue this cycle until you complete your task.


SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results-focused and Time-bound. This criterion is useful for structuring goals in a way that makes their completion a binary event, they either are complete or not complete. This is as opposed to typical goals that tend to be open-ended and thus hard to determine if they are complete or not.

As an example, a common New Years resolution is to “lose weight”. Choosing “lose weight” as a goal is in the right spirit but does not set the goal maker up for success. With the goal stated as it is, how will they know when they are complete? It is an open-ended goal.

At better-structured goal (using the SMART criterion) would be “I will decrease my weight by 10 pounds by February 29th, 2018”. This is an example of a SMART goal because it is specific (decrease by 10 pounds), measurable (10 pounds), attainable (losing 10 pounds in two months is something the average person can do), Results-focused (the emphasis is on losing weight rather than abstract ideas) and time-bound (by February 29th 2018). Unlike the previous open-ended goal, this SMART goal is easy to evaluate whether or not it was completed or not.

How To Practice This Technique

  1. Choose one goal you have for yourself and recraft it to use the SMART format.


Inbox Zero is a popular business term that refers to completely emptying an e-mail inbox by answering, delegating or archiving all e-mails within a given inbox. Many people find that doing this gives them a feeling of satisfaction and completion.

How To Practice This Technique

  1. Open your e-mail inbox.
  2. Read the e-mail at the top of the list.
  3. Depending on its content, answer it, delegate it to someone else or archive it right now. (Resist the strong urge to do nothing which would require you to return to it later.)
  4. Do the same for all remaining e-mails until your e-mail inbox is empty.

80/20 Principle

The 80/20 principle (also called the Pareto principle, the law of the vital few, or the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. With regard to productivity, this principle applies widely to tasks, projects, clients, co-workers, team members and family members. (You can find the Wikipedia article on this topic here.) In many cases, this means you can extract 80% of the value of something by focusing only on 20% of the work.

How To Practice This Technique

  1. Make a list of all of your clients, pending tasks, work responsibilities or pending projects.
  2. Identify which of those are providing disproportion amount of value to you and identify which of those are requiring a disproportionate amount of work from you. (These are usually not the same items.)
  3. Using any gained insights, prioritize the work that will get you the most value and actively eliminate the low-value items from your planned workload.

Single-task Rather Than Multitask

While there is much appeal to the theory of multitasking, growing research is indicating that it is simply not an effective option for most people. Instead, most people get more work completed when they actively focus on completing a single task at a time, a method call single-tasking.

How To Practice This Technique

  1. Break your bigger projects into small tasks.
  2. Actively only work on a single task at a time until it is completed.
  3. Actively resist the urge to multitask as multitasking is usually just a disguise for distractions.

Part 4

When You Encounter Problems, Use These Solutions

Solutions To The Most Common Learning Hurdles:

What should I focus on?

Typically the task you are avoiding the most is the task that will provide the most value if it gets completed. Many times people avoid these tasks because they feel too daunting to start. To combat this feeling, break the big task into smaller sub-tasks. The smaller the sub-tasks, the less daunting they will become.

Another way to decide what you should focus on is to evaluate which of your possible tasks would potentially have the greatest impact on all of your other required work. Is there a task that if completed would eliminate other tasks? Is there a task that is blocking the possibility for other tasks to be completed? If either of these answers is yes, the applicable tasks should be some of the first that you get started on.

What should I do if I get distracted?

To avoid distractions it first helps to understand why our minds are drawn toward easy work. Watch the following video for an explanation of the science behind this phenomenon.

You must actively put effort into avoiding distraction. Focusing is hard work and your mind and body will naturally look for ways to ease the burden. Distractions are the tools your mind and body use to do this.

If you get distracted, you should first acknowledge that you have been distracted and then immediately put a stop to the distraction. If the distraction is a nearby person, you should politely explain to them that you need some time to focus on work.

If the distraction is something like an e-mail, you should both silence the notifications that made you aware of the e-mail and potentially temporarily log out of the service that made the notification possible.

If the distractions are related to your environment, you should either change your environment (e.g. go to a different room) or take action to minimize or eliminate the impact that your environment has on you (e.g. lock a door, close a window or put in earplugs.)

What do I do about e-mail?

Remember, e-mail is a channel that allows anyone with Internet access to add something to your to-do list. This is a major problem for people who want to be productive. In order to combat this, read the following articles and implement their recommendations into your life.

What if others don’t support my productivity system?

Not everyone will be supportive in the long-term of your productivity system.

