13 Inspirational TED Talks To Boost Your Productivity

A group of business people listening to a presenter.
TED is the perfect place to find the most innovative and unconventional ideas on a huge variety of topics.

The talks feature leading experts in Technology Education and Design. As the TED motto goes, they offer “ideas worth spreading”.

If you’re looking to improve your productivity, then check out these 13 talks for some great perspectives on working smarter.

You’ll not only enjoy the talks and get inspired, but you’ll learn some valuable productivity tips as well. And who knows, there may be some that you’ll want to put into action right away.

1. Shawn Achor:  “The happy secret to better work”  

As a psychologist, Harvard lecturer, and CEO of Good Think Inc., Shawn Achor has made it his life mission to study the impact of positive psychology on productivity.

In this fast-paced and humorous talk, Achor challenges our belief that happiness is a result of working hard and becoming successful. Instead, he suggests the reverse is true. Being happy and positive will encourage us to be more productive and achieve success.

One of the most popular TED talks of all time, with almost 13 million views, this one is definitely a must-see.

Key points:

  • Achor’s research studies based on many companies, organizations and schools found that only 25% of job successes are predicted by intelligence (IQ levels).
  • The majority of job successes, 75%, are predicted by factors such as a person’s positive outlook, social support, and how they perceive and cope with stress.
  • He also found that it’s possible to train your mind to be more optimistic by practicing small habits (which he describes in the talk) for a couple of minutes each day over a 21-day period.

Inspirational quote:
Shawn Achor quote from his TED talk on “The happy secret to better work”


2. Tony Robbins:  “Why we do what we do”

In this energetic and witty talk, it’s easy to see why Tony Robbins has become the most successful motivational life and business coach in the U.S.

With his enthusiastic approach, he urges the audience to search within themselves and find the “invisible forces” that drive their actions.

Another of the most popular TED talks with over 16 million views, this one is also on the must-watch list.

Key points:

  • Tony’s goal is not to lecture us on how to do things, but rather why we do things.
  • His message is that “emotion is the force of life” and motivates all our actions. Even if we don’t have the physical or monetary resources to succeed, our emotional resourcefulness will drive us to accomplish anything.
  • Further, everyone has six human needs: Certainty, variety, significance, connection, growth, and giving. The way that we interpret and try to meet these needs will ultimately determine the path we take in life.

Words of wisdom:
Tony Robbins quote from his TED talk on “Why we do what we do”


3. Tim Urban:  “Inside the mind of a master procrastinator” 

Tim Urban, writer, blogger and chronic procrastinator takes a hilarious look at why we procrastinate and why it’s so hard to break the habit.

As we go on a comical journey through the procrastinator’s mind, he challenges us to not allow our short-term habit to take over our lives and become a long-term problem.

This is one of the most relatable TED talks and you’re bound to admit “yes, that’s me.”

Key points:

  • The procrastinator avoids hard work at all costs and seeks out anything that is “easy and fun”. Tim refers to this as the brain’s “instant gratification monkey” that takes over control.
  • Although irrational and unproductive, the procrastinator does not know how to stop the behavior and change for the better.
  • The only thing that inspires the procrastinator into action is panic. Tim refers to this as the “panic monster”, which creates stress, fear and super-productivity at the last minute before deadlines.

Funny quote:
Tim Urban quote from his TED talk on "“Inside the mind of a master procrastinator”


4. Paolo Cardini:  “Forget multitasking, try monotasking”

In this short talk, product designer Paolo Cardini argues that multitasking is inefficient and that we should go back to monotasking and focus on one thing at a time.

He makes his case by showing a simple phone design “mono phone” with only one function such as talking. And he knows that people aren’t going to ditch their smartphones with hundreds of apps.

But the point to his talk is that we should take the time and enjoy things once in a while such as having a conversation with a friend and roaming the streets of Venice – without using many apps and multitasking on our phones.

