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“There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency

what should not be done at all.”

Peter F. Drucker[1]

If you have put into practice the concepts that we have talked about so far, business should be picking up and now it is more important than ever to be productive.
Productivity and time management are often confused in the same way that we confuse leadership and management. The concepts are intertwined, but they are not the same thing. Productivity deals with what to do (or not do); time management deals with when to do it.
As I reviewed dozens of books, articles and videos about productivity and time management, certain patterns formed. It appears that productivity can be boiled down to just a handful of strategies, and the strategies were confirmed in multiple sources. To my delight, I realized that we have talked about a number of these already in previous lessons.
One caveat as we move forward. Most of what follows is geared to an office environment. If your work requires you to bid on jobs, meet with clients, or be out of the office, you will need to mentally transpose the principles to activities that work in your context.
Inputs
Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”[2] These are KPIs for a management professor. Since I became a full-time professor, I have read a minimum of one hundred books a year. I know because I track it. I am not counting children’s books, and most of what I read are non-fiction works in my field or scholarly journal articles. I estimate that I spend the equivalent of three working months each year just reading.
I am measured by how well I teach, and to some degree, by how well I write. Yet, I spend a disproportionate time reading because reading fills my head with the necessary content that makes writing and teaching much easier. It provides a library of ideas, like the title of one of my books, The Bookshelf in Your Boss’s Brain. I can readily draw on this information because I took the time to create the conditions. It allows me to complete my most important tasks efficiently.
If you are a salesman, your success is determined by the sales meeting, yet you will spend a great deal of time prospecting or working with referrals. The same principle applies. If you are a manager, you might think that spending too much time with your people is keeping you from getting work done, but put that thought aside. If the time you spend with them helps you better equip them for their tasks, it is time well spent. Reading, prospecting, and spending time with your people are all inputs that create greater productivity.
I find that the most difficult work I do is creative. The most taxing work is new course development and writing. But teaching and writing are much easier when you have labored over the concepts in advance. Much of what I do has little to do with effective teaching or writing. I spend hours every week grading, advising students, completing administrative tasks, and committee assignments, but my focus needs to be on that which is most important. This is the heart of productivity.
The principles of productivity are similar to the principles of good financial management we talked about in an earlier lesson. The key is your return on investment (ROI). In this case, the investment is the effort and time required to complete your tasks.
Your goal is to maximize the return for your effort.
Financially, this would mean that you put money behind the projects that will bring the greatest return. You can use the same principle to be personally productive.
Focus on What Matters
To do this, we will begin with the 80/20 rule. The rule was developed by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. Pareto observed that the world is not an equal place. 80% of Italy’s wealth was owned by 20% of the people and he saw that this disparity applied to other areas of life as well. “In terms of personal time management, 80% of your work-related output could come from only 20% of your time at work.”[3] There is no magic to the number 80 or 20. It may be a little more or a little less, but the principle is that a large percentage of your results is the result of a small percentage of your inputs.
Tim Ferris popularized the 80/20 in The 4-Hour Workweek. He wrote:

When I came across Pareto’s work one late evening, I had been slaving away with 15-hour days seven days per week, feeling completely overwhelmed and generally helpless…. Faced with certain burnout or giving Pareto’s ideas a trial run, I opted for the latter. The next morning, I began a dissection of my business and personal life through the lens of two questions:

  1. Which 20% of sources are causing 80% of my problems and unhappiness?

  2. Which 20% of sources are resulting in 80% of my desired outcomes and happiness?[4]

At the time, Ferriss was running a dietary supplement company he had started a year or two earlier. He worked hard and had great success. Though he was making good money, he was miserable. Much of his time was spent with small customers who needed more time and attention than he could provide. I will let him tell the rest of the story in his own words:

The first decision I made is an excellent example of how dramatic and fast the ROI of this analytical fat-cutting can be: I stopped contacting 95% of my customers and fired 2%, leaving me with the top 3% of producers to profile and duplicate.
Out of more than 120 wholesale customers, a mere 5 were bringing in 95% of the revenue. I was spending 98% of my time chasing the remainder, as the aforementioned 5 ordered regularly without any follow-up calls, persuasion, or cajoling….
All, and I mean 100%, of my problems and complaints came from this unproductive majority, with the exception of two large customers who are simply world-class experts of the “here is the fire I started, now you put it out” approach to business. I put all of these unproductive customers on passive mode: if they ordered, great—let them fax in the order. If not, I would do absolutely no chasing: no phone calls, no e-mail, nothing.[5]

