The single most important leading indicator of productivity

For most of us, productivity is a bit of a holy grail. We know that if we can be super-productive we will get more done, we will progress faster towards our goals and we will have time to spend on things that make our lives more fulfilled. And yet, productivity remains an elusive goal for many of us.

The right system would cure all my productivity problems

I've been a student of productivity all my life. There was always the promise of a system that, if we were only to implement it faithfully, would magically lead to a more productive life. The system was the cure - it would solve all my problems. I even wrote my own systems for helping me get more productive (I grew up as a software developer).

But whatever system promised the cure for my lack of productivity, I never seemed to stick with one system. None of them delivered on the promise.

The guilt demon points a finger

A few weeks ago I walked into my office bright and early. I "quickly" checked my email. One email led me on a sidetrack to check out some new tool that looked really promising, and that somehow led on to checking my Medium stats, and before I knew it an hour had passed and I had still not gotten the things done I had planned for.

My inner guilt demon promptly sat up and pointed a finger at me: "you're not being productive!" And his job was done - I immediately felt guilty that I had not been as productive as I had promised myself I would be.

Finding the root cause

Like many other times I've not been as productive as I wanted to be, I tried to analyse the situation. Rather than just feeling guilty and scrambling to get stuff done, I reflected on what had caused my good intentions to be ignored. Because the true student of productivity (as I thought) would be looking to continuously improve what wasn't working, rather than throwing out the system and looking for a better one.

This time, somehow, I had a small epiphany that seemed to stick.

A small epiphany

This small epiphany - or insight - immediately went up on the wall next to where I work:

Note to self...

But wait, I hear you say - that's certainly not new? Of course it's not. Many other people have written about a plan being the central part of being productive. I'm not the first one to realise this.

But here's the problem:

We can hear profoundly insightful things time and time again without really understanding how it affects us personally, how we could make it part of our lives to fundamentally change what and how we do and think about stuff.

Again, this is quite normal - we're often not in the right state of mind to really appreciate something profound. It may take time to become real for us. And that's OK.

What did happen for me this time was an additional insight I had not quite made my own before.

The single most important leading indicator of productivity

Just for the record, there are two kinds of indicators:

  • Leading indicators give you an idea of what's likely to happen before it happens. For example, a drop in barometric pressure indicates that you can expect a change in weather, usually rain or a storm.
  • Lagging indicators tell you what happened - after the fact. For example, the unemployment rate tells you that the number of people without jobs went up or down.

My small personal epiphany made me realise that there is a single leading indicator for how productive I'm going to be during the day:

Knowing exactly what you need to get done today is the single most important leading indicator for productivity.

When I walk into the office in the morning, and I know exactly what I need to get done today, I will most likely have a productive day. Conversely, if I walk into the office and I have only some vague ideas of what I need to do, I am definitely not going to be productive.

The cool thing about leading indicators

Productivity mavens love leading indicators. They tell you what's likely to happen before it happens - and this gives you the opportunity to change things so that something different is more likely to happen.

For example, when you walk into the office to start working in the morning, and you don't quite know what you need to get done today, you may have time to do some planning before you start working. Chances are that you will then have a more productive day.

Similarly, marketing effectiveness is a leading indicator of future sales. If your marketing is not effective (or you're not doing any marketing) your future sales will likely be dismal. But if you ramp up your marketing, or make it more effective, you are likely to have better sales in future.

Using leading indicators to improve your productivity

You're more likely to have a productive day if you know exactly what you need to get done that day. If you accept this as a leading indicator, you can start doing stuff to make sure you walk into the office each day knowing what you need to get done.

But your daily work is of course part of a bigger picture - you don't just work day to day. There's a bigger picture involved, one or more longer-term goals you're striving to achieve.

So today's work is part of the work we need to get done this week, which in turn is part of the work we need to get done this month, and so on. In effect, we can "zoom out" from today to this week, to this month and so on until we have the big picture in front of us.

It looks a bit like this:

  • I know what I need to get done today; therefore
  • I need to plan each day the day before; therefore
  • I should have a good idea of what I need to get done each week; therefore
  • I need to plan my weeks well ahead of time; and finally
  • I need to know where I want to go.

Putting it in the correct planning order, I need to know where I want to go so I can plan how I'm going to get there, which allows me to plan the weeks ahead, which in turn allows me to plan each day of next week.

Leading indicators at each level

Each time we zoom in or out we can look at leading indicators to show how likely we are to hit the big goal. Knowing where we're going is a leading indicator of how likely it is that we'll get there. Knowing what we need to get done each week is a leading indicator of how likely we are to make progress in that direction. Until finally, if we know what we need to get done today, chances are we'll have a productive day.

Distraction is the productivity killer

There's one more part of my small epiphany that is helping me get truly productive:

Ignore everything else until the task at hand is done.

There are so many distractions vying for our attention that it's easy to get distracted - and distraction is the productivity killer. So we need to develop the ability to switch all outside distractions off so we can get the task in front of us done. No notifications, no bings or bells to let us know there's new email, nothing in the world matters except getting the task in front of us done.

Focus like a laser - and ignore everything else - until the current task is done.


Leading indicators tell you how likely something is to happen. Each of the following leading indicators will tell us how likely we are to achieve a big goal:

  • we know where we're heading (what the goal is);
  • we have a list of the things we need to do to get there;
  • we know what we need to do next week to get there; and
  • we know what we need to get done today before we walk into the office.

These leading indicators are the best chance we have of actually reaching our goals. If those leading indicators are pointing in the right direction, we then need to learn how to ignore everything else so we can get the next task done. And then the next, and then the one after that. That's how we make progress.

How are your leading indicators looking?

Previous article
Next article