4 Simple, Research-Backed Ways to Increase Your Productivity
The executive's guide to better time management.
Does this happen to you? You start off your workday with a vague outline in your head of what needs to get done. Three meetings, one crisis and a handful of other distractions later, you shut your computer off for the evening and realize you haven't accomplished any of the things you set out to do. Sound familiar?
You’re not alone, and help is on the way. I’d like to share some of my best processes to tame and organize my workflow and maximize my most precious resource: time.
What is productivity?
Simply put, productivity is the ratio of output over input — just as production output is defined as the goods and services created in a given time period. The goods are your successful management of business affairs. Time is the restricted resource and the scale we measure with. A key differentiator to be aware of, though, is that "quantity" is not the output that matters most. Quality is.
As we start to explore different ways to break down your day, it’s helpful to consider where you, as an executive, use (or lose) most of your time. If you’re like most busy CEOs and business owners, you spend your day navigating between meetings, your inbox, putting out fires and, if you’re lucky, getting some of your actual work done.
It’s simply too easy to concede our will to work to others who demand our attention. When we account for all the distractions, we’re probably down to just two or three hours of necessary tasks getting done. Keep reading for some helpful tactics to make time work better for you.
Four simple steps to increase your productivity
1. Get the most out of meetings
How many meetings do you participate in each week? Go ahead and throw out a number. Considering each takes at least 30 minutes to an hour, it’s easy to see where a lot of time goes out the window. Although meetings are critical to leadership, there are ways to streamline to get the most out of them while taking up less of your workday.
First of all, does it really need to be a meeting? If the objective is simple and straightforward enough, information can likely be shared just as effectively via email or a video. You can also deputize someone on your team to host or attend on your behalf, distribute the message, take notes and report back.
If a meeting can’t be avoided, make sure that everyone in the room has a purpose for being there. Too many cooks in the kitchen can be more distracting than helpful. Invite only the people who will help move your objective forward.
Always begin and end on schedule and have a clear, timed agenda and specific objectives. If one topic starts to go over an allotment, it’s probably best to continue through a sidebar conversation later with only the individuals involved. Put a pin in it and move along.
Clarity is important as well. Before disbanding, wrap up by summarizing any agreements reached and make sure each member of the team is clear on what their specific responsibilities and next steps are.
2. Tackle the never-ending emails
They are relentless, constantly popping up and politely requesting you stop what you’re doing to pay them some attention. It’s hard to find a confident statistic on the daily number of emails an executive receives; let’s just call it… hundreds. For many of us, it has become an instinct — or an addiction — that we can’t turn away from. That notification sound is nearly irresistible.
Break free! Turn down the volume and close your inbox so it doesn’t capture your interest when you have other things to do. Get in the habit of scheduled email management. Choose just three to four specific times each day to attend to those little monsters. It might also be helpful to let your staff and other key partners know that you won’t be responding reflexively so no one expects an immediate reply.
During those allotted email management times, be ruthless. Triage those inbound messages using productivity expert Merlin Mann’s “Inbox Zero” strategy. Your inbox should not be a substitute for a to-do list; constantly staring at things left undone will surely sap your productivity.
Instead of letting those electronic missives languish in Outlook purgatory, take one of five actions to quickly sort them out: delete, delegate, respond, defer or do.
Delete what you can first to clear out the clutter.
Forward anything that can be assigned to someone else to handle (that’s why you hired talented people).
Reply to anything requiring a quick response that will take no more than a couple of minutes of your time.
Longer than two minutes? Set it aside in the "defer" folder; specify a time each day to tackle those.
Something that needs to be done? Just do it. (Then delete it.)
There, you’re already on your way to a clean inbox, a clear mind and a productive morning.
3. Write it out
Still with me? Good. Distracted by unfinished business? Then you might be familiar with the Zeigarnik effect, a tendency we have to remember interrupted or incomplete tasks or events more easily than the tasks we’ve completed. Fight the Zeigarnik by getting that list out of your head and onto paper — or an app.
The to-do list can be your best friend if done properly. For many executives, there is nothing as satisfying as drawing a firm line through a completed task. If you’re the type of executive who adds something to the list just to be able to cross it off, I support you. Celebrating success is always a much-needed boost. If you’re a modern executive who eschews a paper trail, a number of apps may be helpful to you: Try Quantime, Notion, Airtable or Todoist. These virtual friends have features that let you set due dates, block off time and connect to your calendar.
Beware the pitfalls, though. Items on a to-do list all look the same — they might need to be weighted for priority. And keep in mind that adding things to your list is not a substitute for a plan of action to accomplish them. You might need to tease them out into several smaller tasks, each with its own deadline to ensure completion. For the most important tasks, it might be a good idea to set "nudges" on your calendar as reinforcement.
Now that you’ve gotten it all down on paper (or your digital notepad), you can finally make a plan for your day.
4. Prioritize, then follow your specific plan
You likely know what time of day you tend to be most productive. Block those hours off every single day for some pedal-to-the-metal taking care of business. (Also be sure to carve out time to reset — a lunchtime walk can work wonders for increased energy and clarity.)
What on your to-do list will you tackle first? Choose three things that you want to accomplish, keeping in mind that it is often the most unimportant tasks that are time-sensitive, while tasks that are not necessarily time-sensitive might be of greater importance and value — this is known as the mere urgency effect.
Mastering the art of prioritizing can take an entire career. You might choose a goal-setting strategy known as objectives and key results (OKR) to delineate specific, time-bound and measurable goals that align with your overall priorities. These can be tracked week-over-week and routinely reviewed for progress.
You might also utilize the Eisenhower matrix quadrant methodology — sorting tasks into one of four boxes using urgent/non-urgent and important/unimportant as the axes. This might help you to quickly recognize that what is most urgent might not be the most important. Tasks that are both important and non-urgent are the ones most likely to drive progress and should be attended to as often as possible.
It’s inevitable. As an executive, you already know that the best-laid plans are often interrupted by crises — both major and minor, meetings that run long and a hundred other things that arise in a day. On top of that, it’s not uncommon for a task to take a greater amount of time than expected, eating up more of your dedicated workday than planned.
Flexibility and adaptability are useful, as is a plan for the minimum. Sunday night or Monday morning, choose your no. 1, no. 2 and no. 3 priority for the week as your base output goal. If you can’t get through those three things by Friday… well, it’s probably been a doozy of a week, and someone should bring you a cup of tea.
Putting it all together
Having invested your most precious commodity into considering these practices, now it’s time to prioritize what you’ve learned by choosing two or three tips you can implement right away. Freeing up some of your time, clearing clutter in your mind and your inbox, and being tactical in how you plan your week will all add up to a major boost in productivity, as well as your peace of mind.
Now get back to work!
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor