Make the Most of your Personal Productivity

This article is the second in the series, Making Things Happen. In this series, we are exploring the habits and priorities that help high-performing managers and executives create unique momentum, advance their key metrics, and lead projects across the finish line again and again. In this segment, we will explore the workload many leaders face and the essential need for finding personal productivity practices that set the example for your team to follow. 

The Leader Workload

In a 12-year study of CEOs in large and complex organizations, Michael Porter and Nitin Nohira found that the executive-level role can be all-consuming. The participants in the study put in ten-hour days each workday, and 79% of them put in an average of 3.9 hours on each weekend day. They also frequently worked an average of 2.4 hours on most of their vacation days. The vast majority of these CEOs’ work time was spent on interactions and correspondence, and their days were generally heavily agenda-driven. 

It could be argued that C-suite roles are uniquely high-pressure and that most roles aren’t so demanding. However, when the Microsoft Workplace Analytics team of Ryan Fuller and Nina Shikaloff analyzed tens of thousands of email and meeting interactions in two Fortune 100 companies, they found that what great managers do daily is not so different from the work patterns of their executives. 

In fact, the analysis found that managers who put in long hours typically lead employees who also tend to work longer hours, but do report 5% higher employee engagement scores than employees reporting to managers who work fewer hours. In the study, high performance among managers was correlated with their efforts to cultivate and engage with a broad internal network, and to dedicate substantial agenda space to one-on-one time with their direct reports. Finally, the managers’ own level of engagement with their work was a key determinant of their employees’ engagement. 

Despite this benchmark of prioritizing dedicated time to the work and to strategic communication, not all time spent at work leads directly to high performance. The UK-based research consultancy Managementors found in a time study of 100 managers that despite their best intentions, the leaders actually only spent 6% of their daily work time on active management: directing staff, making plans, and following-up. They spent 19% of their time in administration—emails, timesheets, vacation requests—and nearly 40% of their working hours in “other” tasks, primarily sitting in meetings.  

At the core of the leadership question is a simple truth: good management is a lot of very demanding work. If you are a leader, your work is to see projects, tasks, and processes through to completion. It’s to lead, guide, and mentor employees. It’s to move the needle on organizational initiatives. It’s to facilitate safety, quality, revenue, or whatever else is on your performance scorecard. On top of those things sits the blend of our lives beyond work: parenting, socializing, commuting, housekeeping, budgeting, wellness, hobbies, travel, faith, family, community, and so on. Any number of these (or more) added to the demanding workload that accompanies management means that it’s easy to get scattered and fall behind. 

Setting the Example

Summarizing decades of case study and survey research in their book The Leadership Challenge, James Kouzes and Barry Posner explain that, “Exemplary leaders know that if they want to gain commitment and achieve the highest standards, they must be models of the behavior they expect of others.” Essentially, the first and most important task of leadership is to set the example in however you tackle your workload. While none of us can be superhuman in getting all things done, to make great things happen you have to hold high expectations and set the pace of the momentum you want to create. 

Acknowledging the demands of leadership, and the innumerable responsibilities that usually go along with it, finding methods of time management that enable high personal productivity are foundational to good management. It’s nearly impossible to drive high performance and get employees to stay focused and productive when they see you barely staying afloat, missing deadlines, or leaving loose ends. If you’re stressed and frantic, your employees are likely to either follow suit or disengage. Ironically, if you set a low and overly permissive bar for performance, employees are still likely to follow suit or disengage. 

Where is the balance? How do you go about your own productivity in a way that creates time for the most effective leadership activities? How do you efficiently handle tasks and administration, foster strong employee performance, and hit key business objectives? How do you prioritize your personal life and obligations in a way that enables professional success? Where do we begin setting the example in making the most of our most finite resource: time? 

Skills Before Tools 

We are living in an age with more available tools for time management and organization than leaders at any other point in history have enjoyed. It is important to note however that as DePaul University professor Erich Dierdorff explains, time management tools presume an underlying skill set for decision-making based on a realistic awareness of time, arrangement of activities and tasks to efficiently use time, and adaptation to changing priorities and interruptions. 

