What High Performing Leaders Do Differently

Even talented people mistakenly decide that the key to productivity is to spend more time toiling. But time is a precious commodity, and it really is possible to work smarter, not harder.

Jeramy Kaiman, Head of Professional Recruitment, West, LHH Recruitment Solutions

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What do Jeff Bezos and Amazon’s newest entry-level hire have precisely the same amount of?

Time. As is said about waterfront property, they’re not making more of it. Your 24 hours are no different than mine. 

Too often, even talented people mistakenly decide that the key to productivity or promotion is to spend more time toiling — adding work hours at the expense of family or personal hours. Ironically, this can decrease productivity. Stress and insufficient rest reduce effectiveness, especially when it comes to thought-intensive strategic work.

Perhaps it has become something of a cliché to say, “Work smarter, not harder.” But it can be done. I lead a team of extremely high performers and we meet regularly to talk about how to they are best maximizing their time, skills, and abilities. They support each other and share productivity tactics they’ve tested and proved successful. 

To kick off the process for uncovering these hidden gems of wisdom, I first asking that each member of the team set a baseline by figuring out how they’re currently spending their time. It’s a straightforward process. Pick a week, create a simple spreadsheet, and document your activity every 10 minutes. At the end of the week, study the spreadsheet. 

Most people are surprised at how scattered their activities are — they interrupt strategic work with rote administrative tasks, respond to email and text messages at random times, and circle back to to-dos far more than they should.

Fear not: These common inefficiencies are opportunities to improve your personal ROT (that’s right, Return on Time). To that end, here are some terrific tools and strategies my team of high performers put to use that are proven to work:

    • Avoid the temptation to multitask. I mention this first because it may seem counterintuitive; many leaders believe they can knock off two or more tasks at once. The human brain has a very limited capability to do so effectively — especially where important decisions are concerned. So instead of thinning out your email inbox while you’re on an important call, schedule sufficient time (more on that in a moment) for the emails, texts and approvals that are an important, if not always thrilling, component of leadership.
    • Never stop triaging. Speaking of administrative functions, I constantly assess whether my team should be performing a particular task at all. If we should, do I personally need to do it? Or should someone else? And when? These should be ongoing assessments. Remember, the fact that “it’s always been done this way” is not sufficient reason to keep doing it this way.
    • Schedule your week ... I’m a big fan of scheduling, as are all the leaders I know. This is where that spreadsheet you created comes into play. Group similar tasks together, blocking out enough time for each. Also, be sure to set a time frame for completing each task. “Think about upcoming rollout” is not a good to-do on your calendar; “Draft rollout memo and assign subcommittee chairs” is better. The additional benefit here is that once the task is complete, it’s complete — you can move on to the next challenge. I’ve found that when people create vague time blocks like “Think about upcoming rollout,” they use all the time available whether they achieve anything or not. 
    • … but make the scheduling count. One more thought on scheduling. It’s a mistake to fill in your calendar with the same rote items each week. For example, if you block the same 30 minutes every single morning to “Read and respond to email,” you’ll probably just teach yourself to ignore that to-do. On my team, we ask people to set a time each day to customize the next day’s plan. In other words, plan to plan.
    • Build in buffer time. Ah, meetings. How we all love them. I’ve found that if a meeting is scheduled to last 30 minutes, it should be wrapped up in 25. For a one-hour meeting, this buffer time should be doubled to 10 minutes. There are several benefits here. First, those precious minutes allow all participants to jot down notes and arrange follow-up tasks. And they do so without running late; as we all know, there are days on which back-to-back meetings are a fact of life. Moreover, a buffer allows you to present yourself in the best way possible going forward. For example, what if Meeting A is emotional and difficult, and Meeting B, which follows on its heels, is an important chance to meet a new candidate or client? A few minutes of downtime can make all the difference.
      • Know your rhythms. Some on my team are self-described morning people. They front-load their day with tasks that require deep analysis or intensive communication. Afternoons are reserved for administrative and reactive work. Many self-help books will tell you everyone should work this way … but I disagree. I know plenty of leaders who prefer to ease into the day, knocking off straightforward tasks while they build energy (perhaps via caffeine!) to tackle the day’s strategic work. The point here is that either method is correct; what’s important is to understand your own rhythms and craft a schedule that ensures you are at your best when the most important work is to be done.
      • Touch it once. If I can't truly address a situation now, why should I spend time reading about and digesting it? Focus on a given issue when you can, and to the extent possible, resolve it — or at least firmly establish a next step.
      • Push your people out of the nest. I recently heard a psychologist addressing parents of adult children. “When they’re 40,” she said, drily, “I don’t think you should be parenting anymore.” Leaders are in high demand, with lots of people looking to them for help. But guess what? You need not respond to every request. People will figure things out on their own. This will free significant time for you. And in the long run, it will also create more problem-solvers. Workers will become more independent — and that’s a key step in developing a new generation of leaders.

It always feels like there isn’t enough time. And there are only so many decisions you can make in a day before you start to see diminishing return. High performers typically achieve some of the highest levels of efficiency by understanding how to prioritize the right things at the right times. They know that working more isn’t the necessarily the answer.

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