8 Productivity Hacks for Ambitious Leaders

This isn’t where you expected to be. You’re the one who’s supposed to be setting the world on fire.

But there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Your to-do list keeps growing. It’s out of control.

Tasks aren’t getting completed. And to make matters worse, new deadlines are looming. Ugh.

You’re not as productive as you could be. Or should be.

In fact, you feel like you’re losing ground.

More hours and more effort don’t seem to be solving the problem.

You don’t need to just catch up in the short term, you need to gain control of this beast going forward, too.

Here are eight hacks that will help put you in control and become a productivity machine.

1.) Take a Prioritization Lesson from Steve Jobs

According to biographer Walter Isaacson, when Steve Jobs came back to Apple in 1997, he initiated a practice at the company’s annual leadership retreat.

Jobs took his top 100 leaders through a vigorous debate to identify the company’s top ten priorities for the future. He would cross out items four through ten and announce, “we can only do three.”

Jobs forced Apple to focus on a limited number of priorities and that disciplined approach led to a string of incredibly successful new product introductions. In the process, he turned Apple from a company teetering on bankruptcy into the most valuable company in the world.

Juggling too many priorities proves out the adage “when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” Your employees are confused about what is really important and you become ineffective.

Identify your top three priorities, in ranked order. Put them in writing. Share them.

Don’t be known for taking on the most commitments. Become known for getting things done. Completely. On time. Every time.

2.) Make one little thing a daily obsession

Based on your top three priorities above, what is one activity, that if you did it every day, would give you the greatest certainty of accomplishing the outcome you are seeking?

For example, if one of your priorities was to expand your network of relationships with influencers and A players, you might commit to daily sending a personal correspondence with the expressed purpose of delivering value to them. You might send a helpful article on a topic of interest to them. You might make a personal introduction to someone they’d like to meet.

Through these daily activities you deliver value — and you create the likelihood of reciprocity on their part.

They’ll feel like they owe you one.

I know you’re thinking “Every day?”

That sounds difficult. Maybe impossible. Why every day?

Because otherwise, our best intentions get lost in a sea of distractions and procrastination.

Disciplined execution of daily activities leads to massive results. And daily doesn’t mean when it is convenient, or most days.

Leadership guru Dave Anderson, in his book It’s Not Rocket Science, uses the acronym EDMED to describe these daily activities — “Every Day Means Every Day!”

No excuses. EDMED.

3.) Be maniacal about your “avoid at all cost” list

Maybe more important than any kind of to-do list you may have is your not-to-do list. We spend way too much time on tasks that were last year’s priority or that we repeat out of habit.

We’ve done it for as long as we can remember. The more successful we are, the more visibility we have and the more opportunities come our way. That’s the good news. The bad news is the more things come flying at you, the greater the likelihood of becoming overwhelmed with trivial tasks and things that used to be important.

Avoid the distraction of the priorities that don’t make it into your top three. They’ll tease you and tempt you, but keep a relentless focus on your top priorities.

The ability to say no is one of the most powerful productivity weapons in your arsenal.

Write down the priorities that don’t make it into your top three. Name them. It helps you visualize the time-sucking, distraction-creating, life-of-their own impact they can have on your life. Then take a page from Warren Buffet. Name this group of tasks your “avoid at all cost” list.

The intentionality of not getting sucked into distractions gives you a dopamine dump, just as if you accomplished a significant task. Your brain is saying “thank you.”

4.) Schedule white space and sprints

Time is a precious commodity and it is critical that you gain control of your calendar.

In addition to meetings, travel and personal commitments that fill the week, two things that you need to schedule on your calendar are white spaces and sprints. These should be scheduled in blocks of one hour, at least twice a week for each.

The white space is used for strategic time to get out of the weeds and have some strategic reflection time. Are you neglecting any relationships or projects? Who needs more of your time? What do you need to learn and where might you find the information you need?

Blocks of white space are also used as buffer time. Sometimes you need an extra ten minutes to circle back with a direct report or a half hour deal with a problem before it becomes a crisis. Surprises, both positive and negative, are inevitable and this gives you a pressure release valve for your day.

Scheduled sprint time is a concept often referred to as the Pomodoro technique. You schedule 25 minutes of focused, uninterrupted time and you work as hard and fast as you can. You take a five or ten minute break and then repeat the process.

You can’t go all out for an entire workday. But maximum energy and focus for short bursts can lead to great productivity. It can also fuel your competitive nature and give you a sense of accomplishment. For at least a short period of time, you were superhuman. Super productive. Cool.

You need to actually name your white space and sprints and write it on your calendar. We feel guilty if we see nothing on our calendars. We’re conditioned to fill white space with stuff. With tasks. With anything.

So come up with a name. Claim those blocks of time. I label mine “Strategic Time.” Yeah, not very profound. But it works for me. My sprint time is filled with a cheetah emoji and a fire emoji (all the running emoji’s are incredibly lame).

Protect these blocks of time, like you would an important customer or prospect.

Those are appointments with yourself. And who is more important than you?