The approach Ferris employed is counter-intuitive. We are so conditioned to chase every dollar that we sometimes forget that some dollars are inexpensive and others are too costly to pursue. What is true for sales is also true for the activities you engage in at work. Sometimes you are better off leaving certain activities alone. Peter Drucker wrote, “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”[6] Do you engage in worthless activities that should not be done at all? If so, you will never be truly productive.
The Law of Three
Brian Tracy is an author and motivational speaker. He has consulted to more than a thousand companies and spoken to more than five million people. Along the way, he has written more than 70 books and produced more than three hundred audio or video programs.[7]  He is the personification of productivity. Tracy found that a similar phenomenon in what he calls “The law of three.” He explained:

The law of 3 says that there are only three things that you do that account for 90% or more of your income. It’s the law of 3 and in every field, in every career, there are 3 things. And your job is to ask, “what are the three things that I do that account for 90% or more of my income?” And then you use your skill, your cunning, your cleverness, your intelligence, to find ways not to do the other things.[8] For me, it is reading, writing, and teaching. What is it for you?

Darren Hardy, the former publisher and editor of Success magazine, took a similar approach. Hardy explained that excellence in any field can be reduced to about a half-dozen vital functions.[9] Top producers don’t do more things. They do less. He explained, “It’s better to be world-class on few things than mediocre at many.”[10] What are your few things?
Focus on the Core and Eliminate the Rest
Napoleon Hill was also a past publisher of Success magazine. He was most famous for his classic, Think and Grow Rich. In the book, he explained: “There is one quality which one must possess to win, and that is definiteness of purpose, the knowledge of what one wants, and a burning desire to possess it.”[11] To Hill, success was about one major goal and a relentless pursuit of that goal.
In past lessons, multiple sources have taught us that limited objectives lead to greater goal attainment.[12] Our natural tendency is to have too many goals, but as the old adage suggests, “If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one.”[13] Less is more.
In The Power of Less, Leo Babauta gives his formula for productivity, which is grounded in simplicity:

  1. Identify the essential.
  2. Eliminate the rest.[14]

Babauta explained, “By choosing the essential, we create great impact with minimal resources. Always choose the essential to maximize your time and energy.”[15] This is the application of ROI to personal productivity. Robin Sharma calls this approach, “Learned minimalism.” He explained:

I’ve worked with a lot of the most creative and productive people on the planet. I’ve worked with Billionaires and CEOs. I have worked with true titans. Here’s one thing I’ve observed in them. They understand that the secret to genius is not complexity. It’s simplicity. If you look at a Picasso of any industry, if you look a great artist, they didn’t fill their workdays and their personal lives with a lot of things. They filled them with a few things. I guess what I am suggesting to you is one of the secrets of iconic productivity is being monomaniacally focused on being world-class at just a few things.[16]

Pay Yourself First
In The Richest’s man in Babylon, George Clason, explained the secret to wealth in the form of a fable. The secret is simple: “Pay yourself first.” When asked how to become Rich, Algamish, the money lender in the fable, explained

A part of all you earn is yours to keep. It should not be less than a tenth no matter how little you earn. It can be as much or more as you can afford. Pay yourself first.  Do not buy from the clothes-maker and the sandal maker more than you can pay out of the rest and still have enough for food and charity and penance to the gods.[17]

Apply the same principle to your productivity. You must pay yourself first by focusing on the most productive tasks before completing anything else. When you start your day, don’t pay bills, check email, or complete mundane forms. Determine what is most important and do that productive thing first.
Decide What Not To DO
When you decide what is essential, you are also deciding what is not essential. You must say no to the nonessential. Warren Buffett is regularly featured near the top of the list of the richest men in the world. You would think that he must continually scan the environment for new opportunities, but he does just the opposite. He narrows his focus. He said, “for every one hundred great opportunities that are brought to me, I say no 99 times.”[18]
In a similar vein, Darren Hardy once asked Steve jobs what he is most proud of. Jobs replied, “I am as proud of what we don’t do as I am of what we do. Deciding what not to do is as important as what to do. It is true for companies, and it’s true for people.”[19]
How to Work Efficiently
So you have decided what to do and what not to do. Now you must dedicate your most productive time to what is most essential. Robin Sharma calls this approach the 90/90/1 rule. “For the next 90 days, spend the first 90 minutes of your workday on your single most game-changing opportunity.”[20] In this way, you pay yourself first. You will know that, whatever else happens, you have gotten something accomplished.
Darren Hardy suggested a similar strategy, and he claimed it could triple your productivity. He suggested that you work for 90-minute sessions. Eliminate all other distractions and use a countdown clock. Then take time off to recover.
My track coach used this method. We often ran wind-sprints or Fartleks, a Swedish term translated, “speed play.” Athletes run fast for a stretch and then they slow down to recover before sprinting again. They repeat this cycle multiple times.[21]
You can repeat this process a few times over the course of a day, but what is interesting about Hardy’s approach is his additional emphasis on recovery. Your mindset must shift to the point that you realize that “you get paid to rest.”[22] If you are not well-rested, you will not operate at your most productive capacity. If you feel sluggish, the odds are high that you have been chasing too many rabbits.
Additional Tips for Personal Productivity
 In my research, I found a number of additional tips that can increase productivity. Stop multitasking, eliminate distractions by turning off email and Facebook notifications, and create a productive space where you can focus.
Stop Multitasking
Hard-charging people are often attracted to multitasking because it seems like a way to squeeze more productivity out of the same amount of time. The only problem is that it does not work. According to the New York Times, “multitasking is a misnomer. In most situations, the person juggling e-mail, text messaging, Facebook and a meeting is really doing something called “rapid toggling between tasks,” and is engaged in constant context switching.” [23]
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “Multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error.” The problem is the loss of productivity found involved in task switching and “even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.”[24]
Julie Morgenstern, author of Time Management from the Inside Out, explained, “If you are working ten or twelve hour work days and you are a multi-tasker, I would almost guarantee you that if you are multitasking, if you break the habit of multitasking, you could cut your work day by two hours and get more done.”[25]
Eliminate Distractions
Morgenstern may have underestimated the effects of distractions. One of the most useful ideas I have seen is to check email less frequently. Ferriss was the first author I read that convinced me that this was actually a good idea. He wrote:

