12 Favorite Productivity Principles

Related post: How (and Why) I Read 150 Books a Year

I am a pastor and have a variety of tasks to fulfill each week – study, prayer, counseling, visitation, teaching, administration, etc. I also enjoy reading about productivity and learning how best to use my time for both professional and personal pursuits. I’ve learned a lot of tips and tricks along the way and have compiled my twelve favorite productivity principles below. I trust you will find them helpful in your life as well.
12 Favorite Productivity Principles

1. 20/20/MIT – First things first
2. Morning, afternoon, evening rule – Finding your rhythm
3. Habit stacking – Habits are hard, but routines are routine
4. Ideal weekly schedule – A place for everything, and everything in its place
5. Appointments, tasks and information – Using the right tool for the job
6. Task processing – One thing at a time (micro-tasking)
7. Working with resistance – Resistance is not futile
8. 10-3-2-1-0 rule – Countdown to a good night’s sleep
9. Capture notebook and pen – One book to rule them all
10. “Briefcase” principle – Avoiding the last-minute rush
11. “Default” principle – Choosing enjoyment over easy
12. “Do it first” principle – Tell what you’ve done, not what you will do
00. Miscellaneous – Your mileage may vary
1. 20/20/MIT – First things first

The most important productivity principle for me is, appropriately enough, to do the most important things first. This is often called the “big rocks” principle, named after Steven Covey’s famous illustration of putting the big rocks in the jar before adding the smaller pebbles and sand.

I like to break this down into two areas. What are the most important things for me to do every day? And what are the most important things I specifically need to do today?

The two most important things for me to do every day are to read my Bible and pray. To make sure I do this every day, I do what I call my 20/20 – twenty minutes of prayer followed by twenty minutes of Bible reading.

For prayer I take a twenty-minute prayer walk first thing in the morning. I talk to God about my upcoming day, confessing any wrongs I have done, thanking him for the good things in my life, praying for my family and loved ones.

Then I come home, make a nice hot, cup of tea, sit in my favorite chair and spend twenty minutes reading from the Bible. I use a Bible-reading schedule that helps me read through the Bible each year. This is a peaceful time each morning as I read and reflect.

Now there are other things that are important for me to do every day as well – exercise, grooming, spending time with family, etc. I have a system to make sure I do all those as well. But these are the two most important things for me, so I make them a part of my morning routine and do them first every day.

Then I spend just a few minutes writing down my MITs – my most important tasks for today. I write down between 3-5 tasks that are the most important things for me to do today. I keep that list with me throughout the day and make sure I work on those things first rather than put them off until later.

The 20/20/MIT is essential for me to make sure I do the most important things every day. I encourage you to think through what the most important things are for you and to use some form of the 20/20/MIT to build these things into your daily life.

2. Morning, afternoon, evening rule – Finding your rhythm

A second productivity principle I find helpful is the morning, afternoon, evening rule. The idea is that different parts of the day are better suited for different tasks. I’ve found that the following arrangement works best for me:

  • Mornings for creative work (writing; thinking; creating)
  • Afternoons for action work (tasks; chores; administration)
  • Evenings for reflective work (walking; reading; unwinding)

Thinking about my day in these larger categories gives a rhythm to the day and helps me as I plan out my regular weekly schedule as well as my specific tasks for each day. By doing the types of tasks that are best suited for the various parts of the day, I gain momentum and find that I am more productive throughout the day.

3. Habit stacking – Habits are hard, but routines are routine

The idea behind this principle is that there are many small habits that would improve our lives if we did them every day, but we often don’t do them because they are so small and easy to forget. Some we learned as children and do automatically, such as brushing your teeth, but there are others we would like to do but we leave undone day after day. Habit stacking helps you incorporate these small habits into your daily life by organizing them into routines.

