4 Tips to Become a Productivity Superstar

by Dan Blank on June 3, 2009

In the past couple of years, I have dramatically changed the way I work. The changes have made me more focused, more productive, less stressed, and overall: a better employee.

Today, I want to take you through four of these changes. Each may not be perfect for you, and I am always working to perfect them myself.

Email is Not Your Friend

It is easy to spend the whole day trying to keep up with email, and yet, accomplish nothing. This is a huge problem for companies, as workers feel productive, feel stressed, yet spend too much time reacting, and not enough time focusing on projects that move the business forward.

Here are a few ways I have changed the way I deal with email:

  • Demote the value of email.
    My life is not longer run by the whims of email. It is an essential tool, but I now focus much more on in-person and phone communications – and do everything possible to work on projects that contribute to the business goals – not in replying to email in a split second.

    A couple of weeks back, I talked about the streams of information that inundate our lives. For many people, email is top on this list. This needs to change.

  • Reply to emails sparingly.
    Every email I send means I am getting 2 more back. So I try to be efficient and complete in emails that I send, avoiding those long email chains. I have a rule I try to go by: if an email chain gets past 3 rounds of replies, I pick up the phone.
  • Embrace the phone.
    As often as I can, instead of replying to emails, I pick up the phone. I especially do this with people that I don’t work with that frequently in order to establish a closer relationship, and humanize our efforts.

    There are also practical reasons for this, For instance, if I am trying to schedule a meeting time between 3 people, it can easily take a dozen emails back and forth. Via phone, it takes 1 minute.

  • An empty inbox is the goal.
    At the end of each week, I strive to have an empty inbox. This ensures that I start the next week focused on my essential projects, not on getting to 78 outstanding requests. These are tough economic times: the business I work for needs me looking to solve critical problems, not bogged down in basic requests that I should deal with efficiently.

  • Turn off email, and manage it in batches.
    I get the most done when I shut down email for 2 hours. It gives me laser-like focus on the task at hand. In order to ensure I don’t miss any mission-critical communications, I have spent the past 2 years telling people that if they need something: call me. My phone number is blanketed everywhere I can – I am reachable 7 days a week, any time.

    Each day can be slightly different, but an average morning might look like this:

    • 8:30am-9:30am Check email, and take action on those that require it.
    • 9:30am-11am Turn off email and work on a single project. It could be diving deep into metrics, creating a new strategy, implementing that strategy or creating a presentation.
    • 11am-11:30 Work on a different project.
    • 11:30-Noon Check email again.

    It should be noted that my role is all about communication – at any given moment, I can have editors from 40+ brands sending requests to me, or 200+ bloggers who might need my help. And that is just one part of my role. And yet – without being chained to email, I am able to be responsive and helpful – instead of overwhelmed.

  • Don’t use email defensively or aggressively.
    There is a whole high-school social structure to email that people rarely talk about. Some people want all communications to go through email so that they have a written account of everything. The theory here is that you can never accuse them of doing something wrong – or that they have proof if you do something wrong. In my opinion, this creates negative relationships with coworkers and business partners – and the serendipitous moments that occur in conversation never happen in electronic media like constant email.

    Second, there is a tactic that people use to "put the ball back in someone else’s court." So, if there is an email in your inbox that you don’t have time to get to, but don’t want to seem unhelpful, you can get rid of it by asking a question or making a request of the other person. This buys you time, yet makes you seem responsive. You can stretch out tasks for weeks by doing this.

  • Flush the Blackberry.
    The social constructs behind Blackberry usage are fascinating. We all want to feel needed and essential, and the Blackberry fuels this desire. I would catch myself going to check my Blackberry at the oddest times: 5:30am on a Saturday morning; while on vacation; while at lunch with a friend. Why why why?! Who do I think I am? What do I think happened in the half hour since I left my office? Who is having an emergency at 5:30am on a Saturday, and decided to send an email, but not call?

    So, I have established some loose rules around Blackberry usage:
    Don’t check blackberry in the evenings or weekends: People should know that I am happy to help any day, any time: but that phone is the way to reach me. This means they are connecting with me instead of dumping work on me. I love chatting with bloggers I support on a Saturday morning – this isn’t work to me, because I truly want to help them.

    I am up extremely early 7 days a week, and stay up late enough to be able to answer the phone at any reasonable hour. Call me: 973-981-8882.

Clean Out Your Work Space

I am a huge fan of organization guru Peter Walsh who talks about people’s emotional relationship with stuff. I come from a family of "collectors" – we were stamp dealers in the 70’s, baseball card dealers in the 80’s and each of us has had more collections of stuff than I can remember.

For about 5 years now, I have been on the road to minimalism though – I simply got tired of dusting all my stuff, and spending my free time buying or selling stuff. Life should be lived.

I believe these issues come right into our work lives as well. I love walking around offices and seeing how much stuff is in people’s offices and cubes. There are several goals to this stuff: to seem busy and essential, and to make the space reflect each individual’s personality.

Here are a few things I have done to clear my desk, making room for the thing that matters most: getting things done.

  • Clear your desk.
    I know that some people work well in chaos – their minds are wired differently than others. But for most people – all the junk on your desk is useless, and simply serves to get in the way of your future accomplishments.

    I work from home full time, and have a desk that is completely empty. When I am not working – nothing is ever on it. When I am working, only my laptop is on it. My files have been reduced to two thick folders, and even those, I am working to digitize.

    For years, I saved every paper – for fear that one day I would need it. But through several office moves, I realize something: it’s all garbage. So, that’s where I put it all. Unbelievably, in 2+ years time, there has never been a single instance where I would have needed anything in the files I threw away. This rings true for all the books I had in my office, extra office supplies, etc.

  • Go paperless.
    To do this, I had to change a few habits, because it’s not easy to go paperless. Instead of relying on notepads to take notes in meetings or work through ideas and strategies, I now keep my iPhone or laptop with me to do these via digital files. The beauty of this system is that it is searchable – something my paper files NEVER were.

    When I ask colleagues for copies of presentations, I always ask for a digital version – and am diligent about going through any paperwork I do receive. Piles are the enemy. They don’t just clutter your desk – they clutter your mind.

  • Keep things clean.
    This is about your health as much as simple good hygiene. Have you ever sat at someone else’s desk and been afraid to touch there mouse because it was just filthy? I have. Crumbs embedded between every key of their keyboard, rotting food in their drawers, dust everywhere. This is not healthy. This is not professional. Once a week, go through the papers on your desk, run a wet wipe across your keyboard, mouse, screen, and desk. It takes 5 minutes. Why do your hair each day, put on a nice outfit, only to sit in a filthy office?
  • Don’t chain yourself to your desk.
    People seem to be training for an Olympic event of "logging in hours at their desks." This is a pointless exercise that makes some people feel superior, even though they don’t necessary get more done that their counterparts.

    Occasionally, work from a park, from a cafe, from a comfy chair, or from home. Work hours that make you the most productive. For me, I am a morning person, I have a ton of energy and ideas at first thing, so I tend to start work ASAP in the mornings. The fact that I work from home means that I get to spend my most productive hours working, instead of sitting through a stressful commute or – even worse – ironing.

    If you are in a competition with co-workers to get in earlier and leave later, then you need to reconsider the priorities of that work environment. Is the goal of the company to find real business growth, or simply log hours?

Be Aggressive About Task Management

Like everyone else I know – there are any of 200 things I should be doing on a given day. Each will make me feel productive, and meet someone’s expectation of me. But only a handful of these things will actually deliver results that will drive my company’s business forward. Here are some ways I have shifted how I reprioritized my tasks and projects:

  • Stop doing 80% of what you do.
    I’m serious here. A couple of years back, I hit a point where I loved my job, but felt that I wasn’t accomplishing all that I was capable of. There was so much on my plate that I was never able to do anything 100%. I was doing 200 things, each of them just 70% as well as they should be done. It was horrible – loving what I do, but not feeling like I was living up to my own expectations.

    So I made some hard choices.

    I reviewed everything I was tasked with, and thought about the next 5 years. Where did my company need to be in 5 year’s time? What do I want to accomplish in my career – which projects will allow me to grow? Which processes seem essential, yet if I had to be honest – really aren’t?

