5 Foundational Principles of Productivity You Need to Know

There are plenty of productivity techniques and strategies and tips and tools and ideas. And they’re all great. Okay, some of them stink. But most of them are great. You can learn from them. But I’ve found that without the five principles below, those techniques and tips don’t help me much.

You need a good foundation to build on. I guess that’s a bonus principle.

5 Foundational Principles of Productivity

  • You have no power over anything until you take full responsibility for it.
  • Knowing your limitations is as important as knowing your goal.
  • Success is generally preceded by many iterations of failure.
  • Perfection and mediocrity are your enemies. Excellence is your ally.
  • You must shift your mindset from consumer to producer.

1. Responsibility Gives You Power

My kids hate this one. I give them a slightly different variation: “If you want the freedom to do XYZ thing, you need to take responsibility for it.” Yesterday afternoon’s version was “If you want the freedom to play with the water hose, you have to be responsible to not waste water and not be mean by spraying your brothers in the face.”

I think it’s a fair trade, and it’s not my idea, really. It’s just a free-floating universal principle anybody can grab and understand. And once you understand it, some of those failures and frustrations in your life will make more sense.

Here’s the thing – when you give away responsibility by assigning blame or making excuses, you give away your ability to change anything. You make yourself powerless, small, a victim of circumstances or genetics. You hand over your freedom because the burden of accountability is too heavy.

Poor thing.

You want to change something, anything? You want to be productive? You want to reach goals? You want to be successful, to make things happen?

Start owning up. Stop excusing yourself. Say, “I take full responsibility for XYZ failure,” and feel the magical mystical rainbow-colored power in those words. As soon as you take responsibility, you take power. If you are responsible, then you have the ability to change things.

Freedom without responsibility becomes indulgence. Power without accountability becomes tyranny.

And victimizing yourself by abdicating responsibility? That just leaves you dependent on others, on situational change, on fate, on chance.

2. Know Your Limits and Your Goals

As awesome as you are – and you really are amazing – you have limits. You’re not all-powerful. Your body needs sleep and fuel. Your brain needs rest and input. You have limited resources and human abilities.

Nothing wrong with that, and no, we’re not using your limits as excuses.

But you’re being honest in admitting that you have limits. This keeps you from venturing into a scary scenario I’ll call “productive martyrdom.” You’ve seen it before, haven’t you? It’s the running ragged, stressed-out, overwhelmed, resentful lifestyle we put ourselves into when … when what?

When we aren’t humble and honest enough to admit that we have limits.

And when we aren’t brave enough to say, “No, I can’t.”

Learn your limits. Learn your goals, too. They will help you make wise decisions about how you spend your time and energy and resources, since you know you have limited amounts of each.

3. Success Follows Failure

First you try. You have a great idea, great goals, wonderful plans.

But you’re new. You’re raw. You’re a baby. That’s okay.

Like a baby, you wobble around. You’re learning to walk, and you’re not very steady yet. You’re going to fall, flat on your face. More than once.

A lot, in fact… unless you quit trying, sit down, cry, and give up on that whole “walking” thing. Or that whole “writing” thing. Or that whole “creative” thing. Or that whole “self-employed” thing.

Resign yourself to a boring existence if you can’t deal with failure.

Remember that failure is there to teach you. Failure is how you learn: your limits. Your own strength. How to balance. How to ask for help. How to cry until you feel cleansed and ready to go at it again.

4. Set Your Standard at Excellence

Mediocrity is most people’s default standard, and it won’t serve you well.

Perfection is an alternative standard. It seems better, at first glance. Perfection! The best. Every detail in place. Everything checked. Not the best arrangement, but the perfect arrangement. Not the best iteration, but the perfect version.

You know better, though. You’ve been around long enough to feel perfection hanging over you like a dark cloud. It doesn’t lift you up. It smashes you down into the earth, the weight of it heavy on your dreams.

Perfection works well as a vision, to inspire. It does not work well as a goal to achieve.

Excellence, however: that’s something worth pursuing. It’s not the lazy default of good-enough, whatever, I don’t care, just get it out there. Producing mediocre output may technically make you productive, but you’re still left with nothing but a load of crap.

Excellence is the standard. Set it for yourself. What does excellent work mean coming from you? Find out. Then push yourself to raise your work to that standard every single time.

5. Focus on Producing, Not Consuming

There’s nothing wrong with consuming. It’s necessary for life. But it’s not all there is to life, and we forget that.

It’s so easy to consume: food, entertainment, media, chocolate-covered pretzels.

But if you want to be productive, you have to shift your focus. Consuming is something you do at the edges, on the side, later. It’s not your focus. It’s not the bulk of your day. It can’t be the majority of what you do. It fits it later, after the producing is done.

This means changing habits. It means knowing your weaknesses (see: chocolate-covered pretzels, above) and finding ways to avoid them, resist them, limit them.

On your list of priorities, at the very top, in the top spots, are the actions that lead to production.

And down at the bottom – still on the list, but after the important stuff – that’s where you put consuming. It’s your reward, your cookie. Not your meal.

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