His message extends to productivity since research has shown that multitasking makes us less productive and the quality of our work suffers as well. It really is best to focus on one task at a time.

5. David Grady:  “How to save the world (or at least yourself) from bad meetings”

We’ve all suffered through long, unproductive meetings. And then felt frustrated and wished we could regain all the lost time. It’s not a secret that bad meetings are a drain on our mental energy and productive work time.

David Grady, an information security manager, sympathizes with us and gives an amusing talk on this problem, which he classifies as a global epidemic.

He questions why we allow our co-workers to steal our valuable time and empowers us to take back control.

Key points:

  • Grady assigns the name MAS to the bad meetings epidemic:

“ MASMindless Accept Syndrome.

 =  An involuntary reflex in which a person accepts a meeting invitation without even thinking     why. A common illness among office workers worldwide ”

  • He then offers a simple solution to save us from MAS: Avoid the compulsion to hit the “accept” button for every meeting and use the “tentative” button instead.
  • This applies in particular to meetings with vague details, no agenda and where you’re unsure what your presence will contribute to the meeting.
  • Then, reach out to the meeting organizer and ask some respectful questions about the meeting’s goals and your role in the meeting. This will help you decide whether it really is necessary for you to attend the meeting.

Smart quote:
David Grady quote from his TED talk on "How to save the world from bad meetings”


6. Dan Ariely:  “What makes us feel good about our work”

As a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University, Dan Ariely has spent a lot of time studying the factors that motivate us to work.

He presents a few experiments to show that, contrary to popular opinion, money isn’t the only motivator.

His fantastic talk centers around the importance of meaning and a sense of purpose in our work in order to be motivated and productive.

Key points:

  • Ariely describes the “IKEA effect” based on the experience of assembling the furniture, and extends the idea to productivity.
  • He states that we put a higher value on projects that require a lot of hard work and are difficult to complete. We have a greater sense of accomplishment when we complete these types of projects as opposed to simple, tedious, repetitive tasks.
  • He points out that there are many components in the workplace that will inspire us to be more productive and happier. In particular, creating a sense of meaning, challenge, ownership, identity and pride in what we do.

Great quote:
Dan Ariely quote from his TED talk on “What makes us feel good about our work”


7.  Tim Ferriss:  “Smash fear, learn anything”

We’ve all faced obstacles that we thought were impossible to overcome. How we handle these challenges affects the way we move forward in life and our ability to reach our true potential.

In this inspiring talk, best-selling author Tim Ferriss shares his personal stories of how he overcame his fear of swimming, learning Japanese and mastering the tango.

Key points:

  • Tim describes his process for overcoming his fears and becoming successful. He breaks challenges down into smaller, more manageable pieces, which he then analyzes to figure out how to work through them.
  • He turns the challenge into a learning process to conquer his fears.
  • By working on our obstacles and trying to understand how to surpass them, they become less scary and give us the self-confidence we need to face them. If you can learn to conquer a fear, you can learn to do anything!

Words to live by:Tim Ferriss quote from his TED talk on "Smash fear, learn anything"


8. Kelly McGonigal:  “How to make stress your friend”

Can stress really be good for you?  In this fantastic talk, Psychologist Kelly McGonigal presents new research that contradicts the common belief that stress is your enemy. In fact, stress can have a positive effect and it all depends on your viewpoint.

Key points:

  • In an 8-year study, people who reported being very stressed had a higher risk of dying. But this was only true if they also believed that stress was harmful. Those that had a lot of stress but did not view it as harmful had a low risk of death.
  • The study found that the most important factor in determining whether stress is harmful is our perception of stress.
  • If you change how you think about stress and see it as beneficial and preparing you to face a certain situation, the body’s response can change and be healthier as well.

Words of inspiration:
Kelly McGonigal quote from her TED talk on “How to make stress your friend”


9. Daniel Levitin:  “How to stay calm when you know you’ll be stressed”

Have you noticed that your thinking gets foggy when you’re stressed?

Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist, explains the reasons why our reasoning becomes impaired during stressful situations. He offers a simple solution to help us minimize the effects of stress on our lives.

Key points:

  • When faced with stress, the brain enters “fight or flight” mode and releases cortisol, which inhibits logical thinking. This can cause us to forget important information and make critical mistakes under pressure.
  • Levitin recommends that the best solution is to prepare and plan ahead for negative situations in order to prevent or minimize the damage.
  • He suggests using a “pre-mortem” strategy, which includes developing systems of thought, evaluating possible outcomes and coming up with a course of action to react to stressful situations.

Wise words:
Daniel Levitin quote from his TED talk on “How to stay calm when you know you’ll be stressed”


10. Judson Brewer:  “A simple way to break a bad habit”

Why are bad habits so tough to break? Even though we know something is bad for us, we still do it anyways.

In this interesting talk, psychiatrist Judson Brewer explores the brain processes that cause us to form bad habits and how to use mindfulness to fight the urges and change our behaviors.

Key points:

  • Brewer discusses research finding where smokers that practiced mindfulness were twice as likely to quit than those that did not.
  • By mindfulness, he specifically refers to being curiously aware during the experience. Accept that you’re practicing a bad habit and focus on your thoughts, and how it makes you feel. And then resist the urge to get sucked in.
  • By observing your behavior and thinking through the process during a craving, you’re taking back control from the bad habit. Over time, you will see the negative consequences and the habit loses its appeal. You become less interested in the behavior and more likely to stop.
  • Brewer proposes that this type of mindfulness technique can be applied to break any type of bad habit – including those that affect our work such as procrastination.

Words of wisdom:
Judson Brewer quote from his TED talk on “A simple way to break a bad habit”


11. Matt Cutts:  “Try Something New for 30 days

Matt Cutts, a software engineer at Google, has a great idea for all of us looking to form a new habit or break a bad one: Try it for 30 days.

His talk is short and very inspiring. He points out that slowly changing our routines over a period of 30 days isn’t as difficult as we might think! And that making small, short-term changes is more sustainable and makes it easier to turn them into long-term habits.

He used his 30-day challenges to write a novel, give up sugar, and climb Mount Kilimanjaro!  What are you going to do for your first 30-day challenge? As Cutts says at the end, “What are you waiting for?”

Inspirational quote:
Matt Cutts quote from his TED talk on “Try Something New for 30 days“


12. Nigel Marsh:  “How to make work-life balance work”

Most of us struggle with work-life balance. No matter how hard we try, we just can’t seem to get a good balance between work, personal and family time.

Nigel Marsh, author and expert in this field, discusses his experiences in trying to get that perfect balance, and offers helpful tips that we can apply in our modern business world.

Key points:

  • Marsh points out the simple truth that some careers are just not compatible with work-life balance, and that society hasn’t made much progress on this issue.
  • As a first step, he recommends reviewing your priorities and being honest with yourself and what you want out of life. Achieving a good work-life balance is in your hands and not to trust companies (who want you to work as much as you can) to help you achieve this.
  • What timeframe are you giving yourself to achieve a good balance? Marsh says “ “A day is too short; “After I retire” is too long. There’s got to be a middle way.”
  • Making small changes can make a huge difference in having a balanced life.

Words to live by:
Nigel Marsh quote from his TED talk on “How to make work-life balance work”

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13. Arianna Huffington:  “How to succeed? Get more sleep”

Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, gives a short and funny talk on the importance of sleep. She reminds us that sleep is critical for our success – it improves our productivity, decision-making and happiness.

She also believes it will help you tap into your creative genius:

 “ I urge you to shut your eyes and discover the great ideas that lie inside us, to shut your engines and discover the power of sleep. ”

What do you think?

What are your favorite TED talks? Please feel free to share your comments below.



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