    I read a quote recently that graveyards are full of people who are absolutely essential to their jobs. I don’t want to be one of those people who felt essential, but was not delivering all that I could to my company. I want to over-achieve.

    Dump projects that don’t deliver measurable results. If you aren’t measuring the value of each of your tasks in hard numbers, then you need to start doing so.

  • Create a list of goals for each week, and each day.
    It’s so easy to get off track on business goals by responding to email, management fires and any of 100 other things. Set goals, and create an ever-evolving list of priorities for each week.

    This also helps set expectations with your manager. The last thing you want to do is work hard at your job, only to find out that your manager is disapointed because you didn’t meet his or her expectations. Understanding their priorities will make it easy to set your own.

    Perhaps you feel that your manager has given you 100 items, all of which are of equal priority, and would be impossible to do fully. This is your chance to reshift the conversation – to identify whether your career is better off doing 100 things poorly, or 20 things incredibly well.

  • Keep track of your accomplishments.
    Each month, keep a list of your accomplishments. This serves several purposes:

    • It challenges you to have accomplishments. It also allows you to visualize a month ahead: what do you want to say that you have done in the next 30 days. What will make you essential to the business?
    • It feels good to look back at the month and see a list of everything you have contributed.
    • Send this list to your manager each month. It ensures that they are aware of your value, and helps them communicate their team’s accomplishments up to their manager. Whenever you can: share credit with as many people as possible – you don’t want to seem too self-serving here.
  • Rethink your job every quarter.
    The world is changing quickly – and depending on your job, it is hard to stay relevant. Do you want to simply be employed, or do you want to be someone who stands out as a star performer at the office.

    Most people think that to do so, you need to log in more hours. That is the wrong mentality, and often the one that people follow most often when trying to get ahead.

    Instead of focusing on quantity at work – focus on quality. Instead of logging in more mindless hours, focus your resources with greater efficiency on the right projects.

    Don’t allow yourself to be defined by the mundane things you do to "keep the lights on." Push yourself into new areas. Find out what ideas your boss is most excited about, and work on pushing your skillset to delivering on them.

Be a Human Being, Not a Role

The people you work with are the most important people in your career. Treat them that way. I realize that every office can have a social and political culture not unlike The Office TV Show, but don’t get wrapped up in arbitrary boundaries that mimic High School.

Each of us has run into others who base their interactions as a cold process that you might not fit into. It is times like these that I remember one of my favorite quotes by Scott Johnson: "Caring is a powerful business advantage."

If you define your interactions based on your responsibilities, then you are missing out on creating relationships that will serve your business, and move your career forward.

Here are a few ways I have tried to be more helpful in my job:

  • Meet new people often.

    Whenever I work with new people (which is frequently), I make an effort to learn about them – their personality, their needs, their goals, and their challenges. People that are particularly intriguing, I try to meet them for coffee, breakfast or lunch. Being forced to sit with someone for an hour takes conversations in wild new directions – and I have found that they are always meaningful places.

  • Network within your company.

    People talk a lot about "networking," and I think that the biggest opportunity to do so is within your own company. What’s great about this is that it allows you to better serve your company, as you will have a deeper knowledge of the people, their roles, and how you can evolve your role to serve them better.

  • Help.

    Help everyone you can. If you aren’t making people smile each day, then maybe you need to rethink your career.

  • Never complain.
    Not about people – not about projects – not about things you are afraid of. I think it was Woody Allen who said that 99% of the things we worry about in our lifetime never actually happen. So stop complaining about them. It doesn’t make you seem more important, and won’t do anything to advance your career.

I hope some of this is helpful. Feel free to share your own productivity advice!

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

davelevin June 2, 2009 at 9:26 pm

Dan I LOVED this blogpost and plan to put it under my pillow and osmotically absorb it completely. Hmmm….Maybe I'll just tack it up on my newly-uncluttered bulletin board and refer to it during the many intervals during which I am no longer checking email.

Johanne June 2, 2009 at 10:18 pm

Very nice post. I love the quote from Scott Johnson.