5.) Use this one daily discipline to declutter your mind and save you time

Someone you trust gives you a recommendation. Maybe you hear about a resource that may be helpful for you in the future. Or you think of that person you want to follow up with when you have a spare minute. Or you are driving and an idea comes into your mind. Days later you try to recall the recommendation, the helpful resource or the life-changing idea. Crickets. For the life of you, you can’t remember.

Our memories are notoriously bad at remembering details. But it gets worse. The time and brain damage we suffer trying to recall those details sends us down a psychological rabbit hole. Frustration kicks in. Time lapses. Anger builds. It’s so infuriating!

When the good idea, the resource, the thing-you-want-to-try-to-remember enters your consciousness, write it down. Immediately! Don’t worry about grammar or complete sentences. Just enough detail to allow you to remember the thought.

You can use a pen on a pad of paper, Notes on your phone or iPad, the Wunderlist app or a voice to text program. Whatever works for you. I’m currently experimenting with Dragon Dictation (and so far, it’s working!). Whatever you use, make sure you keep it with you during waking hours.

During your next white space session — or at least at the end of the day, comb through these random notes and determine next steps. If you should take action, do so. If you need to schedule time to address it, put it on your calendar. If you need to delegate, determine who, how and when. If the item is no longer important, delete it.

Your list should be blank at the end of the day (see #8 below).

That gives you a sense of accomplishment and declutters your mind from all those fragments that have been floating just beyond your reach inside your memory.

6.) Don’t let your phone turn you into Pavlov’s dog

Our smart phones are necessary for communications, information and social interaction. They’re helpful. Powerful. But they’re also addicting. They’re distracting. They’re both time-saving and time-consuming. They can create a sense of FOMO in a millisecond.

The productivity drain isn’t just the time spent checking Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. It is the time it takes to re-engage in the original task.

According to a study by the University of California at Irvine it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to work at the same level of concentration. A quick one-minute update on your Instagram account can lead to a 24 minute loss of productivity. Ouch!

You have to control your smart phone before it controls you. Before you lose hours of time in your day. Unintentionally.

Take these steps:

  • Turn off non-critical notifications on your phone
  • Use the Freedom app to block distracting apps and websites during your workday.
  • Get your social media fix on scheduled, limited blocks of time.
  • Turn on your do not disturb app during meetings and during your scheduled white space and sprint blocks.

7.) Delegate like a pro — without resorting to Jedi mind tricks

Your job as a leader isn’t to get things done. Your job is to get things done through other people. In order to leverage your talent and influence, you must be an effective delegator.

You need to share the following with the person to whom you are delegating:

  • What needs to be accomplished? Set clear expectations for the assignment (specific outcomes or deliverables).
  • Make sure they understand the why — Why is it important? Why did you select them for the task?
  • What is the specific date and time for completion of the task?
  • What authority do they have to make decisions and take action?
  • What resources are available to them (financial, personnel, leadership availability, etc.)?
  • What is the method for checking in with you regarding progress and next steps?

Bonus idea from Mike Scott, CEO of Totally Accountable Systems: when you delegate to someone, have them paraphrase and repeat back to you any verbal instructions. You will be amazed how often this catches small — and sometimes massive — differences in what was said and what was “heard.”

8.) Wrap up your day and put a bow on it

The last thing you want to do at the end of the day is to shut down your computer and go to bed. You need to get a good night’s sleep so that you can bring energy and focus tomorrow. You need to prepare both mentally and physically to maximize your rest.

That requires you to get some closure at day’s end and also set yourself up for success for the following day.

You need sleep. In fact, one of the best productivity hacks s a good night’s sleep

You need to de-clutter your brain.

Clean up the notes you took on your collection device (#5 above) — delegate, file, send the email, enter the contact info… in other words, take the action required to cross this item off your list (and mentally let it go!).

Have a notebook designed for your daily close-out.

In it record answers to the following:

  • What did you learn today?
  • What are you grateful for?
  • What are your top three priorities for the next day

This daily discipline puts you in control of your subconscious mind before you prepare to sleep.

You tied up those random loose ends.

You learned something. You grew. You developed. Your day mattered.

You are grateful. It is hard to stay mad or anxious when you express gratitude. It stills your mind.

You already know what you need to focus on tomorrow. You don’t have to guess. You don’t have to agonize.

Now you can sleep. A good night’s sleep may be the best productivity hack of all.

Your increased productivity will lead to more… (and that’s great news)

Ambitious leaders want more; more responsibility, more opportunity, more personal growth.

But you can’t get overwhelmed. In order to get more, you need to be much more productive in the time constraints we all face: twenty-four hours in a day and seven days in a week.

Identify one of these eight hacks that you will begin to implement TODAY.

Then watch your to-do list start to shrink.

As you work your way through these hacks, watch more come your way. Not just additional responsibilities, opportunities and completed projects. But more control. More time. More satisfaction. More confidence.

What’s the one thing that is in your control to implement that could produce the biggest effect?

Start there. Start now.

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