Interview with Neil Patel On Breaking Down Barriers to Productivity

by | August 4, 2016


There are busy entrepreneurs, and then there are people who live, eat, breath, and sleep work. They’re driven by a passion for getting the job done, and they are most happy when they’re being productive. In fact, a study from the University of Warwick found that happiness can make people up to 12% more productive.

Are the most effective, successful, and productive entrepreneurs killing it with their daily schedule because they’re happy, or is there something else driving them?

I recently sat down with serial entrepreneur Neil Patel, someone I consider to be one of the busiest, hardest-working people I know.

With multiple successful startups under his belt, like Kissmetrics and Crazy Egg (and a constant stream of new content on, I wanted to know how he manages to stay productive at work while juggling an ever-increasing list of side projects – and what drives him to keep going even when the tank is running on empty.

The Right Stuff for Productivity: Tools and Mindset

Sujan: Would you consider yourself naturally good at organization or productivity?

Neil: I do. One of my previous startups was called Kissmetrics. We did this personality test and everything was on the organization. My personality test showed that I have to have a sense of accomplishment each day or I get depressed. This makes sense because when I get work done throughout the day, I feel really good at the end of the day. If I don’t, I keep working until I feel that I got enough done and that I’m happy.

Sujan: Interesting. What type of personality test was it?

Neil: I’m not sure what it was called, but it’s the same one Intuit uses.

Sujan: Are there any tools you use to be productive?

Neil: Yup, the big one I use is Gmail. So there are a few things that people make mistakes on. For me at least, my life revolves around email. I get a ton; I think we’re sitting around 1,000 a day. Four hundred go to my inbox, and another 600 to other people’s inboxes under my name.

There are a few things I do:

If you open an email, make sure you read it and respond to it right away. If you don’t, you end up coming back, rereading, and responding again, which wastes more time.

Anything that is a task, I block out in my calendar task-wise so I can get work done. Anything that is important, I star those emails or specific tasks I need to do; then, I just go to my Gmail star folder and it shows everything I need to get done.

Also, I use to-do lists, so that way I crank through all the things I need to accomplish that day, and I make sure the tasks are small enough where I can achieve them on a daily basis. What I’ve found is that if you procrastinate, you never feel a sense of accomplishment, and you never get anything done.

So, if I have a task for writing a blog post, I won’t just put the task as writing a blog post. If it’s a 10,000-word post, that won’t get done in a day. I’ll break it down into smaller tasks, like coming up with the title or idea, outlining it, researching it, writing it, and editing it. I’ll break it down and crank through micro-tasks as quick as possible. I can get through things more quickly and have that sense of accomplishment.

Sujan: Gotcha. So to sum it up, you figured out early on what makes you tick and your style. Everything you did was tailoring it and moving things around to make it fit your personality style.

Neil: I’ve been doing this for 14 years now, and the first 10 years I was still productive – it’s just natural. I’ve always been a hard worker. I try to get a lot done, and all I do is work. Right now, I have the flu and I’m still working; I’ve been doing interviews and calls all day long.

But less than 4 years ago with that personality test, I learned I needed a sense of accomplishment to be happy in life, and that’s when I figured out how to fine-tune things, even more, to get more stuff done.

Sujan: So when you have this list of 50 things to do, you break it down over a longer period and start taking jabs at it instead of finishing the whole thing.

Neil: Yeah. In most cases, with a lot of these tasks or goals you need to accomplish, it’s not stuff you can achieve in a day. If you look among businesses and entrepreneurs, and even people working a 9 to 5 for someone else, the goals and objectives you’re given usually can’t be done in a day. What I do is break those things down into daily tidbits that I need to do to get them done. That way I know I’m progressing further.

Let’s say your goal as a business owner is to increase sales to 100 next month. If that’s your goal, how do you increase sales? You break it down. One of them may be that you need to get more traffic: okay, how do you get more traffic? It could be blog posts, link-building, SEO, etc. You break those all down into smaller tasks. Then ask yourself what you can get done each day realistically, and start cranking through ‘em.

Stop Managing and Start Doing

Sujan: It sounds like you have a good process for yourself mentally. How do you handle working with other people and delegation? I’m assuming you can’t do everything yourself. Especially that inbox with 1,000 emails a day.

