The Best Ted Talks to Inspire and Boost Your Productivity

View of speaker Nilofer Merchant from the very top of the house at TED2013 – The Young The Wise The Undiscovered, Long Beach, California. February 25 – March 1, 2013. Photo: Michael Brands/TED


If you want to learn how to be a better, more productive human being, there aren’t many resources out there better than TED Talks.


TED rounds up some of the brightest and most productive minds on the planet to share their most powerful ideas in an effort to change the world for the better.


And because we’re also all about connecting with the brightest and most productive minds on the planet, more than a few of the productivity masters featured in our Productivity Giants series have also given TED Talks.


Let’s take a look at our Productivity Giants, their TED Talks, and some of their best tips to help you boost productivity and squeeze more out of every day:

Adam Alter, Psychologist, professor, and author


Technology has completely changed the way we work, and in many ways, it can be a major boost to productivity.


But in today’s technology-obsessed culture, we’re definitely having a “too much of a good thing” moment in history. Psychologist Adam Alter, associate marketing and psychology professor at New York University and author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, has spent years studying the effect technology has on the way we interact with ourselves and the world around us—including how to take advantage of technology in a way that boosts productivity without completely taking over our time and attention.


His TED Talk, Why Our Screens Make Us Less Happy, explores how the crazy amount of time we’re spending glued to our screens is actually making us less happy and less productive—and how we can take advantage of the positive aspects of technology without becoming a slave to our screens.



What’s your number one productivity/time-saving tip?


I try to avoid in-person meetings with more than two or three people because they’re a huge time suck and almost nothing gets done. Two or three people who work well together can be productive, but it’s almost impossible for a big group to get much done, no matter how well-intentioned or high-functioning the individuals are.


What’s the biggest hindrance to your productivity? How do you combat it?


I’m most productive when I have enough time to immerse myself in a task–and least productive when my day is broken into small chunks. I try to schedule meetings back-to-back on one or two days of the week, so I have at least two days that are completely free.


What bad advice do you hear often?


I’m not sure this qualifies as “bad” advice, but it seems too simplistic to me, and it’s something I’ve suggested to people as well: to say YES to as much as you can. You never know which affirmative response will lead to big rewards, so saying NO, as a policy move, is a bad idea. The reason that seems simplistic to me is that it makes a lot of sense early in your career, but as you get busier, there has to come a point where your decision rule changes. There’s an inflection point, in other words, where you become more engrossed in existing tasks and saying YES, by default, is the wrong move. I’d love to see someone tackle the question of where that inflection point exists, and how you’ll know when you’ve reached it. I know YES was the right default response for me a decade ago, but now NO seems like the better default. Bottom line: adopting an unchanging YES/NO default across time seems too simplistic.


Celeste Headlee, Writer, journalist, and speaker


One of the key elements of productivity is communication. And if anyone can speak to the power of communication, it’s Celeste Headlee.


Headlee is an accomplished writer, award-winning journalist, and professional speaker. Headlee has spent much of her career as a public radio journalist, including at NPR, where she anchored multiple shows including Talk of the Nation, Tell Me More, and All Things Considered. Today, she hosts a daily news show on Georgia Public Broadcasting called On Second Thought.


Headlee’s 2015 TED Talk, 10 Ways To Have A Better Conversation, has been viewed a whopping 4.2 million times and served as the inspiration for her 2017 book, We Need To Talk: How To Have Conversations That Matter, which explores the current climate of disconnect in American and shares tips to help readers better connect and communicate with others through improved conversations.



What’s your definition of productivity?


Getting done what I need to, on time, so that I can get to the good part of my day: spending time with friends and family (and my dog), hiking, reading books, etc. I think of productivity as a tool, not an end goal in and of itself. Being productive is a means to an end, and that end is a happy, fulfilled life.


What’s your number one productivity/time-saving tip?


I’ve chosen two times per day to check social media. I check it in the morning and the evening. I’ll schedule tweets or posts then, so that my social media engagement stays consistent even though I’m not using the site. I also uninstalled Facebook and Twitter from my smartphone. If I’m going to use social media, I’m sitting at my computer or using my tablet. I can’t tell you how much time I’ve reclaimed by breaking my addiction to refreshing the feed of my social media platforms.


In the last 5 years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?


The most important habit I have is mindfulness meditation. It’s taught me to let thoughts pass out of my head without holding on to them or feeling that every interesting thought I have needs to be expressed. It’s a constant challenge. I can’t stop my mind from thinking; there’s no such thing as “emptying my mind.” That’s impossible. But I can create space in my head by allowing thoughts to come and go without holding onto them. Then I can return to listening and regain my focus.


