controversial productivity tipsWe’ve all heard what makes us more productive. To be more productive, get: Better sleep, better food, better work environment, etc. And I think these tips are amazing and a great focus to have. Heck, we even wrote about most of these and the science behind it here on the Buffer blog.

And yet, today, I thought of changing it up dramatically. It goes nicely with Tim Ferriss’ moto:

“To do the impossible, you need to ignore the popular.”

So with this article, I tried to really step aside from the popular and look for the counter-intuitive. Of course, it’s all backed by the latest and most reputable studies.

Let’s dig and find out some of the most controversial things you could do today to boost your creativity, happiness and productivity:

1.)  Give up

Often, if you are anything like myself, we are in an endless quest for “feeling productive” and for “getting motivated” to do great work. Shoma Morita, a famous Japanese psychiatrist influenced by Zen Buddhism that this might be the absolute wrong way to think about it.

Most of our biggest achievements get done, even without being motivated or inspired, so he describes:

“Is it accurate to assume that we must ‘overcome’ fear to jump off the high dive at the pool, or increase our confidence before we ask someone out for a date?” he asks. “If it was, most of us would still be waiting to do these things.

So, instead of trying to get motivated, embrace your fear, the negativity and dreading of doing the next task ahead. Tell yourself “Yes, I don’t feel great right now to work on this.”

Then, start doing it anyway, without trying to change your emotions.

2.)  Procrastinate (with structure)

For a long time, the productivity space has taught us to focus on your MIT (“Most Important Task”) when you start your day. And yet, seeing the MIT at the top of your list, makes you want to do anything, but that task.

The key is, to give in to the urge of not doing that task, writes Walter Chen. Instead, do some of those easier tasks on your list, that don’t feel that important and are easier to tackle:

“The mental trick is to regard other tasks as more important in order to make the Very Important Task an easier choice.”

In doing so, and moving the original MIT down the list, you are now able to complete it much more easily, as you don’t dread it anymore. In his famous essay on structured procrastination Stanford Professor John Perry writes this:

“With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen” and “an effective human being.”

So go ahead, procrastinate, it’s ok!

3.)  Stop using the words “great job”  (especially with kids)

Here is something that I’m particularly prone to go wrong with. Too often, especially with kids, we are using the word “great job”, especially if very little effort was put in.

This, so Shelley Phillips writes, only erodes the meaning of the word and gives others little to no motivation.

“Instead try, “You really tried hard on that!” By focusing on a child’s effort, we’re teaching her that the effort is more important than the results.”

Personally, I find myself too often, even within the Buffer team to just say “great job”, when really I should either hold off, or think really hard about what I appreciated about something that’s been mentioned or accomplished.

4.)  Work less

Within the Buffer team, we have an informal rule, that goes something like this:

“Working more is never the answer.”

This is derived from Tony Schwartz’ book “The Power of Full Engagement”, where he proposes a solution to working, that completely changed my productivity. His key idea is simple: “Manage your energy, not your time.”

Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow also has some explanations:

“There are first order benefits to taking the time off, but I think the real business case is (that) in working together to make that time off possible, companies actually re-think how you work and how to be productive.”

So if you start working less, you will have to think really hard about what you will spend your time doing. Here is also more on managing energy, rather than time.

5.)  Stop saying “yes”

One of the best way to regain control of your day and time is to stop saying “Yes” so many times. It’s very obvious that saying “yes” is much easier than saying “no”. That’s why we need a good strategy to prevent it.

In one of the most interesting studies on learning to say “no”, the devil still lies in the detail. The most common ways of saying no are either “I can’t” or “I don’t”. In a recent study two groups were trained to use either one, when asked for how they feel about something. And here is the outcome:

“The students who told themselves “I can’t eat X” chose to eat the chocolate candy bar 61% of the time. Meanwhile, the students who told themselves “I don’t eat X” chose to eat the chocolate candy bars only 36% of the time. This simple change in terminology significantly improved the odds that each person would make a more healthy food choice.”

