Your CEO isn't an expert on productivity. So, who is?

Despite the spread of AI-powered productivity apps and systems, the key to getting a lot done remains unchanged. All the fancy apps in the world can't translate to productivity unless they succeed at getting you to act on the highest ROI tasks. The proof? How many CEOs, visionaries, and world leaders have you ever heard touting their favorite productivity app or system?

You never hear it because, not unlike yourself, they don't have the time to learn a productivity system. Best case, they might finish a blog post about productivity every once in awhile.

OctoCEO is very productive indeed! But he is the exception, as his 14 arms attest

By the end of this post, I hope we can agree that the people who wring the most value from their time aren't doing it thanks to soundbite productivity tactics. As we discussed in Harvesting Your Best Ideas with a Long-term Todo List, "the perfect productivity system" can be discovered, but the catch is that it changes every year. If not every month or every day -- for you, and for your CEO.

linkCEOs: clueless about general productivity

When I was young programmer developing video games for an indie game company, I was confident that our CEO must hold the divine secrets of productivity. While being an avowed Mormon and family man, he simultaneously built a fast-growing company on the success of cool games like Lord of the Rings. The credentials were bright and loud.

You better believe he wasn't working on Sundays, he left that to his loser new employees like me. We worked our asses off, abandoning our social lives in favor of grueling work weeks at bargain basement wages. Meanwhile, this CEO seemed to glide through life on a higher plain. His game company was generating millions in profits. What was he doing that made his time worth so much more than mine?

I asked around about our CEO's routine during lunches with colleagues. Nobody could explain it. Few had even met him. The only widely-known detail of his routine was that he split Summers between our HQ and nearby Willows Golf Club. I would have liked to ask him more myself, but I'm not sure that I ever saw him in the halls during my 5 year tour of duty at his company. Eventually he sold our company and gave us cake for making him “very, very rich.”

When I left that company to start my own (that would become, my social circle grew to include many of Seattle's most ambitious entrepreneurs. I hounded them for details my CEO couldn't provide: How did they translate the fewest hours of work into world-beater results? The responses were frustratingly inconsistent, but a few shared behaviors could be gleaned:

Follow a thoughtfully-arranged (often by someone else) schedule

Answer important emails quick (as in, brief -- like you're way too busy for it)

Aspire to charm as required

It was satisfying to find a few themes in how leaders operate! But this isn't a recipe that anyone can follow to "get productive." Everyone's days are littered with unpredictable events, so a "thoughtfully arranged calendar" can be only intermittently applicable. There must be more.

I've read that Elon Musk schedules his day down to 5 minute increments. I bet that works great if you're the protagonist in an apocryphal tale. Meanwhile, back in the real world, I've observed that the more granular my schedule becomes, the more likely I abandon it for something that's not so soul-sucking as being micromanaged by my overeager past self.

By the point in my career that I had become a CEO, with as many employees as my original idol CEO, I was usually off-schedule before finishing my second Diet Coke in the morning. By early afternoon, the only thing "the daily schedule" was still accomplishing was making its creator feel like a total loser. How could this be the one weird trick that you follow to get stuff done like a CEO?

linkYou have the apps you need. There's no better long-term system 🙁

Learning "the essential CEO habits" taught me nothing directly useful, but it was a start. It showed how the best systems are the ones that derive from lived experience. Nobody taught all the CEOs to "email quick" or "follow a schedule." Those habits were natural responses to the job's pressures. Very few CEOs read about productivity, much less exhaustively scour the earth for the best productivity app.

Just think how much more they could get done, if they only they read Atomic Habits and tried Amplenote?!

Not much, probably. The reason that CEOs don't study "productivity" is the same reason entrepreneurs shouldn't study "business" -- it's too vague to apply. What really gets a CEO ahead is the same thing that gets any creative professional ahead: spending most of their time on what they're uniquely good at, via a routine that maximizes time spent on important stuff. Often, the optimal "productivity system" is as simple as:

Wake up. Caffinate. Process the inbox as quickly as possible. Make a day plan that blends your mood & schedule with available tasks. Tend to choose Important tasks, and reduce the frequency of Urgent ones. Tada. 🎩

Which app capabilities are needed to execute this "productivity system?" Very few. Any of the usual note apps like Obsidian, Remnote, Craft, ClickUp, Reflect, Capacities, Taskade, NotePlan,, Tana, and 3 new ones that launched while I was writing out that list -- all have got what you need. Rarely is the lack of a good app what holds otherwise-productive people back from getting more done.

