3 powerful strategies to becoming productive at work (or school)

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|Productivity at Work|Productivity Deep Work

I’ve noticed many professionals early in their careers correlate working long hours with success.

Prestigious jobs in professional services (finance, technology, law, etc.) often have demanding work environments with the expectation of consistent 60+ hour work weeks. This results in a work culture where many employees, especially the younger ones, believe success is largely determined by working harder.

Over time, the culture of ambitious young professionals has evolved to deeply value the number of hours worked per week as a proxy to success. Working 60 hours a week is a badge of honor, and working 80-100 hours is even more prestigious.

However this thought process is poisonous and can actually inhibit success.

One management consultant was inspired by a Harvard Business Review research article on work-life balance and wrote a fascinating, anecdotal post about crazy work hours at his firm.

Two interesting insights stood out:

  1. The person who appeared busiest as his firm ended up getting fired for poor performance. This was shocking to her peers because everyone thought she was always working on important projects.
  2. Top performances go about their work quietly and efficiently and let the results do the talking. HBR profiled a senior manager at a top consulting firm who was able to work 9-5 and take ample vacation time off, while being lauded by a partner as “a rising star.” This senior manager was soon promoted to partner.

It’s unfortunate that many workplaces encourage crazy work hours, intentionally or unintentionally.

As a thought experiment, imagine what would happen in a workplace where long hours were strongly discouraged and viewed as a sign of poor productivity. I suspect employees would no longer strive toward working harder or longer and would instead focus their efforts on other strategies to drive impact and success.

Below are 3 strategies that drive productivity and impact in work, school, student organizations, etc. Each is rated across two attributes: difficulty to change and impact on driving results.

Productivity Strategy 1: Work harder

Difficulty to change: Low

Impact on driving results: Low-Medium

Despite my earlier commentary, working hard, within reason, is important.

There’s simply no substitute for putting in the time it takes to accomplish a task or project, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s fairly easy to commit an extra 5 or 10 hours to work each week when you are young and don’t have many other responsibilities.

However, relative to other strategies, I’ve found that the actual impact of working more hours is fairly low. An additional 10 hours a week will not be as productive as the first 10 hours, and this is corroborated by a HBR research study:

“In sum, the story of overwork is literally a story of diminishing returns: keep overworking, and you’ll progressively work more stupidly on tasks that are increasingly meaningless.” - HBR Given that working longer hours doesn’t correlate linearly with productivity, you may wonder what the optimal balance between hard work and productivity is.

I’m not going to tell you, because it’s a very personal choice and depends on your line of work. In full transparency, it’s something I’m still trying to figure out myself.

For example, while that senior manager at a consulting firm was able to get away working 9-5 (40 hours a week), it is very unlikely he could work any less and still drive meaningful impact for his firm and clients.

However, there are probably many jobs that ask for 40 hour a week of work but could probably be done in less time.

For context, the idea of working 40 hours a week was not a scientifically determined threshold for optimal human performance and work-life balance. It comes from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, when labor laws were non-existent and factory workers were expected to work over 100 hours a week by their employers.

After employees unionized and went on strike, government started to implement new labor laws. Ford Motor Company was the first major company of its kind to standardize the work week at 40 hours, and it’s been the norm in workplace culture since.

It’s up to you to decide where the optimal work/productivity threshold lies and how many hours you are willing to work past that point.

Productivity Strategy 2: Increase Deep Work

Difficulty to change: Medium

Impact on helping you drive results: High

I’ve found that my total work output in a given week stems from a fraction of all hours spent working that week.

Between meetings, emails, messages, lunch, and all the other distractions in the workplace, it is difficult to carve out time to focus intently on one task.

Yet according to Cal Newport, the skill of deep work (focusing on one task with no distractions for 1.5-2 hours) is the most valuable skill a knowledge worker can develop.

We’ve all had those moments of hyper-focus, when we are fully engaged with the material in front of us. Our productivity during this period of intense focus is significantly higher than usual. So much so that Cal Newport believes deep work drives 10x the productivity of normal work.

In a given week, I spend at most ~25% of my time in deep work mode. This means no distractions. Just me and the problem at hand.

Usually, this happens in the morning before 11AM and after drinking coffee.

The remaining majority of my work week consist of shallow work, which includes emails, little tasks, and even aspects of analytical work including Excel modeling or writing SQL queries.

I find that the mental rigor needed to structure a model or map out the logic of a SQL query requires a state of deep work, while the actual execution falls more into the shallow-work category.

Suppose it takes 10 hours to build some analytical model end-to-end. In my experience, structuring the model takes 2 hours (20%) of deep work time. The remaining 8 hours (80%) is for the execution of building, cleaning, and formatting the model.

However, when the model is finished, most of the insights and value are derived from the way it was structured. That 20% of time to structure the model drives most of the impact.

