Productivity's Three-Legged Stool

The “science” of increasing individual productivity is really the blending of three interrelated disciplines: time management, organizational skills, and workflow processing. Possessing a basic understanding of each will greatly assist you in determining how to improve your own productivity. Here’s a short breakdown and a few related QuickTips for each category:

Time Management

I often joke with clients that there’s no such thing as time management because time ticks inexorably forward – second by second. Though you can’t really manage time itself, you can manage how you use time. The distinction is essentially between managing something external to you (time) or something internal to you (behaviors).

Changing long-held behaviors can be very difficult. That’s why I advise clients to look for one or two small changes to make so they can experience the positive feedback of success immediately. Once a number of small changes are paying productivity dividends, larger changes can be tackled. Here are a couple of small time management changes you can try:

  • Eliminate/Shorten Meetings. If you control the occurrence or time frame for any meetings, ask yourself two questions. First, does this meeting even have to happen? If so, how frequently? Also, if so, can we cut the scheduled time for the meeting by 25% (e.g. making a 60-minute meeting 45 minutes)? Many meetings are simply unnecessary and are counter-productive because people have to prepare for and attend them instead of getting their work done. Moreover, necessary meetings can often be reduced in frequency, e.g., a weekly meeting moved to bi-weekly, etc. Finally, work fills the time allotted. Consequently, you will find 45 minutes will suffice for most 60-minute meetings and 20 minutes for most 30-minute meetings. The net result of these small changes can mean hundreds of hours in increased productivity across your team.
  • Aggregate Like Tasks. It’s very common to see people charging around to get things done. However, if you study what they’re actually doing, you’ll find much of the “charging around” is duplicative. A person may rush to the supply closet to grab a new tablet only to charge back over there 15 minutes later for a new pen! The same is true of people “dropping by” to ask a question – again and again throughout the day. The answer here is to simply aggregate tasks into logical categories, so that they can be performed together and save you time.
  • Leave Time in between Meetings. One of the biggest mistakes most busy people make is scheduling meetings back to back. There are two failures happening here. First, you are running out of one meeting without capturing all your thoughts and rushing into the next meeting not ready to focus on that subject. This results in unnecessary lost data on both sides of the equation. Second, you’re running and rushing around which only accelerates you mental exhaustion! Leave at least five minutes and up to 15 minutes between meetings, plus realistic travel time. These precious minutes will allow you to core dump all the information from the last meeting before entering the next meeting, resulting in greater capture of that data. You will also be more focused when entering the next meeting with the last meeting put to bed mentally. Thus, you’ll capture everything about the new meeting from the very start. Oh, and if you’re early to the next meeting, take a break and just enjoy the view of whatever it is you can see – it’s called relaxing!
  • Use Subject Line Naming Conventions. When dealing with emails, calendar events and tasks, create and use a meaningful naming convention for the subject lines. Use of a naming convention will save you lots of time when you’re searching for information related to that matter. For example, for an appointment in your calendar, put the following in the subject line:

Mtg: John Doe (phone number) – Re: Johnson Marketing Campaign – Mr. Doe’s Office

Now you can look directly at the event item on your computer (and PDA) and see exactly what will be happening and where. This is true of e-mail subject lines as well. Instead of:


try something like this:

Johnson Marketing Campaign – Update Following Meeting with John Doe

It’s not only easier for you to search for and find later, the recipient of your e-mail will immediately know what the content of the email is!

  • Coach Versus Instruct. When you manage others, the best thing you can do both for yourself and for them is to develop their abilities to do their job with as little supervision from you as possible. You’ll accomplish that by learning to coach them on how to get the result you need versus instructing them on the specific steps to accomplish that result. The difference is subtle but important because if you help them figure how to succeed on their own, you won’t need to look over their shoulder along the way.

Small advances in these time management behaviors demonstrate my point that it only takes a little bit each day to aggregate into a significant improvement over the longer term. Remember also, that I’m talking about both your productivity and your sense of accomplishment.

Organizational Skills

We’ve all seen the desk that looks like a hurricane recently passed over it. The oft-heard retort is “But I know where everything is.” And that may be true to a certain degree. However, when pressed, it usually takes about 30-45 seconds to actually find a specific item. Add those seconds add up over a year and hours are lost just searching.

