A Simple Method to Double Your Productivity

This short guide [10 minute read] contains a proven method for helping you focus on your most important work. Once you practice and internalize this method, you will improve your focus, get more done and build habits that will double your productivity. These techniques are famously used by some of the most productive people in history including Benjamin Franklin, Elon Musk and others.

This method is derived from some of the most current research around willpower, focus, planning and procrastination. We’ve done the work of taking those principles and distilling them into a method you can use every day to get more done in less time. Here are just some of the principles we are working with:

Some Guiding Principles

Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law states that “work tends to expand to fill the time allotted.” A number of scientific studies have shown that when people are given extra time to work on a task, they use up the extra time, often with no increase in performance. Limiting your time to do something increases your focus on your work, so you naturally work more productively. Our method uses this principle by making you decide how much time you will spend on your tasks.

Planning Doubles Results

Researchers at the University of Konstanz in Germany gave two groups an assignment. The first group just got the assignment, the second group had to decide exactly when and where they would work on it. 32% of the first group completed the assignment, but of the planning group,  71% (more than double!) completed the assignment. Simply writing a specific plan often doubles your chances you’ll actually get to work and do it. Our method uses this principle by making it quick and easy to build a specific plan from your task list.

Eat the Frog First

Mark Twain said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog today, do it first thing in the morning.” We all have big, hard or confusing tasks that we put-off. This principle calls us to tackle those first in the day. Studies have shown that our willpower is a limited resource that we use-up throughout the day. Therefore, committing to do your hardest task first ensures you’ll use your maximum willpower on your most important task. 

The other benefit of this technique is that it guards against procrastination. Studies show that we subconsciously procrastinate on tasks that are confusing, difficult or scary. By proactively choosing and attacking these tasks first, we are much more likely to carry them on to completion.

The Zeigarnik Effect

Researchers have shown that unfinished tasks often create a tension or stress that can distract us from our current tasks. This is known as the Zeigarnik effect. It's the same reason that we get a song stuck in our head when it gets unexpectedly cut-off before finishing, and it's why soap operas end each episode with a cliff-hanger. When you make a plan for completing the unfinished task, you release the tension and free your mind to focus on your current task. Writing a task list and capturing "emergent" tasks helps with this (more below).

Now that you know some of the principles we are employing, here’s the step-by-step guide to doubling your productivity everyday. Take 10-15 minutes to do this every morning and even if you don’t double your productivity, you will still get a lot more done.

The Time Blocking Method


Step 0. Print the Free Action Plan Sheet

Download and print your Action Plan sheet here or get The Daily Time Blocking Planner for a more convenient approach.

Step 1. List your tasks for the day

You can simply brainstorm what you need to work on or pull tasks from your running list (ToDoist is great keeping a list of tasks). Listing out your tasks helps you see them clearly so you can organize your day better.

Break your large complicated tasks down into subtasks. This helps you reduce the complexity (complexity causes procrastination), it also creates a mini-plan for how to move forward, and makes your time estimates more accurate.

Step 2. Estimate how long each task will take

While you’re listing your tasks, write an estimate of how long each task will take. Estimate in chunks of 30 minutes (or 15 if you need to get more granular). For shorter tasks, batch them together in a 30 minute chunk. Put this estimate in the time column, to the left of your task.

It’s so easy you don’t notice, but you are transforming your list of ephemeral to-dos into actionable tasks.

Step 2.5. Choose your Frog

Choose your hardest, most overwhelming, most procrastinated task. That’s your frog. “Set your intention” by writing this at the top of your Action Plan. Now, using your time estimate, schedule it as the first thing in your day. And, if you're really serious, speak out loud that you will eat that frog first thing today. Isn’t this redundant? Yes. You are nailing a stake in the ground, declaring that YOU WILL EAT THIS FROG. All of those things together help your brain to strengthen your resolve and tackle that task (our brains are weird!) It only takes a few extra seconds to write it at the top and speak it out, you might as well try it.

Step 3. Schedule remaining tasks, in order of importance

This is called Time Blocking (or Time Boxing). Now that you have tasks with time estimates, you can schedule them into your day. This is *THE* crucial step. You are changing a random to-do list into an actual plan, which actually makes a huge mental difference. As mentioned before, when you make a plan, you are twice as likely (double! 100% more!) to work on your task. This is the beauty of this method, it’s so simple, yet it fits perfectly with how our brains work to make us more productive with only a small upfront cost in time.
  1. Using the time schedule on the left of your Action Plan, first schedule your appointments for the day
  2. Next, schedule your frog in the first open slot, blocking out the schedule based on your time estimate
  3. Now add your next most important task to the schedule
  4. As you schedule tasks, put a circle in the Status column indicating that the task has been scheduled. The circle gives you a place to check-off your tasks when they’re done and a quick visual cue to find your scheduled tasks in your list (not every task on your list will make it on to today’s schedule). 
  5. Keep adding your next most important tasks until your day is full. Thus the least important tasks won’t make it into today’s plan. Which is good! The definition of productivity is that you’re getting more done in less time, this means you have to focus on the tasks with the biggest bang for your buck.
Caveat to E: I find it helps to have a 30-60minute “slush-fund” time block to handle the little emergent things that pop-up, such as: time-estimates that were off, a co-worker stopping by to talk, appointments you forgot (real life!) or a creative flow where you’re making great progress (and blowing-up your schedule).