For example, two habits I always had difficulty establishing were taking vitamins and drinking water. Both are small enough tasks and easy to do, and yet I would continually forget to do them. Now they are part of my morning routine. The first thing I do when I get up is drink a glass of water, take two vitamins, and then drink two more glasses of water. Then I’m off for my morning walk. As habits they were hard to develop. But now that they are part of my morning routine, they are automatic.

Two other habit stacks I have incorporated into my day are: 1) tea and stretches routine – doing five minutes of stretching and planks in the morning while I wait for my tea to brew; 2) ready for work routine – when I get to work, I fill my water cup, quickly clean/organize my desk, review my MITs for the day and pray. There are many others, of course, but that should give you the idea.

Habits are hard, but routines are routine. There are many small habits that would improve your life if you did them every day. If you try to do them individually, you will inevitably fail. But when you stack your habits into routines and tie them to specific parts of your day, they become automatic. Give it a try!

Note: I learned this principle from S.J. Scott’s excellent book, Habit Stacking.

4. Ideal weekly schedule – A place for everything, and everything in its place

Take some time to think of all the things you need or want to do on a weekly basis. What would the ideal week look like for you? Now, using what you learned from the first three principles (1-first things first; 2-the morning, afternoon, evening rule; and 3-habit stacking), design your ideal weekly schedule. Put everything on it, including time for family, leisure, rest and sleep. Some people like to map out 30-minute blocks, but I just use broader one-hour blocks.

Designing an ideal weekly schedule gives you several immediate benefits.

  1. It helps you face reality. If it doesn’t all fit in the calendar, you are trying to do too much.
  2. It helps you prioritize. Once you see what you can realistically do, you can choose the most important things.
  3. It helps you know what to do next. Once you have determined the best times to do your various tasks, you will know what you should be doing at any given time.
  4. It helps you set aside large blocks of time. This is essential for regular, deep, focused, uninterrupted work.
  5. It helps you be flexible. The ideal weekly schedule is simply that – an ideal. It doesn’t mean that it will work out that way every week. Life happens. We face all sorts of interruptions and unforeseen circumstances. The ideal weekly schedule allows you to be flexible, because you use it more as a guide rather than as a strict rule.
  6. It helps you get back on track. When you do get interrupted, you know what you missed, so you can reschedule or get back on track.

I have a basic, ideal weekly schedule that I tweak or redesign from time to time depending on new goals or life circumstances. Here is an example of my current ideal weekly schedule. Once again, I use this more as a guide rather than a strict rule.


(Note: Click to enlarge)

5. Appointments, tasks and information – Using the right tool for the job

Most of us use a calendar and some type of to-do list to help us keep on track. But we don’t always use them in the most effective way. We put tasks on our calendars and spread our to-do lists over several different mediums (sticky notes on the desk, miscellaneous sheets of paper, even our email inbox!). And then where do we put all the information that we need to store (things like future vacation spots, registration numbers, AC filter sizes, etc.)?

The key is to use the right tool for the job. You wouldn’t try to cut down a tree with a hammer, and you wouldn’t hammer a nail with a saw.

Here’s the general principle: 1) Use your calendar for appointments and reminders; 2) Use a task management tool for projects and tasks; and 3) Use an information tool to store and access information. Keep these tools separate and do not overlap. Don’t put tasks on your calendar, and don’t store information in your to-do list.

I like to use electronic tools that sync across all my devices. I use Google Calendar for appointments and reminders. I use Todoist for projects and tasks. And I use Evernote for storing and accessing information.

You may prefer a paper calendar or day planner or a different set of tools, but either way I suggest you choose three different tools to deal with these three very different types of information. Use the right tool for the job!

Note: The best resource I’ve found on how to use these different tools and integrate them together is the book, Do More Better, by Tim Challies. Tim has done a great job showing how to set up these tools so that they integrate with each other and with the various roles and responsibilities in your life.

