During his MasterClass on storytelling, bestselling author David Sedaris shared his thoughts on imitation. He told a story about art school, and how he won a grant for his first short story. With the prize money, he was able to publish 30 or so copies of his first “book.” Sedaris said that years later, his writing teacher told him that he still thought about Sedaris’ prize-winning short story. He called it a hysterical parody of a Raymond Carver story. Sedaris realized that he had indeed been trying to write like Carver — though he didn’t mean it as a parody.
Sedaris explained, “It’s normal when you first start off as a writer that you imitate other writers. And it’s perfectly okay.”
Whether you are searching for your voice or trying to figure out how to more generally succeed, it makes sense to imitate the greats. Consider it “reverse engineering” — examine the parts in order to replicate and build the product.
Like writing, productivity is a seemingly straightforward concept that eludes many of us. Looking at the habits of people who have already succeeded is a smart way to reverse engineer our personal productivity — and by that, I mean working smarter, not just clocking more hours.
As CEO of Jotform, I’m vocal about the habits I’ve gleaned from others. When it comes to personal productivity, here are some of the best practices that have worked for me.
Ask yourself these questions
Deepak Chopra is nothing if not prolific. The author of 86 books is also the founder of The Chopra Foundation, co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, a medical doctor and a professor at the University of California, San Diego, Health Sciences, and a researcher in neurology and psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Asked to share a productivity tip he swears by, Chopra said:
I have only a few simple rules. Is what I’m doing fun? Number two, are the people I work with fun to be with and derive joy from that? And number three, is it making a difference in the quality of people’s lives for the better?
I couldn’t have said it better. I’m a big advocate of regularly asking yourself these types of questions. I find that when you’re doing work that makes a difference, and that feels personally meaningful, productivity becomes a non-issue. You feel motivated to work because the work itself is rewarding. It’s not just another tick on your to-do list.
In my new book, Automate Your Busywork, I frame it this way: ask yourself what kind of work you enjoy the most; what delivers the most impact; and what do want to save your brain to do more of. With this vision of meaningful work in mind, you can usually classify the rest of your work as “busywork” — the kind of tasks that can be automated or perhaps even curtailed altogether. The more you automate, the more you can save your brain for the “big stuff” that propels you forward.
Revamp your to-do list
CNN anchor Anderson Cooper has not only had a successful career in news media, he’s also published several bestselling books. His secret to productivity? Organizing his to-do list into clear subcategories. As the great-great-great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt told the Wall Street Journal:
I keep lists. I have an ongoing list. I was recently advised to order it and that has been a huge help to me. Someone suggested — it seems like such an obvious thing — to order it as ‘important/urgent,’ ‘important/not urgent,’ and then just ‘to do.’ I try to knock off two or three things on the list right away.
One of the biggest problems with to-do lists is that every item seems to carry the same amount of weight regardless of the time or focus needed to complete it. Putting “schedule meeting” on the same list as “write one chapter of book” is like comparing a coffee date with a potentially life-changing job interview. But as far as your typical to-do list goes, both earn the same tick. It makes it all too easy to put off the more demanding, more meaningful work in order to rack up our tasks completed.
Using Cooper’s strategy, a streamlined version of the Eisenhower Matrix, is a way to reevaluate your priorities on a daily basis and ensure that you tackle your critical work first. You don’t have to trash your to-do list altogether. Rather, make sure you’re not using it to fein productivity at the expense of progress on what matters most.
Hold yourself (and each other) accountable
As the father of two young sons, I never underestimate the value of a great babysitter. But I never considered hiring one for myself…until I heard inspirational speaker Simon Sinek’s productivity secret.
On “The Weekly with Charlie Pickering,” Sinek confessed:
I have a babysitter — that’s what her title is, she’s my babysitter — who comes over and her entire job is to sit in my apartment and make sure that I’m working.
The bestselling author gets it done by enlisting someone else to hold him accountable. While it might not be feasible to hire a personal babysitter, we can copy Sinek’s approach and collaborate with colleagues or mentors to hold each other accountable for completing high-impact work. Set a regular appointment to check in with each other — to chat about your most important projects and push each other to make strides.
There’s no arguing that exercise does wonders for physical and mental health. Hitting the gym before work has become a keystone of my daily routine. To make sure I get it done, I automate as many steps as possible, from pre-programming my coffee maker to booking sessions with my trainer well in advance.
According to relationship expert and psychotherapist Esther Perel, physical movement supercharges her productivity as well — just another reason to get up and get moving. Asked about her productivity advice, Perel said:
Leave the house if you can…I do two-hour sessions when I’m walking. I don’t even notice that I’m walking but there’s energy in my body. And that has changed the work completely.
You won’t get that same energy from an espresso shot or green juice, and unlike either of those options — walking is 100% free.
Like anything else, set yourself up for a successful walking meeting: book the time (using an automated app like Calendly); prepare an agenda; bring a notebook; download an AI notetaker.
Maximizing your productivity may require some advance planning, but it is a small time investment that has huge returns. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, we can (and should) imitate prolific people and cherry-pick their productivity tips — then replicate, refine, and repeat.
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