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The 7 Rules of Personal Productivity

In Real Leaders Don’t Follow, Steve Tobak explains how real entrepreneurs can start, build, and run successful companies in highly competitive global markets. He provides unique insights from an insider perspective to help you make better-informed business and leadership decisions. In this edited excerpt, Tobak explains the 7 rules he follows every day in order to be productive and successful without working 24/7.

Articles and books with titles like How to Be a Better Procrastinator andWhat the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast annoy the hell out of me. Actually, it’s not their content or authors I have a problem with but our culture’s enormous and insatiable demand for solutions to nonexistent problems.

I don’t know how it became everyone’s goal in life to squeeze every second of every minute of every day and become some sort of productivity ninja robot, but I really can’t think of anything more inhuman and, ironically, more unproductive.

Not only am I not a morning person, I’m pretty sure I’ve never had an intelligent thought before noon. I’m hopelessly disorganized. I don’t make lists or have daily plans. I’ve never had a file system that works. My inbox hasn’t been cleaned up in a decade. And my office looks like it was hit by a tornado.

I’m also a terrible procrastinator. I honestly can’t remember ever doing something today I could get away with putting off until tomorrow. And I’m incredibly lazy when it comes to doing things I really don’t want to do.

If all that makes me unproductive, so be it. But by any measure, that hasn’t stopped me from being relatively happy and surprisingly successful. So how do you reconcile that with the popular dogma about personal productivity and time management?

You might think I’m successful in spite of my unproductive ways, but there is a distinct possibility that I’ve been successful because of them. The truth is, I find it all pointless. Why worry about being productive when life offers so much opportunity, so much to experience, and so much to do?

If you want to accomplish great things, you should focus on doing just that. Quit wasting your time in search of nonexistent quick fixes. Figure out what you want to do and just do it.

Everyone always complains about there not being enough time in a day. They have too many things going on, too many irons in the fire, or too many commitments. They’re too busy or spread too thin.

One word: bullshit.

You don’t have too much to do. Productivity and time management aren’t your problem. You just have to be disciplined about setting priorities, focusing on what’s important, and letting go of what isn’t. When there’s something you really want to achieve, you’ll find a way.

As unproductive as I am, at least by all the popular notions of the day, I’ve somehow managed to accomplish everything I set out to do and have a good time doing it. I have seven rules that keep me on track.

Rule 1: Focus on your goals and priorities.

If you’re not clear what your goals are, you have no chance of achieving them. Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.” He was a master of the understatement. Goals are big things you want to achieve with your life. Priorities are things you have to get done either to help you achieve your goals, pay the bills, or keep your family safe and comfortable. You must focus on your goals and priorities. And unless you’re the head of manufacturing at Toyota, productivity should not be one of them.

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Rule 2: Know yourself.

Yahoo! CEO and former Google executive Marissa Mayer is a famously insane workaholic who says she averages 90-hour weeks packed with 60 meetings. She once said that avoiding burnout is about “knowing yourself well enough to know what it is you’re giving up that makes you resentful” and “finding your rhythm.” That’s what enables her to work so hard. Same here. I know what I need, and I make sure I get it.

Rule 3: Always get the job done.

I’ve always had a powerful work ethic that guides my decisions on what is and is not OK to do. I’m a reasonably smart, effective, and hard-working guy by nature, but when I’m paid to do a job, my priority is always to get it done and do it better than anyone on earth.

Rule 4: Love your work.

If you enjoy your work, long hours come easily. You can work tirelessly for extended periods of time on long-term projects without feeling like you’re missing out on something. And there’s nothing wrong with making it as fun as you can. On nice days, I work outdoors. If I’ve got a tight deadline, I’ll have a second cappuccino to provide a boost. If I’m working at night, I have a glass of wine or two. Work shouldn’t be painful. Make it easy on yourself.

Rule 5: Be flexible, adaptive, and creative.

One of the great misconceptions about entrepreneurialism is that you’re your own boss. Wrong. We serve our customers, our investors, and, in a way, our employees. Those are your stakeholders. And if you’re always there for them by being flexible, adaptive, and creative— by having a “sure, no problem” attitude even when you have no idea how you’re going to do something—they’ll reciprocate and cut you some slack when you need it.

Rule 6: Work when you have to, not when you don’t.

I’ve commuted across the country, taking weekly red-eye flights for more than a year. I’ve gotten on a plane, flown to Tokyo for a dinner meeting with an important customer, and flown right back that night. That just comes with the territory. But I only work hard when I have to, not when I don’t. As long as you do what you need to do when it counts, you can take time off and screw around when it doesn’t.

Rule 7: Take care of yourself.

This is the part that seems to confuse people. They think that by managing every nanosecond of their time, they’ll maintain some bizarre sort of balance. They gobble down fast-food meals, stress out, lose sleep, and run themselves into the ground in the name of productivity. That’s just nuts. You should be able to eat right, sleep right, get exercise, and take good care of yourself without stressing over how much you got done before breakfast. Burned-out stress monsters aren’t healthy. I doubt if they’re very productive, either.

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