In order for a better way to say no, here are 2 of my favorite tips for doing so:

  • Decide a lot of things beforehand on whether you do them or not. Some examples are: “I don’t drink”, “I don’t check email in the morning”, “I don’t go to bed after 11pm”. This makes any potential temptations much easier to avoid.
  • Hold yourself accountable with these points. Write them down, share them with your family and friends or put them over your bed on a poster. Being held accountable has worked wonders for me.

In case you are interested, we have also written more on the science of saying no.

6.)  Get rejected

Here is something to finally stop being angry or disappointed about: Being rejected. Instead welcome it in and work on how you react to it. In a recent experiment at John Hopkins University, Sharon Kim tried to prove exactly that.

Here is what happened. 2 groups of people were each given a set of personality type questions. They were told, that they might (or might not) be considered for future exercises again. When both groups returned 2 weeks later, the first one was told to complete a few tasks before joining the next group (inclusion). The other group was being told to complete tasks, but wouldn’t join the next group again (rejection).

The tasks to complete were so called RAT tasks. You get a few unrelated words like “cottage | swiss | cake” and you need to combine each one with the same word to build a useful connection. For example: “cottage cheese”, “swiss cheese” and “cheese cake”. (Here is a fun website to do more of these).

The results, and I bet you can already guess them. The people being rejected from joining the group again consistently outperformed those that were included. And those, that were labeled as “independent” by the researchers outperformed everyone else even more in the tasks.

The conclusions from study author Kim:

 “Social rejection can inspire imaginative thinking, particularly in individuals with a strong sense of their own independence”

99u also writes more about this and shows how deep the implications of this are. In an incredibly awesome other experiment titled “100 Days of Rejection”, a guy tries to get rejected 100 times every day and see what this does to him. Here is a list of all his experiments.

Ready to get rejected? It might just make you a lot more creative.

7.)  Use at least Facebook, Twitter and 3 other social networks

Are social networks blocked by your employer? That’s probably not a good thing for your productivity, according to a recent study by Evolv. They monitored hundreds of metrics from Fortune 500 companies and found an exciting correlation between usage of social networks and productivity/output per employee.

And here is what they found:

“Employees who belonged to more than five social networks had a 1.6 percent higher sales conversion than their counterparts and a 2.8 percent lower average call time.”

Of course, confusing causation and correlation is not something we want to do here. And yet, the study goes on to explain:

“Individuals who have a higher technical proficiency and are more productive also stay in their jobs longer.”

So the reason, is probably not because these employees use more social networks, but simply that they are more tech-savvy and have thought more about what drives them to be productive.

If it all holds true, at least we hope to make your life easier keeping up with multiple social networks through Buffer.

8.)  Spend time on email first thing in the morning

This one is indeed a highly controversial one. It seems that almost every article nowadays is about spending less time or eliminating email. Recently, Joel, CEO here at Buffer noticed something interesting. Almost all the top CEO’s in the world start their day with email.  Here is a list of a few who do:

  • Tim Cook (CEO at Apple)
  • David Cush (CEO at Virgin America)
  • Robert Iger (CEO at Disney)

That is interesting and after discussing this more with Joel, this was his intuition:

“my thinking is that the better I communicate with the team the more we get done and improve productivity of whole team”

Depending on the position you hold in a company, email might be more or less of a focus for you. Excluding it, based on 99% of advice on avoiding email might not be so good though.

9.)  Stop visualizing or telling anyone your goals

If you are anything like me, tons of people have told you something like “Write down your goal, put it up on the wall or the mirror, so you can see and be reminded of it every day!”. Sounds like a great idea in theory right? Because we see it every day, or because we hold ourselves accountable through telling others, we are likely to achieve it and keep working on it.

Not so true, according to Heather Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen at NYU:

“Positive fantasies of success drains the energy out of ambition.”

That good feeling about defining the goal and mentioning it to someone or writing it down makes you less likely to achieve. Partly because you are (accidentally!) playing a trick on yourself and telling it that you’ve already achieved it, so you don’t have to work so hard anymore.

Instead, keep your goals to yourself and in your head. There is also a great Ted Talk by Derek Sivers on this.

