How can we manage our tasks and responsibilities more quickly and effectively? Personal productivity expert Robert Pozen has made it his mission to help executives develop answers to this question. Pozen is a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, a senior research fellow at the Brookings Institution, and author of the book Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours.
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“I’ve found very few people who find they’re particularly productive,” Pozen reports, even when it comes to senior managers in highly successful institutions.
He adds that the participants in his exec-ed courses generally fall into one of two categories: “There are the people who view themselves as inefficient procrastinators—some are what I call ‘heavy-duty procrastinators,’ who can’t start anything till day before,” he explains. “And then there are those who view themselves as pretty efficient, but they’re encountering difficult workplace issues and having trouble getting through the things they have to do.”
For both inherent procrastinators and those facing external obstacles to productivity, Pozen points to three key areas where leaders often need help in using their time more effectively:
Deal With Email
Doesn’t it feel like we spend most of our life on email? Pozen’s approach is that, really, only 20 percent of all emails require a response. It’s best to deal with those messages right away and file the rest.
People who make it to the C-suite do so because they’re huge producers and tend to be believe they are the best person to do certain strategic tasks. The key, though, is to spend your precious time on tasks that can only be done well by you. The rest can and should be delegated.
Keep Long-Term Goals in Sight
Execs often shuttle from one meeting to another without relation to their own ultimate objectives. Managers should learn to systematically prioritize their yearly goals and integrate steps toward these into their weekly schedule.
Try These Practical Exercises
Whether at the office or in an exec-ed classroom, the most important thing is to actually put productivity principles into practice. Here are two tips from Pozen’s course that you can try yourself:
Read Faster by Reading Less
“It’s possible to speed-read 2,000 words a minute, but my view is you can’t retain that,” explains Pozen. “You can structure your reading to concentrate only on the most important things.”
Make Tentative Conclusions Before Big Decisions
“If you spend two months researching an issue before making a decision, you’ll waste time gathering irrelevant facts and may miss critical issues. Start ruling out options after just two days and keep making tentative conclusions to focus your research and make better decisions faster.”
So, has this productivity guru mastered all his own techniques for himself? “I advise people to just look at email once an hour, and skip over stuff that isn’t important,” Pozen admits, “but I sometimes find myself checking mail every 15 minutes or half hour—even though I know it’s not the right thing to do!”
Laura Montgomery is an independent higher-education consultant.
The Executive Education Navigator is a first-of-its-kind search and discovery tool launched by The Economist Careers Network to aid executives’ search for their ideal executive education programs. Its blog includes posts on career hacks and industry trends.