When you encounter people who are working against your productivity, try explaining to them your goals and the difficulty they are introducing to your ability to complete those goals. If that is not possible, find ways to avoid or remove these people form your workspace.

If that too is not possible, attempt to find a new workspace. This can be as drastic as a new office or as simple as a new desk in the same room.

How should I deal with mental burnout?

Short-term burnout – Go for a short walk in order to move your body and to give your mind a short reprieve. This walk can be around your building or as short as into a different room. If possible, make it a habit to change working areas every time you feel yourself starting to get burnt out. This can be as simple as switching seats, rooms or even buildings if that makes sense for your context.

Medium-term burnout – Request time off for a mental health sick day. Don’t work on your projects during this time. Instead, entertain yourself with something completely unrelated to your work. This could be as simple as spending time with family or as extravagant as visiting a foreign country.

Long-term burnout – Depending on the severity of the burnout you may need to seek professional medical help (a therapist for example) or start taking steps to find a new job or project.

The Most Helpful productivity focused Companies and Communities:

If you need personalized help with your learning, try connecting or hiring these resources:

Productivity SubReddit

The Productivity SubReddit on Reddit

Productivity Board on StackExchange

The Personal Productivity board on StackExchange

Part 5

The Top Productivity Learning Resources

The following learning resources were picked only after completing over 100 hours of research on productivity. While there is a huge number of available productivity books, articles, videos courses, software and self-declared experts, the vast majority of the options either repeat the ideas that are established in the resources below or don’t provide enough unique value to outweigh their cost of investment.

In order to supplement the practicing that you are doing, extend your knowledge by studying the top learning resources that are listed below. All of the resources that follow are the best of the best of their given format.

Read The Best Books for learning about productivity:

Read The most helpful productivity Guides and Articles:

Other Valuable Articles:

Watch The Most Helpful Productivity Videos and Video Channels:

The Most Helpful Productivity YouTube Channels:

Focus at will

Focus at Will Music Channel

Science backed music playlists specifically designed to help you focus.

Thomas Frank Productivity Tips Channel

Videos that are designed to make you more productive with your education.

Take The most useful productivity Online Courses:

Learning How To Learn

One of the most popular MOOCs of all time. This course teaches you how to learn.

Getting Things Done

An online course by the creator of the Getting Things Done methodology, David Allen.

Work Smarter, Not Harder: Time Management for Personal & Professional Productivity

A popular online class that teaches you how to work smarter instead of harder.

Download The most useful productivity Apps and Software:


Organize your work and declutter your life. With Evernote on your desktop and mobile devices, your notes are always with you and always in sync.


Software that integrates with e-mail provider to ensure that only the most important e-mail makes it to your inbox.


Things is the award-winning personal task manager that helps you achieve your goals. For Mac and iOS.


Infinitely flexible. Incredibly easy to use. Great mobile apps. It’s free. Trello keeps track of everything, from the big picture to the minute details.


OmniFocus for Mac, iPad, and iPhone is designed to quickly capture your thoughts and ideas to store, manage, and help you process them into actionable to-do lists. Perfect for anyone.

Focus at Will

Scientifically engineered music for increased focus and productivity at work.

Follow The Top Experts in the Productivity Field on Social Media:

David Allen

David Allen

David Allen is a productivity consultant who is best known as the creator of the time management method known as “Getting Things Done”.


Chris Bailey

Chris Bailey

Chris Bailey is a productivity author, speaker, and consultant based out of Ottawa, Canada. He speaks to audiences on the tactical ways they can accomplish more every day, and is the author of The Productivity Project, translated and published by Penguin Random House, Hachette, and others in more than 60 countries around the world.


Timothy Ferriss

Timothy Ferriss

Tim Ferriss has been listed as one of Fast Company‘s “Most Innovative Business People” and one of Fortune‘s “40 under 40.” He is an early-stage technology investor/advisor (Uber, Facebook, Shopify, Duolingo, Alibaba, and 50+ others) and the author of four #1 New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestsellers, including The 4-Hour Workweek and his latest, Tools of Titans. His Podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show, has exceeded 200 million downloads.


James Clear

James Clear

James Clear is an author, photographer, and weightlifter. He studies successful people across a wide range of disciplines — entrepreneurs, artists, athletes, and more — to uncover the habits and routines that make these people the best at what they do.


Cal Newport

Cal Newport

Cal Newport is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, who specializes in the theory of distributed algorithms. He previously earned his Ph.D. from MIT in 2009 and graduated from Dartmouth College in 2004.

In addition to studying the theoretical foundations of our digital age as a professor, Newport also writes about the impact of these technologies on the world of work.