Productivity advice from some of the world’s most successful people

From taking breaks to utilising three computer screens, here’s how you can supercharge your work-rate instantly

Started your first company? Congrats. But now comes the hard part: turning it into a long-term success. After all, there are only so many hours in the day, so how are you expected to turn your newly-birthed startup into a business empire given the demands of daily administration? With the following advice from the world’s greatest entrepreneurs and leaders, you’ll soon see your work pile lessen and your output multiply.

Streamline your focus

Productivity advice from some of the world’s most successful people

Having revolutionised the tech world in his position at Apple, Steve Jobs is one of the greatest innovators to have ever lived, and in 2006 he gave the newly appointed Nike CEO Mike Parker some solid advice: “Nike makes some of the best products in the world. Products that you lust after. But you also make a lot of crap. Just get rid of the crappy stuff and focus on the good stuff.”

A year later, when telling 200 Yahoo executives about the secret to his success, Jobs said: “This is how I do it. I take a sheet of paper, and I say, ‘If my company can only do one thing next year, what is it?’ Literally, we shut everything else down.”

Indeed, being successful in your career means grabbing opportunities and exploring new ideas. Yet, by focusing on too many issues and spreading your resources thin, your core talents and priorities can suffer as a result. So, forget any peripheral tasks and focus firstly on the foundations of whatever your building. The rest will soon follow. 

Need some practical advice? According to Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, you need to write down three to five things that are at the forefront of your mind and then ask yourself the following question about each point: “If this were the only thing I accomplished today, would I be satisfied with my day?”. Then make it your priority to do whatever it takes to finish that task. 

Trim the fat

Productivity advice from some of the world’s most successful people

A good way to help stimulate your focus is by ridding of any excess decisions that can cloud your mind.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is renowned for favouring a uniform of grey hoodies and identical T-shirts over more varied outfits. “I really want to clear my life so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community,” he said in his first ever Q&A session in 2014.

He’s also expressed that breakfast is a “silly” decision that he doesn’t want to spend too long thinking about and, according to reports, his home in Palo Alto is rather sparse.

Any distractions, such as deciding what to wear, can interrupt your working rhythm and stop you from paying attention to what really matters. So, try to minimise decision making: curate a working uniform, create a list every night of the tasks and priorities you need to tackle the next day and delegate responsibilities to your team. If you have to, hire a team of freelancers or assistants who will relieve you from the quagmire of daily administration.

Create a routine

Productivity advice from some of the world’s most successful people

Former world heavyweight champion Muhammed Ali was known to have had a demanding training routine and famously stated during an interview with Newsweek in 1978: “I hated every minute of it. But I said to myself, ‘Suffer now, and live the rest of your life as a champion.’”

Although you may not be practising to become a legendary athlete, you are, however, working to turn your business into a sizeable organisation. Ali’s words are a straightforward message telling you about the importance of routine in your path to success, and although there may be days when you refuse to get out of bed, the rewards in the long-term will be worth the struggle.

To this end, create a schedule that works for you and don’t worry if this takes a while to figure out. Start by planning small things (such as when to email and when to take breaks), and once this rhythm is figured out, start to pencil-in the more important issues (such as meetings and executing any business strategies) around this.   

Take a break

Productivity advice from some of the world’s most successful people

Routine is good, but a break can also be rewarding. And if you need some convincing, then look no further than John D. Rockefeller, the man believed to be the wealthiest individual of all time. In the book, Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., author Ron Chernow tells readers how careful Rockefeller was with his energy: 

“He worked at a more leisurely pace than many other executives, napping daily after lunch and often dozing in a lounge chair after dinner.” Chernow also quoted the business magnate as saying, “It is remarkable how much we all could do if we avoid hustling, and go along at an even pace and keep from attempting too much.”

As demonstrated, being productive doesn’t entail packing as much as possible into your day. Again, focus on your most important tasks and delegate the rest to colleagues in order to reduce your working hours and give yourself the opportunity to take a break – a fresher mind is more likely to stir ideas that are more creative and well-thought-out. And, if needs be, take a quick kip when your to-do list is piling up. After all, Winston Churchill is known to have indulged in a “non-negotiable” afternoon nap.

Master the art of multitasking

Productivity advice from some of the world’s most successful people

As the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors and a father of six children, it’s quite hard to believe that Elon Musk averages six hours of sleep a night. His secret? Multitasking. He conducts business on his phone during meetings, writes emails while scanning invoices and even sends work-related messages with his kids in his lap. The South African-born entrepreneur refers to this as “batching”.

Even though not everyone is running two of the most important transport organisations in the world, but most can certainly emulate Musk’s attitude. By seeing a working opportunity in every moment, your workload will diminish rapidly. Think emailing while lunching, or writing down new ideas while commuting.

Use three screens

Productivity advice from some of the world’s most successful people

A basic, yet effective, way to multitask is by tripling the amount of computer screens at your disposal.

In a blog post in 2006, Bill Gates, then CEO and Chairman of Microsoft, revealed how he got through his working day. In order to tackle the 100-plus emails he received on a daily basis (as well as the simple task of bettering the world of tech), he wrote: “I keep my Outlook 2007 Inbox open on the screen to the left so I can see new messages as they come in. I usually have the message or document that I’m currently reading or writing in the center screen. The screen on the right is where I have room to open up a browser or look at a document that someone has sent me in e-mail.”

With one monitor for incoming emails, one showing whatever email he’s working on and one for his regular activities, Gates can switch from task to task seamlessly without neglecting one particular issue for a prolonged period of time. Moreover, with a trio of displays, the middle one gives you a “centre” to focus on. 

Remember why you’re here in the first place

Productivity advice from some of the world’s most successful people

In a biography of Walt Disney, author Neal Gabler quotes the American animator to have said: “Despite the pressure and lack of funds I am going to sit tight. I have the greatest opportunity I have ever had and I’m in it for everything by my false teeth.” 

Although almost all entrepreneurs will suffer setbacks (whether financially or emotionally), you must shift your focus on what brought you to this position in the first place: your passion. You’ll get ground down at points, but remember your long-term aims and slowly hack away at the task in front of you; whereas stress can often cause you to lose your judgement, excitement around your brand will only spur further productivity. 

Further Reading