Maximizing Productivity: Building The Three-Legged Stool

The science of increasing individual productivity is derived from the art of blending together three interrelated disciplines: time management, organizational skills, and workflow processing. This article summarizes each area and provides a list of specific QuickTips that will improve your productivity immediately.

Time Management

I often quip that there’s no such thing as time management because time ticks inexorably forward. Though you can’t really manage time itself, you can manage how you use it. The distinction is between managing something external – time – and managing something internal – behavior.

Changing long-established behaviors is difficult. I advise looking for one or two small changes to make to experience the positive feedback of success immediately. Once a number of small changes are paying productivity dividends, larger changes can be tackled. Here are several easy time management QuickTips to try.

• Eliminate/Shorten Meetings. If you control the occurrence or length of any meetings, ask yourself three questions.

  1. Does this meeting even have to happen?
  2. If so, how frequently?
  3. If so, can you cut the scheduled time for the meeting by 25%, e.g. reduce a 60-minute meeting to 45?

Many meetings are simply unnecessary and are counter-productive because people have to prepare for and attend them instead of getting work done. Even necessary meetings can often be reduced in frequency, e.g., a weekly meeting moved to bi-weekly. Additionally, work fills the time allotted. Consequently, 45 minutes will suffice for most 60-minute meetings and 20 minutes for most 30-minute meetings. The net result of these small changes can mean hundreds of hours in increased productivity.

• Group Like Tasks. It’s very common to see people charging around to get things done. However, if you watch what they’re actually doing, you’ll find much of the charging around is duplicative. A person may rush to the supply closet to grab a new tablet only to charge back five minutes later for a new pen! The same is true of people “dropping by” to ask a question – again and again throughout the day. The answer here is to simply group (and ask others to group) tasks into logical categories, so that they can be performed together to save time.

• Leave Time in between Meetings. One of the biggest mistakes most busy people make is scheduling meetings back-to-back. Two problems are occurring here. First, you are running out of one meeting without capturing all your thoughts and rushing into the next meeting not ready to focus on that subject. This results in unnecessary lost data on both sides of the equation. Second, you’re running and rushing around which only accelerates your mental exhaustion and reduces your overall effectiveness.

Leave at least five minutes open between meetings (15 is preferable), plus realistic travel time. These precious minutes will allow you to collect and record all the information from the last meeting before entering the next meeting. You will also be more focused when entering the next meeting with the last meeting put to bed mentally. Oh, and if you’re early to the next meeting, take a break and just enjoy the view of whatever is around you – it’s called relaxing!

• Use Subject Line Naming Conventions. When dealing with e-mails, calendar events and tasks, create and use a meaningful naming convention for the subject lines. Naming conventions will save you lots of time when you’re searching for information related to that matter. For example, for an appointment in your calendar, put the following in the subject line:

Mtg: John Doe (123-456-7890) – Re: Johnson Marketing Campaign – Mr. Doe’s Office

Now you can look directly at the event item on your computer (and smartphone) and see exactly what will be happening and where.

This is true of e-mail subject lines as well. Instead of:


try something like this:

Johnson Marketing Campaign – Update Following Meeting with John Doe

It’s not only easier for you to search for and find later, the recipient of your e-mail will immediately know what the content of the email is.

• Coach Versus Instruct. When you manage others, the best thing you can do both for yourself and for them is to develop their abilities to do their job with as little supervision from you as possible. You’ll accomplish that by coaching them on how to get the result you need versus instructing them on the specific steps to accomplish that result. The difference is subtle but important. If you help them figure how to succeed on their own, you won’t need to look over their shoulder along the way.

Small advances in these time management behaviors demonstrate my point that it only takes a little savings each day to aggregate into a significant improvement over the longer term. Remember also, that I’m talking about both your productivity and your sense of accomplishment.

Organizational Skills

We’ve all seen the desk that looks like a hurricane recently passed over it. The oft-heard retort is, “But I know where everything is.” And that may be true to a certain degree. However, when pressed, it usually takes about 30-45 seconds to actually find a specific item. Those seconds add up over time, resulting in hours lost searching.

I’m not advocating that you live a highly structured life or keep your working environment Über-organized. However, small changes to your organizational behaviors pay big dividends both in terms of efficiency and greater peace of mind. Try a couple these QuickTips to see how they work for you.

• Create a Designated Work Area. This is the easiest way to improve productivity that I’ve ever discovered. Take everything off your desk and put it all behind or beside you. See that wide open space in front of you? It’s called a desktop! I call it a designated work space and into it should only go the ONE thing you are working on right now.

Multi-tasking is far less efficient than single-tasking. Seriously, just do a Google search for the hundreds of recent articles on the subject. Creating a designated work space allows you to focus on the one thing that needs doing. When you’re done with it, put it away and turn around and pick up the next thing!

