Jessica Kizorek used to start her day by reading e-mail and responding until she noticed she wasn't getting to the priorities on her to-do list. "Half the day had gone by and e-mail had sucked the juice out of me." • To break the habit, Kizorek, founder of BadassBusinessWoman.org, challenged herself to be more productive, cutting back to only four work hours a day. The rest she allocated to leisure. Instead of planning business meetings at Starbucks, she had phone conversations. "It's amazing when you see what you can cut out, what doesn't go directly into making you money. You only see that when you force yourself to work smarter, not longer," she says.
How often do you ask yourself if you are spending your workday being productive or just being busy? Most likely, the answer is not often enough. Even as the average workweek expands, worker productivity in the United States is on a slide, a new Labor Department study shows. In the most recent quarter, the measure of employee output per hour fell at a 0.9 percent annual rate, while hours worked climbed at a 3.6 percent rate.
During our workdays, we're answering e-mails, we're responding to text messages, we're chatting with co-workers, we're blogging and twittering. We're spending more than 3 billion minutes on Facebook each day. We're putting in longer hours but we're not necessarily landing more business or moving closer to our goals.
"We're focusing on the urgent at the expense of the important," says Dan Markovitz, president of TimeBack Management. "People feel overwhelmed. Some is real, some is psychological. They never feel like they are caught up because they aren't getting to the important stuff."
Most of us could learn a lot from the hyperefficient entrepreneur or business executive. They make lists, they set goals, they delegate, they work in blocks of time. They don't start their day in their in-box.
When Carol Greenberg Brook arrives at the office, she has already read her e-mails, flagged the priorities and sent them to her assistant to print out and create a to-do list. As co-founder and president of Continental Real Estate Companies, she walks in to her Coral Gables office focused on what needs to get done. That usually includes delegating and guiding staff on how to spend their time wisely. "I'm a good communicator. I pull myself back from minutia and give direction."
Experts say the biggest mistake most workers make is starting the day out reading e-mail. Instead, do the important to-dos in the first hour of work. "Ask yourself, if that's the only thing I accomplish, will I be satisfied with my day?" says Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek. He says what's most important, typically, is the task you're most uncomfortable doing — having a conversation with your boss or a challenging customer. "We need to reprogram ourselves from 'more is better' to making better decisions about how we spend our time."
Ricky Arriola, CEO of Intel Direct in Miami, is among the highly productive. He runs a 700-person company and chairs Miami's Adrian Arsht Performing Arts Center. He says being in good shape and exercising give him energy to stay productive. Weekly, he writes down his goals and includes deadlines and an action plan. He knows what he must do himself, and what to delegate. "The goal is to not get caught up in things that consume my time but don't get me a whole lot of productivity. I want to focus on the big things."
Arriola carefully scrutinizes whom he gives face time. "When things come up and people want my attention, I have to measure what they want with whether it will further my goal. If not, then I think before I get involved." He says this takes instilling discipline in his staff, teaching them to only request a meeting when it's something only he uniquely can handle. "Otherwise I push back."
Experts say the secret to being productive is to track how you spend your day. One woman I know tracked her hours for a week to figure out why she was busy, but not making money. She discovered she was spending 10 hours a week driving to see clients. She hadn't been billing them for drive time. "It doesn't have to be a monumental analysis," Markovitz, the TimeBack Management president, says. "It doesn't even have to be consecutive days. You just need five or six days of data."
The next step is asking why you are spending time on each task and getting rid of what isn't working. RescueTime is software that can track how you spend your time. One executive who used it realized that even though he was reading and responding to e-mail only a couple of minutes at a time, it was adding up to a couple of hours a day.
When Stever Robbins, author of Get-It-Done Guy's 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More, scrutinized his time use, he found he was attending networking events for a group, but had never picked up a single client. Robbins says he faced up to recognizing the events as social and decided he would rather spend time hosting a dinner party.
After assessing how you spend your time, you should decide how you should be allocating it, what is essential to your success or your organization's success. This often requires a talk with the boss for guidance. Once it is clear, you will want to make those tasks visible — as a Post-it on your computer screen.
Clearly, the biggest challenge is avoiding distractions and staying focused. Ferriss says when people get overwhelmed, they often turn to reading e-mail as a default, instead of being proactive. He suggests sticking to set times to read e-mail. Ferriss insists the key to productivity is asking why. "Do you want more income, more time with the kids? If you are doing something and you are having fun, you're not wasting time."