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 thanks to Amplenote -- but he's the exception, as his 17 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.
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 bonanza.com), 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) daily calendar
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 story. But 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 following the regimented prescription of my 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 an underachiever. How could this be the one weird trick that others can follow to produce like a CEO?
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: a routine that maximizes time to get important stuff done. 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, Organized.ly, Tana, and the 4 new ones that debuted after this published have what you need. Rarely is the lack of a good app what holds anyone 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 everyone's todo list?
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 seek out when they identify a productivity problem -- maybe ADHD, too many things to choose from, or poor biz results -- and 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. At most, it needs more brain space allocated to feeling guilty, if you're the sort of person who can translate "guilt" to "action."
Keeping a long-term todo list is hard. Maintaining a system is hard. Don't combine them unless necessary. Chances are, the best place to direct your willpower is a mix of what your past selves recommended, 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."
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 your 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. 😅
Don'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. Or, as the AI would summarize,
There once was a CEO, who lived life divine,
Whose productivity secrets none could define,
With a golf club in hand,
He built company brand,
Mixed bogeys with buddies, deals done on back nine.