Published on August 18, 2017

Productivity Lessons from the Giants: Zuckerberg, Gates, Nadella, and Buffett

Productivity Lessons from the Giants: Zuckerberg, Gates, Nadella, and Buffett

Being productive is more than just sitting at a desk and working. We’re at an age where everyone is more reachable than ever, but this comes with a risk of losing focus and concentrating on the wrong things at the wrong time.

There is a difference between effectiveness, efficiency and productivity, with the focus for most working individuals and companies, on the latter.[1]

This is no coincidence, some of the world’s most influential people got to where they are by developing, maintaining, and improving productivity. High achievers like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Satya Nadella and Warren Buffett master the following skills to always stay productive to get what they want.

1. Make Every Communication Count

Communication can be a block to productivity. Devoting energy in the wrong place leads to time being wasted.

Co-founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates for example, is an advocate of communicating by email. And being a self-proclaimed master of emails is also one way business magnate Elon Musk stays productive; in his own words claiming the reason for this is, I’m very good at email.[2]


Minimizing communication by phone or through meetings frees up time to concentrate on more imperative issues. So until email is eliminated altogether, messages can be deferred and thus allow you take control of your own schedule.[3]

2. Optimize at Every Opportunity

Musk also advocates constantly questioning your productivity.[4] Ask yourself how you could do something more efficiently or better use your time daily for as many scheduled events, meetings, and projects as possible.

This idea of optimizing your time and work also runs true for Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, who likes to keep things simple. He eliminates the mundane, or in his own words, “silly or frivolous” decisions in life, which allows him to concentrate on his work and to be as productive as possible. One apparent example of this simplicity is his go-to grey t-shirt and jeans work outfit which he wears every day. Find out more about how keeping things simple leads to better decisions: Make Better Decisions by Knowing How Decision Fatigue Works

And he’s not the only one – the late Steve Jobs famously wore almost solely black turtlenecks, Albert Einstein was known for wearing the same grey suit and having unkempt hair, and you’ll only see Obama in either grey or black suits. Check out Why Highly Successful People Wear The Same Thing Every Day

Finding the most simple and optimized way of completing tasks and projects means energy spent on something trivial, can be retargeted towards more important decision for your business.


This is also applicable to getting the simple things done first. This way, smaller tasks and decisions aren’t a distraction from tackling the bigger ones. Here’s how to master your tasks in a productive way: How to Adjust the Task, Change Your Mood, and Boost Productivity

3. Bust Multi-tasking

Studies have shown that the brain doesn’t do things simultaneously, but rather switches between tasks. The implications for productivity means that rather than focusing on many things at a time, we are spending energy and brain-power on the action of switching from one task to another. If you still think that you can multi-task, read this: Why the Brain Can’t Do Two Things at the Same Time

Eliminating multi-tasking can therefore increase productivity. Being in the moment and concentrating on one specific task will allow you to complete it without agonizing about what’s going to happen later in the day, or in the next meeting.

One way of doing this is by delegating and collaborating with others. Microsoft’s Satya Nadella announced in 2014,[5] that the company will

“reinvent productivity to empower every person and every organization on the planet to do more and achieve more.”

With such a vast number of apps and services allowing for collaboration through video conferences, remote meetings, and even augmented and virtual reality, making use of these technologies (albeit almost exclusively those by Microsoft), helps the likes of Nadella stay productive.[6]

4. Stick to One Thing and Master It

Writing about Bill Gates, author Cal Newport recently argued that distractions minimize the impact of our work as well as our overall potential.[7] In a process, he refers to as deep working, the idea is that we can successfully maximize impact by spending a dedicated amount of time (even just an hour or two) working with urgency and eliminating all distractions.[8]

In fact, it is this ability to meticulously dedicate focus to one task at a time, that allowed Bill Gates to found a billion-dollar business in just a couple of months.

Another way of perfecting the art of focus comes from American business magnate Warren Buffett, who uses a 3-step productivity strategy (also known as the ‘two list’ strategy) to help his employees.

  • Step 1 – Make a list of twenty-five goals (these could be career goals, goals for a particular project, or even general goals for a specific week or month).
  • Step 2 – Review the list, highlighting the five most important goals, and then separating these on to a new, separate list. These are your ‘Top 5’.
  • Step 3 – Focus on achieving items from the ‘Top 5’ list first, disregarding the rest of the written goals until they are completed.

In this strategy, Buffett argues the focus should be on the ‘top 5’ list, treating the remaining twenty goals as a distraction.


Focusing on a smaller number of important goals first allows for a more manageable and thereby achievable way of working. As a result, you can set your own schedule and take control of your time.

Learn how Buffett prioritizes his life goals here: Most People End up Being Average Because They Don’t Keep This List

It’s Easier Than Ever to Get Things Done Fast

We live in an age where we no longer need to initiate an action or conversation to get the information we need. AI is moving into our workplace, and various Apps and services are now integrating features that predict our next step and optimize, prioritize, and multitask for us, which ultimately leaves us more time and brain-space to be as productive as possible.

It’s essential for everyone of us to identify our own priority, stick to it and minimize all distractions to achieve what we want most.