Check e-mail twice per day, once at 12 noon or just prior to lunch and again at 4:00 P.M. 12:00 P.M. and 4:00 P.M are times that ensure you will have the most responses from previously sent e-mail. Never check e-mail first thing in the morning. Instead, complete your most important task before 11:00 A.M. to avoid using lunch or reading email as a postponement excuse.[26]

There is wisdom in this approach. When you are interrupted, it takes time to get back to your work. I have felt this burden myself, so I recently turned off all of my notifications. I only kept the calendar alerts that prompt me to events that I scheduled. It is OK to be interrupted by your own notifications if they keep you on track. It is a different thing to be interrupted to facilitate someone else’s agenda. It is worse when you are distracted by junk mail and Facebook posts.
Such interruptions deplete productivity. The Washington Post cited research from the University of California Irvine that found that office workers are interrupted, on average, every three minutes. Then, it takes more than 23 minutes to get back on task. [27] Another study in the financial services industry found a 6 hour per day loss of productivity due to interruptions. [28] Estimates of the cost of lost productivity were, “28 billion wasted hours a year, at a loss of almost $1 trillion to the U.S. economy.”[29]
Create a Productive Space
As you can see, many people are busy without being productive. Becoming more productive may call for drastic measures.
Robin Sharma recommends that you create, “tight bubbles of total focus.” He explained, “On certain days, I am very hard to reach.” That is by design. He continued:

I have certain days that I label as creative days and on those creative days, I actually go device free. And on those days, I am very hard to find. And on those days, I am in total solitude. And on those days….There is no one there. And that’s where I do my best work.[30]

I have begun dedicating a workday to productive activities such as writing and preparing curriculum. I have blocked off my schedule and in place of normal office hours, I wrote: “By appointment only.” I have not yet had an academic emergency that has compromised this dedicated time.
Intel Corporation tried this too. According to the Wall Street Journal,

Within Intel Corp.’s 14,000-person Software and Services group, workers were concerned that they weren’t getting time to think deeply about problems because they spent much of their time keeping up with day-to-day tasks. So earlier this fall, managers decided to pilot a program allowing employees to block out several hours a week for heads-down work.
During four weekly hours of “think time” — tracked via group calendar and spreadsheet — workers aren’t expected to respond to emails or attend meetings, unless it’s urgent, or if they’re working on collaborative projects.
Already, at least one employee has developed a patent application in those hours, while others have caught up on the work they’re unable to get to during frenetic workdays, says Linda April, a manager in the group.[31]

What is stopping you? Try it out. See if anyone even notices if you do not return their email for a few hours. See how much more productive you can be. “The key to balance is to do just two things: work and family,” according to Brian Tracy. “When you are at work, go to work….When your with your family, be there 100% of the time”[32]
Now you have the keys to greater productivity. What will you do to be more productive?
 
Actionable items:
What are the few things where you must be excellent?
 
 
What is your most important priority?
 
 
Describe how you commit to doing that first.
 
 
What distractions do you need to clear?
 
