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Yale-trained CEO and 'Shark Tank' winner: 4 productivity habits can make you 'twice as efficient'

Shaan Patel is the founder and CEO of Prep Expert.
Photo by J&J Studios

"Many people confuse being busy with being productive," says Shaan Patel, the CEO and founder of Prep Expert SAT & ACT Preparation. But understanding the difference can be crucial to your success.

He should know: Patel has spent the last 10 years running Prep Expert, one of the nation's fastest growing SAT and ACT test preparation companies, all while attending college, earning his MBA at Yale and his medical degree at the University of Southern California, and completing his medical residency. He even pitched Prep Expert on the ABC show "Shark Tank" in 2016 and closed a $250,000 deal with Mark Cuban.

"Learning how to be productive will help you feel more accomplished, not only in your job, but it will increase your self worth and job satisfaction," Patel says. Doing so can also help to attain a healthy work-life balance, which he says he's been able to achieve while pursuing his academic and career goals.

Patel shared with Grow his top four productivity tips he believes can benefit anyone, in any line of work, and make you "twice as efficient."

1. Assign value to your to-do list tasks

One of the reasons many people confuse being busy and being productive is because they're doing tasks that are very low value, Patel explains. 

Before starting his work day, he assigns a value to each tasks: "I typically bucket tasks into low-value and high-value categories." High-value tasks include creative work, like writing articles or developing new SAT prep materials. Low-value tasks are ones that Patel considers mundane, like checking emails.

After prioritizing his to-do list, Patel tackles his most difficult tasks in the morning, when his mind is fresh. 

Working off a prioritized agenda each day also is a strategy that works for Keita Williams, the founder and chief strategist of Success Bully, a service that assists women trying to keep up with their career goals. She likes to write out her to-do list the night before: "I have six high-priority things that I need to achieve daily. I focus on those tasks first."  

2. Tackle your most difficult tasks in the morning

Once you have your daily to-do list, both Patel and Williams recommend tackling difficult tasks early on. 

"Starting with a morning power hour is so so important," says Patel. By getting the most difficult and hardest task — the one you don't want to do — out of the way first thing in the morning, you'll gain "a sense of mental gratification that will set you up for a successful day."

Putting off important stressful tasks can lead to anxiety, which inhibits productivity, Patel explains. "If you save it for the end of the day, you may be tired, and may not do a good job. So get it out of the way early, when you're at your peak."

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For Patel, tackling daunting tasks in the morning sets him up for what's known as a state of flow that can last throughout the day. Flow, or "being in the zone," is a mental state in which you're fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus while performing a task, and enjoying the process. The term was originally coined in 1975 by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Prioritizing difficult work early in the day "allows me to get more tasks done that are easier and not as mentally taxing, like replying to emails, or having meetings towards the end of the day," Patel says. If you're not a morning person, that's OK, he says: Do tough tasks at a time of day when your mind is the sharpest.

"Not everyone is an early bird," says Williams. "If you are more of a midday miracle, I suggest pushing your tasks that require more of your brainpower to that 11 a.m.-2 p.m. window." 

2. Break up the work day with the 50/10 rule 

Patel also suggests taking breaks during the work day. He follows what he calls "the 50/10 rule" — or, "50 minutes of focused work, then 10 minutes for a break to scroll through my feed or grab a snack." 

This reward system is especially helpful if you feel like you're veering off track, Patel says. Stepping away to do something non-work-related can reenergize you. "It's amazing: When I come back to work, I am right back on track." 

50 minutes of focused work, then 10 minutes for a break to scroll through my feed or grab a snack.
Shaan Patel
founder and CEO, Prep Expert

"I totally agree with taking short breaks," Williams says, though she prefers The Pomodoro Technique. "How it differs from the 50/10 is that is you hyperfocus on one task for 25 minutes, then take a short break. After four sprints, you gift yourself with a longer break. Who doesn't like gifts?"

The breaks, she explains, are a small reward for scratching things off your to-do list. Some of Williams' go-to rewards include a quick walk, a coffee break, or writing an encouraging text message to a friend.

Be mindful of time, though: "Make sure it is a few minutes versus a couple of hours, so you can keep your momentum."

3. Be mindful of social media use

"Social media is programmed to distract us," says Patel. Instead of avoiding it altogether, he says social media can be "a great outlet to reward yourself."

As part of his 50/10 rule, Patel often gets 50 minutes of work done, then spends 10 minutes scrolling through Instagram. 

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To stay mindful of the time he spends on social media, Patel keeps his phone in a separate room and doesn't connect notifications to his laptop when he's doing work in which communication with others isn't necessary. In addition, he turns off Wi-Fi if his task doesn't require the internet, like writing exam prep guides or articles. 

"If you allow it, social media can be a deep rabbit hole of distraction," Williams agrees. Like Patel, she recommends checking social media only during particular times of the day and for a set amount of time. 

For Williams, social media is a tool for brand development and even though it's a crucial part of her job, she sticks to a regimen. "Personally, I check [social media] three times a day for 10 minutes (morning, midday, and evening) and I have specific tasks. Go live, respond to comments, and like and comment on people I support."

4. Respond to emails at the end of the day 

Patel says he's increased productivity significantly by tackling low-value tasks — like responding to emails — at the end of the day. "If you are immediately responding to emails all day long, chances are you are prioritizing other people's requests and not getting your own productive work done." 

Nonurgent emails can eat up a lot of time, even if you don't think they require a lot of mental energy. Instead of replying as soon as he hears an incoming email, Patel winds down his day with email responses.

If you are immediately responding to emails all day long, chances are you are prioritizing other people's requests and not getting your own productive work done.
Shaan Patel
founder and CEO, Prep Expert

Williams uses the same strategy: "Unless it is high priority, I begin responding to emails in the afternoon." To manage her inbox, Williams uses the following flags, with the meanings she has in mind for each:

  • Circle back. "I need to respond to it when I have time."
  • Urgent. "It is income-producing and needs movement."
  • Read later. She can wait to respond at the end of the day.

Following the suggestion of a mentor, Williams responds to emails in 120 words or less. "I have found that it has helped me get to the point and move on with my day. I also recommend using clear and succinct subject lines for easy searching," she says. 

Form your own habits through trial and error

While Patel recommends his methods and believes they can give productivity boosts, he also believes everyone needs to go through a process of trial and error to figure out what works best for them. "Developing these habits takes time," he says. 

Patel started implementing his productivity-forming habits when he was studying for his own standardized tests in high school. Those habits helped him pursue his academic and business endeavors while creating Prep Expert, which has helped more than 50,000 students improve their test scores while generating over $20 million in revenue. 

"My academic career has really informed my productivity and work success habits," he says.

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