• Develop a Structured Filing System (Physical or Electronic or Both). Papers piled high all around you is not a filing system. It’s a “noisy” collection that costs you and others precious minutes all the time. The same is true for your computer where you might have hundreds of e-mails stacked up in your Inbox and dozens of shortcuts on your screen.

Most businesses have a filing system for physical files. Take advantage of it and, if you have an assistant, delegate to him/her the task of grabbing finished items out of your workspace daily. If you don’t have an assistant, make it part of the “grouped tasks” above! For electronic filing, just duplicate your business’s physical system. Create folders and sub-folders and file stuff away, both in your e-mail and on your computer.

• Centralize Task List Management. Instead of having a dozen little sticky notes plastered all over the place, create a centralized task list and develop a method for routinely reviewing and updating it. The more things get spread around, the more likelihood of system failure. This is an easy one to do and will greatly increase your productivity.

• Use a Subject Line Naming Convention. I’ll say it again – leverage your subject lines wherever possible through a descriptive naming convention. See above for examples.

Consider organizational skills the oil in the machine. When things are where you expect them to be and you can readily find and/or identify them, everything runs more smoothly. The result is increased productivity and a greater sense of well-being.

Workflow Processing

In today’s world the phrase “workflow processing” brings to mind countless consultants descending on a business to make it all better. Though to some extent true, more simply viewed, workflow processing is just identifying the steps to getting something done. The struggle we all face today is the endless stream of interruptions and distractions that bombard us while we’re trying to do just that! Here are a couple of QuickTips that will help you navigate through the daily minefield more productively.

• Regularly Assess Workloads. Most people hit the office at a dead run these days. STOP! There are two times in the day when it’s vitally important that you assess what your workload is – first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening. Determining what’s on your plate is the very best way to determine how to best integrate all the new things coming at you.

Instead of starting your day in your e-mail Inbox, first survey what is already on your to-do list then jump into your e-mail. Similarly, spend the last five minutes of each day assessing what’s on your plate before going home. Oh, and if you can, do it once mid-day to see your progress and to re-prioritize based what’s happened since your morning review.

• Practice E-mail Triaging. E-mail is the boon and bane of modern-day working environments. We’re fortunate to have it and hate to think about how it’s stacking up in our Inbox right now. The most significant problem with e-mail is that it has created a Pavlovian response mechanism in bright, capable people! We jump every time one comes in and we worry about what we’re missing if we don’t sit in the Inbox all day long waiting for the next one to arrive. Insanity!

Whether you use the QuietSpacing method or some other system, get in the habit of viewing e-mail as just another form of correspondence and triage it accordingly. If you start treating e-mail as correspondence instead of a lifeline, you’ll break the spell and get on with the work at hand.

• Set Outlook up as a “Command Center”. Now that you’re not salivating in your Inbox anymore (!), you can switch over to hanging out in your Calendar view. When you get there, set it for Work Week (View | Work Week) and add your Task View to it (View | TaskPad). Voila! Now you can see your entire week of events and an organized list of your tasks. The next step is to start creating Tasks and using them to collect your…well…tasks in one organized place. Hey, wasn’t there something above about that?

• Sequestering. If you can’t get people to leave you alone, then just leave them! That’s right, move to a conference room or an empty office. Take what you MUST work on (one or two things) and get those tasks done. Then head back to your workspace and tell everyone you were attending to business. None the wiser and you got more done!

• Aggressive Delegation/Prioritization. Oddly enough, all this new technology has created a never-before-experienced problem – a reduced ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. Just because we can do things doesn’t mean we should do them. It’s a lot like the Reply All button. People hit it because it’s there. If you stop hitting it, fewer people are distracted by unnecessary e-mails.

Look at your task list and ask of each item, “How will this drive my primary objectives?” If a particular item won’t move you down that path, de-prioritize it or remove it altogether. You’ll be amazed at how effective you become when you focus your efforts on more productive endeavors.

Sitting On Your New Three-Legged Stool of Productivity

You may or may not be successful with all these proposed changes. However, each small change generates increased control over your productivity and, generally, produces measureable results. The real win comes from continuing to ask yourself, “How can I do X a little better?” There’s always something you can improve upon and each time you do, you receive the reward of achievement!

4 thoughts on “Maximizing Productivity: Building The Three-Legged Stool

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  • Great Article relating to a timely issue especially in the context of cost budget restriction. I may add that in areas such as trademark law where the mass of information is enormous this is even more crucial that the proposed solution can be fine tuned based on heavy use and control of technology.

    Kind regards,
    Alan Ragueneau

  • Great article – full of common sense things we never seem to think of ourselves – thanks for bringing it to our attention!

    Sharon Druker
    Business Law Partner
    Robinson Sheppard Shapiro LLP

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