Harvard Business School lecturer explains how to increase productivity at work
It's not the time you spend at work that counts, but how you spend that time, he says
Knowing priorities and avoiding unnecessary meetings is key
Exercise and private time are crucial to avoiding burnout, he says
Editor’s Note: Robert C. Pozen, Senior Lecturer at Harvard Business School and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Author of forthcoming book in October, “Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours” (HarperCollins). Follow him on Twitter: @pozen.
I used to be a lawyer at a firm in Washington, D.C. My specialty was advising financial institutions on complex transactions and I was often able to answer clients’ questions quickly. That made my clients happy and gave me more time to spend with my friends and family. But because I was paid based on how many hours I could bill, my efficiency was costly.
Many other organizations – even those that don’t bill by the hour – place too much emphasis on time spent at work. Employees who burn the midnight oil might be viewed as “dedicated” to their work, while others who quietly get their work done during business hours might be passed over for a promotion.
Simply put, punching a time clock makes no sense for professionals. Their contribution is not the time they spend on their work but the value they create through their knowledge.
Of course, senior executives can and should take aggressive steps to shift their organization’s focus away from hours worked, towards results produced. For instance, they could reform billing practices and institute flextime arrangements for employees.
But what if you’re not in a position to change your organization’s policies? Within your own sphere, you can focus on results rather than hours worked – both by using your time more efficiently in the office, and by protecting your time away from the office. Here’s how:
Know your priorities
Many things that you do at work are probably not the best use of your time. For instance, many professionals often spend much more time than necessary perfecting relatively low-priority tasks.
However, if there is an emphasis on hours worked, rather than results produced, there is little incentive for individual employees to think rigorously about whether they are using their time wisely. Even if employees’ perfectionist tendencies are pushing more important priorities to the wayside, people still feel and appear productive – “Since I’m sitting at my desk doing things, I must be making progress at my tasks,” they might subconsciously think.
The way to fix this habit is easy to say but hard to do: Understand what really matters to you, your boss, and your organization, and then be willing to be less than perfect on your lower-priority tasks.
Avoid meetings like the plague!
In the same spirit, most professionals would agree that many business meetings are incredibly wasteful – they typically last too long, they usually fail to produce concrete results, and they are sometimes completely unnecessary. Yet, just as a misplaced focus on hours allows perfectionism to persist in the workplace, it also allows employees to keep scheduling redundant, poorly run meetings.
So to be more productive, you should take the initiative to minimize the meetings on your schedule. If you’re considering calling a meeting, think about whether you can accomplish your goals through a thoughtful email. And while you can’t escape every meeting, try to decline invitations whenever you can – especially if the meeting is called by someone other than your boss.
Don’t forget to recharge
On the other side of the coin, an organization that places too much emphasis on time spent at the office probably neglects the importance of time spent away from the office. In order to be productive at work, professionals need to be able to recharge, physically and mentally.
Exercise every day and get enough sleep
On the physical dimension, sleep and exercise are often the first two personal activities to face the chopping block when professionals have to increase their hours spent in the office.
But this reallocation of time doesn’t actually help people get more done. In my experience, many professionals would get more done during the day if they worked a little less – and used that time to get extra sleep and some physical exercise.
Thus, it’s critical that you commit to getting seven to eight hours of sleep every night if at all possible; if you don’t, your performance at work will suffer. And get yourself on a routine of modest exercise nearly every day. Try to let peer pressure work to your advantage: join a sports team or a workout class whose members can exert social pressure on those mornings or evenings when you just don’t feel like working out.
Long hours at work wear people down mentally. All too often, I see professionals work to 8, 9, or 10 every night and go into the office every day of every weekend, even if there is no real crisis. While these professionals might be increasing their output over the short-term, this type of overwork inevitably leads to burnout. And if you’re burned out, you’re not productive.
So you should assertively protect your personal time. That means being firm with your boss about times when you are not available – family dinners or your child’s soccer games, perhaps.
Don’t be afraid to speak up
Obviously, asking for more flexibility at work is easier said than done. You might fear that the mere act of requesting time off would make you come off as “lazy” or “not a team player.” But while I certainly can’t guarantee that every request will be successful, I can state with confidence that there is little harm in asking politely.
Believe it or not, most bosses understand your desire to spend some time with your children or enjoy a romantic dinner with your spouse. Your boss can’t address your needs unless he or she knows what they are!
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert C. Pozen.