Powerful habits of highly productive people

Today´s (business) world is more complex, ambiguous, and demanding than ever before.  At the same time our working days have only so many hours. Fortunately! In addition, I strongly argue that it´s not the smartest thing to add hours in order to increase output. Instead we should ponder about how to work more effectively and efficiently.

It might not come as a surprise that many of my coachees and mentees want to better understand and learn how they can take care of their tasks and responsibilities in a more efficient manner to lead a more fulfilled life.  The good news is, that everyone can apply some very powerful strategies and techniques to increase personal productivity:

  • Avoid Perfectionism - Many people strive for the “perfect” outcome. Bad (and good) news: Perfectionism does not exist in an imperfect world. So, no need to over-analyse and to reflect too much. Of course, think before you act. However, in case of doubt get started, learn on the go, and constantly improve. Only if you move you can improve and perform.
  • Tackle Difficult Tasks First - Give procrastination no chance. Putting off tasks only results in complications, since you´ll feel guilty and let negative thoughts occupy precious mental space which you would need instead for drafting action plans and focusing on execution. One of my main rules is to tackle the most demanding duties with a fresh mind first thing every morning.
  • Do Not Allow Interruptions And Say No - I know people who jump at every mail, call, or question by a colleague, etc. They let others determine their agenda. I also know people who directly or indirectly tell people that they do not want to be interrupted at certain times and circumstances. They´re the ones who get things done. Organize yourself (e.g. book a meeting or quiet room only for yourself; inform people about not disturbing you at specific times, etc.) and pro-actively protect your agenda. Do not be afraid of saying "No" to colleagues, peers, and even your line manager if necessary. Do it tactfully by giving background information and agreeing on next steps. Working from home is another highly effective strategy for time-sensitive and complex project work.
  • Be A Pro Active Planner - Regardless of which personality type you are, in order to become more productive you need to plan ahead your tasks and set up a schedule. Already plan your next day the evening before. Often it´s as easy as just writing a quick to-do list before leaving the office or going to bed. Others draft a mind map to organize their thoughts and ideas for the next day. Either way, taking notes of ideas, worries, etc. before going to bed helps to calm your mind and to make you feel more relaxed. During your work day I recommend setting aside enough time (as a minimum 20-30% of total time) for unforeseen tasks, for responding to mails, phone calls, etc. However, all of those tasks may not determine your schedule in the end. Your own daily plan must set the tone most of times. Also turn off outlook notifications, etc. Instead have 3-4 daily slots of about 15-20 minutes each when you check and answer mails, phone calls, etc.
  • Handle Emails Smartly - Some key techniques: (i) As previously mentioned set 3-4 fixed times during the day to check your email; (ii) Turn off the desktop alerts that ping every time a new message comes in (incredible how much that by itself will improve your concentration span); (iii) Use the "two-minute-rule, “i.e. if you can deal with an email within two minutes then do so. But if more time is needed move the message to your pending folder to action later; (iv) Set-up rules that will be automatically applied to an email when it arrives (e.g. ensure that all incoming messages are grouped together automatically and associated with the project they are linked to).
  • Use A Planner And Tracker To Ensure Working On The Right Things - To manage various tasks and/or projects you can use e.g. with Microsoft either Outlook Tasks or OneNote. As a daily overview it´s pretty efficient, since you get due dates, task descriptions and priorities at a glance, etc. If you and your team want to bring your time and project management skills to a new level you might want to try doing some time keeping work, e.g. by using a more sophisticated tool like Toggl. Another good tool helping you to ensure that you track what you do – and as such assisting you in ensuring to do the right things – is Rescue Time which lets you know exactly how much time you spend on which daily tasks. 
  • Manage Meetings Smartly - Meetings are one of the biggest time-sucks around. Nevertheless, and although we love complaining about having too many "useless“meetings, we still continue to unquestioningly book and attend them. I´m not a fan of standing meetings, etc. Instead I try to follow these meeting rules: No meetings longer than one hour. No meetings with more than 8 participants. No meetings without agenda and minutes. No meetings with more than 5 topics. Could that also work for you?
  • Stop Uber-Multitasking - True, in a perfect world (which by now we know does not exist) we´d love to do one task after another. Latest neuroscience studies suggest that multi-tasking within a limited frame is tolerable whereas working on too many tasks at the same time often causes stress and can even damage the brain.