I’m not advocating that you have to live a highly structured life or keep your working environment super organized. However, small changes to your organizational behaviors pay big dividends both in terms of efficiency and greater peace of mind. Try a couple these suggestions on for size to see how they work for you:

  • Create a Designated Work Area. This is the easiest way to improve productivity that I’ve ever discovered. Take everything off your desk, except your monitor and family pictures. Put it all behind your chair. See that wide open space in front of you? It’s called a desktop! I call it a designated work space and into it should only go the ONE thing you are working on right now. Multi-tasking is far less efficient than single-tasking. Seriously, just do a Google search for the zillions of recent articles on the subject. Creating a designated work space allows you to focus on the one thing that needs doing. When you’re done with it, put it away and turn around and pick up the next thing!
  • Develop a Structured Filing System (Physical or Electronic or Both). Papers piled high all around you is not a filing system. It’s a “noisy” mess that costs you and others precious minutes all the time. The same is true for your computer where you might have hundreds of e-mails stacked up in your Inbox and dozens of shortcuts on your screen. Most enterprises have a filing system for your physical files. Take advantage of it and, if you have an assistant, delegate the task to him/her of grabbing things out of your workspace along the way. If you don’t have an assistant, make it part of the “aggregated tasks” above! For electronic filing, just duplicate your business’s physical system. Create folders and sub-folders and file stuff away, both in your e-mail and on your computer.
  • Centralize Task List Management. Instead of having a dozen little sticky notes plastered all over the place, create a centralized task list and develop a method for routinely reviewing and updating it. The more things are spread around, the more likelihood of system failure. This is an easy one to do and will greatly increase your productivity.
  • Use a Subject Line Naming Convention. I’ll say it again – leverage your subject lines wherever possible through a communicative naming convention. See above for examples.

Consider organizational skills the oil in the machine. When things are where you expect them to be and you can readily find and/or identify things, everything runs more smoothly. Again, the result is increased productivity and a greater sense of well-being.

Workflow Processing

In today’s world the phrase “workflow processing” brings to mind countless consultants descending upon an environment to make it all better. Though to some extent true, more simply viewed, workflow processing is just identifying the steps to getting something done. The struggle we all face today is the endless stream of interruptions and distractions that bombard us while we’re trying to get things done! Here are a couple of ideas that will help you navigate through that minefield more productively.

  • Regularly Assess Workloads. Most people hit the office at a dead run these days. STOP! There are two times in the day when it’s vitally important that you assess what your workload is – first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening. Determining what’s on your plate is the very best way to determine how to best integrate all the new things coming at you. Instead of starting your day in your e-mail Inbox, try doing a brief survey of what was there before all those e-mails came in overnight. Similarly, spend the last five minutes of each day assessing what’s on your plate at that time. Oh, and if you can, do it once mid-day to see your progress and to re-prioritize based on the big picture, versus constantly battling everything from the trenches.
  • Practice E-mail Triaging Behavior. E-mail is the boon and bane of modern-day working environments. We’re fortunate to have it and hate to think about how it never stops coming. The most significant problem with e-mail is that it’s created a Pavlovian response mechanism out of bright, capable people! We jump every time one comes in and we worry about what we’re missing if we don’t sit in the Inbox all day long waiting for the next one. Insanity! Whether you use the QuietSpacing™ method or some other system, get in the habit of viewing e-mail as just another form of correspondence and triage it accordingly. If you start treating e-mail as a communication tool instead of a lifeline, you’ll break the spell and get on with the work at hand. Promise. It’s what I do with clients all the time.
  • Set Outlook up as a “Command Center”. Now that you’re not salivating in your Inbox anymore (!), you can switch over to hanging out in your Calendar view. When you get there, set it for Work Week (View, Work Week) and add your Task View to it (View, TaskPad). Voila! Now you can see your entire week of calendar and an organized list of your tasks. The next step is to start creating Tasks and using them to collect your…well…tasks…in one organized place. Hey, wasn’t there something above about that?
  • Sequestering. If you can’t seem to get people to leave you alone, then just leave them! That’s right, move to a conference room or an empty office. Take what you MUST work on (one or two things) and get those tasks done. Then head back to your rightful place and tell everyone you were attending to business. None the wiser and you got more done!
  • Aggressive Delegation/Prioritization. Oddly enough, all this new technology has created a never-before-experienced problem – reduced ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. Just because we “can” do things doesn’t mean we should. It’s a lot like the Reply All button. People hit it because it’s there. If you stop hitting it, fewer people are distracted by unnecessary e-mails. Look at your task list and ask yourself how it will drive your primary objectives. If a particular item won’t move you down that path de-prioritize it or remove it altogether. You’ll be amazed at how productive you become when you focus the activity you engage in onto more productive efforts.

Sitting On Your New Three-Legged Stool

You may or may not be successful with all these proposed changes. However, each small change generates increased control over your productivity and, generally, produces measureable results. The real win comes from continuing to ask yourself “How can I do ‘this’ a little better?” There’s always something you can improve upon and each time you do, you receive the reward of achievement!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *