The Ultimate Guide to Productivity

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

What is Productivity?

The concept of productivity has existed since the late 1800s in both verbal and mathematical forms, but all the different definitions and interpretations out there can make the term hard to comprehend. To understand productivity, let’s start with some definitions. 

The general definition of productivity is related to output and input:
Productivity = the amount of output created per unit of input

A different approach to defining productivity by Jackson and Petersson (1999) takes into account both efficiency and effectiveness: Productivity = Efficiency x Effectiveness

Efficiency vs. Effectiveness

According to Sumanth (1994) efficiency reflects how well resources are utilized to accomplish results, while effectiveness reflects how well a set of results are accomplished. Peter F. Drucker (1964) has an easier way to explain this: “ Efficiency is doing things the right way; effectiveness is doing the right things”.

Take a look at the image above. Let’s say the goal is to move as many of the square-shaped objects over to the assembly line in the shortest amount of time.

  1. Effective: By simply shoving the square, you are effective, because you will reach the goal eventually. However, it’s not the most efficient way.
  2. Efficient: By shaping the square into a circle, you can move the objects over to the other side faster, thus being more efficient. However, you are not being effective, since the goal was not to create circle shapes.
  3. Productive: By using a trolley to move the shapes, you can move several squares at the same time and at a faster pace – making you both effective and efficient, also known as the definition of productive.

To summarize, in order to be productive, you must be both effective (do the rights things) and efficient (do things the right way). This leads us to the following explanation of productivity: Productivity is doing the right things in the right way.

Personal Productivity

One way of increasing your personal productivity is to implement tools or methods that help you prioritize the right things (increase effectiveness) and/or execute tasks in the most optimal way (increase efficiency). In the next chapters, you will get to know seven different methods and learn how to use them.

Personal Kanban

“Consider a system that flows like a stream and focuses your attention, both on the task at hand and on making your process more effective. That’s what personal kanban is.” – Jerry Michalski

What is Personal Kanban?

Personal Kanban is a productivity system created by Jim Benson and Tonianne Barry (2011). Kanban gives you a visual overview of your work, and the word itself means “Visible card” in Japanese. The traditional Kanban method was originally invented as a part of the famous Toyota Production System in the 1940s. It was later adopted into software development, and today it’s used in all kinds of industries. Personal Kanban is based on the traditional Kanban system, but adapted to personal task management.

How to get started with Personal Kanban

Personal Kanban is based on these two principles;

  1. Visualize your work: Visualization helps you see the big picture, enabling better decision- making and increased effectiveness.
  2. Limit work in progress: Limiting work in progress enables you to focus on the tasks at hand and increase your efficiency.

To get started with your personal kanban, follow these four steps:

  1. Decide on a workflow
    Your workflow is a visual representation of your work from start to finish. A typical workflow is “To do”, “In progress” and “Completed”.
  2. Create a backlog
    Your backlog is a collection of uncategorized tasks that are yet to be handled. Tasks are moved from your backlog to your “To do” column when you are ready to start working on them.
  3. Set limits for work in progress (WIP)
    A WIP-limit is the amount of tasks you can handle at once. Start with a number that is realistic, and adjust as you go. If your WIP-limit is 3, you should never have more than 3 tasks in the “in progress”-column. A WIP limit forces you to focus on finishing the tasks at hand before you can start new ones.
  4. Start pulling tasks through your workflow
    Prioritize which tasks you should work on first, and pull them over to the “In progress”-column. When you’ve finished a task, move it to the “Completed” column.

In Upwave, you can create beautiful Kanban boards customized with your favorite colors and background images. Select the ”Simple to-do”-template and choose which colors you’d like to use. You can also use a blank board and create it yourself – just add 4 columns; ”Backlog”, ”To do”, ”In progress” and ”Completed”. Drag and drop tasks between columns to visualize progress. Use colors to prioritize your tasks. Find the perfect background in our image-gallery or upload your own.

One Minute To-Do List

“Every one minute you spend planning will save you at least three minutes in execution.” – Crawford Greenewalt

What is the One Minute To-Do List?

The One Minute To-Do list (1MTD) is a productivity system developed by Michael Linenberger (2011). The system is based on organizing your to-dos in 3 lists;

  1. Critical Now: Tasks that are absolutely due today
  2. Opportunities Now: Tasks that are urgent, but can wait up to 10 days
  3. Over-The-Horizon: Tasks that can wait 10 days or more

It’s called the One Minute To-Do list because it takes just a minute to set it up and a minute to review it each day.

How to get started with the One Minute To-Do List

Start by creating 3 different lists based on urgency; “Critical now”,” Opportunities now” and “Over-the-horizon”. Use 20 seconds on each list and braindump all tasks that come to your mind.

Critical now:

  • Write down tasks that are absolutely due today.
  • These tasks would impact you negatively if you don’t do them today.
  • Keep the list to 5 items or less.
  • Review this list once each hour.

Opportunities Now

  • Write down tasks that are urgent, but can wait up to 10 days.
  • These are tasks you would do today if you had the opportunity.
  • Keep the list to 20 items or less.
  • Review this list once each day.

Opportunities Now

  • Write down all tasks that can wait 10 days or more.
  • These are not urgent, but writing them down gives a mental relief.
  • Review this list once a week.

Create your One Minute To-Do List in Upwave

Make your one minute to-do list digital with Upwave. Select the ”One Minute To-Do List”- template. You can change the colors on your cards and add your own background if you like. Start adding tasks to the different columns and set due dates on them. Remember to assign the tasks to yourself! You can also add one column called ”Completed”, where you put your tasks when they’re finished.

Eisenhower Matrix

“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

What is the Eisenhower Matrix?

The Eisenhower Decision Matrix is a system for prioritizing your tasks based on urgency and importance (Conlon, 2016). It originates from the quote above attributed to the former U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The principle is pretty simple. You evaluate your task in terms of urgency and importance, and then place them in different quadrants of the Eisenhower Matrix, which gives you a visual overview of how to prioritize your tasks.

How to use the Eisenhower Matrix

Start by setting up the matrix. Evaluate your task in terms of urgency and importance, and then place them in different quadrants of the Eisenhower Matrix.

Urgent: A task defined as urgent requires immediate action or attention. Examples: Projects with deadlines, crises, pressing problems, or interruptions (calls, meetings, emails)

Important: A task defined as important often relates to long-term goals. Examples: Planning, research, design, testing, capability improvements, relationship building and strategy.

  1. Urgent and important: Do it now
    If a task is both urgent and important, do it right away.
  2. Not urgent, but important: Decide
    If a task is important, but not urgent, set a due date and do it later.
  3. Urgent, but not important: Delegate
    If a task is urgent, but not important, delegate it to someone else. 
  4. Not urgent and not important: Delete
    If a task is neither important nor urgent, it should not be prioritized

By using the Eisenhower Matrix you get a better picture of how to prioritize your tasks. Start by doing what’s important, ranked by urgency. If you have capacity to do some of the non-important tasks, do them after you finished all important tasks – or delegate/drop them depending on urgency.

Create your Eisenhower Matrix in Upwave

Upwave supports both columns, rows and colorcoding of cards, which makes it a perfect tool to create your Eisenhower Matrix. To get started, simply select the Eisenhower template inside Upwave. Choose which colors you want to use for the 4 different categories; Do, Decide, Delegate, Delete. We have used red (Do), green (Decide), yellow (Delegate) and blue (Delete) in our template, but there are no rules – use the colors you prefer! When you’re all set up, start adding your tasks in each quadrant.

Action Priority Matrix

“People who can focus, get things done. People who can prioritize, get the right things done.” – John Maeda

What is the Action Priority Matrix?

The Action Priority Matrix is similar to the Eisenhower matrix, but the focus is on impact and effort instead of importance and urgency (Conlon, 2016). It helps you see which tasks and projects that are worth your time.

How to get started with the Action Priority Matrix

Start by setting up the matrix. Evaluate your task in terms of effort and impact, and then place them in different quadrants of the Action Priority Matrix, which gives you a visual overview of how to prioritize your tasks.

Impact: Impact represents the benefits you get from completing a task or project.

Effort: Effort represents the time or resources required to complete a task or project.

  1. High impact, low effort: Quick wins
    Quick wins give you a high return for a low effort. These are the kind of tasks and projects you want more of.
  2. High impact, high effort: Major projects
    Major projects require a lot of effort, but also have high impact. They should be prioritized, but make sure you don’t focus all your time on these, because you could miss out on potential quick wins.
  3. Low impact, low effort: Fill-ins
    Fill-ins don’t require a lot of effort, but they won’t give a high return either. These are the kind of tasks and projects you can choose to work on when you have extra time available, e.g. if you don’t have any quick wins or major projects on your to-do list.
  4. Low impact, high effort: Thankless tasks
    Thankless tasks (or hard slogs) have the worst combination of impact vs effort, where you put in a lot of work for a low return. These types of tasks should therefore be avoided.

Create your Action Priority Matrix in Upwave

Upwave supports both columns, rows and colorcoding of cards, which makes it a perfect tool to create your Action Priority Matrix. To get started, simply select the “Action Priority Matrix” template inside Upwave, and update the columns, rows and colors to match the Action Priority Matrix. Choose which colors you want to use for the 4 different categories; Quick wins, Major projects, Fill ins, and Thankless Tasks. We have used pink (Quick wins), purple (Major projects), orange (Fill ins) and blue (Thankless tasks) in our template. When you’re all set up, start adding your tasks in each quadrant.

The Pomodoro Technique

“Until we can manage time, we can manage nothing else.” – Peter F. Drucker

What is the Pomodoro Technique?

The Pomodoro technique is a time management system created by Francesco Cirillo (2018). It’s based on the concept of using a kitchen timer to manage your work sessions. Why pomodoro you ask? Well, pomodoro means tomato in Italian and the name was derived from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer Cirillo used when creating the technique.

How to get started with the Pomodoro Technique

A Pomodoro is a 25 minute, uninterrupted work session. After a pomodoro, you take a 3-5 minutes break. When you’ve reached 4 Pomodoros, take a longer break – between 15-30 minutes. If a task takes less than 1 pomodoro, add it up. If it takes more than 5-7 pomodoros, break it down. 

  1. Pick a task to work on
  2. Use a timer and set it to 25 minutes
  3. Work on the task at hand for 25 minutes
  4. When you finish one pomodoro, take a 3-5 minute break
  5. Set the timer for 25 minutes and start a new work session
  6. After completing 4 pomodoros, take a 15-30 minute break

Track and estimate your pomodoros in Upwave

In Upwave, you can both track time and set estimates on your tasks making it a perfect tool for implementing the pomodoro technique. Recording your pomodoros in Upwave will help you see how you spend your time and where there is room for improvement. Start by creating a board and enabling time tracking from the board settings. Next, start adding your task and set estimates for how long you think the tasks will take. Log all pomodoros that belong to the task, with a short description on what you did during each pomodoro. When you finish your task you will have a visual report of how much time (or how many pomodoros) the task actually required, which helps you set better estimates and manage your time better.

Getting Things Done

“Much of the stress that people feel doesn’t come from having too much to do. It comes from not finishing what they’ve started.” – David Allen

What is Getting Things Done?

Getting Things Done (GTD) is a work-life management system created by the leading productivity expert and author David Allen (2003). According to Allen, there are five stages we go through when we deal with our work; “We (1) collect things that command our attention; (2) process what they mean and what to do about them; and (3) organize the results, which we (4) review as options for what we choose to (5) do”.

How to get started with Getting Things Done

As mentioned above, the GTD method consists of five stages for managing your workflow. Let’s go through the steps in detail.

  1. Collect
    To clear your mind, you need to gather all your task, projects and commitments and store them somewhere outside of your head – in a physical or digital ”inbox”.
  2. Process
    The next step is to process all your items in the “inbox”. Go through the items and clarify what they are and decide what needs to be done about them.
  3. Organize
    Organize all your tasks, projects and commitments into non-actionable or actionable items. If no action is needed at the moment, decide if it’s something you might look at later, store as a reference or get rid of. If an action is needed and takes less than 2 minutes, do it right away. If an action is needed, but takes longer than 2 minutes, you either delegate it or defer it. If it’s a multi step project, put it in a “Current Projects”-list. Put items you delegate in a “Waiting for”-list and items you defer in a “Next actions”-list.
  4. Review
    Review all your tasks and projects weekly, so that you see the big picture and what you should be prioritizing. Add new items to your “Inbox” and update your lists.
  5. Do
    Now that you have collected, processed, organized and reviewed all your commitments, it’s time to decide what to start working on.

