3 Practical Ways to Be More Productive

3 Practical Ways to Be More Productive

This article first appeared on hbr.org 

Early in my corporate career, I was masterful at replying to emails instantaneously and staying on top of the multitude of requests I received from colleagues, vendors — and truthfully — anyone with my email address. There was an odd satisfaction in powering through my inbox. I felt entirely in control.

It was 2009, and as a newly minted pharmaceutical sales rep, I believed this attitude was a marker of success. To some degree, it served me well. I was highly attentive to customers, viewed as reliable by my team, and could deliver on any ad-hoc requests from the leaders who worked at the head office.

My success fed my false belief that when something works once, it will work again and again. As a recent grad, at the start of my career, it was easy to fall prey to this thinking. I had hit a homerun in my first at-bat. It wasn’t until a few years later, when I was offered a senior role and my responsibilities grew, that I saw how flawed my “always-on” approach had become.

Simply put, I observed many successful leaders doing the exact opposite of what I was doing — creating clear boundaries around their time and space. My boat was taking on water at every turn, while theirs seemed to float effortlessly across the calm surface.

What was I doing wrong?

My manager was direct with her feedback: “You need to change how you manage your time, so that you can focus on high priorities first. You aren’t delivering on what’s expected, and what I’m seeing is a lot of busywork, but few tangible outcomes.”

She was right. I struggled to move projects forward because I was trying to do it all. I would spend hours in my inbox, replying to low-value emails, rather than tackling the more challenging, but more important, tasks.

Over the years — through my career and the executives, authors, and thought leaders I speak to on The New Leader podcast — I’ve picked up several valuable lessons about how successful people manage their time and energy at work.

Here are three practical examples that can help you pressure test your current approach, recalibrate, and accomplish more (while lowering stress).

Live by your calendar, not your inbox.

On my podcast, I make it a point to ask every guest this question, “What’s one tool you use to stay on top of things and be productive?” The most common response I’ve heard? A calendar.

It’s arguably the most effective tool to maximize your time because it’s finite. It challenges you to be critical in scheduling, and acts as an inbox filter for what’s truly a priority — you cannot fit every email request into your calendar, so force ranking becomes necessary. Of course, working from your inbox or making long to-do lists can be fun, because of the dopamine hit you get from “checking” another item off the list. But if those items don’t translate into practical time in your day, they become extra sources of stress.

As I progressed in my career, I was fortunate enough to observe skilled professionals around me and change my approach. Instead of getting sucked into the email vortex and responding reactively each week, I started to organize my calendar first, based on priority. On Sundays, I dedicated 30 minutes to scheduling my upcoming week. I blocked off empty pockets of time on my calendar during which I could do heads down work and focus my energy on high priority tasks or key projects (usually between 9am – 12:30pm, two to three days a week).

This approach helped me in two ways:

I felt much more confident and in control of my week, as I knew where I had to focus.
My output started to improve. Instead of just working through my emails and responding to urgencies, I was doing what I was hired to do — deliver results.
You can do the same, by creating calendar pockets that align to your optimal state, or the times of day when you feel most focused and energized.

Pro tip: Find your ultradian rhythm.

Most of us are familiar with the concept of circadian rhythm, but there is also a lesser-known concept called ultradian rhythm that plays a key role in determining our energy levels.
In the 1960s, sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman discovered what he called the “basic rest-activity cycle” — 90-minute periods at night in which we move through various sleep patterns (from light to deep, and so on). He also observed the same 90-minute periods occurring during the day, when we move between higher and lower levels of alertness. He called this pattern the ultradian rhythm.

To find your ultradian rhythm, ask yourself, “When do I have the most energy and focus during the day? When do I start to fade and hit a wall?” Your calendar pockets should reflect the cycles when your mind is most fertile. For me, that was from 9:00 am to 10:30 am and 11:00 am to 12:30 pm, with a 30-minute break in between. If my day went sideways in the afternoon, I experienced less stress knowing I was effective when it mattered.

As a young professional, employing this approach can demonstrate to senior leaders that you are capable, efficient, and honing an important skill for future roles.

Read more about Being More Productive
Can’t Find An Email? Use This Hack., What’s the #1 Productivity Tool? For Me, It’s Timeboxing., When (and How) to Say “No” To Opportunities, What Super Productive People Do Differently

Think in waves.

