I’m not a productive person, but I play one on TV. I have a hard time building productivity into my routine. I always claim that it’s because I’m a writer, and the work I do requires The Muse. Really, I just have never been great at time management.
As a result, I’ve got a lifetime of failed productivity enhancements under my belt. Some were clearly failures, some we’re just not a good fit for me, and some were good and a good fit, but I abandoned them anyways.
Luckily, you don’t need my productivity tips – tip one, wait until you can feel the hands of the clock pinching you between themselves before you really get going – because almost every successful businessperson has some insight into this.
I’ve collected a smattering of productivity hacks and tips from the best and brightest, boiled them down into one vaguely applicable quote, and then given you my own experience with the approach. I’ve listed them here in order of “least successful for Andrew” to “that one tip that’s basically ‘have a healthy work life balance’.” Enjoy.
Intentionally stretch your resources
Jack Welch, champion of industry and CEO of GE told the Harvard Business Review, “Remember the theory that a manager should have no more than 6 or 7 direct reports? I say the right number is closer to 10 or 15. This way you have no choice but to let people flex their muscles, let them grow and mature. With 10 or 15 reports, a leader can focus only on the big important issues, not on minutiae.”
His point is that, with only a few people to manage, you don’t have time to manage them too much. By overloading yourself, you’ll only do the things that are most important.
This is not, however, what I experienced. When I was managing a bank in 2008, I had ten reports. I let them all down because I never had time to give them the one-on-one attention they needed to develop. On top of that, there were so many compliance boxes to tick that I often didn’t even have time for the most important things – I just spent all my time trying to keep the boat from sinking.
I also didn’t have a desk, so one day I attempted to build one out of old shelving I found in the bank’s attic. I wasn’t a good desk-approximation.
Set a schedule and keep to it
Intuit CEO Brad Smith told ABC, “I work out every morning, I do P90X and I watch [CNBC’s] ‘Opening Bell.’ Then I read a couple of papers, Wall Street Journal and others. I get into the office about 7 AM, then I usually get out of the office a little after 7 PM I get home, I have dinner, then I spend a couple hours with my girls. I’m in bed about 9 PM That’s the program!”
First of all, that’s lovely. The prioritization of family time, the whole P90X high-end workout, and the simplicity of a life boiled down into four sentences. Smith’s point is that, by setting boundaries around your day, you can plan, prioritize, and execute consistently.
This is a great system if you’re a functional human being. Here’s my routine, for comparison.
I get up at – wait, how did it get to be so late? I make coffee. I drink the coffee. Where’s the toy for show-and-share? How did it get to be so late? I watch my bus drive past my house while I’m still in my pajamas. I ride various forms of transit for an hour or so. I work. I ride various forms of transit for an hour or so. Kid to bed, start dinner, eat dinner, then – wait, how did it get to be so late?
Set a schedule, but be flexible
Facebook’s own Sheryl Sandberg told HBR, “I go home at 5:30. My kids are young. I have dinner with them. I put them in the bath. I put them to bed. And then I get back online. We want people to have the flexibility they need.”
Sandberg’s trick to to find to the time to do the things that matter. If that means cracking the laptop open at 8:30 PM with a glass of very nice bourbon, so be it. A life isn’t a series of repetitive, predictable events. Plan accordingly and put time in your day to get everything done.
My working day got considerably cleaner when I moved out of the bank’s branches and into the corporate office. I worked longer hours, but they were less stressful. When I first got there, my manager – Martin, one of the best people I will ever work for – told me, “I get in early and leave late. I don’t expect you to do the same.”
Being good at a job is about doing the job well. It’s not about doing the job well between 9 AM and 5 PM. A job well done is a job well done, no matter when it gets done. At Capterra, I’ve been lucky to have the sort of flexibility that allows me to write this piece, for instance, while eating a bagel on my couch in my pajamas.
Plain with marmalade – we’re out of butter.
