Productivity is not just time management

A couple of years ago, I was struggling neck-deep in a hundred different things that needed to be done for the startup. I seriously thought about giving up a few hours of sleep to get it all done.

Thankfully I didn’t act on that thought.

When we want to become more productive, the obvious first step seems to be to look at how we can squeeze more number of tasks into an already overwhelming schedule.

Or we think about increasing the time available to us, by working more hours, even if unsustainable.

This type of “time management” does not work and can have real negative implications long-term.

Heroic death marches

Our reflexive instinct to work harder and longer hours is not indicative of faulty thinking merely at a personal level. As a society, we have institutionalized extreme slog as a metric of success.

Hadi Partovi, CEO of, once tweeted with fond remembrance about the late 90s Browser Wars. 

When he was with the Internet Explorer team, they ate all meals at the office and held foosball tournaments at 2 AM to get the team energy back up. He continued to talk about divorces and broken families and bad things that came out of that. 

Was destruction of personal lives a small price to pay for the arbitrary release date of some software?

I perfectly understand the unnatural zeal and drive that young professionals starting their careers have. If making huge personal sacrifices is the path for you and if the potential upside seems worth it, go for it. But also remember that when the dust settles and you tally it all up, you may have ended up sacrificing things that are a lot more valuable than the job you gave it up for.

Partovi came under a lot of fire for his tweets, and he even published a piece on LinkedIn clarifying his word choices, but the issue is not with the words that he used, but in the implicit sentiment. It clearly showcases how deeply problematic our work culture has become and the damaging thinking that many business leaders hold or nostalgically remember.

I’m not talking about burning the midnight oil for a day or two. The problem is when we internalize this whole mindset of throwing more hours at unsustainable expectations of productivity, and thus becoming unwitting participants and proponents of a toxic culture that harms all of us.

The answer to increasing productivity is not throwing more hours at the problem. It is to find a sustainable balance between incoming and outgoing work, and to build a system that allows us to work at optimal efficiency.


Our go-to productivity techniques usually fail at this.

How time management fails

Time management is the process of organizing and planning how to divide your time between specific tasks.

We start by first making a to-do list of all the tasks that we need to complete. Then we prioritize the tasks based on importance and urgency, before sticking each item into our daily schedule.

The core elements of time management – identifying tasks, to-do lists, prioritizing, scheduling – are all important for productivity. But it’s just a starting point.

All that this type of time management offers is a way to manipulate the order in which you do your work, in a heroic attempt to overcome the consequences of not balancing your incoming work with your outgoing work.

Prioritizing at the task level is simply a band aid solution that does not address fundamental issues of productivity.

Mark Forster, in his book Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management, explains that there are 3 reasons why we usually have a problem balancing our time and tasks.

Reason #1: We work inefficiently

Here, Forster is talking purely about the efficiency or the processing capacity that we bring to the task.

In any modern workplace, we’re busy checking Slack notifications, responding to emails, joining Zoom calls and meetings, and attending to various other miscellaneous distractions.

When is the time to do focused work?

In fact, many people stay back in office only to get some undisturbed time when they can actually get some work done. This is not healthy.

If you work amidst distractions with your attention fragmented across notifications on your devices, chatting with colleagues, and answering emails all the time – you are not going to be able to work very efficiently.

By creating slots for deep work where you focus only on an important activity, allowing nothing else to grab your attention, you will instantly see a major improvement in your productivity.

In our Deep Work & Flow bootcamp, we show participants how to do this in practice. They see a significant improvement in their efficiency with just this one change in how they work. (Some examples here, here, and here.)

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When inefficiency is the problem, prioritizing tasks is not the solution because whether we’re doing important stuff or unimportant stuff, we’re doing it badly either way.

Putting unimportant tasks into a deprioritized bucket, but continuing to work inefficiently on important tasks, will eventually clog up both the important and unimportant tasks.

The solution to inefficient work is to create focus bubbles where you can do deep work undisturbed and undistracted.

Yet, there is a caveat. No matter how efficient we become, there is a physical upper limit to the amount of work that we can do in a day.

Once you start noticing an improvement in your efficiency, don’t be tempted to overload yourself with work again.

Aim to do not more than 4 hours of deep focused work every day. That itself is more than sufficient for most people and you will see massive progress in your overall productivity.


Reason #2: We have too many things to do

Well, duh! That’s the whole problem, isn’t it?

It is obvious that if we have more work than what we’re capable of processing, then we will not be able to complete the work. But this obvious truth often escapes our attention.

One toxic success trait that unfortunately seems to have become prevalent is to handle a superhuman amount of workload. This drives people to derive their sense of self-worth by the sheer quantity of work that they do, and reducing workload is made to seem like an admission of failure.

The messiahs of the hustle and grind culture exhort you to work 10X more than others, and promote the idea that if you’re not working every minute of every day, you are falling short, you don’t want it bad enough – whatever it is supposed to be.

But step back and think logically for a moment. Even if you are working at superhuman processing capacity, you can only complete a certain amount of tasks. You will hit your ceiling.

