In today’s fast-paced world, we are constantly trying to figure out how to do more faster. A Google search for productivity yields over 205 billion results. Amazon sells over 36,000 books with “productivity” in the title. The sheer amount of information available on the subject of productivity points to the fact that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.
While many people think that picking a productivity hack at random is a surefire way to become more efficient, a better approach is to find the productivity solutions that fit your specific needs. The secret is paying attention to which weaknesses are slowing you down and then turning those weaknesses into strengths that will propel your productivity.
Here’s how three productivity masters found the perfect hack to address their productivity weak spots.
Andy Grove’s Managerial Dilemma
Andy Grove graduated with a PhD in chemical engineering and started his career working on the Fairchild Semiconductor, a company that later spurred the microcomputer revolution. After working as an assistant director and coauthoring over 40 technical papers, he left the company to co-found Intel. Thirty years later, he was the CEO of a 20 billion dollar company.
But as his authority increased, he found himself falling into the typical managerial trap: maximum effort had little to no effect on the output of his team and organization. He was getting caught up in operational logistics, such as meetings and emails, and barely had time to use his experience and skills to properly lead his people.
When he started keeping track of how he was spending his time, he knew that he needed to find a solution to address all this time wasting. In his book, High Output Management, he created a system that quantified his management activity in terms of output. This way, he was able to cut out any activities that weren’t as productive as possible.
PRIORITIZE HIGH-LEVERAGE ACTIVITIES
Grove came up with the concept of high-leverage and low-leverage output. He defines leverage as the measure of the organization output generated by any given managerial activity. That means that every task should increase the output of the organization by some degree.
High-leverage activities are activities that require minimal work with maximum output. This happens when a manager can brief a group of employees with well-focused advice, or key information.
Negative leverage activities are activities that serve as a detriment to productivity, such as coming to a meeting unprepared. Not only are you wasting your own and your employees’ time, but you are keeping them from doing high-leverage tasks.
Based on this system, Grove says you can improve your productivity in one of three ways:
- Speed up low-leverage work. As much as we try to avoid it, there is some low-leverage work that has to be done, such as reading emails and scheduling meetings. You can speed up many mindless tasks by using automation tools and schedulers.
- Increase leverage when possible. The simplest way to do this is to relay succinct and useful information to multiple people at once. That might mean cc’ing an employee on an email that has constructive criticism to another employee. It also means coming to a meeting prepared with input and expected outcomes.
- Focus more time on high-leverage work, and less time on low-leverage work. Many people tend to organize their day based on how large a task is, or how much time it’ll take to get it done. But if the task, no matter how big, has no effect on the output of the organization, it’s not important.
Julie Larson Green’s Procrastination Predicament
Julie Larson Green is the Chief Experience Officer at Microsoft. She is one of the most influential people in the company credited with being the mind behind the sales-record breaking Windows 7 operating system. She started out as a self-taught computer engineer, and rose through the ranks to become head of product management and eventually corporate VP. But despite all these crazy impressive accomplishments, the Microsoft productivity queen has, herself, admitted to being lazy and a procrastinator.
And she’s not alone. Some of the most successful people in history have also been dilly-dalliers. Leonardo DaVinci, Renaissance genius, was said to never have finished a single project on time. Mark Twain, author of over 30 novels, has called himself “naturally a lazy, good for nothing vagabond.” Al Gore has said of Bill Clinton that he is “punctually challenged.”
But all these incredibly productive people weren’t hindered by their laziness— they, like Julie Larson Green, were self-aware enough to fight it and incentivize themselves to get stuff done.
Julie Larson Green came up with a way to actually use her laziness to become more efficient. Because she knew that she had a certain amount of work to get done every day, her laziness drove her to find ways to do more work in less time, so she didn’t have to work as much overall. These are three key ways in which Green has leveraged her laziness:
- Finish what you start. To keep a big project from seeming overly arduous, break it up into smaller tasks and put them on a timeline that you have to stick to. If you are a natural procrastinator, imposing more deadlines upon yourself will give you the pressure you need to get stuff done.
- Use downtime to stay informed. Green makes sure to take full advantage of “leisure reading.” She knows that her laziness will prompt her to take breaks, so instead of taking time out of her schedule to do market research, she uses this downtime to read and engage with content that could be useful.
- Allocate time for quiet. Green, like other lazy people, knew that she needed nothing but time to get her thoughts together and relax. So she set aside a few hours every day just to think. Mindfulness experts say that quiet time helps the brain to stop processing as much information as it normally does, so you can walk away with it refocused and reenergized.
James Altucher’s Pessimism Problem
James Altucher has co-founded over twenty companies, is popular podcaster, and is the best-selling author of eleven books. His book Choose Yourself was voted by USA Today as one of the 12 best business books of all Time. Currently, Altucher works as a head fund manager for Formula Capital, where much of his job involves evaluating businesses, ideas, and people.
Because he wasn’t always right about his investments, he often found himself dwelling and losing focus. Upon deeper self-examination, he found that he spent an exorbitant amount of time thinking about missed opportunities and having fake debates with people that made his life more difficult. The problem with these negative thoughts is that they’re not useful, taking up valuable time that could be used more productively.
James Altucher found that 80% of his thinking was useless. His solution was to treat the brain like an email inbox, filtering out any irrelevant and non-helpful ideas. Here’s how to deal with these kinds of thoughts:
- Identify problem areas and write them down. For James, these were thoughts that had to do with pessimism, envy, shame, and possessiveness. He wrote them down to constantly jog his memory about having to avoid or minimize the time spent on thinking these things.
- Be mindful of flawed thinking. Try to remind yourself of this flawed thinking as often as possible. You can leave yourself notes, or even set reminders on your phone. Studies have shown that by constantly rereading your goals (at least two times a day), you are programming your subconscious to prioritize them.
- Eliminate them. Of course you can’t stop yourself from ever thinking about negative things. But the important thing is to not let yourself be carried away into a dark hole of resentment. By recognizing and labeling this kind of thinking as useless, you can divert your attention to more useful and productive thinking. Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, has proven that not only will staying away from negativity free up your time, but staying positive will make you even more
The Value of Self-Awareness
Everyone has different ways of tackling the issue of productivity. While some recommend ridding yourself of distractions, others recommend taking long walks to stimulate creativity. But what may work for overzealous perfectionist Andy Grove, will definitely not work for mindful procrastinator Julie Larson Green.
But aside from being wildly successful, there’s only one thing that Julie Larson Green, Andy Grove, and James Altucher have in common: they are all self-aware. All three productivity whizzes have found a way to examine their workflow, and skyrocket their productivity by addressing their weaknesses directly.
So if there’s one secret to increasing productivity, its self-examination. Find your weak area—whether it’s a character flaw or a wrong perspective—and look for a solution that will help you leverage it, so you can become your most productive self.