"No matter what your career aspirations are," writes Robert Pozen in Extreme Productivity, "you should begin by thinking carefully about why you are engaging in any activity and what you can expect to get out of it."
For Pozen, marrying an understanding of the big picture (how to form and place your goals) to the small picture (how to bring them to bear on your schedule), is the essence of productivity.
Given that he once simultaneously served as president of Fidelity Management & Research Company and a full-time lecturer at Harvard Business School (while dashing off articles for Harvard Business Review on the side—read his enviable CV here if you dare), it's clear everyone could learn a thing or two from Pozen about how to work well, and not become overwhelmed.
Chatting in the Fast Company offices, Pozen describes how he "backed into" each step of his career—an instructive path to consider for anyone who's been left tongue-tied by the interview question, "Tell me where you want to be in five years."
Pozen went to Harvard for undergrad, then Yale for law school, and soon started teaching at Georgetown and NYU. He felt he couldn't make an impact through academia, so he moved to D.C. to become associate general counsel at the SEC. Then, needing to support his family, he became partner at a D.C. law firm, Caplin & Drysdale. However, he soon saw that the client side was more interesting, and so moved to Fidelity Investments to become general counsel in 1986. By the time he retired in 2001, he had become president—something he couldn't have predicted way back in his SEC days.
The moves he made showcase what he calls "step-by-step optionality," a career-planning philosophy that emphasizes developing skills that meet the marketplace. Instead of asking "where do I want to be in 20 years?"—which he calls an "act of hubris" for its assumption of controlling a career, Pozen advocates a measured, probabilistic approach, establishing long-, medium-, and short-term goals.
"Priorities are the yearly goals that I’m most interested in achieving," he says, "then they become operationalized through weekly goals." How to decide on those priorities—and how to implement them—requires further thought.
The wisdom of "find your passion" only gets at half of the equation, Pozen says. While vitally important for personal happiness, the questions of "What am I best at?" and "What do I like most to do?" only address the supply side, he says. (Consider, for instance, how many college guys want to become sportscasters.) Equally important is the demand side, considering what your organization and your world are looking for. (Not a ton of sportscasters.)
The trick, then, is seeing what skills will be needed in your organization and your industry and developing them in yourself, Pozen says. Sometimes it's clear: If your company's moving into Latin America, you might want to learn Spanish. He recommends getting on your boss's wavelength by asking questions like "What are we trying to do in the next year?" and "Where do we see our expansions, where do we see our contractions?"—that way you'll know what the influencers are looking for.
Similarly, as you navigate through the industry, you need to be informed. You do your reading, you can go to conferences, but most importantly, you've got to talk. "The most important thing is to talk to people that have jobs that you might like and to see what they say the job involves," Pozen says. If you don't, there's a risk of having an unrealistic or romanticized view of the skills required to get a given gig. You might need to be able to read a financial statement or code computer programs, but you can't know if you don't ask, he says. When you know (or have an idea) of what skills will be in demand, you can set upon getting them.
To level up your skills, you want to always be looking for on-the-job training, whether structured or not. "Some companies offer formal courses," he says, "but you can structure your work life so as to gain those skills." Some skills, like management, are broadly transferable; if you're given a choice to manage, take it, as it will open up later options. Same with experience abroad—it avails international work. "If you have that mindset, then you're always looking in your current job for ways to increase your options in the future by gaining new skills, new experiences, (and) new contacts."
To make these goals happen, you need to operationalize them.
Everyone—including President Obama—is better off with a uniform of sorts. Pozen wears the same thing every day (a dark suit), and recommends that you do, too ("unless you work in fashion," he adds.) "You need to get through your routine as fast as possible," he says, so that you can invest your energy in projects that further your yearly ambitions—whether you wear dark or light socks is probably of lesser consequence, and making even the smallest of choices day after day drains your decision-making ability. It's the same reason he eats Cheerios and bananas for breakfast and a sandwich and a diet soda for lunch each day—your decision-making energy needs to be wisely invested.
Clothed and fed, the next step is email, for which Pozen has a pair of rules: 80/20 and OHIO. The first has caught on in the startup scene—meaning that you get most of your value from 20 percent of your work. "You have to take your email and discard 80 percent," he says, "but that 15-20 percent is important to you, deal with it right then, because if you say I'll get to it next week, you'll invariably spend an hour on it (then)." That's where OHIO—Only Handle It Once—comes in. If the task is important, handle it immediately.
To calibrate daily activities to yearly goals, Pozen recommends a two-sided schedule. At the end of your day, plot out your time spent in two columns. List each activity on the left and describe its purpose on the right. If the right side doesn't pursue your priorities—cultivating transferable skills, expanding your contacts, the like—then you have a mismatch between what you want to do (and who you want to be) and what you're actually doing.
Your daily schedule needs to be connected to your yearly objectives; if not, you're just getting through the day. "If you want an active schedule," he says, "you have to husband your time so you can act on the things that are important."
Drake Baer covers leadership for Fast Company. Follow him on Twitter.
[Image: Flickr user The South London Lop]