 

End Notes

[1] Drucker, P. F. (2006). Classic Drucker: Essential wisdom of Peter Drucker from the pages of Harvard Business Review. Boston: Harvard Business Review Book. (p. 83).
[2] Bacon, F., & In Northup, C. S. (1936). The essays of Francis Bacon. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
[3] What is the ‘Pareto Principle’. (n.d.). Investopedia. Retrieved from http://www.investopedia.com/terms/p/paretoprinciple.asp
[4] Ferriss, T. (2007). The 4-hour workweek: Escape 9-5, live anywhere, and join the new rich. New York: Crown Publishers. (p. 69).
[5] Ferriss, T. (2007). The 4-hour workweek: Escape 9-5, live anywhere, and join the new rich. New York: Crown Publishers. (p. 70).
[6] Drucker, P. F. (2006). Classic Drucker: Essential wisdom of Peter Drucker from the pages of Harvard Business Review. Boston: Harvard Business Review Book. (p. 83).
[7] About Brian and Brian Tracy International (n.d.). Brian Tracy International.  Retreived from http://www.briantracy.com/about/
[8] Tracy, B. (2006). Doubling your Productivity: How to manage your time and manage your life. [Motion Picture] Waterford, MI: Seminars on DVD
[9] Hardy, D. (2015). Productivity Secrets of SUPER ACHIEVERS [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVnpMxkNBUw
[10] Hardy, D. (2015). Productivity Secrets of SUPER ACHIEVERS [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVnpMxkNBUw
[11] Hill, N. (2005). Think and grow rich. New York: ARMCHAIR MILLIONAIRE. (p. 30).
[12] See McChesney, C., Covey, S., & Huling, J. (2012). The 4 disciplines of execution: Achieving your wildly important goals. New York: Free Press. and Koestner, R., Lekes, N., Powers, T. A, and Chicoine. E. (2002). Attaining personal goals: Self-concordance plus implementation intentions equals success.” Journal of Personality And Social Psychology 83, 1: 231-244.
[13] Author’s note: This is sometimes written as “If you chase two rabbits, you will catch neither” or “If you chase two rabbits, both will escape.”
[14] Babauta, L. (2009). The power of less: The fine art of limiting yourself to the essential– in business and in life. New York: Hyperion. (p. ix).
[15] Babauta, L. (2009). The power of less: The fine art of limiting yourself to the essential– in business and in life. New York: Hyperion. (p. 6).
[16] Sharma, R. (2016). A method to x100 Your Productivity. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cshVfS2LXm0
[17] Clason, G. S. (1955). The richest man in Babylon. New York: Hawthorn. (p. 27).
[18] Hardy, D. (2015). Productivity Secrets of SUPER ACHIEVERS [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVnpMxkNBUw
[19] Hardy, D. (2015). Productivity Secrets of SUPER ACHIEVERS [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVnpMxkNBUw
[20] Sharma, R. (2016). A method to x100 Your Productivity. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cshVfS2LXm0
[21] Axw, J. (2016). Fartlek: A Swedish training trick for better running. Dr. Axe. Retrieved from https://draxe.com/fartlek/
[22] Hardy, D. (2015). Productivity Secrets of SUPER ACHIEVERS [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVnpMxkNBUw
[23] Sullivan, B. and Thompson, H. (2013, May 3). Brain, Interrupted. The New York Times.
[24] Multitasking: Switching costs (n.d.). American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask.aspx
[25] Morgenstern, J., Page, D., Brandmeier, J., Richman, G., Twin Cities Public Television (Saint Paul, Minn.), PBS Home Video & Paramount Home Entertainment (Firm). (2006). Time management from the inside out: The foolproof system for taking control of your schedule– and your life. Alexandria, VA: PBS Home Video.
[26] Ferriss, T. (2007). The 4-hour workweek: Escape 9-5, live anywhere, and join the new rich. New York: Crown Publishers. (p. 93).
[27] Schulte, B. (2015, Jun 1). Work interruptions can cost you 6 hours a day. An efficiency expert explains how to avoid them. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/06/01/interruptions-at-work-can-cost-you-up-to-6-hours-a-day-heres-how-to-avoid-them/
[28] Schulte, B. (2015, Jun 1). Work interruptions can cost you 6 hours a day. An efficiency expert explains how to avoid them. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/06/01/interruptions-at-work-can-cost-you-up-to-6-hours-a-day-heres-how-to-avoid-them/
[29] Schulte, B. (2015, Jun 1). Work interruptions can cost you 6 hours a day. An efficiency expert explains how to avoid them. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/06/01/interruptions-at-work-can-cost-you-up-to-6-hours-a-day-heres-how-to-avoid-them/
[30] Sharma, R. (2016). A method to x100 Your Productivity. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cshVfS2LXm0
[31] Silverman, R. E. (2012, Dec 12). Here’s why you won’t finish this article. The Wall Street Journal, B.1.
[32] Tracy, B. (2006). Doubling your Productivity: How to manage your time and manage your life. [Motion Picture] Waterford, MI: Seminars on DVD