6. Task processing – One thing at a time (micro-tasking)

It’s one thing to put all your tasks in one place. It’s another to know how to process those tasks effectively. Your to-do list tells you what you need to do, but it doesn’t tell you how to do it. How do you know what needs to be done first? How do you know the right order to do your tasks? How do you know what you should be working on right now?

Some of the principles we’ve already looked at will help you here. If you wrote down your MITs from principle #1, then you already know the 3-5 most important things to work on for the day. If you follow the morning, afternoon evening rule from principle #2, then you will have allocated your various tasks accordingly. And if you have put together your ideal weekly calendar from principle #4, then you already know the ideal time for you to work on your various tasks and projects.

These principles will all help you in processing your tasks, but the most important part of task processing is to do one thing at a time. This means no multi-tasking. There’s an old Russian proverb: “If you chase two rabbits, you will catch neither one.” You may think you are getting more done when you multi-task, but multi-tasking dilutes your focus, and focus is essential to working effectively.

So instead of multi-tasking, try micro-tasking. Micro-tasking follows two simple rules: 1) Work on one thing at a time; 2) You don’t need to finish the task you are working on. You just need to work on it. Micro-tasking helps you focus on one thing at a time, and it also helps you overcome resistance because you only need to work on the task, not necessarily finish it. Of course, once you get going on any task, you build up momentum which may help you to complete the task anyways.

I have used a variety of systems over the years to process my tasks for the day. My favorite systems are from Mark Forster which all work well in helping you to focus on one task at a time while overcoming resistance. For the past several years I have been using a form of Mark’s “No List” system to process my tasks. The key here is to write down each task before you do it. Don’t do anything without first writing it down. Writing it down helps you to focus on the task at hand. It also helps you overcome your resistance to getting started on the task (see principle #7).

I store all my tasks in Todoist (see principle #5), but I use a notebook and pen to process my tasks. Here’s how my process works in detail:

I open my notebook and write today’s date at the top of the page. I open Todoist to see my active tasks for the day. In the right-hand column of the notebook I write down my 3-5 MITs for the day. I pick one and write it down in the left-hand column.

Before working on it I ask, “Is there anything else I want to do first?” If so, I write the second task on the next line. If not, I put a dot to the left of the first task and start working on it. If I’ve added a second task, before working on it I ask, “Is there anything else I want to do first?” If so, I write the new task on the next line. If not, I put a dot to the left of the second task and start working on it.

I keep asking the question and adding tasks until I arrive at the task that I feel I should be doing right now. I rarely add more than 3-4 tasks before I start working on one, and often just start working on the first task. The dot next to the task I’m working on singles it out as my one active task so that I am not distracted by the other tasks.

I work on the task until it is finished, or until I feel I have done enough work on it for now, or until I need to move on to the next task. When I stop working on the task, I put a checkmark over the dot to signify I have stopped working on it. If I have completed the task, I also cross it out of the right margin and check it off in Todoist. If not, I just leave it in the right margin and Todoist as a reminder to come back to it later.

I then go back to asking and entering tasks in the left margin. Before starting work on any item, I ask, “Is there anything else I want to do first?” If so, I write the new task on the next line and ask the same question. If not, I put a dot to the left of the task and start working on it.

The whole process is very simple, and it usually takes less than a minute to decide on the next task and start working on it. I also like the fact that I have a complete list at the end of the day of all that I have worked on, as well as any tasks that I did not complete. I could just use a random piece of paper each day but using a notebook gives me a running journal of all my tasks for the past week, month, year, etc.

The next day I start fresh and work the whole process over again. Try it! I think you will find it a very pleasant and effective way to process your tasks for the day.

7. Working with resistance – Resistance is not futile

Resistance is the feeling of dread or discomfort we experience when approaching a task. Resistance is the main reason we procrastinate and struggle to get going on important tasks. Resistance is the reason we end up wasting time or doing something else to avoid doing the tasks we need to do.