Hustle, sweat, cry, work
Neil Patel, co-founder of KISSmetrics, believes in hard work, if nothing else. He writes in Forbes, “I’m not smarter than most people. I’m not more talented. I don’t have some Ivy League education. I don’t get a lot of lucky breaks. Instead, I hustle. That’s my secret skill.”
Being productive isn’t always about finding a cool note-taking technique or getting an app for your phone. Sometimes, the way to be more productive is to go all out. Email those 100 people, work when others sleep, and try something without fear of failure.
I’ve never been a hustler. The closest I got was when I managed a coffee shop. I stayed late and cleaned the fridges, I came in on days off and did inventory, I made drinks, hired employees, and signed off on budgets. It was constant work, but it paid off.
We made more money, had happier customers, and were happier ourselves for all the sweat we invested in that little business. A good hustler is worth seven clever MBA grads.
Get better at prioritizing, not everything you do adds value
Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, knows that getting the job done is more important than the metrics. She tells the Wall Street Journal, “I also keep reminding people that success is not based on the number of hours that you’ve worked. It isn’t like venture capitalists say, ‘Well, how many hours are you planning on working?’ They ask, ‘What is your insight? What can you bring to the table?’”
Outside of your office, no one cares that you put 80 hours in this week – well, your family might. The point isn’t how much work you’ve done or how much “the numbers” moved. The point is in what you actually did.
Being productive is about getting important things done. If you can’t prioritize correctly, you’re just going to end up spinning your wheels.
Now we’re getting into the productivity tips that have actually helped me. At the bank, I kept incredibly detailed notes about every meeting I had so that I could go back and see the context of the work I was planning.
I found that having the background to the request – instead of just a line item with no context – made it easier for me to figure out how important the request was. By prioritizing my work more effectively, I was able to get more important work done.
Know your limits and work within them
Tomasz Tunguz knows a thing or four about doing too much work. After he joined Google, he wound up in the hospital – four times – because he pushed himself too hard. On his blog, Tunguz writes, “Being productive isn’t about doing more and more in the same amount of time. It’s about doing only the most important things well. And either saying no to the other things or finding another way for them to get done.”
Saying no is hard. The problem is, everytime you say yes to a project, you say to to a future project. There are only 24 hours in each day – I checked – and you can’t add more time on. If you never say no, you’ll quickly exceed your limits, and no hack in the world is going to make your hospital stay super productive.
While I enjoy my couch occasionally, I used to work on it full time. It took me years to realize that, while I was getting work done, I was also slowly killing myself. I worked odd hours, I never went outside, never saw anyone, and never felt right.
It was hard to stop and say no to the lifestyle because it seemed like I was winning. I was productive. I made good money. I got to work at home, for goodness sakes. How bad could it be?
Finally figuring out that I needed to say no to that kind of productivity changed my life. I’m happier, healthier, and much more productive, having left my false productivity behind.
Be Warren Buffett. Also, love your job
We’ll end on my favorite businessman of all time, Mr. Warren Buffett. In his letter to shareholders back in 2009, Buffett wrote, “Now 66, Tony [Nicely] still tap-dances to the office every day, just as I do at 79. We both feel lucky to work at a business we love.”
There’s not a lot more to be said. If you want to be the most productive version of yourself possible, you have to do something you love.
It took me a long time to stop thinking about how much money I was going to make in one job versus another or how prestigious a title was. It takes a long time to understand that generating a lot of work at a job you despise isn’t rewarding at all.
Not everyone needs to chase their dream or fulfill their childhood fantasies. You can love a job that you stumbled into. You can love the work you do because it’s interesting work or because it’s done with interesting people.
If you want to be a more productive person, find the thing you love about your job and focus in on it. I promise, you’ll do more than you ever imagined possible.
Follow along with us
We’ll be looking at other ways to make your business better, make more out of the time you have, and make more money as the year goes on. If you’d like to follow along with us, check out the Capterra Knocking Down Doors blog. We’d love to have you along for the ride.
If you’ve got a great productivity tip, drop it in the comments below. We can all get better together. Good luck.