Julian Treasure, Sound expert, author, and speaker


In today’s world, we’re constantly assaulted with noise, from both a literal and figurative perspective. With so much noise coming from all directions, it can be nearly impossible to both communicate our most important messages and to actually hear the messages that are going to be the most impactful for ourselves, our businesses, and our lives.


But sound expert Julian Treasure wants to change that. Treasure is the chair of The Sound Agency, a consulting firm that specializes in helping businesses devise the best strategies to effectively use sound in their physical spaces (like offices and airports). He’s also a celebrated TED speaker; his five TED Talks The 4 Ways Sound Affects Us, Why Architects Need to Use Their Ears, Shh! Sound Health in 8 Steps, 5 Ways To Listen Better, and How To Speak So That People Want To Listen have been viewed over 70 million times and all explore the power of effective speaking, conscious listening, and how we can make better use of sound.


Treasure is also a best-selling author; his most recent book, How to be Heard: Secrets for Powerful Speaking and Listening, is based on his 2013 TED Talk and explores the relationship between speaking and listening—and how we can find the perfect balance between the two to create a cohesive sound experience that empowers us in business and at home.



What is some bad advice you hear?


I think there’s a strong tendency for people to think that you have to be loud and extrovert in order to be successful, and the central thesis of my book How to be Heard: Secrets for Powerful Speaking and Listening is that speaking and listening are in a circular relationship, and it’s really important to be a good listener. So I think perhaps not so much bad advice, but the way that listening is undervalued as a critical skill is the biggest thing I come across in so many people. [It] holds them back. Good listeners make great leaders. Good listeners are effective, they’re great salespeople, and they’re just good in relationships as well. You know, what’s the most common complaint about relationships? He or she never listens to me. So I think that the most common failure I see is people thinking that listening is unimportant… Conscious listening is critical.


Most worthwhile investment?


I think any time I’m doing something for my own growth, that’s a good investment. You know, if I’ve got spare cash, apart from my obsession with listening to music on beautiful sound systems, then that cash needs to go into developing me to become a better human being in some way. Developing skills or abilities or understanding or knowledge. I think if you invest in yourself, you’re never going to go wrong. So growth, and I think the big question I ask myself each and every day is have I grown today?


When you lose focus, what do you do?


[I ask myself] is this moving me forward? Is this growing me? How is it contributing to growth? Whether it’s growth in my organization, growth in me as an individual, is this the best thing that I can be doing right now?


Nilofer Merchant, Author & speaker


Nilofer Merchant knows a thing or two about productivity. Over the span of her career in Silicon Valley,  where she held executive level positions at both Fortune 500 companies like Apple and Yahoo, she personally launched over 100 products that generated an astonishing 18 billion dollars in revenue.


Today, Merchant is a celebrated author and speaker who specializes in ideas—where they come from, how the spread, and how we can better transform our most brilliant ideas into realities that change the world for the better. For her work in the idea space, Merchant was named the #1 person most likely to influence the future of management by Thinkers50.


Her TED Talk, Got a Meeting? Take a Walk, explores how people in the business world can boost productivity and tap into their best ideas by transforming their static meetings into literal exercises in movement by implementing the “walk and talk” method.



What’s your definition of productivity?


For many, many years, I worked in tech to help ship new products. At one point, to write a Corporate Board bio, I counted up all of them. It added up to over 100 products, with the cumulative revenues of 18 billion dollars.


Today, I no longer help teams ship products.


Instead, I help figure out how help others ship their ideas. Now I help others to operationalize their work and get seemingly “wild ideas” like equal pay for women, and LGBTQ equality and police reform turned into new realities.


What’s the biggest hindrance to your productivity? How do you combat it?


The people who send you a text to ask you if you saw an email. Either they think I can’t operationalize my life, or they think their opinion of my priorities matter more than my opinion does. Either way, they get on the delete list as they are not helping my productivity.


What book has changed your life and why?


Impossible to choose just one. I will say two books I honor a lot.


Daniel Goleman’s work Emotional Intelligence was definitive. Before his work, people valued skills like mathematical ones, but not what was often called ‘soft skills’. As more mathematical skills are automated with AI, the work that still needs us humans is EQ type skills and he offered a framework for all of us.


Similarly, Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking told us we miss out on the ideas of one-third of the population by placing more value on extrovert qualities, and not seeking the input of less assertive people, those who prefer solitude or individual endeavors. After all, she wrote: “There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”


Want to learn more from our Productivity Giants?


TED Talks are a great way for some of the world’s most productive people to share some of their most important insights and ideas. But that’s not all they got.


If you want more productivity tips from these Productivity Giants (and 16 others!), make sure to check out The Productivity Giants Ebook – Interviews and Advice From 20 Top Tech Leaders. In this ebook, you’ll learn insider tips from some of the world’s most successful people on how to be more productive at work, how to find more time during the day, and how to build a business—and life—you’re passionate about.