If leveraging our calendars is a micro strategy, thinking in waves can be considered a macro one. I recently interviewed author, professor and HBR contributor, Dorie Clark about her new book, Playing the Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World. She revealed the notion of “thinking in waves,” an approach for making smart choices about where to allocate your time.

The essence is that you cannot accomplish everything right now, so instead begin thinking longer term and approach your time in six- to 12-month phases. Clark told me, “This approach enables me to focus when needed, cluster similar tasks (to lessen the cognitive load of multitasking), and stay refreshed by changing my routines.”

Basically, the advice here is to take the long view. Look at the goals you need to accomplish over the next year, prioritize what is most important, and cut or reschedule the ones that can be moved back to avoid overwhelming yourself.

For example, let’s say you are a product manager with a launch date happening six months from now. That project will likely constitute a reasonable wave of committed, heads-down work. Where you can veer off track is trying to deliver on that product launch while also trying to join a committee, learn a new instrument, and train for an intensive athletic endeavor. You may end up spreading yourself too thin instead of focusing on your main priority.

All things can be done well, but not all at once.

Pro tip: Distinguish “heads up” work from “heads down” work.

The whole concept of thinking in waves originates from a concept called “heads up, heads down” first articulated by Jared Kleinert. As professionals working in a fast-paced world, we can easily get distracted or pulled off course. Knowing when to be in heads up mode vs. heads down mode, “enables you to leverage the power of focus to your advantage,” Clark said.
For instance, perhaps you are new to an industry or organization. Begin by focusing on the important “heads down” work to get a feel for your role. Your first six months can be a learning wave (studying your field, building new skills), followed by a creation wave (sharing your insights within the company, publishing content on LinkedIn).

After a year of heads down work, it’s now time to shift into “heads up” mode. For the next 12 months, you can focus on building your network by attending conferences, webinars, or speaking at workshops. Looking back over this two-year period, you have now built some solid career pillars while others are still worrying about what to do next.

The key here is to avoid short-term thinking and play the long game.

Don’t fight the truth of time.

No matter how hard we try, there are only 24 hours in a day. Overplanning creates an ecosystem whereby we are constantly moving from task-to-task and draining ourselves in the process.

Productivity expert Dave Crenshaw, who had the most popular LinkedIn Learning course of 2020, put it this way, “It has been taught that happiness comes from spending one dollar less than what you have, and misery comes from spending one dollar more than what you have. When you overspend with money, you go into debt and have to pay interest. It is the same with time.”

I’d never considered the concept of time bankruptcy before reading Dave’s work. It gave me pause. I began embracing the concept of under spending time, viewing it as a positive marker to my overall health and well-being. When I shifted my mindset in this way, I was less riddled with guilt when stepping outside for fresh air or refilling my water bottle while doing a few stretches between virtual meetings. Before, I was playing a constant game of catch-up (“I can never find the time!’).

Dave summarizes it well, “Be at peace with the truth of time. Learn to accept it as the immovable truth that it is. It allows you to feel time wealthy, and smoothly manage unexpected emergencies.”

Pro tip: Start small.

While it may be impossible to ditch a back-to-back meeting schedule overnight, there are things you can do.
A great starting point is to build buffers into your schedule to avoid overplanning. Start small, inserting 15-minute blocks into your day that act as protected time. Carving out these small moments creates space to catch your breath.

Another approach is to protect your time fiercely. At work, we often get roped into ad-hoc conversations or projects because they sound fun or interesting in the moment (or because we struggle with saying no). But the reality is that no one is going to protect your time for you. That’s your responsibility.

The next time you find yourself facing an ask that encroaches on your time, try responding with, “I have a timeline I am working on right now — can we speak later?” Odds are, that person may seek out someone else if it’s urgent, absolving you from yet another distraction. If it’s truly you that they need, you can arrange to connect when it best suits you. By setting boundaries, you indicate to the other person that you are willing to engage but know how to prioritize like a pro.

Keep in mind that time management isn’t a one-time activity. You’ll have to adjust your approach and see what works for you over time. The above strategies are a great way to start. Give yourself permission to use them — your work (and your life) will be better for it.