10.) Do an impossible task

Here is the last tip for you, that I’ve found to work extremely well. Give yourself, or your employees and team members an absolutely impossible task to achieve. Whenever you notice that you’ve started to work on something and realise “I will fail with this”, keep on working.

The reason, according to Robert Epstein, is that you put your brain under shock. It is like going to the gym and lifting an incredibly heavy weight, where you quickly fail after a few reps.

By overwhelming your brain like this, similar to a muscle, it expands and gets activated. Any other “normal” task thereafter appears incredibly easy and allows you to push much further than before. Doing an impossible task is an amazing way to increase your brain’s capacity. 


These are my best, controversial productivity tips to help you become a better self. Have you tried any of these before? I’d love your thoughts and additions here.

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Written by Leo Widrich

Co-founder and COO at Buffer. I enjoy working on company culture, customer development and marketing. For more personal posts, check out leostartsup.

  • Some interesting tips here. There are two in particular that work well for me. The first is working less. I pretty much doubled my income when I went from working 60+ hours per week as my norm to working 7 hrs per day, 4 days per week. You really do force yourself to be more productive when you have less time to invest in work. You drop tasks that don’t have a high enough return, and you look for better ways to bring in money (when self-employed at least). Plus you’re more rested, and you don’t begrudge your work for taking all of your time away from the other things you love to do.

    The other from your list that I use frequently is “procrastination.” I no longer try to tackle a big project first thing. I do the little admin things that I want to get out of the way. I handle blog commenting and other networking. And that lets me check things off my list. It’s far easier for me to jump into a big project when most of the small things on my to-do list are check off already because I’m already feeling more accomplished.

    • LeoWid

      Hi Jennifer, thanks so much for the awesome comment here. And that is an amazing success story and shows you really start looking inward and focusing on yourself. Thanks for sharing!

      • Skweekah

        I especially love points 3, 7, 9, 4, 8, 5, 1, 2, 6, and finally, my BIG fave is 10.

        • LeoWid

          haha, that made me laugh! Glad you love all of them! 🙂

  • Awesome tips here – love the controversy and yes very true stuff indeed. I already find that these two things work for me:

    1. Procrastinating the right way – when I have that big frog sitting on my list right in the morning and when I don’t feel like eating it right away, I do take up some other little tasks to start the engines rather than starring and hesitating at eating that one frog. When I’m done with the warm up I find it quite easy to eat the frog later on.

    2. Be on social media – especially I find Facebook refreshing. Since I connect with lots of people, using Facebook in short windows of time throughout the day helps recharging the batteries.

    Thanks again!

    • LeoWid

      Thanks for the kind encouragement Jane, so glad you liked the post and those 2 are some of my favorite ones too. I love to just start on a different task and then move to the bigger ones.

  • I imagine the email one being highly dependent on when your best creative work is done.

    For me, I’m full steam ahead in the morning, and I find it best to focus my energy on ‘big’ projects right away, it’s more fulfilling and I find I’m better able to pour myself into them.

    The afternoon, right around when I lay down for a bit to get a second wind, is where I spend time on quick tasks like email.

    Love this round-up buddy. 🙂

    • LeoWid

      Hey Greg, always a huge pleasure to see you here!

      Yeah, I totally agree, email one is a highly individualized part.

      I think it also depends on your position in a company. If you manage 100 people, then email is probably the main thing you do all day.

      Glad you liked this one!

  • Great piece & I agree with so much of it! Quick note about #9, though. There’s a bunch of research out there about the whole “visualization” thing, and here’s what it says (I would dig up links and references for you but…you know…I’m at work and ended up here through a social media rabbit hole which of course is helping my productivity ;)): if you spend too much time *fantasizing* about something, or, more specifically, picturing yourself as if you have already achieved a goal, then your motivation to actually go ahead and do the things you need to do to reach your goal is likely to decrease significantly. But this sort of “visualization” is actually pretty different from the “Write down your goal, put it up on the wall or the mirror, so you can see and be reminded of it every day!” mantra, which is more about reminding yourself about what’s important to you, and helping you to move forward with what needs to be done.

    That said, the literature on motivation and whatnot is pretty widespread and a little confused, and that conventional mantra is nowhere close to the end of the story.