Essentially, skills and habits for good time management are foundational to strong personal and team productivity. No single app or agenda will cure a lack of time management skills. A system of planning, prioritizing, organizing, and strategically getting things done as a leader is the really result of strong routines, adaptable judgment, and intentional collaboration. It’s also about tending to your own energy levels and work ethic to assure you’re bringing your best self to set the example every day. 

What Works for Me 

The following are a few of the practices that I’ve found to be effective in my current work of managing in a full-time role, teaching in a part-time capacity, handling the odd freelance job, writing, maintaining a home and family life, and taking the occasional day off. Most of these are skill-based, focusing on the key principle of managing time for productivity as the tools for operationalizing each of these practices are fairly easy to find and customize based on what you need most.

Keep one central planner for time and tasks. Use a single tool to plan and organize your day, and to serve as the central point of collection for notes, follow-up items, or insights and ideas. For much of my career, I was a major proponent of carrying a paper planner like the Erin Condren Life Planner. Over time I migrated to using electronic notes for planning and follow-through, though I still follow the same principle of keeping everything—professional, personal, agenda, to-do’s, reminders, and notes—in one place. Keeping everything in one place helps me maintain a strong awareness of my time and priorities. I use Apple Notes and a weekly agenda template to sync my planner and running notes across devices, though there are dozens of possible tools such as OneNote, Google Docs, or other apps that would do the same. 

Set routines where they count. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg outlines steps for creating “keystone habits” that lead to positive outcomes and small wins that eventually create great momentum. In practice, I try to create these keystone habits with set times in my agenda for daily Inbox Triage, weekly one-on-one time with each of my direct reports, team huddles, and a Friday afternoon “Inbox Zero” hour to close out each week. I also have recurring daily tasks set in my planner for things like checking my teens’ homework lists, doing a daily load of laundry, writing, or checking my department’s case management system queue for tickets to be assigned among my team. 

Use shared lists and documents. Where getting something done is a collaborative effort, I use shared lists to keep track. At home, the family has a shared list of reminders for groceries and household chores. Anyone can add or check off items as needed. For various projects or recurring meetings at work, Google Docs or Sheets, or project boards in Trello serve to coordinate notes, updates, or team decisions. I also link all of these in my planner as applicable for quick access. 

Keep scratch paper handy. Even though I organize almost everything electronically, there are times when scribbling and handwritten notes is the best way to stay productive. Don’t hesitate to grab a notebook or printer paper to brainstorm, take quick notes, map out a concept, or communicate an abstract idea in a meeting. As Dan Roam explains in The Back of the Napkin, anything can be transcribed into something more formal later, but sometimes the best ideas for forward momentum happen in the moment on scratch paper. 

Do a daily desk reset. Drawing inspiration from top chefs around the world, Dan Charnas recommends all managers employ the principles of mise-en-place to their work. Just as a chef would manage a kitchen workstation through even the busiest dinner service, Charnas recommends managers arrange their workspaces to enable ease with the tasks that must be handled most often, to clean as you go, put away things not in use, and avoid orphaned tasks by focusing on finishing. By resetting your workspace each day, you return to work the next work day with a fresh perspective and mindset. 

Prioritize wellness for focus and energy. Great personal productivity that sets a strong example for your team takes a lot of energy. In their book Make Time; How to Focus on What Matters Every Day, authors Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky caution readers that to improve focus, “your brain needs energy, and that energy comes from taking care of your body.” While we’ve all been through stressful crunch times, maintaining high productivity over the long term needs sustainable habits for energy. Consider how you should manage your schedule to assure you have time to get enough good sleep, exercise, eat real food, and take a real day off when it’s needed.  

Making the Most of Your Time 

Regardless of the routines, habits, and organization tools you use, your personal productivity is the foundation of setting the pace and collective approach on the team. Find what works best for you and leverage it to make the most of your limited time. 

What works best for you? Leave a comment below with your thoughts and questions! 

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

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