Work better, do more in 2020: Best practices for better productivity

Welcome to the first full work week of the year. Over the next five days, we'll explore 20 techniques that'll light your productivity on fire. Today, Day 3, we'll look at some best practices that can take your output to the next level.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
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The fact is most of us have to be productive in order to get work done and get paid. Fortunately there are techniques you can use to fire up your productivity, fuel your motivation, switch on your inspiration, keep you healthy, help you quantify your life, and get back into the groove.

Before we kick off the list, one quick note: different techniques will work better for different people. I've used all these techniques from time to time and they've kept me on deadline and on track. There are also a lot more beyond what I'm discussing here. Feel free to share your favorites in the comments below.

For now, let's dive into some of the best ways to optimize your performance and career growth.

The full series

Ruthlessly prioritize

The term "ruthless prioritization" is most often attributed to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, but I was using it way back in the 1990s. The earliest usage I could find was in the 1998 book jacket copy for Five Frogs on a Log, but I'm sure it goes back even farther.

Webster's defines "ruthless" as "having no pity." Applied to the idea of prioritization, this means that there can be no sacred cows. No project or possible priority item can be above questioning. Just because you've always done something, just because it's part of your identity in some way, just because it's a favorite thing to do -- none of these matter in ruthless prioritization.

Instead, look at your goals and must-have deliverables, and prioritize for meeting those goals. For me, for example, I ruthlessly prioritize my daily workouts over everything else, because if I'm not healthy, I can't do anything else. We'll talk more about health later in this series.

I generally ruthlessly prioritize paying projects with deadlines over non-deadline based projects of personal interest. Sometimes, however, if I've set a self-imposed deadline that's important to my growth or competitiveness, I might ruthlessly prioritize that project even over accepting a client's assignment.

The bottom line here is simple: there's only so much time in a day, month, or year. Make the best use of that time to achieve your goals, and don't let any preconceived patterns of prioritization get in the way.

Self-impose some deadlines

This relates to the previous tip. If you have a project that doesn't have an externally imposed deadline, provide one for yourself. I work on a lot of client projects with hard deadlines. But I also work on editorial projects which can be published or posted at pretty much any time.

To make sure I get these done along with my hard deadline projects, I impose my own deadlines. I even put these projects on the calendar. Of course, I move them around to accommodate hard deadlines, but it keeps me on track and churning out new work.

Learn adjacent skills

An adjacent skill is a skill you don't yet have that shares many characteristics of skills you already have.

For example, if you're a Windows network engineer, Linux network engineering would be an adjacent skill. Both share many of the concepts of network engineering, from planning the network to diagnosing issues so you'd go into your new skill with a lot of existing knowledge. All you'd really need to learn is the Linux way of doing things.

I generally think of an adjacent skill as one I don't have, but that I'm about 80% of the way to gaining.

For me, moving from 3D printing to laser cutting was a move to an adjacent skill. Both required CAD knowledge and 3D object design, but the laser cutter requires all 3D designs to be ultimately converted to flat cuts. Both utilize a machine that moves a head on an X/Y gantry, but where 3D printing aligns to a print bed and extrudes molten plastic, the laser cutter requires alignment and configuration of a cutting laser beam.

If you're a programmer, gaining experience in a new framework is gaining an adjacent skill because you already know how frameworks operate, you just need to learn the idiosyncrasies of the new one. If you're a blogger, consider writing a book. You already know how to write on a regular schedule. You just need to learn how to knit all those ideas into a coherent whole, work with a publisher, and do some marketing.

The bottom line is this: if you learn an adjacent skill, you can up your game while taking advantage of your existing knowledge and skills. It's a high-leverage way to boost your capabilities (and it's a ton of fun).

Drink coffee

Recommending a drug like coffee is probably not the most appropriate recommendation for everyone, but there are clinical studies that tout the health benefits. In my case, coffee helps me stay sharp and gets me through the day. But where once I used to drink cup after cup, I now limit my intake.

And heck, if you know me, you know I have to talk about coffee when thinking about productivity. That said, use your own judgement. Don't overdo it. And if you're unsure about how coffee will affect your health, see your doctor.


So there you go. As you get fired up for 2020, keep in mind these best practice and growth suggestions. I've only listed four here, but there are many more. Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments below. And stay tuned for our next installment, get healthy so you can fire on all cylinders, coming tomorrow.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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