Neil: Yeah, I’m a terrible manager. So what I do is hire people who are smarter than me and better at management. I communicate with a handful of people; they communicate with the rest of the team.

Sujan: So you’re always going through people who are organized, and they handle people from there. How do you find that person?

Neil: I’m more independent. I prefer doing work in a way that’s like “Hey, I want to work with you; you go get your job done.” That’s not how it always works. Not everyone is that structured. So I look for people who are really organized, have good management experience, who are scrappy, who are good at meeting deadlines. Once you find those people, you put them in places where they manage a small group of people. At least that’s what I do.

Find What Motivates You

Sujan: What’s your favorite or most motivating metric?

Neil: I’m addicted to traffic like people are addicted to cocaine.

Sujan: How often do you check your analytics each day?

Neil: I don’t know, maybe 5 times on the low end, 10-20 times on the high end.

Sujan: On your phone? Do you use the Google Analytics app?

Neil: No, I can’t access the data as quickly on my phone. I have it on my phone, but I prefer the desktop version.

Sujan: So you haven’t gotten into the mobile side of it; you prefer to get in front of the computer and get work done.

Neil: Yeah, I still use the app on my phone and check it like once every 2 days in my car or in meetings. I just prefer the desktop because it gives you more power. You can’t segment the traffic as easily on the phone as you can on the desktop.

Looking Back to Grow Forward

Sujan: So if you had to go back in time 10 years, what piece of advice would you give yourself around productivity and sanity, since a lot of this is about keeping yourself sane, being happy, and being okay with what you’re doing?

Neil: I wouldn’t really give myself any advice. I’d just keep doing what I’m doing. The difference between me and every other different person is that I enjoy work. I like it. Even if I hated the work, I like the concept of working, and I like the concept of working 7 days a week. Most people aren’t like that.

Sujan: What do your typical work hours look like?

Neil: Today, I had a fever when I got up, so I started later than normal – around 6:30 a.m. I’ll probably finish around 9 or 10 p.m. Weekends, I start around 8 a.m., maybe 9, and work until around 5 or 6 p.m.

Sujan: Do you find yourself productive earlier in the day because people aren’t working?

Neil: Early on in the day and at night. Probably more at night than any other time. Early in the day, I wake up and send emails. At night, I crank through a lot of work and get most of it done because people aren’t bugging me.

Sujan: What’s your biggest productivity suck? What’s the thing that is getting you, like, “Damn this is taking up so much time” and keeps happening?

Neil: I don’t have one. I use software that helped me remove them all. It’s called Rescue Time. It’s free software that still exists and it shows you where you waste all your time. It helps you eliminate it all. It tracks the hours you’re on Facebook or Twitter or any of those sites.

Sujan: Yeah, I find myself doing that in the morning, procrastinating to get in there, and I do what you said not to do. Open email, close it up, and say, “Oh, I’ll answer this later,” instead of just checking and answering at the same time.

Any advice you would give first-time founders, outside of doing what you love?

Neil: Focus on what is causing your company to grow. You may think you need to do a lot of these things. As a venture-funded founder, your main job is to hire other smart people. If you’re a bootstrapped founder, then your goal should be whatever is causing growth. If it’s not causing growth, then you’re wasting time.

Sujan: Would you agree that there are just 3 to 5 things that are really growing a business, and everything else is noise?

Neil: That’s correct, yes.

Sujan: How did you find those?

Neil: Watch analytics, and the data will tell you where to go.

Recharging to Boost Productivity

Sujan: At the end of the day, when you’re done with work and winding down, what do you like to do to recharge or rest up?

Neil: Watch TV.

Sujan: What’s your favorite show or movie?

Neil: My favorite show isn’t on right now. It’s called Madam Secretary.

Sujan: Never heard of it; not for me to judge! So what gets you excited the next day? Are you fully recharged?

Neil: I’m always fully recharged. I just keep cranking. I’m doing what I love. If you don’t love what you’re doing in life, you’ll always feel burned out and tired. But if you really do love it and you’re passionate about your work, then you’ll see it in the work you do.