  • My favorite of these is number 5–I find it is really easy to say yes, but hard to say no. I always have to be super careful to not do things that I could do, but rather do things that I should do. But it is a hard line. And I am always worried I am missing opportunities if I say no. I think your point about framing the no with that interesting study “I don’t eat cake” / “I don’t watch TV in bed” (Two things Im working on) is a really interesting way to approach saying no. Thanks!

  • Wow, I thoroughly enjoyed the post. Yes, we are better when we work less but there’s always so much to do. My goal is to work less and become more productive. I like the idea of setting an impossible task to strengthen the mind for other tasks that can be completed. And preparing for how you will handle rejection is really advanced. I will have to think on that one.

  • Korab Eland

    This was fantastic! Thanks Leo.

    • LeoWid

      thanks Korab!

  • Guilty on all accounts except #7 – I’m only using 3 social networks at the moment 😉
    Anyway, great job! 😛 I like this alternative way of thinking as opposite to “main stream” motivational and self-motivational crap – we’re individuals and each of us should strive to find our own formula for success.

  • Great read, really enjoyed this. Thanks!

    • LeoWid

      thanks Joe! 🙂

  • Great post Leo Widrich. Would be great to know your insights on “how to improve the productivity of your team”. Endless meetings, egos, long discussions, and so many other problems kill the productivity of teams. How to create a environment where the team have a good time together and keep productive?

    • LeoWid

      Hi Gianni, awesome for the heads up on this, makes a lot of sense and I should definitely blog about team productivity as well, will add that to my list! 🙂

  • Kevin

    Loved it! 5 and 9 seems to conflict a bit though and I have read double blind studies that writing down goals, sharing them with friends, and providing updates does increase your chance of achieving but nonetheless it’s an interesting way to think about it.

    • LeoWid

      Hey Kevin, thanks for stopping by here! Ah yes, that’s a good one, I think it’s definitely always up to the individual whether that’s something that works for you or not. I’ve, like you found great results having goals and not having them!

  • Hey Leo, another useful and well-researched article. #3 made me re-think simply writing “Great post!” A tactic I’ve used in working with kids (and coworkers) is D-L-P: Describe – Label – Praise

    D – Instead of saying “great job” you describe the action taken – “I was reading your report on the project”
    L – Assign a specific label – “You were very thorough and clear”
    P – Then praise the action – “I appreciate the hard work you put in, it’s very valuable to the company!”

    Instead of giving vague praise that is relatively non-applicable, you’ve given the person a clear label of a characteristic they showed, and are now more likely to repeat.

    • LeoWid

      I love this, thanks a ton Matt!

    • carokopp

      Wow, this is a very helpful formula to use as a guide. Thanks for sharing this, Matt! 🙂

    • Great tip, D-L-P. I’m going to use this from now on.

    • Brutus974

      I like how the responses to this post are basically: “Great job!”

  • Great post, we love trying new ways to get more done! #6 is an interesting one, going to read more about that, thanks 🙂

  • michael gocia

    Great post, we love those it’s really useful tips and can find good results from them a it depends on their individual decisions they should check whether it is suitable for them or not is most important. Thanks For sharing great stuff with us.

  • Fascinating post, but neuroscience is telling us that visualizing is helpful for achievement, contrary to number 9.

  • Suhail

    Hey Leo, Awesomse Post, It really helps, specially the points 1, 5, 8 and 9.

  • Andrew Harding

    Thanks Leo, Tip 1 is exactly what I need to read right now. Thanks for including this. Being in a confused fog with informational interviews doesn’t have to stop me from taking the next step and setting up others – by the time I meet with the person I’l be in a different frame of mind. Hard to believe, but hey – it doesn’t matter what I feel right now. And that’s liberating.

    Winston Churchill said something similar: “the situation seems hopless; we must take the next step”.

  • Sofye

    Evernote stay a good tool to taking notes at work, but it’s true, during meetings, for
    my project tracking iPad I prefer use Beesy: It’s a really good app for work, help to sort out and don’t forget a thing on my differents projects. Very useful also in meeting, I can import, annotate and share my files, export PDF with people, archive my files on Dropbox.. Take note and send minutes at the end of the meeting by mail very quickly and easily.

