What Michael Jordan Can Teach You About Productivity

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By Willa Rubin

Who are your productivity heroes? If Michael Jordan isn’t up there, he should be.

Most people know Michael Jordan for his phenomenal scoring ability, superhuman dunks, or his starring role in Space Jam. Over a 20-year span, he scored more than 32,000 points, won six NBA titles and was named the league’s most valuable player five times. But to his teammates and coaches, he was notorious for his diligent work ethic.

Jordan’s longtime coach Phil Jackson once wrote that Michael “takes nothing about his game for granted.” He spent so much time preparing for competition that when it was game-time, he didn’t have to think about what to do next. He relied on instinct and muscle memory to dominate his opponents.

Professional athletes have to squeeze as much as they can out of their prime years, making them perfect productivity case studies. Here’s what some of our most famous athletes have to say about getting stuff done.

Michael Jordan: Put in time off-court

If you push me towards something that you think is a weakness, then I will turn that perceived weakness into a strength. — Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan’s game was legendary, but so was his commitment to practicing, even during his downtime.

He never relied on his talent, which even he admitted wasn’t the best out there. When Jordan was first drafted to the NBA in 1984, one coach remarked that “his outside shooting wasn’t up to pro standards.”

Jordan channeled that feedback into his training routine. He zeroed in on his shooting, putting in hundreds of hours even in off-seasons. But he didn’t stop there. After being criticized for his weak play on defense, he invested countless hours studying videos of his opponents’ favorite techniques, and practiced how to stop them in their tracks. He was named the league’s defensive player of the year in the 1987-88 season.

Spending time prepping beforehand meant that Jordan didn’t waste a second on the court. Working on his abilities meant that he could be most productive when his time and presence mattered most.

Power through your weaknesses when you’re not stressed for time

Jordan was the king of preparing before game-day, and frontloading his work so that he could be fully present when he needed to be. Our own strengths and weaknesses may not be as pronounced as Michael Jordan’s, but we can all benefit from thinking about how to use our time more effectively.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Download the Instapaper browser extension or app. When you read an article that gives you a “light-bulb” moment—one that inspires a project or presentation you’re working on—simply click on the “I” by your browser and highlight away. You can save your highlighted articles in separate folders per your needs. Even when you’re on a break from work, you can continue learning and use it when your time in-house matters most.
  • Work on projects for fun that use similar skills. If you spend your days writing, try your hand at a short story (writing prompts here). If you’re a developer, explore a language you don’t normally use via Codecademy. Even if you’re taking a break from the subject you spend all day pondering, keeping your skills alive means you’ll work even more efficiently when it comes time for your next assignment.

“There’s always room to improve” is an old adage, but there isn’t always time during the workday to consider how we can actually do that. Spending more time out of the office to hone our skills ensures that we can improve faster and get more done.

Michael Phelps: Set challenging goals

Goals should never be easy. They should force you to work, even if they are uncomfortable at the time. — Michael Phelps

Swimming superstar Michael Phelps finds that challenging himself helps him grow faster. Reaching his Olympic record of 8 medals in 8 events at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing didn’t happen overnight, but it’s just the kind of challenge that keeps him motivated.

Phelps was out of practice and out of shape when he decided to train for the 2016 Olympics. Getting back into the mindset of challenging himself and constantly testing his limits kept him going.

How challenging is too challenging?

For a lot of us non-Olympians, simply setting a challenging goal and holding ourselves accountable is a Herculean task. It’s even harder to distinguish the challenges we’ll grow from, from the ones that will stress us out so much that we shut down and are unproductive in the meantime.

To draw that line, synthesize how you’ll achieve your goal in one sentence. Adding in the “how” can help you determine the number of steps you’ll need to complete before your larger goal is accomplished.

There are a plethora of productivity tools that help you track progress on your most daunting challenges, but a few stand out for tracking tasks within the realm of greater objectives. A few examples:

  • With Trello, you can keep track of every major goal on a different Board. Within each board, you can track progress on individual tasks per different columns.
  • Teamwork helps you keep track of progress on individual tasks, and show who’s responsible for completing them.
  • Help Scout lets you curate your company email so that different people are assigned specific tasks or contacts.

Find the challenges that motivate you and stick to it until you meet your goals. Once you do, it’s time to raise the bar.

Michelle Kwan: Celebrate every win

I didn’t lose the gold, I won the silver. — Michelle Kwan

It’s easy for professional athletes to burn out, especially when they use the same skills day in and day out for so long. Before retiring, what kept figure skater Michelle Kwan motivated wasn’t just a love of her sport—it was out of determination to not be discouraged by it.

The Olympics may be meant to celebrate the crème-de-la-crème of professional athletes. Michelle Kwan is among the most decorated figure skaters in history, and won eight consecutive national titles—an incredible feat unthinkable for most. But in terms of all-star Olympians, she only won two Olympic medals.

For Kwan, winning isn’t something that’s quantifiable by typical athletic standards. She holds all of her accomplishments with the same esteem.

Celebrating accomplishments makes you more productive

We can all take a queue from Michelle Kwan when it comes to thinking about success on all scales, and to not become discouraged.

Celebrations shouldn’t be reserved for company milestones, closing a new deal, holidays or birthdays. The Harvard Business Review found that celebrating and reinforcing “progress in meaningful work” on all kinds of tasks motivated people to continue doing great work. It also had long-term benefits on creativity and performance in the future.

Here are a few ways to bring small celebrations into your workday:

  • “Like” your teammates’ accomplishments on I Done This. This digital to-do list lets you track goals, blockers, and tasks you got “done,” and shares those with your team. When you get your daily report, you can congratulate your teammates by “like”-ing their “dones.”
  • Add more to your Public Feedback documents. Whether you create them on Quip, Google Docs or Microsoft Word, logging small wins to share with your team means they can use these documents holistically, to see how they’re doing overall. They can even function as mini-performance reviews.
  • Just ask your co-workers how their day is going. The Hawthorne Effect proves that showing you care makes you, and your co-workers, more productive.

Sharing congratulations and recognizing great work fosters a greater sense of community, and for collaboration and gratitude—all of which create a great work environment full of encouragement that will make everyone more productive.

Get to it!

There’s a lot to learn from professional athletes about productivity. Being productive isn’t as simple as having tunnel vision. To really be productive, you need to make every second count—whether that’s by frontloading your work, keeping track of your goals, or celebrating everything you and your team get done.

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