Every ambitious professional hits this wall eventually: the to-do list keeps growing, but there are still only 24 hours in a day.

If you can’t time travel, then there’s something else you can try: productivity techniques.

We’ve comprised this guide to compare some of the most popular productivity methods available. Let’s get started.

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10 best productivity techniques

There is a huge variety of productivity techniques to suit different work styles, job types, and motivations.

But before you start adding new techniques to your toolbox, a great place to start is tracking your productivity metrics. This means you’ll have a solid baseline to work from.

Also, be sure to review the difference between being productive and being busy. Productivity means doing quality work, getting a lot of high-priority tasks done, and wasting as little time as possible.

Productivity diagram

When you’re ready to get started, use this list to pick a productivity technique to try.

Quick overview

TechniqueWhat it is
The Pomodoro TechniqueUse a timer to work in a structured system of focus time and breaks
The Pareto (80/20) TechniqueFocus on the top 20% of tasks that have 80% of the impact
Time BlockingSchedule blocks of time on your calendar for specific tasks
Getting Things Done (GTD)Write down and organize ideas so that you can focus on top priorities
Zen to DoneAdopt a system of habits to make productivity come automatically
Task BatchingWork on similar tasks together to get into flow state more easily
Don’t Break the ChainBuild or break a habit by focusing on one thing each day
Eat the FrogBeat procrastination by doing the most difficult or important thing first
Intentional Single-taskingFinish faster by focusing on one thing at a time
The Rule of ThreeInstead of focusing on tasks, focus on three main goals

1. The Pomodoro Technique

The name “Pomodoro Technique” comes from the tomato-shaped timer that inventor Francesco Cirillo used to measure his work time and breaks.

Pomodoro technique

This productivity system works on a structured schedule of uninterrupted work time and scheduled breaks. Here’s how to do it.

  1. Pick a task to work on. Choose only one task and pause all other distractions.
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes. Once the timer is running, you’re in focus mode. Work only on your chosen task until the timer goes off. This 25-minute work segment is called a “Pomodoro.”
  3. When the timer goes off, make a mark that you’ve finished a Pomodoro and take a five-minute break. Even if you’re still in the mood to work, take a break. Use your timer to make sure your break is just five minutes.
  4. After finishing four Pomodoros, take a longer break. Your long break should be at least 15 minutes, but not more than 30. It’s a good idea to walk away from your desk during this time.

Here you can find a task tracking template that you can use for the Pomodoro technique—it’s free for up to five users.

Who it’s for

The Pomodoro Technique works best for people like software engineers and writers who perform focused, creative types of work.

Some people can’t use it because of the nature of their jobs. For example, customer support agents would have a tough time answering live chats in Pomodoros.

Pros and cons

If you have deadlines to meet, this is a powerful system. You’ll learn to break big tasks into 25-minute segments, which makes planning your day more practical.

The Pomodoro technique limits task switching, too. This way, you can prevent yourself from wasting energy on multitasking.

However, some jobs need a lot of task switching. Short breaks can become a problem, too.

Further, some tasks are easier when you get into a flow state. If you’re in the flow and the timer goes off, it can take a long time to get back to peak productivity.

2. The Pareto (80/20) Principle

When you work, the top 20% of your time generates 80% of your revenue. At the same time, 20% of your tasks make up 80% of your results. That means that your top priorities are at least four times more important than everything else.

The Pareto Principle or the 80/20 rule

To make Pareto work for you, determine which of your tasks are in that top 20%, then tackle them first. Spend the first 80% of your day working only on those priorities. Then, you can shift focus to lower priority tasks at the end of the day if you need to.

Who it’s for

This productivity improvement system works well when you have control over your priorities and to-do list. It’s great for an entrepreneur or freelancer but not ideal for someone in a production role.

You can use the 80/20 technique when prioritizing is your biggest concern. It’s a good way to decide what gets done and what doesn’t.

Pros and cons

The Pareto Principle already applies to your work whether you pay attention to it or not. Using this productivity system may come more naturally to you because the concept is simple and profound.