  • Embrace Lean - First, keep your desk spotless: Have only your PC or laptop, the phone, and possibly one to two personally relevant items on it (e.g. a photo of your family, etc.). Use a maximum of two drawers in which you have assembled the most important and essential things. Clean your desk every day and enjoy how shiny and beautiful it looks.  Second, set up an efficient filing system: It should be simple and every day in use. Don’t slack off. Make quick and straightforward decisions: (i) take action; (ii) file it (if you need to take action within next 2 weeks); (iii) trash it (aim at a daily trash rate of 80% or more). Take all notes with your laptop or PC.  Third, organise information: In a digitised world which is characterised by a crazy abundance of information we are well advised to carefully select information sources by their relevance and value. As a consequence, you might want to unsubscribe from some newsletters, concentrate on consulting only 3-5 news sources, questioning RSS feeds, and limit the consumption of media and news to a maximum of 30 minutes per day. Setting smart boundaries helps to avoid mental clutter. Read more here about how to de-clutter your life. 
  • Respect Your Biorhythm - We humans are designed to sleep and wake in cycles (circadian rhythm). Various studies have shown that we function best physiologically and psychologically when our internal cycles are well-synchronized with those of the external world. If, for example,we mess up our sleep and wake patterns, we would feel out of sorts. Most importantly, you should plan your day accordingly if you are an early riser (early bird) or a very late setter (night owl), i.e. someone who gets to her peak performance only later during the day (or at night).
  • Chunk Down Your Work Day - There are two facets to it: (i) Break down your tasks into smaller and digestible bits and pieces. Take it step by step. (ii) Take every 90 minutes scheduled 10-15 minutes breaks to improve concentration (why not going for a short walk during lunch break?). Rule: Never ever have your lunch at your work space or in front of your desktop or laptop. You will not enjoy neither your lunch nor work properly on the task at hand.
  • Set Realistic Goals and Reward Yourself - I strongly suggest using the SMART formula for setting goals, i.e. goals which conform with the following criteria: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. Also set timelines and tell others of your commitments, since they’ll help hold you accountable. In addition, whenever you reach a goal or deadline give yourself a reward. Whether it be a dinner with a friend, going to the movies, buying a new book, give yourself a reward to work towards. This gives your work or project a much more positive twist and fits very well with human nature.
  • Eat Healthy - Although food has classically been perceived as a means to provide energy and building material to the body, research has provided exciting evidence for the influence of dietary factors on specific molecular systems and mechanisms that maintain and even develop mental functions. For instance, a diet that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids is garnering appreciation for supporting cognitive processes in humans. In contrast, simple sugars, like those found in junk foods, are unhealthy and good only for quick bursts of energy but not for longer work periods.
  • Exercise Regularly - Researchers have found that physical exercise, even walking, helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means. The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells. Indirectly, exercise improves mood, sleep, concentration, focus, and reduces stress and anxiety. 
  • Get Enough Sleep - Enough sleep is super important to realize a high level of productivity. In this respect you should also not use one to two hours before going to bed your laptop or smartphone (rule: never take them to bed with you!). Two key reasons for that: (i) It makes your mind racing based on latest info and data you´ll have just consumed; (ii) Short-wavelength blue light from the screens stop the production of the sleep-stimulating hormone melatonin. As a result you would feel awake and less sleepy. Much better preparing yourself in quiet for a good sleep e.g. by having done some sports, having gone for a walk, or having taken a relaxing bath or warm shower. Also, expose yourself to lots of bright light during the day (i.e. get out of the office!). This will boost your ability to sleep at night (plus boost your mood and alertness during the day).
  • Do What You Love And Love What You Do - Make sure that once or twice a week you put 10 to 15 minutes aside to review whether your daily activities and your weekly schedule are consistently aligned with your overall goals. If not, change your agenda to reflect back to what you really want to achieve in life. In case of doubt, just look at your personal life vision and mission statement. It always will give you the reassurance you might need from time to time.
  • Final Thoughts - Being highly productive (at work) is just one aspect of life. There are other crucial areas which need to get adequate and regular attention in order to lead a fulfilled life: social area (family, friends, recognition), health area (sports, relaxation, diet, well-being and fitness), and spiritual area (religion, love, philosophy).

Becoming more productive is about self-management and taking full responsibility of yourself. You can and you must pro-actively organise and live your life. No one else can do it for you.

Andreas von der Heydt