Resistance is your number one enemy when it comes to getting your tasks done. But once you understand resistance, you can turn it around and make it work for you rather than against you. Here are three things you need to understand about resistance:

  1. Resistance is a clue as to what you should be doing next. You won’t feel resistance about tasks that you don’t need to be doing.
  2. Resistance only gets stronger when you put off a task. The longer you avoid starting, the stronger the resistance grows.
  3. Resistance is strongest just before starting the task. Once you actually get started on the task, you build momentum and resistance fades away.

Once you understand these three things about resistance, you can make resistance work for you rather than against you.

  1. When you feel resistance towards a task or project, recognize that this is a clue to what you should be doing next. Immediately write it down on your task processing list and start working on it. (Note: Do not just put it on your overall to do list. It’s probably already been sitting there for some time. Be sure you write it on your task processing list of things you are about to do – see principle #6.)
  2. Realize that no matter how uncomfortable the resistance feels right now, it is only going to get worse the longer you put off the task. In other words, the resistance you feel right now is the least resistance you are going to feel towards the project or task. It is only going to get worse, so write the task down and start working on it now.
  3. Realize that once you get going on the project, the resistance will fade away. Resistance is uncomfortable, and the best way to get rid of the discomfort is to start working on the task.

This is where micro-tasking and writing down your tasks before you do them will also help you (see principle #6). Remember, writing it down on your task list just means you will get started on the task. It doesn’t mean you have to complete it. It only means you will get started and do some work on it. Maybe five minutes, maybe ten, maybe longer. But the simple act of writing it down and marking it as your one active task will help you get started, and once you get started, that feeling of discomfort and dread will fade away.

Resistance is your number one enemy to productivity. But it doesn’t have to be. Resistance can be your friend. Resistance is not futile when you learn to work with resistance instead of allowing resistance to work against you.

Note: If you’re interested in learning more about resistance and how it works, the best book I’ve read on the subject is Mark Forster’s Get Everything Done. Mark understands resistance better than anyone I know, and his whole book is a goldmine of great productivity tips.

8. 10-3-2-1-0 rule – Countdown to a good night’s sleep

A good night’s sleep is essential to working productively the next day. Sleep experts recommend that you go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning. But what if you have trouble falling asleep at night? Then it is harder to get up at your set time in the morning, which throws off your morning routine, which can then throw off the rest of your day.

In many ways the most important time of the day is the time you fall asleep. Falling asleep sets your body clock for the morning which sets the pace for your whole day.

This is where the 10-3-2-1-0 rule comes in. This is a great little rule that has helped me to fall asleep regularly at a set time each night. In turn this helps me get up at the set time in the morning, which helps set the pace for the rest of the day. Here is how the rule works:

10: No caffeine ten hours before bed
  3: No food three hours before bed
  2: No work two hours before bed
  1: No screens one hour before bed
  0: No remaining in bed when the alarm goes off in the morning

I go to sleep at 10:00 each night and wake up at 5:00 in the morning. So, I start “getting ready for bed” at 12:00 noon each day. 12:00 noon is ten hours before I go to bed, so I stop drinking any caffeine by noon each day. I don’t eat food after 7:00, I don’t do any work after 8:00, and I don’t watch TV or use the computer, tablet or phone after 9:00. I spend from 9:00-10:00 reading books or talking with my wife.

When I follow this routine, I am under the covers at 10:00 and usually asleep by 10:05. When the alarm goes off at 5:00 in the morning, I complete the countdown by saying, “Zero!” and get out of bed. My body is so used to this routine by now that I often wake up a few minutes before the alarm anyways.

Getting up at the set time is just as important as going to bed at the set time. Going to bed at the set time ensures that you will have had enough sleep when it’s time to get up in the morning. And getting up at the set time ensures that you will fall asleep when it’s time to go to bed at night.

What if I don’t get everything done that I want to get done for the day? I call staying up late to get things done “punting.” Staying up later makes me feel like I am getting more done, but in reality, I am punting sleep to the next day. If I stay up to 11:00 instead of 10:00, then I will need an extra hour of sleep in the morning, so I am just stealing time from tomorrow to add to today. So, I established a rule for myself. No punting! If I really need to work on something, I can always get up and do it in the morning.