More by this author

Eran Abramson

Marketing at Knowmail

Productivity Lessons from the Giants: Zuckerberg, Gates, Nadella, and Buffett The Power of Mind Map: Get More Things Done & Make Creativity Easy

Trending in Productivity

1The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It? 210 Best Time Management Books Recommended By Entrepreneurs 3What Is Procrastination (And the Complete Guide to Stop Procrastinating) 46 Simple Steps to Make Progress Towards Achieving Goals 5Secrets to Organizing Thoughts and Ideas (So You’ll Never Lose Ideas!)

Read Next


The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

It’s a depressing adage we’ve all heard time and time again: An increase in technology does not necessarily translate to an increase in productivity.

Put another way by Robert Solow, a Nobel laureate in economics,

“You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

In other words, just because our computers are getting faster, that doesn’t mean that that we will have an equivalent leap in productivity. In fact, the opposite may be true!

New York Times writer Matt Richel wrote in an article for the paper back in 2008 that stated, “Statistical and anecdotal evidence mounts that the same technology tools that have led to improvements in productivity can be counterproductive if overused.”

There’s a strange paradox when it comes to productivity. Rather than an exponential curve, our productivity will eventually reach a plateau, even with advances in technology.


So what does that mean for our personal levels of productivity? And what does this mean for our economy as a whole? Here’s what you should know about the productivity paradox, its causes, and what possible solutions we may have to combat it.

What is the productivity paradox?

There is a discrepancy between the investment in IT growth and the national level of productivity and productive output. The term “productivity paradox” became popularized after being used in the title of a 1993 paper by MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson, a Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and the Director of the MIT Center for Digital Business.

In his paper, Brynjolfsson argued that while there doesn’t seem to be a direct, measurable correlation between improvements in IT and improvements in output, this might be more of a reflection on how productive output is measured and tracked.[1]

He wrote in his conclusion:

“Intangibles such as better responsiveness to customers and increased coordination with suppliers do not always increase the amount or even intrinsic quality of output, but they do help make sure it arrives at the right time, at the right place, with the right attributes for each customer.

Just as managers look beyond “productivity” for some of the benefits of IT, so must researchers be prepared to look beyond conventional productivity measurement techniques.”

How do we measure productivity anyway?

And this brings up a good point. How exactly is productivity measured?

In the case of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity gain is measured as the percentage change in gross domestic product per hour of labor.

But other publications such as US Today, argue that this is not the best way to track productivity, and instead use something called Total Factor Productivity (TFP). According to US Today, TFP “examines revenue per employee after subtracting productivity improvements that result from increases in capital assets, under the assumption that an investment in modern plants, equipment and technology automatically improves productivity.”[2]

In other words, this method weighs productivity changes by how much improvement there is since the last time productivity stats were gathered.

But if we can’t even agree on the best way to track productivity, then how can we know for certain if we’ve entered the productivity paradox?

Possible causes of the productivity paradox

Brynjolfsson argued that there are four probable causes for the paradox:


  • Mis-measurement – The gains are real but our current measures miss them.
  • Redistribution – There are private gains, but they come at the expense of other firms and individuals, leaving little net gain.
  • Time lags – The gains take a long time to show up.
  • Mismanagement – There are no gains because of the unusual difficulties in managing IT or information itself.

There seems to be some evidence to support the mis-measurement theory as shown above. Another promising candidate is the time lag, which is supported by the work of Paul David, an economist at Oxford University.

According to an article in The Economist, his research has shown that productivity growth did not accelerate until 40 years after the introduction of electric power in the early 1880s.[3] This was partly because it took until 1920 for at least half of American industrial machinery to be powered by electricity.”

Therefore, he argues, we won’t see major leaps in productivity until both the US and major global powers have all reached at least a 50% penetration rate for computer use. The US only hit that mark a decade ago, and many other countries are far behind that level of growth.

The paradox and the recession

The productivity paradox has another effect on the recession economy. According to Neil Irwin,[4]

“Sky-high productivity has meant that business output has barely declined, making it less necessary to hire back laid-off workers…businesses are producing only 3 percent fewer goods and services than they were at the end of 2007, yet Americans are working nearly 10 percent fewer hours because of a mix of layoffs and cutbacks in the workweek.”

This means that more and more companies are trying to do less with more, and that means squeezing two or three people’s worth of work from a single employee in some cases.


According to Irwin, “workers, frightened for their job security, squeezed more productivity out of every hour [in 2010].”

Looking forward

A recent article on Slate puts it all into perspective with one succinct observation:

“Perhaps the Internet is just not as revolutionary as we think it is. Sure, people might derive endless pleasure from it—its tendency to improve people’s quality of life is undeniable. And sure, it might have revolutionized how we find, buy, and sell goods and services. But that still does not necessarily mean it is as transformative of an economy as, say, railroads were.”

Still, Brynjolfsson argues that mismeasurement of productivity can really skew the results of people studying the paradox, perhaps more than any other factor.

“Because you and I stopped buying CDs, the music industry has shrunk, according to revenues and GDP. But we’re not listening to less music. There’s more music consumed than before.

On paper, the way GDP is calculated, the music industry is disappearing, but in reality it’s not disappearing. It is disappearing in revenue. It is not disappearing in terms of what you should care about, which is music.”

Perhaps the paradox isn’t a death sentence for our productivity after all. Only time (and perhaps improved measuring techniques) will tell.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via


Read Next