15 top productivity tips from the experts

One of the pitfalls of being an organised person is that you tend to get locked into your own organisational habits and techniques, mistaking rigidity for rigour. That being the case, with this article I decided to stretch far beyond my own organisational boundaries by interviewing four people who develop productivity apps and asking them about their own tips and tricks for staying organised and efficient.

These CEOs, founders, and developers spend their working hours thinking about what disorganised people need to do to become more organised. They build their software based on testing data, personal observations, and feedback from an enormous community of users.

In these four concise interviews, you'll find reflections on what it means to be organised and productive, as well as some specific tips and tricks that these experts use themselves. Incidentally, I am "JD" – Jill Duffy – in the following interviews.

Amir Salihefendic, Founder of Doist

Amir Salihefendic is the founder of Doist, a company that specialises in productivity software. The company's two flagship software products, Todoist and Wedoist, help people manage their personal tasks and collaborative projects. I spoke to Salihefendic on the topic of efficiency.

JD: Your product Todoist aims to help people take control of the tasks they need to do. In developing the app, what have you learned about what most people need in terms of help and guidance in accomplishing their tasks?

AS: People are really bad at creating their tasks. Most people create tasks that are really hard to complete. For example, "lose weight" isn't a task; it's a longer project that includes hundreds of tasks. Yet, most people will add "lose weight" as a task.

What's better is to see "lose weight" as a project that has tasks such as eat ten fruits each day, go to the gym every other day, etc. Understanding the complexity of the task and breaking it up into manageable and actionable chunks is really important for your organisation and productivity. It's also motivating since you can complete sub-tasks along the way and feel like you are getting closer to the goal.

JD: Can you share two or three tips or tricks for increasing productivity?

AS: I think email is really a productivity killer. I get hundreds of emails per day, and I manage this in the following way:

  • I only check and process email three times a day (morning, noon, and afternoon).
  • I answer an email if it will take less than one minute.
  • I archive if an email isn't important.
  • I delegate email [that I want to answer later] as a task to Todoist (via our Chrome plugin) and specify a due date to not forget it.
  • In the afternoon, when my energy levels are low, I answer longer emails.

JD: Would you share an image of your workspace or a screenshot of your desktop?

AS: Here's a screenshot of my Todoist account (above), including a new feature called karma, which gives visual feedback and tips on how you can improve your productivity.

Mikael Berner, CEO of EasilyDo

Mikael Berner is CEO of EasilyDo, which makes the "smart assistant" app for the iPhone of the same name.

JD: What do you make of the difference between organisation and productivity and efficiency? In my mind, you can't be productive and efficient without being organised, but it is possible to be organised and still be highly inefficient. How important is organisation to your ability to be productive and efficient?

MB: It's really important. Another dimension that I see that I think supports your proposition, is that being organised doesn't mean that you're disciplined or can take action. I think the discipline underlying organisation is important.

I also think that focus can be misconstrued as needing to be long [periods of uninterrupted work].

We've read and found studies that say the average person context switches every three minutes but doesn't come back to a task for 27 minutes. Productivity is a lot about context switching and how you read and process information. You need to be able to respond to important things coming in. Are you organised in that you have phone numbers in the right places? Or do you have to bounce around to find them?

JD: In developing the EasilyDo program, what research or data did you uncover about what people need to be more efficient, more organised, more productive?

MB: We've found in our studies that none of us are aware of how much time and energy we're putting into small tasks that we don't even know are tasks. We stopwatch how long it takes to do these small tasks and compare them with how long it takes a smart agent to do them for you.

We're all being weighed down, and we don't even know we're being weighed down, by distributed apps and data.

JD: Can you share two or three of your own tips and tricks for increasing productivity?

MB: I rely on tools that help me surface the most important information. EasilyDo, Unroll.Me, SaneBox — a lot of things that declutter email — I recommend any of those tools.

The best rule, and I sometimes slide off of this, is "If you're going to open an email, either do something with it, like respond to it, or delete it, or file it away." Don't even open an email unless you can process it right then. That's part of the two minute rule.

And finally, I'm sitting in our conference room right now that has these Ikea tables, but they're glass tables that you can draw on with dry erase markers. It brings the group work together on the table rather than sending one group member to a board. It reinforces team work.

Omer Perchik, Founder and CEO of Any.Do

Omer Perchik is founder and CEO of Any.Do, a suite of apps under the Any.Do umbrella.