Create your GTD-system in Upwave

Start by selecting the “Getting Things Done”-template. This board consists of 6 columns: ”Inbox”, ”Someday/Maybe”, ”Next actions”, ”Current projects”, ”Waiting for” and ”Completed”. Add all tasks, projects and commitments in the ”Inbox”-column. For all items, decide if you should do it now (if it takes less than 2 minutes), defer it (move to ”Next actions”-column), delegate it (move to ”Waiting for”-column”, store as project (move to ”Current projects”-column), do it in the future (move to ”Someday/Maybe”- column), save it as a reference or delete it. Use colors to reflect the action required, and then move the items along to the appropriate column.

Zen To Done

“Keep it simple, and focus on what you have to do right now, not on playing with your system or your tools.” – Leo Babauta

What is Zen to Done?

Zen to Done (ZTD) is a productivity system developed by Leo Babauta (2008). It’s an adaptation of “Getting Things Done”-system by David Allen. Whereas GTD is more about creating a system for organizing your tasks, ZTD focuses on developing habits to actually get things done.

How to get started with Zen to Done

Zen to Done consists of 10 habits to help you get organized and get things done. Start by focusing on the first four habits; collect, process, plan and do (called the minimal ZTD). Then you can start adding more habits when you’ve adopted these.

  1. Collect
    Like the GTD-system, the first step is to form a habit of gathering all your task, projects and commitments and storing them in physical or digital ”inboxes”. The fewer, the better.
  2. Process
    The next step is to process all the items in your “inbox(es)”. Go through the list from top to bottom and decide if you’re going to do it immediately, delegate it to someone else, delete it, file or schedule it in your to-do list. The goal is to have zero items in your ”inbox”.
  3. Plan
    Create a plan for what needs to be done by when. Start by deciding which items in your to-do list are the Most Important Tasks (MIT) for the week and for the day. These are the tasks you want to finish first. When you finish the MITs for the day, continue with the MITs for the week. Daily MITs should be limited to 3, to make sure you get them done.
  4. Do
    The key to the ZTD system is the habit of doing. Start by choosing which MIT you want to start with and how long you’re going to work on it. Eliminate all distractions and get in the zone. Work until the task is done or until your timer rings. If you have a hard time executing, start with a small piece of the task – the important thing is to get started. Find fun ways to reward yourself when you get things done – e.g. when you’ve worked for 25 minutes, allow yourself 5 minutes checking Social Media.

Create your ZTD-system in Upwave

Start by selecting the “Zen To Done”-template. This board consists of 6 columns; ”Inbox”, ”To do”, ”Weekly”, ”Today”, ”Waiting for” and ”Completed”. Start adding items in the ”Inbox”-column. Starting at the top, decide what to do with them – either do it immediately (if it takes less than 2 minutes), delete it, file it, schedule it (change color and move to ”To-do”- column) or delegate it (change color and move to ”Waiting for”- column). From your ”To-do”-column, select the MITs for the week, change color to ”MIT this week” and move them to do ”Weekly”-column. Choose 1-3 MITs that you need to finish today, change color to ”MIT today” and move them from the ”Weekly”-column to the ”Today”-column. When you finish an item, move it to the ”Completed”-column.


Allen, D. (2001). “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity”. New York: Penguin Books.

Babauta, L. (2008). “Zen to Done: The Ultimate Simple Productivity System”. West Valley City, UT: Waking Lion Press.

Benson, J., & Barry, T. D. (2011). “Personal Kanban: Mapping work, navigating life.” Seattle, WA: Modus Cooperandi Press.

Conlon, C. (2016). “Productivity For Dummies”. Brisbane:John Wiley & Sons. an

Cirillo, F. (2018). “The Pomodoro technique: The life-changing time-management system”. London: Virgin Books.

Drucker, P.F. (1964). “The effective business – the effective executive”. London: A British Institute of Management Publication.

Jackson, M. and Petersson, P. (1999). “Productivity– an overall measure of competitiveness”. Proceedings of the 2nd Workshop on Intelligent Manufacturing Systems, Leuven, 22-24 September, pp. 573-81. 

Linenberger, M. (2011). “The One Minute To-Do List.” San Ramon: New Academy Pub.

Sumanth, D. (1994). “ Productivity Engineering and Management”. New York: McGraw-Hill.