However, this isn’t as structured of a system as some of the other ones on this list.

To make an 80/20 productivity plan work, you need to spend a lot of time planning and analyzing. If your priorities aren’t clear or you don’t have enough data to make informed decisions, choose a different system.

3. Time blocking

Time blocking is popular because it’s simple and works in most situations.

The idea behind time blocking is that you break your day into focused blocks of time and schedule specific tasks in each block. When the time is up, you switch tasks — even if you didn’t finish the one you were already working on.

Time blocking calendar

Start by making a list of everything you need to accomplish by the end of the week. Plan for meetings, checking emails, and breaks, too.

Next, estimate how much time it takes to complete each task on the list.

You’ll probably find that you don’t have enough hours in your week to get everything done. Prioritize and schedule the most important tasks first.

Mark your highest priority tasks as unavailable time so that your team can’t interrupt you with meeting requests.

Add any meetings or scheduled items that you can’t move next. With the remaining time, add in lower priority tasks wherever they fit.

When you get an alert saying that a time block is over, move to the next task. If you didn’t finish the task, come back to it later in another scheduled time block.

To make this even easier, get our free time blocking template.

Who it’s for

Time blocking is ideal for people who need to manage a lot of different tasks and priorities. If you already work from a calendar, this will be an intuitive system for you.

It’s great for freelancers and other people who do client work. By setting a clear starting and stopping point for each client, you can give each of your customers the attention they deserve.

You’ll get better at estimating how long each task should take and learn to say no to anything that doesn’t fit your top priorities. If it doesn’t fit in a block, it doesn’t make it onto your to-do list.

Pros and cons

Time blocking trains you to be more efficient and finish your tasks within your block. You’ll find that you can tune out distractions and defer interruptions until the right time.

However, setting it up can be tedious. You’ll need to add a time block just to set up your timeboxes each week.

Also, this technique could be considered too rigid of a schedule and may not work for people who require more flexibility.

4. Getting Things Done (GTD)

The basic idea behind Getting Things Done (GTD) is that you should get your ideas out of your head and onto paper so that you stay focused on the right things.

This happens in five steps.

  1. Capture – Write everything down as soon as it comes into your brain. Then, get back to the work that you were doing.
  2. Clarify – Go back to your list and process those things into clear and actionable steps.
  3. Organize – Appointments go on your calendar. Tasks go into your task management software. Anything that you need to delegate gets assigned accordingly.
  4. Review – The weekly review shows what needs to be revisited or reassigned. Do smaller reviews each day to make sure you’re on track.
  5. Engage – Work on tasks in order of priority. Turn off distractions and focus on finishing one task at a time.

You can also layer Getting Things Done on top of a different productivity technique to make it more effective.

Getting Things Done

Who it’s for

If you’re the type that can’t sleep at night because of the ideas buzzing around in your brain, GTD is for you. Its goal is to organize those thoughts so that you can focus your energy on the task at hand.

Pros and cons

Getting Things Done addresses a problem that most entrepreneurs have: choosing what to work on when there are so many opportunities.

GTD encourages you to embrace your ideas and provides a structured way to fit them into your schedule.

However, you can quickly overwhelm yourself with a huge list of things that you don’t have time to do. If you spend a lot of time chasing the next opportunity, you might need a more structured system to help you focus on finishing one thing.

4. Zen to Done

Zen to Done

Zen to Done is a modified version of Getting Things Done. To use Zen to Done, work on adopting these ten habits.

You don’t have to do them all at once, and you don’t have to develop all ten. Focus on one at a time and select habits that address whatever issue you’re currently facing.

