Many of our clients come to us for help with improving productivity. First, we help them by improving employee confidence, which allows them to create new ideas. Second, we teach clients to develop a structure to capture and implement these great ideas. And finally,
we show clients how to track the implementation of these new ideas and their effects on profitability.
During this process, senior leaders often hear their people complaining about the added stress this puts on their day. Employees complain about not having enough time as they are already swamped with work.
Leaders are often puzzled by this, because when they ask their employees what’s taking up their time, they receive inarticulate answers.
Employees know they are busy, but they can’t articulate why.
When we observe employees at work—and not simply with a time clock—with an eye towards sustainably improving productivity, we find that they are not busy. In our experience, an entire work day sometimes only equals a couple of hours of effective work time. Employees perceive they are busy because they are working on the wrong things.
To fix this, the first thing leaders do is bring in a time management expert. Employees learn about to-do lists and prioritization. They read articles like “The Top 10 Ways to Improve Productivity.” Excel spreadsheet specialists are called in, macros are created, and filing systems are developed.
The problem is this doesn’t work. To-do lists quickly fill up and become overwhelming, leaving employees no better off. So they soon abandon the approach and go back to their old habits.
So What Is a Leader to Do?
We work with you to create a workable process that yields real results on productivity and time management within all levels of your company. Our approach is practical and holistic.
Here are some examples of the tools and strategies we’ll use together:
The first thing employees need to do is understand why they, or their leaders, are concerned with productivity.
- “Why do I want to be more productive?”
- “What’s important to me?”
- “What’s my intention?”
For example, when asked, “Why do you want to be more productive?” some of our clients have said:
- “So I can listen to my frontline folks more.”
- “So I can do a little reading and research on new machinery.”
- “So I can take a step back and really look at how my team is aligned with strategy.”
- “So I can leave work on time and be with my family.”
As people understand the benefits of having extra time, they become motivated to achieve it. Weeding out time-wasting activities becomes sustainable.
That’s why to-do lists fail. Maintaining a to-do list is onerous, because people do not understand what the benefits are.
Stop Blaming Your Environment
Once you figure out why you want to be productive, it’s your responsibility to make it happen. Not your boss’s.
Think about it. How can your boss truly know what motivates you? All your boss can do is provide goals and frameworks. How you achieve those goals is up to you.
Do Creative Work First
When you figure out what work is important, do that work first. Research has shown that we have a limited capacity to do thinking work.1 With limited creative resources, we need to do important work first. Save filling out forms or responding to emails for later in the day.
Less = More Productivity
Don’t book every minute of the day.
Trying to book every minute of the day is counterproductive. We are not wired like that. You can schedule your time down to the minute if you want, but if you do, make sure you are booking time to do nothing.
Working hard for 60 to 90 minutes and then resting brings about the best performance.2 Treat the day like a series of sprints.
World-class sprinters run three or four sprints per day, with a lot of rest in between. They break their muscles down and then give them time to rebuild.
Look at any successful person and you will find they work in 90-minute-or-less blocks—and for no more than about 4.5 hours per day. They need time to recover.3
Warren Buffett has stated that the most productive people are those who have learned to say “no.”4
Time fragmentation is evil. It breaks up those 90 minutes into a hundred interruptions. Email, phone, and social media all do this.
So turn off all distractions and work in 25- to 90-minute chunks.
Schedule the day you want, and work backward from that. For example, if you want to be home by 18:00, then work back from that time.6
Scheduling gets you to face how much time things will really take.
Here’s a sample calendar.
Before bed, write down the two things you want to accomplish tomorrow.
Find out what gives you renewal—walking, reading, silence—and schedule it into your day.
Meditate or spend time in reflection.
Use inversion. Figure out what you don’t want. This allows you to avoid:
- Doing too much
- 5-minute increments
- Doing the same thing many times
- Losing track of what’s important
Avoid open offices. Successful people have places to think.
Close multiple browser tabs. Simplify and use just one tab at a time!
Check email three times a day—never in the morning and never at night.
If you can respond in two minutes, do so. If not, schedule the reply.
Keep email replies to less than five lines.
Don’t check the phone.
Sleep is probably the most important factor in productivity and is often undervalued. Don’t worry about the quantity of sleep, focus on the quality. As one of my consulting partners used to say, “Sleep Hard.”
Create a Routine
Creating a routine to do all of these things makes them easier to accomplish because they become automatic. This leads to sustainability.
Heuristics are also helpful. These are simple decisions that aren’t necessarily 100% correct but are “good enough.”
Constantly correct your routine. Take time for self reflection. Ask yourself what’s working and what’s not.
Stop going to meetings with no clear actions, and stand up when you are in one.
Don’t answer the phone if you don’t know who is calling. Tell people you have 10 minutes for their call.
Before reading, ask yourself, “What am I trying to get out of this?”
Write an outline first and consider, “What do I want people to get out of this?”
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