Like Cal Newport’s assessment of deep work, I believe the 20% of my work week spent in a state of deep work drives most of my impact.

Productivity Deep Work

This phenomenon also explains why increasing the total number of working hours doesn’t linearly increase impact.

If I work 10 more hours in a given week, it is very likely that most, if not all, of the additional 10 hours will be spent on shallow-work activities.

If you are serious about productivity and driving impact, it’s more effective to invest in learning how to trigger frequent and longer sessions of deep work.

Doing this is out of the scope of this article, but Cal Newport’s book on deep work (affiliate link) is a great starting place. You can also find helpful articles by Googling “deep work” and “flow state triggers.”

Increasing time spent on deep work is not going to be easy, but every additional hour will lead to incredible output and impact. It’s a challenge worthy of your time.

Productivity Strategy 3: Discover and Solve the Right Problems

Difficulty to change: Hard

Impact on helping you drive results: Very High

The last, most difficult, and highest impact strategy on productivity is the ability to ask the right questions and prioritize your limited time.

This strategy is fundamentally different from the previous two.

Strategy 1: Working Harder and Strategy 2: Deep Work allow you to move faster in a given direction and therefore accomplish more.

But to make sure you are headed in the right direction and always solving the highest priority problems, you need to ask questions that unlock the most value for your organization and prioritize your time/energy to focus on solving these problems.

Here’s a conceptual way to think about it (don’t worry, there’s a concrete example later):An organization is a complex system. Complex systems have many leverage points or projects you can work on to drive results.

But not all leverage points are created equally -- spending 10 hours on the right leverage point can lead to incredible results, but 10 hours on the wrong leverage point can be a waste of time.

A strong employee is able to work hard with intense focus on solving the problem at hand. Either these problems are given to them by others (e.g., their manager), or they are obvious problems and may not be the highest leverage points to drive results in the organization.

A rockstar employee is able to ask the right questions to sniff out the most pressing, unsolved, highest leverage problems. Often times this requires digging into the root cause of surface-level problems. Only after identifying the root cause of big problems can the rockstar employee leverage their ability to work hard and with intense focus to develop a solution and massively impact the organization.

Do you see the difference?

Here’s a concrete example:

I was part of a club that had an attendance problem with older members (juniors and seniors in college). During our weekly general meetings, only 20% of the older members showed up.

It was obvious to everyone that we had an attendance problem, and there was a lot of conversation about devising a strict attendance policy with punishments for people who didn’t show up.

While this solution may improve attendance, it doesn’t address the root cause of the attendance problem. This makes it a band-aid solution, which temporarily solves the problem at best and may have deep unintended consequences at worst (e.g., angering older students and pushing them to quit).

By continually asking “why is this occurring”, we can dig into the root cause of the problem.

Problem: Older members (juniors and seniors) are not showing up to weekly general meetings.

Why is this occurring?

  • They have other priorities and would rather use those two hours every Tuesday evening to catch up on school work, relax at home, or party with friends.

Why is this occurring?

  • The perceived benefit doing something else is higher than the perceived benefit of coming to the general meeting. The perceived benefit of coming to general meeting is low.

Why is this occurring?

  • Members are misperceiving the benefits of general meeting.
  • Or, the general meeting does not add unique value and fulfill a need for the senior members, like it does for younger members who show up.

Why is this occurring?

  • Younger members show up because they like to catch up with friends in the club during general meetings, but older members already have a strong social circle and don’t need two-hour meetings to bring friends together.


  • Refocus general meetings to fulfill a specific core need for senior members. In successfully doing so, senior members should show up because the perceived benefit is higher than their alternatives.

This was an actual problem we faced, and one solution we came up with was to invite incredible, relevant guest speakers to teach the club during general meeting.

It turned out that when a partner from a top venture capital firm showed up to give a talk, most juniors and seniors attended the meeting.

By continually asking “why is this occurring”, the root cause of the problem becomes more obvious.

While others are spending time thinking about a better attendance policy, you can invest energy into solving the root cause of the problem and meaningfully push the organization in the right direction.

Learning to ask and answer the right question is a rare skill that takes years to develop. I believe those who prioritize this skill are far more effective than those who prioritize working 100 hours a week.

Final thoughts on productivity and work

The purpose of this article is not to downplay the importance of hard work, which is a necessary foundation for achievement in many disciplines.

Rather, it’s to shed light on less discussed topics related to workplace productivity and reshape how young professionals define success.

In some cases (i.e., investment banking), you may have less flexibility to reduce your work hours due to circumstances out of your control.

That’s okay. You can still practice some of these strategies even within the constraints of your entry-level job or college. Eventually, there will come a time in your career when you will have control over your schedule.

When that happens, remember that there’s so much more to making an impact than working long hours.

Over time, we can change our culture to place more importance on impact, and remove the badge of honor from working unhealthy hours.

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