  1. Collect – Write down ideas, tasks, or anything else that pops into your mind.
  2. Process – Process small tasks immediately. If you can do it in two minutes or less, finish it. If not, trash it, delegate it, or schedule it.
  3. Plan – Determine your top three priorities for the week and schedule them first. Then, schedule the top priorities for each day. Fit everything else around those major projects.
  4. Focus – Only work on one task at a time.
  5. Keep it simple – Use a simple system for everything. Avoid constantly switching between different tools or techniques.
  6. Organize – Organize tasks based on where they are in the process and what you need to do next. Sort things as you go instead of cleaning things up later.
  7. Review – Review your goals weekly to make sure you stay on track. Look at larger goals on a monthly basis.
  8. Simplify – When new work gets added to your to-do list, strip it to its essentials and finish it in the simplest way possible.
  9. Routines – Routines get significantly easier over time. Follow weekly routines like checking your email at a certain time, scheduling all meetings on a certain day, and so on.
  10. Find your passion – Look for tasks you’re passionate about and pursue them.

Who it’s for

People who have used the GTD method might like Zen to Done a little better because it’s easier and more flexible.

This system works best for people who work independently and like to analyze. If you’re the type of person who likes to reflect on your successes and failures to gain more insight, this is the perfect system for you.

Pros and cons

Zen to Done is one of the few productivity techniques that works for any kind of job. Whether you work on an assembly line or you’re the CEO of a billion-dollar company, you can use it to finish tasks more efficiently.

That being said, it’s not the simplest or most structured productivity strategy. You must decide which parts to use and which to ignore. How you apply this to your task list is totally up to you.

6. Task batching

Imagine you need to make sandwiches for a picnic.

When you make those sandwiches, is it most efficient to make and wrap each one individually? No — you set out all the bread, then spread all the mayonnaise, then add the meat to every sandwich, and so on.

This is called task batching. It’s like an assembly line for your tasks.

Refocusing takes 23 minutes

When you group similar activities together, you get things done faster.

Did you know it takes 23 minutes to refocus after a distraction? Task batching works because it minimizes distractions and reduces context switching.

Here’s how to get started.

  • List all of your tasks – Write down all the tasks you need to complete. Pay special attention to repetitive tasks.
  • Group tasks into categories – Organize those tasks into logical groups. You could have one category for your inbox and schedule, another for research, and a third for meetings and calls.
  • Divide categories based on mental effort – Some types of work take more effort and concentration than others. Rate each category from one to five. A rating of one means it’s simple. A five means it needs the most focus and effort.
  • Create a schedule – Add batches of tasks to your calendar. Schedule the most difficult batches in the morning when you’ll have the most energy and concentration.

Give yourself breaks between four and five-level tasks by scheduling batches of lower effort work. You’ll wear out if you try to do too much all at once.

Who it’s for

Task batching is useful if you do a lot of repetitive work.

Virtual assistants and data entry specialists can utilize it to get more done in less time. It’s also good for customer support representatives, retail teams, and people in manufacturing.

Pros and cons

Task batching forces you to break down big projects into smaller tasks, which helps you feel less intimidated about getting started on a project.

With task batching, you’ll make fewer mistakes and get more done.

The main drawback of task batching is the setup process. It takes time to divide all your projects into smaller tasks, organize everything into batches, and create a schedule.

One downside of task batching is dealing with interruptions. Emergencies will definitely pop up from time to time, so you might end up abandoning a batch of tasks in those scenarios.

If creative work is a big part of your job, task batching might not be the best option. It’s harder to use an assembly line mentality for highly creative work.

7. Don’t break the chain

Don’t break the chain is a productivity method popularized by comedian Jerry Seinfeld.

It’s simple. Choose a daily habit you want to build. Each day you complete your goal, add an ‘x’ to your calendar.

Over time, you’ll build a chain of x’s. Seeing the long chain makes you feel bad about breaking it, motivating you to stick to it.

Don't break the chain

Here’s how it works.

  • Decide on a task or goal – Decide on a single habit or goal you’d like to accomplish every day.
  • Determine what constitutes an ‘X’ – Set the ground rules for what “counts” as accomplishing the task.
  • Download and print out a calendar – Having a physical calendar will help keep your goal top of mind because it’s visible.
  • Start building the chain – Every day you complete the task, add an ‘x’ to your calendar.

Who it’s for

Don’t break the chain is a great choice for anyone looking to build a long-term habit like writing 1,000 words every day. You can also use it for tracking personal habits like meeting your step goal or going to bed on time.

