Productivity. It’s that unicorn that we all think we’ve found, right up until we realize that we’re not getting anything done. But what is productivity? Is it just a matter of checking off the boxes on your to-do list? Productivityist (and former TNW staff writer) Mike Vardy says no. In fact, he’s made a career out of finding ways to get more done in less time. He’ll be sharing a wealth of knowledge in an upcoming TNW Academy course, so I wanted to pick his brain ahead of time with a short interview.

TNW: Define productivity

MV: Productivity is the ability to take a look at what you’ve got on your plate and decide what is worth doing, not Worth doing, and making the right call through thoughtful approaches and awareness as to when to do what you need (and want) to do. What tools you use to make that happen are up to you, but you’ll definitely need to do some work up front to set up the structure you’ll need to make it happen.

TNW: What stupid mistakes do people make?

MV: Some of the stupid mistakes people make include believing that the tool will do all the work, that getting everything done on your to do list is the objective, and that efficiency is the key to productivity.

Regarding the tools, a user is only going to get as much out of them as they’re willing to put into them. I’ve seen people give up on a tool without giving it a real chance to work — then they move on to the next tool and continue the cycle.

And efficiency isn’t the key to productivity — at least not alone. You need to pair it up with effectiveness in order to really maximize your productivity potential. To be honest, effectiveness is far more important when it comes to productivity and efficiency.

TNW: What’s the most useful tool you have to stay productive?

MV: I could say paper, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. In fact, I would say it’s a healthy workflow of using both paper products and digital products that allows me to be as productive as I am.

I tend to use paper for outlining and to keep me connected to my tasks while disconnecting me from the technology that can take my focus away from those tasks.

As for digital products, I use those for long term thinking. I use them to capture things that I want to do later. I use them to have a great place to go when I want to connect with what I really want to do next. That’s something that paper can’t provide as effectively.

TNW: Don’t you worry about burnout?

MV: Absolutely. It would be foolish not to. But, because I focus on task rather than time, I’m able to keep it at bay. I also take a look at my year well in advance, use my calendar effectively, and assign certain big plans to certain months. It’s that “front end thinking” that allows me to avoid burnout when it feels like it’s coming on strong.

TNW: You talk about starting your year at any time. What does that mean, and how does it help?

MV: I think we become too attached to the Gregorian calendar when it comes to starting your year. I mean, we just finish a busy holiday season, and all of a sudden we’re asked to take on some massive new undertaking with the lowest amount of energy that we will have at our disposal.

As far as I’m concerned, the start of the year can be incredibly subjective. Students may want to start it in September to coincide when they start school. Businesses may want to start their new year to coincide with their fiscal year. When you decide to start the new year really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you have your highest level of energy available to you.

A good start gives you a much better chance to have a good finish (think of those race car drivers who get to start in the pole position, for example) and avoiding the trap of starting your new year in January because everyone else does or time tells you to.

After all, listening to time really puts you on the clock.

We’re only a couple of days away from Mike’s TNW Academy course, and spaces are running out fast. Grab yours while you can.