The 10-3-2-1-0 is a great way to countdown to a good night’s sleep. If you start getting ready for bed ten hours before you go to sleep, chances are good you will go to sleep at your set time and wake up at your set time. Try it! It works great for me.

Note: I got this tip from Craig Ballantyne at Early to Rise.

9. Capture notebook and pen – One book to rule them all

What do you do with all the miscellaneous information and ideas you come across during the day? Hopefully you are storing any information you need for the future in your information tool (see principle #5). But what about quick ideas and info on the fly? A lot of time we find ourselves scribbling things down on a random piece of paper or sticky note, which is fine until you can’t find the paper or sticky note.

The best way to capture random information throughout the day is to carry a small capture notebook and pen with you. Write everything down in one place. Then you will always know where to find it. Plus, instead of throwing the paper or sticky note away when you’re done with it, you will have a running log of the information in case you ever need to access it in the future.

I use the Moleskin Cahier Journal for this. It’s a durable soft-cover notebook with lined pages. It’s 3.5” X 5.5” and fits in my shirt pocket so I can always have it with me. It has tear-out pages in the back in case I need to write something down and give it someone else. And they only cost about $3.00 each.

The best pen I’ve found for this is the Fisher Bullet Space Pen with clip. These pens were developed for use by NASA in the Apollo missions. It has a compact design but opens up to a larger pen when you’re ready to use it. It writes the first time every time with no smudges. In fact, it can write under water, in zero gravity, at any angle and even upside down. You can get it with or without the clip, but I like the clip for my shirt pocket.

Whatever notebook or pen you use, I encourage you to carry a single notebook with you to capture miscellaneous ideas and information throughout the day. It’s a great way to capture ideas as they come, and you will always be able to find what you are looking for later.

10. “Briefcase” principle – Avoiding the last-minute rush

This is another great principle I learned from Mark Forster’s book, Get Everything Done. Mark shares how he was always packing his briefcase at the last minute and rushing out the door. So, he learned to pack the briefcase earlier. That way, when it was time to leave, he could just pick up the briefcase and go.

This principle is simple: doing things ahead of time will make your life simpler and less stressful. It’s a simple principle but with thousands of applications. Here are just a couple of the ways I use it.

  1. I don’t wait until I’m ready to go to work before eating breakfast and getting dressed for work. I eat breakfast and get dressed earlier so that I am not rushing at the last minute.
  2. I don’t wait until I’m ready to go to bed to wash up and get ready for bed. I do it earlier in the evening. That way when I’m ready to go to bed, I can just go to bed. This also helps me get to sleep on time (see principle #8).
  3. I don’t wait until Wednesday morning to prepare my teaching for Wednesday night. I start preparing Monday or Tuesday. It takes the same amount of time but is far less stressful and a more pleasant experience.

A funny thing about the briefcase principle. When you attempt to do something ahead of time, you will experience resistance. Not a super strong resistance, usually just the dismissive thought: “I don’t need to do this right now.” But remember, resistance is a sign that this really is the best time to do it (see principle #7). Don’t let resistance work against you. Work with the resistance and do the task anyways.

Doing things ahead of time doesn’t take any more time than doing things at the last minute, but it’s far less stressful. See how many ways you can put the briefcase principle to work in your life.

11. “Default” principle – Choosing enjoyment over easy

I love these last two principles. They are counterintuitive, and yet very powerful once you grasp them.

The default principle alerts us to a quirk of human nature. Unless we are intentional about what we are doing, most of us will default to what is easy over what is most enjoyable.

If I ask myself, “What do I enjoy more, reading books or reading blogs?” I actually enjoy reading books more. But it’s easier to read blogs. Unless I am intentional about it, I will default to easy every time.