Procrastinators find that this system works especially well because it’s easier to get things done if you prioritize the one important thing that you can’t miss. Over time, you can start another chain for another habit and gradually break your procrastination habit.

Pros and cons

Don’t break the chain is simple and visual. It forces you to focus on the main task on your plate for the day.

However, it’s probably not the best option for you if you’re the type of person who needs more motivation than a chain of ‘x’s on a calendar to complete your tasks.

This is not a productivity system that will help you manage your to-do list. Instead, it’s a technique that helps you build habits and stay consistent with a specific goal.

8. Eat the frog

Eat the frog got its name from a Mark Twain quote:

“If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

The productivity consultant Brian Tracy is credited for creating the technique. To do it, identify the most important or most difficult task on your to-do list and complete it before starting anything else.

Eat the frog

If you think a task will take multiple days to complete, you can divide it into steps. Then, make the first step your ‘frog’ for the day.

Who it’s for

The Eat the Frog productivity technique is for people who have difficulty prioritizing tasks — and anyone who struggles with procrastination.

Pros and cons

By making you do your most important task first, you take advantage of the time in the day when your energy and willpower are at their highest.

The drawback is that starting the day with your most difficult task can use up your motivation—it is a finite resource. If you don’t feel like getting started on your “frog,” you might avoid doing anything.

9. Intentional single-tasking

When you think you’re multitasking, what you’re actually doing is rapid task-switching. People who try to handle too many tasks actually get less done.

What you should try doing instead is intentional “single-tasking.” Focus on a single task and work only on that one task until you complete it.

This technique is about getting everything else out of the way. That means focusing on turning off your smartphone, closing all your browser tabs, and maybe even installing a website blocker.

Who it’s for

Honestly, everyone should be single-tasking. You can also combine it with most of the other techniques from this list.

Pros and cons

Single-tasking will make you more productive, reduce your stress levels, and help you get into a state of flow more easily.

However, it will take you some time to get used to. If you’re the type of person who likes working on or thinking about different tasks at the same time, single-tasking can be jarring at first.

10. The rule of three

The rule of three is a simple productivity technique. Start by choosing three outcomes you want to achieve for the:

  • Day
  • Week
  • Month
  • Year

Unlike most productivity techniques, the rule of three focuses on outcomes instead of activities.

Want to start using the rule of three to improve your productivity?

  • Decide on your three outcomes – Write down what you’d like to accomplish in each of those time-based categories.
  • Break outcomes into tasks – Working backward, break down your list of outcomes into tasks. For example, if you’re looking to publish a blog post today, your tasks might include doing research, writing, editing, and publishing.
  • Ignore everything else – Don’t work on anything else until you complete your task list. Prioritize those ahead of everything else.
  • Review your day – Review what you did or didn’t accomplish.

Who it’s for

If you often find yourself working the entire day without much to show for it, the rule of three might be for you. This way, you can focus on results instead of working just to stay busy.

It’s especially suited for self-employed individuals like freelancers and consultants.

Pros and cons

The rule of three helps you see the big picture and forces you to focus on what really matters. Since it’s easy to get started with, you’ll likely stick to it.

However, if you’re not self-employed and don’t have a lot of say in what tasks you’re going to focus on every day, the rule of three might not be the best fit for you.

Employee happiness

Next steps

You’ve reached the end of the list. Now it’s time to take action. Here’s what you should do next:

  • Pick a technique – Choose one of the productivity techniques from the list. Pay attention to the Who it’s for section under each technique to get a better idea if a particular technique would be a good fit for you.
  • Use a to-do list – We have some free to-do list templates here, but you can always make your own too.
  • Test it out – Try out the productivity technique for the next seven days. Review your week and figure out if your productivity increased. If you couldn’t stick to using the technique, or it just wasn’t a good fit for you, try another one from the list. You can use a productivity app to track your results.

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This post was originally published in October 2019. It was updated in May 2022.

Category: Employee Productivity