5 ways to be more productive

Person hiding behind desk, looking for help. iStockphoto

More work than ever; less time than ever. How will you get it all done? That's a question I ask myself endlessly but I find I return to the same key habits:

Little and large

I think of work as either large or little. The large work requires thinking and focus. Typically, large work involves the most significant clients, leading products and long-term commitments. The little work requires action and consists of emails, phone calls and virtually all administration. It also includes domestic administration: organizing summer camp, scheduling teacher meetings and trying to ensure my calendar doesn't become a disaster zone.

Large work makes money; little work organizes it or spends it. I spend 80 percent of my day doing large work. The rest gets done between important activities, in the evening or when I'm too tired to do anything that requires a lot of thought. My to do list is bifurcated between little and large and the large stuff gets done.

I don't multi-task

Routine

I try hard to establish routines and stick to them: one for when I am on the road, one for when I am not. Although there's plenty of it, you don't need neuroscientific research to show you that routines eliminate friction and thus effort in your day. The more you can do without thinking, the more effort is left for the work that counts. You don't want to think about how or when to get to work, have lunch, drive home. The more choices you eliminate from your day, the more time you have to focus on what's difficult and productive.

In leadership positions, the hardest time to protect is pure thinking time. Book a regular appointment with yourself -- every day if you can, otherwise at least once a week. When the time comes, leave the building and go for a walk -- even if this just means around the block several times. You think differently when you're moving and you're unlikely to be interrupted. The work you do when you return to your desk will be better too.

Limit meetings

I'm shocked that any meeting can exceed two hours. I don't know of anyone who's still alert and engaged after sitting still for that long. Moreover, it's clear to me that meetings without a scheduled end point will always go on for too long. Nowadays, I'm obsessive about leaving any meeting after two hours have elapsed. I don't care what happens afterwards; as far as I'm concerned, the best time has already gone. Many of the organizations I work with now know this and they either finish promptly or reserve until after two hours the issues for which they don't need my input.

Many people regard this as rather intransigent and others consider it rude. Maybe it is. But the way I see it, time is our most precious asset, something that can never be retrieved. I value others' time and I want them to value mine. The best way to achieve this is to be seen to take your time and that of other people seriously.

Leave email

A vast amount of my business is conducted via email and I'm obsessive about answering it all. But very little of my work is so time-sensitive that email requires an immediate response. I recognize that this is not true for everyone but surmise it is true for most. Therefore, I leave email until the end of the day. I may occasionally glance at my inbox, delete spam and ascertain that there aren't any emergencies. When I'm on the road, I'll check my phone. Often, by the time I come to reply, the issue or problem addressed in email has already gone away. But otherwise I find I can zoom through a day's emails faster when I do them in one fell swoop.

Sleep

I've written about sleep beforebut I continue to be amazed by the degree to which people regard it as heroic or even cool to go without sleep or to work into the early hours. I love the work I do and there are times I do not want to stop. But I'm also conscious that I solve a lot of problems in my sleep. I no longer think of sleep as not working but consider it part of the system that keeps me productive.

  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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