“There aren’t enough hours in a day!” How many times have you thought that at the end of a day? How many times have people asked you how you are, and you can only reply with an emphatic ‘Busy!’ and a half-suppressed sigh? How many days have you felt like there have been too many meetings and interruptions and you haven’t achieved what you’d set out to? It’s a sign of the times. Across all industries, the pace of communication is increasing and expectations around what we can achieve in a standard working day are increasing along with it. It is pretty safe to say there is always an over-abundance of work to be done, and never enough quality time to get it all done. To be a great leader, you must not only be there for those around you but you have to also deliver on top of that. Although leaders are not always the ones ‘on the tools’, you still need time to do the thinking, the planning and developing or reviewing the key materials (reports, presentations, strategies, plans etc) that are going to tip the scales in favour of what you and your initiative are trying to achieve.
Here’s the rub… There are physical constraints to productivity defined by these 4 parameters: Scope, time, resources, and quality. If more scope is added to your workload, then there must be compensation elsewhere in the system. In other words you either need more time, resources (e.g. people involved) or you need to reduce the quality of what’s produced. Any good project manager will tell you: You can lock down any 3 of these parameters, but the 4th one will stay flexible in response to the rest. That’s just the nature of reality, No matter how much pressure we’re under, there’s no way to keep adding scope and still expect to get it all done. Something has to give! So how do great leaders use this insight to get the most of out of each day? Here are the 5 top habits that consistently come up in my conversations with great leaders.
1. Get in ‘The Zone’
First things first. To be productive, you must be in a productive state of mind. What do I mean by this? Well consider these less-than-productive states of mind (you might be able to relate to some of these):
“There’s too much to do, I’ll never get through it” (defeated)
“I don’t know where to start” (overwhelmed)
“If I just keep plugging away I’ll hopefully get somewhere” (too deep in it)
“Oh shoot!! I’m up Shoot Creek!” (stressed)
“I’m not even sure I can do it” (incapable)
These states of mind are common, spend too long thinking and believing them can send you into a spiral from which it’s difficult to recover. Great leaders and elite athletes know that mindset leads to state of mind. If you have the right mindsets you can head-off negative states of mind before they take root. You need to find mindset statements that resonate for you that allow you to take a productive mindset about each of the common situations above. You can use these as a starting point and adjust them so they resonate for you and most importantly you believe them:
I can only do what I can do. I’ll prioritise and know the most important things will get done.
Once I prioritise and break down the work I’ll know where to start.
I will prioritise before continuing to plug away, then I know the work I’m doing is making the biggest possible impact.
I’ll achieve more if I’m feeling relaxed and positive.
I am capable of doing what I need to do, or I’ll find another way (there’s no shame in asking for help).
Once you’ve written out your productive mindsets, the next step is to get in the zone. Here we can borrow another tool from the elite athletes’ toolkit: Mindfulness. Mindful breathing allows us to relax, let go of distractions, and refocus on the task at hand. This gives us the best chance to stay in a state of flow, increasing productive focus, creativity and quality of output.
You want to be in a positive and relaxed state of mind every morning. After all, happiness is (largely) a choice we get to make every day. I’m not talking about rose-coloured glasses. Just an ability to see the positives around you and capitalise on them, while avoiding being ‘offlined’ by the negatives that you see. The absolute best way to help yourself find your happy place each day is through gratitude. We often focus on what we don’t have, what we’re striving for, gratitude flips-the-script allowing us to feel good about what we already have. Reflect each morning on the amazing things you have in your life already. Whether it be large things like key relationships, opportunities, unique qualities and abilities you have or really small things around you like having access to clean water. Say ‘thank you’ quietly to yourself for these things and really allow yourself to feel the warm sensations of appreciation. It sounds corny I know, but it works! It’s useful, so give yourself permission to lean into it.
Combine these practices together in the morning and you’ve got a reliable way to ‘prime’ yourself to start the day feeling awesome and face the day in the most productive way possible.
Start with something physical—Even light exercise or stretches or explosive breathing.
Do some deep breathing.
Think about 2–4 things you are grateful for and allow yourself to feel really thankful.
Finally, review your list of productive mindsets, read them to yourself and believe them.
You should feel positive, relaxed, empowered and ready for the day. Make this a daily habit and your productivity and overall success in the workplace and as a leader will increase out of sight.
2. Prioritise to reduce scope and balance quality
We know that there’s too much work and not enough time. Logically, it’s not all going to get done. So it’s up to us to make sure the most important things are getting done. Take all of your tasks, write them on sticky notes and then map them using the Eisenhower Matrix. This tool maps the importance of each task on one access vs the urgency of the task on the other axis. You’ll end up with 4 quadrants (Q1, Q2, Q3 and Q4).
Q1 tasks you want to do now, they are important and urgent.
Q2 tasks you want to schedule in future and make sure they happen. These are critical to your future success but they often get deferred repeatedly for more urgent tasks.
Q3 tasks are usually important to someone (hopefully at least the person who’s asking) but not important to you. You want to find another way to help the person get them done. Try to suggest an alternate solution. If it’s an important relationship, but not the best use of your time, consider delegating the task to someone else to do. Also consider whether reducing the quality of what’s delivered here is a viable way to reduce the negative impact these can have on your time.
Finally Q4 tasks aren’t important or urgent, you should find a way to politely say no to these.
1 + 3 = A productive day!
Each day there’s only so much you’re going to get done, so having a todo list with 10 items on it for the day is setting yourself up for failure. As a good rule of thumb is to pick 3 small tasks and 1 larger task for the day. If any of the tasks are too large for 1 day, break it down, what’s the step you’ll take towards it today? Set yourself up for success. You can complete these 4 tasks off, feel great, and then anything else you get done is a bonus.
