How I used The Productivity Triangle to stay productive (while working remotely)

Started thinking about this topic, triggered by this tweet.

So, how can you stay productive while working remotely?

I think it’s exactly the same with how to be productive when not working remotely.

I’d even argue: if you constantly find it more difficult to be productive when you work remotely, then stop right now, go get an on-site job, because remote working is not for you.

Note: Now that everyone is forced to transition to remote work thanks to COVID-19, there are certain unforeseen situations outside of our control (lack of working space, infrastructure, and other responsibilities such as childcare and boundaries).This is not normal remote working. This is working in emergency. It is normal to feel overwhelmed and distracted.But we need to start transitioning more seriously and start investing in equipments and practice the right mental habits to allow us to shift slowly into a proper remote work in the long run.This article addresses productivity issues assuming you have reached a point where the main issues are motivation or distraction. Been resisting the urge to write yet-another-productivity-tips but hey maybe this will help you somehow.


Working remotely allows you to work when you are most productive, where you are most productive.

It also gives you control in designing the system you need around it to support the communication and coordination aspects with different people involved in different stages in whatever this thing you call “work” is.

OK, we have just wiped off the “remote” part. Can we chat about how to be productive, generally?

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Photo by Andreas Klassen on Unsplash

What does it mean “to be productive” ?

At the core of it, it means you “produce” something.

And the common interpretation of it is, the more you produce that thing, the more “productive” you are.

Now, what is that thing?

Do you know What you want to produce?

This is where you need to define before you get to work.

How can you produce something if you don’t know what that thing is?

Is it code? Is it fixing a bug? Is it a painting? Is it a report? Is it number of passengers in your Uber cab? Is it health?

Wait, produce health? Yep I think if you’re not feeling well then the most productive thing you can do is try and produce health. Your goal and priority at that moment would probably be creating health.

This is the first rule of how to be productive: know what you want to produce. Know what you want to accomplish.

Do you know Why?

Now that you know what that thing is, the next question that pops up is: do you know why you need to produce that thing?

Not knowing why you need to create / produce / do something is one of the biggest barriers to productivity.

Try and find that out. Ask your employer, your client. Heck even make some story up yourself.

Because without knowing why, you won’t have motivation to be productive.

It doesn’t have to be sexy or noble. it can plainly be “I need the money to feed my 3 kids“.

That is the second rule of productivity: know why you need to produce that thing.

Do you know How?

Once you know the What and the Why, do you know How?

It’s useful to think about two levels of Hows:

  • The Technical How. The actual technical knowledge that goes into getting the work done. If your What is to build an Android app by yourself, one of the Hows is learning to code. If your What is to have an Android app built, one of the Hows is finding a good developer. If you are asked to produce a RACI matrix, then one of the Hows is to learn about what that is, and get educated on Project Management. It’s OK to not be able to “be productive” if this is the first time you need to pick up the skill.
  • The Supporting How. This is where a lot of productivity tips and gurus focus on. The tactics, the tools, the strategy, the systems. The todo lists, the time tracking apps, the schedule-it-or-it-won’t-happen trick, the getting-to-inbox-zero tactics. And for good reasons. Because on some level, people already have some vague unconscious idea of What they want to produce, Why they need to produce them, and How they will likely do it. Heck even I have a bunch of systems in place that I’d love to share about, that fits the way I work currently. The catch is that everyone are wired differently. We have different preferences and styles. We work, learn, and operate differently. So there is no silver bullet in this area. Just try a bunch of things and see if it works for you. Have fun.

Third rule of productivity: know how to produce that thing.

The Productivity Triangle

Now let’s come back to the What for a sec.

  1. The How depends heavily on the way you frame the What.
  2. For each What, we can revisit the Why to refine the What.
  3. One How can give birth to many more Whats.

These three axes are interlinked and non linear. They support and affect each other.

Let’s look at an example.

If you had “create a mobile app ” as the What, you’re going to have let’s say 1 million possible “Hows”.

If you had “create an Android mobile app” as a What, you’ll narrow down the Hows significantly. And the Why can challenge, inform, or further solidify the What ( “Why Android? Should it be native or hybrid?”)

If you had “create an Android mobile app that is able to record your voice and autotune it to some songs you share from the Spotify app ” as a What, it’s much more clearer now what components you need to create and what your options are.

Now it is less paralysing.

You get the idea.

The more specific the What, the clearer the How will be. The clearer the How, the easier it is for you to learn or act or progress towards it.

Often I don’t do anything because I don’t know what exactly am I supposed to do. I don’t yet know what is the exact concrete action I can take right now.

This all seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget.

We would let vague “goals” sit around on our todo lists and then get frustrated because we are not getting any closer or making any progress on them. Well…. now you know.

To summarise

So if you find yourself struggling to be productive, however you define it at the moment, ask yourself:

  1. Do I know what I want to produce?
  2. Do I know why I need to do it?
  3. And do I know how?
  4. Which ones of these am I stuck on? how can I clarify them?

Keep answering these until you found the combination that kicks you into motion.

Some goals require higher activation energy than others. Some production require higher energy to maintain momentum for (depending on your level of skills, the amount of challenge, and the amount of feedback you get).

But broadly speaking it’s really easy to be productive (very difficult to procrastinate) if you got a clear idea of these three things.

After thoughts

Note that being productive doesn’t mean producing in an effective nor efficient manner.

It’s also easy to procrastinate by having too much fun in the Productivity Triangle. The analysis paralysis of endlessly refining the What, the Why, and the How. This is one thing I am heavily guilty of.

Fortunately (for my employer), I have no issue jumping into actions for goals that involve me having some external accountability. But for my own personal goals, I am gloriously basking in the planning and analysis porn of it all.

There is also this whole other layer to goal-setting related to limiting beliefs, fear, resistance, identity, but let’s leave that for another time.

And there is this whole concept of finite vs infinite goal we can riff on.

These are all very interesting topics to unpack for sure in future thought dumps.


  • August 6th 2019: Renamed from “How to be productive while working remotely”
  • November 15th 2020: Added note on COVID-19

Also published on Medium.

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