Mark unscheduled tasks with an arrow (>) indicating that they are for later. Use these when you make your list tomorrow morning, or add them to a running list of tasks.

Step 4. Execute

You now have a concrete plan for the day, full of getting important things done. Note: it’s key to treat your tasks like doctor’s appointments. Show up to tasks on time, work hard and stay focused while you’re there. When you start a new task:
  1. Tell yourself: "I'm going to work on X for the next Y minutes." This helps "set your intention” and keep you focused. If you're really struggling to stay focused, trying telling yourself out loud.
  2. Set a timer. This accomplishes two things: 1) it keeps you focused on the task; you’re racing against the clock. 2) it tells you when to quit and move on to the next thing; this pulls you out of a time wasting rabbit trail. For example, on my “do social media” task, I often get sidetracked by social media! The timer wakes me up and gets me back on track, otherwise I could waste hours!

Step 6. Adjust!

More tasks will come-up during the day (“emergent” tasks). As they come up, add them to your list with an arrow (>) in the status column, meaning you will push them back to tomorrow or later. You can try to fit them in your current day, but don’t ruin your plan for any old task! A big killer of productivity is jumping to whatever task comes-up or seems most urgent. Stick to your plan, or you will be more likely to procrastinate on your most important work. You’ll find it actually feels really good when you can receive an emergent task and add it to your list while saying “I’m doing something more important right now. I’ll work on this later.”

It’s important to know that most days don’t actually go as planned. As Eisenhower said "Plans are worthless, but planning is everything." It's important to not get discouraged and give-up when things don't go as planned. Adjust the plan as necessary by moving tasks or postponing them until tomorrow. If you’re not moving tasks back, you’re probably not really challenging yourself. Don’t be so rigid with your plan that you ignore important emergent tasks and opportunities. But also don’t derail your schedule for unimportant things like checking email and social media. This is a tricky balance to get right, but you'll get better with practice.

Final Tips

  1. Keep the 80/20 rule in mind. Often 80% of the value comes from 20% of the work. Focus on the 20% of your work that is most valuable and don’t get bogged down in details that suck up all your time and drastically reduce your productivity. Getting more done in less time is what productivity is all about. If you find yourself spending a lot of time on unimportant details (like agonizing over the spelling in a rough draft, writing long emails or reading articles about your task rather than getting started), know that your productivity is going way down.
  2. When you get off track (you will!), don’t condemn yourself. Just say: “Oops, that’s not what I should be working on right now,” and get back to your list. Coming back from a rabbit trail to do more important work is one of the most productive things you can do.
  3. Gratitude. Many studies over the last decade have found that expressing gratitude has significant effects on our attitude and emotional state. A regular gratitude practice can help reduce the negative emotions that hinder our productivity. If you’re up for it, try starting your day by writing down a few things you’re grateful for. There’s a line at the top of the Action Plan Pad for this.
  4. Just get started. When you have an overwhelming task, it helps to schedule 15 or 30 minutes to just get started working on it. Usually once you start, you hit your stride and get a lot more done than you thought you would. But even if that doesn’t happen, at least you’ve made a little progress, which will be easier to build on next time. You can do anything for 15 minutes, right?
  5. Delegate what you can. If you find yourself doing a simple task regularly, it's a good candidate for delegation. The more simple work you can get off your plate, the more time you have for the specialized/high-dollar work only you can do (or more time for leisure if that's your goal).


Here's a quick review of the Action Plan steps:

1. List your tasks

2. Estimate times for each task

3. Choose your frog

4. Schedule tasks in order of importance

5. Execute

6. Adjust

Although this method isn’t fool-proof, it’s simple, quick and it forces you to decide when you’ll do your most important work. It also takes advantage of the way our brains work, deriving the guiding principles from current research and experience. In 10-15 minutes you have a concrete plan for the day, which is essential to being productive. As the saying goes, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

Get your free Action Plan sheet here. Or save yourself the trouble and buy the new Daily Time Blocking Planner.

1 comment

  • Merry

    This is the most generous helpful advertisement I have ever seen. I would be glad to order you stuff. I need a one year calendar. big enough to trace development of three goals . maybe for the wall . or big for the desk. any thoughts?

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