The foundation for productivity

Posted on June 9, 2011


This month, the Carnival of Journalism topic is “LifeHacks.”

Specifically, the question asks: What are your life hacks, workflows, tips, tools, apps, websites, skills and techniques that allow you to work smarter and more effectively?

Although I use a lot of cutting edge tech tools, platforms and apps, in my work and personal life, when it comes to improving productivity and completing specific tasks, I’m somewhat old-school. Especially when those tasks and goals depend on cognitive activity and creative thinking. That’s not to say I’m not using the latest technology when I’m thinking, creating, prepping, writing, but these tools don’t automatically make me productive. Anyone can waste lots of time and effort using the latest tools and technologies.

My keys to smart, effective and efficient work are: Sleep, Exercise, Healthy Diet & Attentiveness


For me, the number one key to productivity is that I’m well-rested, as in I’m getting the requisite amount of sleep needed for maximum mental functioning.  If I don’t get enough sleep, I don’t think as clearly and as efficiently as when I’m rested. I may not feel “tired” but I can easily discern the difference in my daily productivity, especially when I’m working on projects that require intellectual engagement.

I don’t have a set number of hours that I must sleep every night but I tend to be at my best when I sleep for at least 7-1/2 hours, usually 8. Although occasionally, I’ll pull a 9-hour sleep, especially if I’m coming off a stressful time period or have finished an extra long run or other physical activity. IMG_2879

I’m fine after the occasional 6-hour night (or even less), provided I sleep soundly during those hours and have otherwise been sleeping enough. But I don’t make a habit of it.

When it comes to sleeping well, I’ve found that going to bed earlier leads to better sleep than if I work later and try to sleep later. Not sure why, but if I stay up past 10:30 I can often have trouble falling asleep. On the other hand, lights out by 9:30 and it’s lights out for me–sound asleep in a heartbeat.

Some people will scoff at my need (and respect) for a good night’s sleep. But scientific research supports my take on the value of sleep.

To quote my mentor Ben Franklin: “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Can’t say I agree with the wealthy part, but I’m very healthy and fairly wise.


I need daily exercise. And I thrive when I get intense aerobic exercise at least 4 days each week. By intense, I mean 3-7 mile runs. Or 5-6 mile walks at a fast pace. Or long hikes over challenging terrain.

Running helps me to focus my mind and to think quickly and efficiently.  Running clears out the cobwebs in my brain in a way that less intensive aerobic exercis does not. IMG_2495

Fortunately, I don’t have any health issues that preclude running or hiking. I attribute that to regular, intense exercise, plenty of sleep and a lifetime of healthy eating. Physical exertion and good sleep operate in tandem–exercise helps me to fall asleep quickly and sleep more soundly.

Long ago, in my 20s, I did high-intensity aerobics plus running (I lived within walking distance of a health club). But I’m not a member of a gym anymore and I’m not fond of regimented, scheduled classes  or choreographed routines. I’d like to do more strength-training and I’m trying to figure out how to add that to my schedule without joining a gym.IMG_2047

I’ve been doing some type of regular physical activity since I was a child. The few times I’ve dropped off my intensity have been the times that I’ve been least productive in my work and less focused overall.

Healthy Diet

I can tell a huge difference in my ability to concentrate if I eat a meal that’s starchy, full of refined flours and sugars and/or high-fat. Most meat-heavy meals not prepared at home by me are also less-than-ideal, unless I’m dining at local-foods oriented restaurant where the chef serves top-quality beef or game.

I stopped eating fast food burgers in August 2003 and over a period of years phased out pretty much all forms of fast food about four years ago. IMG_2622

I will occasionally eat a turkey/swiss or similar type of deli sandwich, if I’m in a bind and can’t get something healthier that’s relatively affordable.

I grew up in a household that valued veggies over meat. We weren’t vegetarians by any stretch of the imagination, but my parents and grandparents had gardens and our meals were heavy on the veggie/legume side of the equation. We never had junk food (as in potato chips, candy bars, snack cakes, etc.) in our house, and were rarely permitted to buy and eat junk food when “running errands” or whatever. Fast food meals were extremely rare, especially before I became a teen.

The dietary habits of my parents rubbed off. I gave up fast food burgers & fries in 2003 and over a period of years, phased our other types of fast food. When I have no other, better choices readily available, I will occasionally eat a turkey/swiss type of deli sandwich (on whole grain bread, if possible).

IMG_2817A typical meal for me includes some combination of the following: Greens, veggies, fruits, olive oil, whole wheat pasta or brown rice, dried beans, whole wheat bread, peanut butter, honey, oatmeal, nuts, fish or seafood, lowfat or skim milk, eggs, cheese, butter, dark chocolate, and occasionally a steak or other form of beef if it’s hormone-free and, preferably, grass-fed. Pretty Mediterranean, by happenstance not design.

When I deviate from these types of foods (which is extremely rare), I feel sluggish, groggy, fuzzy-headed.

That’s not to say I don’t enjoy cookies, cakes and pies. But in most instances I make them at home, rather than buy, because I can use whole-wheat flour and control the types and amount of fats and sugars I use. By vote of most people, I make the best chocolate chip cookies ever.


Like every modern American, I multitask. But I’m not crazy about multitasking. I’ve found that my productivity is much greater if I do one important task at a time, especially if I’m on a deadline or have a goal to finish a project within a limited time-frame.

When I need to be focused and productive, I close my Twitter app (and my browser, if I don’t need to be online). If I’m in my office, I try to close my door (I’m easily distracted by voices, traffic, leaf-blowers, and other sounds). Depending on the task or project that requires my attention, instrumental music may be OK but music with lyrics impedes my concentration.

Obviously, under normal conditions I check email regularly, read the news, monitor social media and listen to music at the same time. But if I want to focus on something that must be completed within a limited timeframe, I turn off the distractions. By staying in the moment, I can focus and complete my task and more quickly return to environmental scanning/survey mode.

Keys to Efficient & Effective Productivity

So there you have it: The foundation for effective and efficient productivity, in my work and personal life: Good sleep, exercise, healthy diet and focus.

Related Posts: Food, Health & the I-Want-Mine-Now Mindset