Reptiles taste better than you think
It’s easy to procrastinate the bigger, scarier tasks by chipping away at smaller (usually less-important) tasks. Don’t do it, it’s a trap! Consider Ferriss’ Razor: “Most important usually = most uncomfortable”. Why is this? Because if it were easy, someone would have done it already. Brian Tracy’s top productivity tip is to tackle this scary task first. Or as he puts it: Eat That Frog! Your Frog is the biggest and scariest task you have on your plate at the moment. Do it first. It’s not always easy, but it is that simple. You will likely need to push outside your comfort zone to get it done, but that’s good, as we know, that’s where the magic happens. Complete your Frog first each day, and the rest of the day will be a downhill ride.
3. Delegate to increase resources
Have more work that you can do by yourself? Delegate some. Even if you don’t have staff that report to you, you can build up your leadership muscles by asking others to help you achieve an important goal.
Perhaps you have work you don’t want to do and isn’t the best use of your time. Delegate that too. We sometimes feel bad about delegating work to others because we see it as menial or boring. Remember: It’s not a chore, it’s an opportunity. It’s always an opportunity! Why? Even though you might find it boring, for the right person it’s either an opportunity to do something they’re good at (autonomy) or to learn something new (mastery). If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to contribute to an important team goal (purpose), because if it wasn’t, you wouldn’t be asking, right?
Research shows that for knowledge workers intrinsic motivations beat extrinsic motivations. Which is great news for leaders. It means you don’t need positional authority or access to financial incentives to get others to support and follow you. The key is to tap into the intrinsic motivators that resonate for the person you’re asking.
Are they someone who is motivated by being in a position of significance? Remind them how important the work is.
Are they motivated by connection with others? Highlight who this will help and how much you appreciate it?
Do they get a thrill from learning something new? What about the task will allow them to learn and grow?
Do they enjoy being a part of the bigger picture? Let them know how this contributes to the broader mission.
Often times people are motivated by more than one, so feel free to mention a few of these and see which seems to resonate for them most of all. This isn’t manipulation, it’s you putting yourself in their shoes and focusing on what’s in it for them. This is as thoughtful and generous an approach as you can take as a leader, and also the most effective.
4. Focus to increase quality time
We often feel like there’s not enough time in the day. I’d like to challenge that mindset. I believe there’s not enough quality time in the day. 6 productive hours are enough to get an incredible amount done and done well. So the challenge is then to increase the amount of quality time we get each day. What do I mean by quality time?
Well, how familiar does this sound? Your days starts by checking in with the boss and the team. You sit down at your desk and go through the emails that have appeared since you checked your phone earlier this morning. You start to respond to some of the more pressing emails only to be interrupted by the inevitable coffee runs. You make a phone call, attend a scheduled meeting, then it’s time for lunch. After lunch you manage to get one of the small tasks on your list for today ticked off (yay!) before getting pulled into an unscheduled meeting. Once back at your desk 2 separate people interrupt you for impromptu meetings that could have waited for another day. During what’s left of your day you manage to respond to 3 ‘urgent’ emails as the notifications catch your eye. It’s now after 5pm, the interruptions have died down and you have some much needed head-space to start working your way through the remainder of your todo list. Sheesh!
For many of us, these sorts of days are not uncommon.
That’s not quality time. Although interruptions have been found to boost creativity, they are terrible for productivity. You need to defend parts of your day to get important work done (think Q1 and Q2 tasks). Here are some tips to remember:
Batch up smaller tasks (like responding to email, or repetitive admin tasks) and do them together in a scheduled block. This reduces the cognitive load and time cost of ‘task-switching’ as you’ll execute similar tasks over and over again much more quickly.
Use the Inbox Zero approach to email. Email isn’t an urgent form of communication. Check it 2 or 3 times each day at most, process all emails (deal with the urgent and delete, delegate or schedule the rest) and then shut down your email and notifications in between times.
Block out time in your calendar for thinking, planning and Q2 tasks and guard that time religiously. Consider taking a laptop to a meeting room, going offsite or working from home to get away from phones and ‘drive-by’ interruptions.
If you’re invited to a meeting, make sure you know what the purpose of the meeting is. If there’s no clear purpose, politely decline to attend.
Think about instituting a ‘meeting free day’ each week for you and your colleagues to focus on getting work done.
You deserve to get your work done within reasonable hours each day. Be there for your team, but allow your work to be a priority too.
5. The Pomodoro Technique to increase focus and energy
Finally, when you have large blocks of focused work to do, it’s easy to lose focus and motivation after an hour or two. One of the best productivity techniques to overcome this is called the Pomodoro Technique.
Set a timer for 25 minutes of uninterrupted focused work. Avoid interruptions and don’t stop till the 25 minutes are up.
Then take a 5 minute break. Use this break to refresh your attention. Stretch your legs, get a glass of water, breathe deeply. Get the air and blood flowing. Try to avoid thinking about work during this break. Add in some light exercise to really boost your energy and attention.
Then repeat: 25 minutes of work, 5 minutes break, 25 working, 5 not working, 25 on and finally 5 off.
After 2 hours, take a longer break (15–60 minutes). Go for a walk. Do something entertaining and distracting. Are you hungry?
At this point if you have more focussed work to do, start again with another block of Pomodoros.
Try it out, it’s easy and surprisingly effective. You’ll find the time flies by and 6 incredibly-productive hours of sustained focus and energy is quite achievable for most. Use our free Focus Timer to track your Pomodoros and remind you when it’s time to take a break.
All together now
There’s no better feeling than a productive day kicking goals and getting things done—well, no better feeling during work days at least. Try adding one or two new habits at a time, then come back and build up over time till you’re a productivity ninja. And let us know what’s working for you in the comments. What are your secret productivity ninja techniques?