DanBlank June 2, 2009 at 11:13 pm

Thanks Dave!

DanBlank June 2, 2009 at 11:13 pm

Thanks Johanne – I find myself thinking about that quote often.

Shannon June 3, 2009 at 11:43 am

I was referred to your blog through a Facebook feed by Marcus Grimm and am saving it to my favorites right now. I work in publishing and am always thinking creatively about what the future holds for us fine folks 🙂 From this piece, my favorite nuggest of advice = Meet new people often. We all forget to do this at certain times in our life, particularly when we are stressed and feel so busy that we can only focus on ourselves and our To-Do lists. I will make an effort to meet some new people by the end of the week. Thank you and looking forward to reading more…
-Shannon
twitter.com/ShannonCoghlan

DanBlank June 3, 2009 at 4:15 pm

Thanks Shannon! And it's a pleasure to meet you. Have a great day.
-Dan

Satish Gandham June 8, 2009 at 12:51 pm

Good one dude.
Some of them are obvious, but we ingnore them.
This post will serve as a checklist.

David Thomas June 8, 2009 at 12:51 pm

Thanks for this – a great post. Only today I was working with my coach and we were talking through the process of becoming more efficient. Your post has given me some great ideas and the push to get it done.

P.S. got the link from Darren Rowse

Dan Strom June 8, 2009 at 12:55 pm

Connectivity is important, yet dis-connectivity is also. For folks working at the corporate desk, and also expected to be “on-call” at all hours, the times of being disconnected are even more important.

The electronic leash of the Blackberry (or other device) has to be removed sometimes so that we can get things done.

I appreciate your points surrounding the use of email.

– Dan

HBroadway June 8, 2009 at 1:40 pm

I absolutely love this article. Thank you so much for sharing it!

DanBlank June 8, 2009 at 1:44 pm

Thanks Hilary!

DanBlank June 8, 2009 at 1:45 pm

Thanks Dan – good points. I do wonder what “on-call” really means for a majority of workers. That said… I am always within 3 feet of my iPhone, but I am not tethered to it!
Have a great day.
-Dan

DanBlank June 8, 2009 at 1:47 pm

David – Thanks, glad I could help. The topic of efficiency has really been intriguing me for a long time now. People talk a lot about “design” as a cool-factor, but I think it largely has to do with efficiency and purpose.
-Dan

DanBlank June 8, 2009 at 1:48 pm

Satish – Thanks!

Stefano Ricciardi June 8, 2009 at 2:44 pm

Great post, with lot of inspirational advice.

I am not 100% with you about paper vs digital: for brainstorming and quick sketching of new ideas I cannot do without a pen and a notepad.

DanBlank June 8, 2009 at 3:31 pm

Stefano,
That's a really good point. Like you, I tend to do quick sketches to get ideas down. I always throw out these sketches though, so I suppose that's why I still consider myself paperless.

Very little can beat a pen and paper to flesh out an idea!
Thanks for the comment.
-Dan

Ellen Violette June 8, 2009 at 4:43 pm

I think the most important thing in this article is this:
Dump projects that don’t deliver measurable results.
If you aren’t measuring the value of each of your
tasks in hard numbers, then you need to start doing so.

I know I do too much and really want to implement
this one. Thanks for the reminder!

DanBlank June 8, 2009 at 4:48 pm

Ellen – thanks for the comment!

Harrison Schmidt June 8, 2009 at 10:53 pm

Great post Dan. 80/20 rule all the way, focus on the 20% of things that really matter. I've found that phone calls are so much more effective too, there just isn't as much clarity in emails and they aren't as effective at communicating emotion.

DanBlank June 9, 2009 at 5:43 am

Harrison,
Good point. An example is that today I am giving 3 social media best practices meetings to different groups within my company. All 3 are phone/web based. But… when you break things down into smaller groups, and add the phone portion instead of just sending around a “best practices checklist,” I find that the depth of feedback you received is amazing. The goal is not to dump information on people, but to listen to their very specific goals and challenges – to help them help their industry.

Thanks for the comment – have a great day!
-Dan

jiffy cat December 7, 2009 at 9:59 pm

I'd rather work with robots.

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