    I discovered this tool on Picks Evernote, so I think it’s can be interesting.


    • Kroben

      Beesy is an excellent app indeed. Even if for productivity it’s the best tool you can get, I’m not sure if it is the right place to talk about it…

  • Number 10 is my favourite! Until you try something impossible you just don’t realise what you are actually able to do. I first came across this way of thinking when I saw how some professional gamers play StarCraft and just couldn’t believe it could be done. Now I try and do something impossible all the time! Would love to have your thoughts on it –

  • completely agree. great tips!

  • Simply amazing, these productivity tips are great and can be very useful, I agree with the point that social media can play an important role if you are working hard to get higher sales conversion.

  • Lorin Diehl

    Hey Leo,

    As Matt and others have suggested already, great information and thoughts! Your post on matters to do with productivity truly hits the mark…

    And improving the way businesses, business teams or people work together, as part of the bigger business productivity picture, is one of my absolute greatest passions. There’s no doubt that when business teams and people are collaborating effectively and efficiently, the net result is increased productivity.

    Fact is, part of doing smart business means providing business teams (strategic or creative) with the right tools and the right solutions to do so — where the right people connect with the right expertise or information, at the right time, to drive the right business decision.

    As a Nobel Peace recipient, Paul Krugman, once said, “Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it’s nearly everything.” And productivity is absolutely
    most everything — including, in my mind, an effective blend and balance of
    time, talent and treasure. And if talent (teams) are not in right alignment, then the rest almost doesn’t matter.

    Eager to learn and share more…

  • Most of these tips I’ve had to learn the hard way. I was a software developer on a team that was under a deadline and no one slept. I began to develop a habit of working way too many hours a day to get a job completed. However, I noticed that I became much more productive with good rest even though I wasn’t spending my evenings working on the project. Too, I was much more satisfied with my work. On the other hand, I really struggle with saying “no”. I am getting better at it.

  • Beedee

    This is a good article; it makes counter-intuitive sense. The author might want to try this one: “I don’t use commas incorrectly.” 😉

  • Ian Hamblin

    Great article. Particularly like the first point when dealing with ‘resistance to the task’. It’s something i’ve battled with for a long time and I’m sure will battle with in the future. However I have become more successful based on my ability to side step that feeling of resistance. Recognising that the feeling of resistance is just a feeling and not a tangible thing, makes it easier to just go ahead and do the task anyway.

    I am also starting to develop the ability to get a buzz out of going against my emotional desires. In a way i’m using my whimsical emotions to feed more powerful emotions and it seems to be working well. I don’t believe in the approach of ‘just pushing yourself’ as i’ve been there and it’s painful.

    So thanks for writing as it’s helping to validate my own ideas.

  • Larry Jacobson

    Great article Leo. I love controversial advice! My first TED talk was all about what you mentioned in point #1–FEAR. The talk is titled, “Passion Trumps Fear” and I teach a simple method of how to use fear to your advantage: Accept it and embrace it. Most say that you should face your fears and overcome them…ha! I don’t think those people have ever faced pirates or 30-foot seas in a small boat. “Fear is nature’s way of making us focus on the task at hand. It sharpens your senses and makes you more alert.”
    See the talk here:

    Thanks for stirring the pot!
    Larry Jacobson

  • ovidonciu

    Hi Leo, thanks for this article. Really helpful and I really think that the main issue with things like: feel productive, feel useful, etc is that we’re focusing on SELF! This is THE thing that will destroy us. The best way to overcome lack of productivity, depression, frustration is to get rid of SELF. This will bring an amazing amount of happiness, freedom and quality of life. YOU are not the center of the universe, YOU are not “the one and only”, YOU means something only as you give up and focus on others.

  • Good work on writing this 🙂

    I seem to remember positive visualisation is covered in 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, in which he advises you think about yourself actually pursuing each step towards your goal, and the potential problems you might encounter etc, as being beneficial, rather than the self-defeating practice of seeing yourself at the end…

    I think he, and the likes of Stephen Covey, also suggested praising the effort involved in something, rather than praising the individual…

  • sunni0001

    LOL! I am a natural! 😉

  • Wow. This was a fun read for me. Thank you, Leo.