If I ask myself, “What do I enjoy more, going outside or watching TV?” I actually enjoy going outside more. But it’s easier watching TV. I need to be careful that I don’t default to easy and sacrifice enjoyment along the way.

There are many areas in our lives where we automatically default to easy over enjoyment. Do you want to enjoy life? Of course you do! Then be aware of the default principle and learn to choose enjoyment over easy.

12. “Do it first” principle – Tell what you’ve done, not what you will do

This is another wonderfully counterintuitive principle that is incredibly powerful once you put it into practice. Don’t tell people what you’re going to do. Do it first, then tell them.

Here’s how this plays out in real life. Let’s say there’s something you want to do, perhaps declutter your home or lose weight or write a book. You would think telling other people what you are going to do would make you more likely to do it. But it doesn’t always work out that way. (The exception is if you tell someone who is holding you accountable to your goals.)

When you tell someone what you are going to do, you get a feeling of accomplishment even though you haven’t really done anything yet. In fact, that’s one of the reasons we talk about what we’re going to do. It makes us feel good.

Unfortunately, that good feeling is counterproductive. It breeds a false sense of accomplishment that reduces your motivation to do the intended task. As a result, you may never get around to actually doing it.

The next time you get the urge to tell people what you are going to do, resist the urge and don’t tell them. You will find it incredibly frustrating at first because you want to feel that sense of accomplishment. But it will keep your motivation for actually doing the task that much stronger.

Don’t tell people what you’re going to do. Do it first, then tell them. Once you learn the “do it first” principle, you will have a whole host of actual accomplishments to talk about instead of mere potential accomplishments.

00. Miscellaneous – Your mileage may vary

Here are a few miscellaneous productivity tips that I have found useful for myself. They may or may not work for you, but they are all worth trying.

– Key naps (the pause that refreshes)

If I’m tired in the afternoon or early evening, I will often take a key nap. I lean back in my easy chair, grasp a key between my thumb and forefinger, rest my arm on the arm of the chair with the key positioned over the floor, close my eyes and wait to fall asleep. The moment I fall asleep, my thumb and forefinger relax, and the key falls to the floor waking me back up again.

It’s just a micro-nap, and yet I wake up feeling refreshed and alert. Even though it’s only for a split-second, I often hit such a deep state of sleep that when the key hits the floor, I wake up momentarily disoriented, not knowing where I am, not even sure what the sound was that woke me up.

A key nap in the afternoon or evening doesn’t disturb my sleep schedule at night. And it is usually all I need to stay alert until bedtime.

– Shave twice

I dislike shaving, so I do it twice a day instead of once. It is quicker and easier to shave in the morning when you shave the night before. And it is easy to shave at night when you’ve already shaved in the morning. This is an application of the “little but often” principle which works well with any task that grows in complexity the longer you leave it undone (such as trimming the hedge, paying the bills, etc.)

– Daylight savings time

I always have a hard time adjusting to Daylight Savings Time when you change the clocks forward an hour in the spring. So now, instead of changing the clock forward one hour on Saturday night, I change it in ten-minute increments starting the week before. I only do this with the bedtime clock, and I adjust my bedtime and waketime accordingly. (See article: How to Beat Daylight Savings Time)

– Wipe shower

One common productivity tip you often hear about is to make the bed when you first get up. This is called an anchor discipline. An anchor discipline is a simple task you do each day without fail that helps reinforce the other disciplines in your life. Plus, you always have a bed that is made!

I don’t make the bed when I first get up (mostly because my wife is still in it). Instead, I wipe the shower. When I finish showering, I take a minute to wipe down the shower. I use a separate towel for this than the towel I use for myself. I wipe down the shampoo bottle and put it away. Then I wipe down the walls and especially the edges and corners where the water gathers.

I use this as my anchor discipline which helps reinforce my other disciplines for the day. Plus, I always have a clean shower!

Related post: How (and Why) I Read 150 Books a Year