The only pertinent question to ask is whether your current efficiency level matches with your current workload.

You can increase your efficiency to a certain extent and experience a boost, but once you hit the limit in efficiency, the only other thing you can do is to let go of some of the work.

Where does all this work come from?

Work does not just materialize out of thin air.

If you’re perpetually caught in a situation where you have an interminable number of things to do, just looking at individual tasks is not going to help.

Step back and reassess. How did so much work end up on your plate?

Some of these tasks were given to you, and some you took up on your own. These are the only two ways in which you arrive at your final commitments – there is no other source of work.

To reduce workload, you need to be able to reduce your commitments. Let’s examine each scenario.

Scenario 1: You’re overloaded with work and working at maximum efficiency. Your boss asks you to create a sales report for the past quarter, which he can present to the board. 

Before you say yes out of reflex, just remind your boss about the other 2-3 items that you’re currently working on. Check if the new task is higher priority, and if yes, could you deprioritize the other tasks? 

By listing the specific tasks you’re currently working on, you’re providing context for why you’re feeling overloaded with work. By asking your boss to help you prioritize, you’re showing that you’re willing to do what it takes to complete the task, but you need guidance on how to manage your workload effectively. 

By framing the question in a polite and professional way, you’re demonstrating that you respect your boss’s request and value their opinion, while also expressing your concerns about being unable to complete all of your tasks on time.

Rather than get overburdened and disappoint your boss with poorly done work and missed deadlines, this is a much better option.

Scenario 2: Taking up more commitments than you can handle is a problem that entrepreneurs often deal with. I certainly struggle with this specific issue. 

If you’re a salaried employee, you might also take up extra responsibilities as a vehicle to fast track your career.

There is nothing wrong with taking on more work, but learn to distinguish between work that makes a difference and that doesn’t. 

In your office, if you gain the reputation of indiscriminately taking on work just because someone asked you to, don’t be surprised when you find yourself saddled with way more work than you can do in a reasonable time.

For entrepreneurs or small business owners, this is a more difficult problem because resources are already stretched thin and you actually have to take up a lot more work than you’d like.

The solution here is to prioritize your commitments at the strategic level.


Say you’re an entrepreneur and someone mentions an opportunity which you feel may complement your current business. Instead of just jumping in, think about it deeply and assess whether it is going to distract you from other important things that are already in motion. Do not self-sabotage by taking on one more project that demands your attention.

If it’s possible, hire someone to offload some of your administrative tasks and smaller commitments to. This can free up your time sufficiently to focus on current and possibly new opportunities.

Reason #3 – We have too little time

An empty calendar a couple of weeks from now gives us a false sense of comfort. It makes us feel that there is time tomorrow which will allow us to do justice to all our commitments, to finish all our tasks neatly wrapped with a bow on top.

But this is simply self deception. Tomorrow, or a week from now, is likely the same as today. It will be full of meetings and appointments and answering emails.

Without deliberately setting aside time to do your important work and guarding that time fiercely like your life depended on it, it is almost impossible to get it done.

The go-to method of ABC prioritization will fail here, because the problem is not that you don’t know what is important. The problem is that you have only a finite number of hours in your day.

Prioritizing in fact tends to make the problem worse because under the illusion that we can prioritize our way out of trouble, we encourage ourselves to further overschedule.

What is one day’s worth of work?

The only way you can stay on top of work is by ensuring that the tasks that fall on your plate in a day are doable during the hours of that day.

You can assess this with the help of a simple exercise suggested by Mark Forster. For one day, collect all the little pieces of work that come your way. Record everything from answering emails, calls, meetings, new commitments scheduled for the future etc. Don’t include any items from your backlog or things that you are already working on. If the day was exceptionally light or heavy, make a mental adjustment.

But basically this is it. This is the amount of incoming work on an average day. Is this work something that you can handle?

When you do this exercise, you might either be flabbergasted at the amount of work coming at you every day. In which case, you will want to sit down and have a think about why that is happening, and what you can do to reduce the inflow. You may have to take it up with the relevant stakeholders.

Or it may give you a sense of confidence that once you clear away the backlog, you will be able to stay on top of your work, provided you take up new work responsibly.

If an average day’s work is more than you can handle, there are only 3 remedies:

Increase efficiency
Reduce amount of work
Increase the time available for work

Most people unfortunately opt for the 3rd option – increasing the time that they work.

The way out

Anyway, here we are. Struggling with an unending list of things to do, and torn between the pressures of career growth and our own mental wellbeing.

But don’t worry. All is not lost.

Winning the battle on productivity requires a combination of a few different factors:

  • Deeply understanding our own values and goals
  • A clear assessment of our workload
  • Understanding our non-negotiable commitments
  • Strategic application of useful productivity techniques
  • A mindset shift in the way we think about productivity
  • Acceptance of the real limitation of there being only 24 hours in a day

It is definitely possible to find a balance.

Through this series of articles and our upcoming bootcamp on productivity, we will share our insights that will hopefully give you insights and lighten your burden.


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