This is good news!

You have available:

✅ Many great apps

✅ Many potential systems to follow.

So why are there still so damn many incomplete items on your todo list?

linkWill the real productivity expert please stand up?

Even without using a productivity system or a carefully chosen app, CEOs do, on average, get a lot done. If you are the sort of person who worries that you're getting behind because they have secrets you don't, you can stop worrying. If you have implicitly assumed that a book, class, or certificate stands between you and the more action-oriented future you, it ain't that.

A productivity system is what people go looking for when they identify a productivity problem -- maybe ADHD, too many things to choose from, or poor biz results -- and they want to make a holistic commitment to solve the problem for good. But future you doesn't need more rules or guidelines to be productive. This problem isn't going to get solved once, it needs to be solved every day, by applying effort, discipline, and whatever willpower is available today.

The best place to direct your energy is toward what your past selves recommended (your to-do list, whatever its form), and what excites you today. My CEO who spent his summers at the golf course offered a proven example of "put yourself in a situation that elevates mood, and let that mood inspire action." If you can't put yourself in an inspiring situation, focus on incremental progress rather than re-designing your productivity system.

No real-world productivity system will be perfectly coherent. It can't be, because "what's most important" changes too often. Tolerate the imperfection, it is intrinsic to any productivity methodology that works in the messy real world.

Your key question is "which tasks most serve my long-term interests?" Cal Newport speaks lucidly about pursuing an answer to this question. If you trust your past selves to have identified which tasks serve long-term interests, you're getting into 90th-percentile productivity. If you not only know what you should be working on, but you can create the circumstances to make yourself follow through, you're in 98th-percentile territory. Beware of proceeding further, lest you annoy your friends. 😅

linkDon't become an expert on productivity

Become an expert on picking the best tasks for yourself, today. Trust your past selves to curate what tasks seem the most high value per time spent. Task your current self with creating the circumstances that put you in a good enough mood to work on important stuff. If you can't engineer a good-enough mood, try to stay in motion anyway, focusing on rote tasks like email. As long as you are spending most of your time working on that thing you're uniquely good at, you're on the same road as a CEO.

Plot twist

Thanks for stopping by the Amplenote blog. Did you know that the content of this "blog post" is just a plain old note, lifted from the author's Amplenote notebook? Rich footnotes, industry-leading to-do lists, and a security-first mindset make us a solid option for modern writers. Try it out yourself.


Yunior Ariel Infante Zamora said about 1 year ago

Amazing post Bill!

Bill Harding said about 1 year ago

Thank you Yunior! "Finish draft of X" is quite often the reddest task on my to-do list, but hearing that people get value from these inspires me to keep doing them

Curtis Long said 12 months ago

You've explained why the grass is always greener on the other side of the productivity/to-do list app fence: "No real-world productivity system will be perfectly coherent."

"Trust your past selves to curate what tasks seem the most high value per time spent." Brilliant!

Thanks for this engaging and thought-provoking article.

Timoy said 12 months ago

The secret is.. we're still figuring it out 🕸 haha great story! 😁 Thanks for sharing

By varying our position, we can see it from other sides - putting ourselves into places that both inspire and motivate us!

Environments can set us up for whatever the space is designed for, so a place for having fun is hard to split with a place for working hard.. I find that I'd usually opt for making something new and exciting rather than pushing through the "hardship" of completing something older, no matter how red the task gets...

Environments make all the difference and Amplenote is such a solid "thinking environment"!

SK said 7 months ago

> "put yourself in a situation that elevates mood, and let that mood inspire action."

I think that is not a very wise method to follow. It usually is the reason for vast majority of procrastination. People tend to wait for the right mood and often don't get it. Many times, the opposite is a more viable choice.

Andre Robitaille said about 1 month ago

And here I am thinking the opposite about "put yourself in a situation that elevates mood, and let that mood inspire action." It's also the mark of good leadership when you create that environment for others.