  • zeina issa

    Staying productive at work can be a
    challenge, here are 12 tips from the team to help you to make the most
    of your time at work:

  • I had no idea about the study stating that the more social networks you were a member of, the better the conversions. Fascinating! As always, great research and a really good read Leo.

  • Nicole Liloia

    Great tips! I think it’s so important to try out different tips like these to see what works best for you — don’t worry about what other people do that works for them and see what really feels good for yourself!

  • Octavio

    Great post! Very interesting twists to traditional ways thinking, specially those on number 1, 2, 4, 6 and 9. Thank you Leo 🙂

  • Nick

    Interesting article….some good points. I totally disagree with number 9, however. I have found over the years that visualisation and writing down goals has been completely beneficial in giving me focus and helping me achieve them. I’ve particularly found visualisation very powerful as a motivator, for confidence, and it works! Whatever works for the individual i guess….

  • notivago

    Good article but I have truck with number eight tough, relation is not causation. Besides there are positions where e-mails are really part of your job whereas on others it is only corporate noise. As per Knuth vs Email, for people that are on the bottom of things e-mail is a nuisance.

  • Etienne Do

    My manager wants to speak with you, Leo.

  • Ali

    lol have you heard of the secret? the law of attraction?
    yeah … number nine is a fail.

  • No. 3 makes little sense to me. I’m not one to dole out empty praise, but results should in fact be rewarded, with little regard to the how much effort is involved.

    I don’t care if my surgeon did it easily blindfolded or through sweating it out for 20 hours; I do care if the operation was successful.

    I don’t care if my banker gave it 110 percent; I do care if my portfolio is growing in value over time.

    **By focusing on a child’s effort, we’re teaching her that the effort is more important than the results.**

    We don’t want to teach children (or adults) to be more efficient, more creative in their approaches, more focused on good outcomes? Weird.

  • Great article, but not to nit-pick or anything, the quote from #1 is actually said by James Hill, a practitioner of Morita Therapy. “As James Hill, a contemporary practitioner of Morita Therapy, points out, many of our most significant achievements get done despite the absence of enthusiasm: “Is it accurate to assume that we must ‘overcome’ fear to jump off the high dive at the pool, or increase our confidence before we ask someone out for a date?” he asks. “If it was, most of us would still be waiting to do these things.””

  • Pink

    I think this is a whole lot of bullshit. All this article does is list some research findings and imply they are causal relationships to productivity. There is no actual concrete advice here and there is no reason to believe that any of these tips are actually implementable outside of psychology labs. It’s pure crap.

  • Jon Tera

    Hello Leo,

    The tips you have shared for increasing productivity are very effective. In my
    work calendar I always concentrate more on the social networking channels. I
    have an online task manager due to which I handle things more efficiently and
    can focus on my important tasks.

  • Scott Denver

    Beautiful tips being listed out here. I have never though of these tips mentioned in such a way. Well to the practical reason, I believe that in a day to day basis we usually get encountered with the tips and tricks mentioned. But some what with the actual meaning, the fact that one cannot ignore is that by hook or by cook we have to overcome the controversies.

    As mentioned here in the post that procrastination is also a tips that happens to be considered at its best. I believe personally that time is one of the major factor that could be the actual point of consideration. Most of the controversies lies within the improper time management, then some what extending a support may dignifies the way to overcome the issues. I personally prefer using the cloud based time tracking software from Replicon ( ) to overcome the procrastination and line up with the segment to get aligned with.

  • gabrielleherbert

    Great article Leo! I was a big user of my iPad to take notes, at work, and I downloaded an app called Beesy, which helps me improve my productivity, but I’ll never get used to take notes without a pen and paper. What was great with this app is that they launched a partnership with Livescribe 3 smartpen so everything I write down is automatically sent to the app. I consider this controversial advice; going back to pen and paper, what do you think?

  • This was written flawlessly. Great work.

    Real interesting list you put together. I have found that working remotely and only meeting when truly necessary makes the work better.

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