JD: In building the Any.Do software and apps, what have you found that people need to do to be more organised and productive?

OP: The most productive people, we've found, are those who have two main habits. First, they know their capabilities. They might have only three tasks, or five tasks, or just one task in a day depending on how big those tasks are. Second, they turn task management into a habit, and they usually turn to their tasks around 8am every single morning.

The most productive people are those who have strong habits about being productive. Yoga, sports, going into your task management app at the same time every day… it's having the self-discipline to do it every day. The focus point should be less about the method — whether it's the Getting Things Done (GTD) method or something else — and more about how you can create a habit to be more productive. How do you open your to-do app every morning? How do you put everything from your mind into the app and take the time to prioritise it? That's the big challenge in this space: To turn it into a habit.

JD: Can you share two or three tips and tricks for productivity and organisation that you personally use?

OP: One of the most productive things to me is my desk always being organised. It's a psychological thing. I mentioned knolling [last time we spoke], which gives me the sense that everything is organised. To be productive, you need to be organised. When I have organisation in my head and in my workspace, I can do the things I need to do. I need to have the mindset to be able to accomplish my tasks.

A second trick is that I use Any.Do to plan my day.

And third, I use noise-cancelling headphones (Bose) which keep me laser-focused on the things I need to do.

For me, it's all about getting into the "getting things done zone." Those headphones are the best. I put those headphones on, and it isolates me from the world, and I can come into the office at 8am and end at 1pm feeling like I have finished a complete day, and yet I still have a few hours when I can be open to having interactions with other people.

If I had a formula for getting into the "getting things done zone," I would have written a book or patented it, but I think it's different for everyone.

Eric Morgan, CEO of AtTask

Eric Morgan is CEO of AtTask, a cloud-based enterprise work management solution, meaning it provides a single, central place to manage and control the chaos of an entire company's work. The goal of AtTask is to improve visibility and productivity by eliminating wasted time dealing with fragmented, siloed tools and processes.

JD: Let's start by talking about organisation, productivity, and efficiency. How important is organisation to a team or business' ability to be productive and efficient?

EM: Productivity is about doing the right things with the right quality in the right timeframe that deliver the right business outcome. It's about eliminating wasted efforts, timing delays in projects, and unnecessary busywork (efficiency gains) and working on the right tasks, providing necessary approvals when needed, engaging in productive collaboration to deliver on better outcomes (effectiveness gains).

JD: In developing AtTask, did you do any research to better understand what people or teams actually need to do in order to be more efficient, more organised, more productive, and ultimately get their tasks done? What have you learned?

EM: Enterprise teams have fragmented systems and tools and are stuck in email hell, which results in silos of information, with information about a task or project scattered across the organisation, making it impossible to find.

Enterprise work is also surprisingly disconnected from the strategic direction of the company, the department, and the team.

We also found inconsistent processes for common work elements, for example, in work requests where people might use email, IM, meetings, office visits, phone calls, and sticky notes.

Another common problem is managers, executives, and team members have no visibility into what other people were working on.

JD: Can you share a few tips or tricks for increasing productivity? I'd like these to be personal to you.

EM: As an executive, here are ways that I increase my productivity, and how I increase the productivity of my organisation:

  • Know when to say "no" and say it.
  • Don't use email to manage work.
  • Over-communicate, even if it feels redundant and overdone.
  • Start every day thinking about work, not just doing it.
  • Use AtTask because with a glance, I know what people are working on and if it is aligned to our strategic vision.

15 productivity tips from the experts

Okay, have you absorbed all those nuggets of wisdom? Here's a handy summary of the most important tips imparted here:

  • Only check and process email three times a day (morning, noon, and afternoon).
  • Answer an email only if it will take less than one minute.
  • Archive unimportant emails.
  • Delegate emails that you want to answer later as a task, and specify a due date.
  • In the afternoon, when energy levels are low, answer longer emails.
  • Don't use email to manage work.
  • Use tools that surface the most important information, such as EasilyDo, Unroll.Me, and SaneBox.
  • If you're going to open an email, either do something with it or file it away.
  • Use glass tables with dry erase markers in conference rooms as whiteboards.
  • Keep an organised desk.
  • Use a task manager (such as Any.Do) to plan each day.
  • Wear noise-cancelling headphones to increase your focus.
  • Know when to say "no" and say it.
  • Over-communicate, even if it feels redundant and overdone.
  • Start every day thinking about work, not just doing it.