How CEOs Stay So Productive

Even the bigwigs get tempted by the latest cat video. They just figured out how to kick the habit with some simple mind hacks and easy-to-use apps.

“Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort.”-–Paul J. Meyer.

Since the early 1970s, productivity--the amount of output per hour worked--has been steadily rising in America. Between 1973 and 2011, the productivity of the American worker has grown an astonishing 80 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Since 2000 alone, the productivity of average Americans has risen 23 percent. How are we achieving this extraordinary rise in productivity? In large part, it’s because we’re finding new tools and techniques to increase our focus and efficiency.

The average level of productivity for all American workers has shifted upward; but that’s the average American, not the top CEOs, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who are constantly finding creative ways to accomplish more. So what are the strategies and practices that these highly successful people incorporate into their professional and personal daily routines?

Below, some of the most productive people--from successful investors to “always-on” executives--share their secrets on how to be your most productive self, despite the overflowing in-boxes, the constant buzz of the phone and the never-ending ping of meeting alerts.

Clear Your Mind, Define Your Focus
Wendy Lea, CEO of Get Satisfaction and principal at The Chatham Group, shared two tips that keep her focused, energized, effective and productive both personally and professionally. “There are two things I do to get the energy, capacity and focus I need to not only be efficient, but effective. Personally, I take 15 minutes every morning for contemplation and to empty my mind. I take a bag full of thoughts I need cleared and each morning I pick one out, read it, and send it down the river near my house. Watching the thought float away really helps clear my mind, reorient things and increase my focus for the rest of the day,” said Lea, who successfully juggles several roles across various companies including CEO, investor, advisor, mentor and principal.

“Professionally,” Lea added, “I send an email to my team each Monday morning with the top five things I will be focused on for the week. This really keeps me on track and gives me the focus I need. These two things set the pace for me every day, both in my personal and professional life.”

Cut Back On Meetings
Randy Komisar, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers (KPCB), said he keeps productive by being diligent about meetings--sticking to the allotted time and only scheduling in-person meetings when it’s absolutely necessary. “I leave meetings at their allotted end time regardless of whether they are finished,” said Komisar, who authored the book, Getting to Plan B: Breaking Through to a Better Business Model. “I do not reschedule an appointment for a more important one unless it is an emergency. If an email will do, I don't make a call; if a call will do, I don't have a meeting; if a 30-minute meeting is sufficient, I don't schedule an hour.”

All About Evernote
Dylan Tweney, the executive editor at VentureBeat, said Evernote, the popular note-taking and archiving service, is his go-to productivity tool. “I use Evernote to collect everything I might possibly need to save for later, with the exception of emails--Gmail is fine for that. I store all of my important documents--from notes to interviews--in Evernote. I also use Evernote tags as a kind of to-do list: I have a set of tags that I can use to prioritize things that need to happen immediately or that I'm waiting for someone else to finish: ("1-next," "2-soon," "3-later," "4-someday," and "5-waiting"). When I get an email that I need to act on but can't respond to immediately, I forward it to my private Evernote address and then prioritize it,” said Tweney. “Finally, I use Instapaper liberally to save articles that I run across during the day, but don't have time to read during the busy hours. It sends stories to my Kindle automatically, so I always have something interesting to read on the train ride home or in the evening. That helps keep me focused on work, even when people are sharing fascinating things on Twitter and Facebook all day.”

Get Tunnel Vision
Kevin O’Connor, the serial entrepreneur who founded both DoubleClick and more recently FindTheBest, a data-driven comparison engine, said he makes an effort to focus on only the top few things that really are going to move the needle. “Most people tend to focus on the 100 things they should do, which can be overwhelming and result in the failure to actually accomplishing anything of importance. I try to focus on the three to five things I absolutely have to do. I don't get distracted by those ninety-seven other unimportant things that don't ultimately contribute to my success or the success of my company.”

Get Physical
Patrick Dolan, the EVP and COO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), said what keeps him productive, focused and energized is going for runs in the morning. “I love to run in the morning before I get into work. Running clears my mind, gets the blood flowing and ultimately makes me much more focused and productive. During my morning runs, I try to come up with solutions to any unresolved problems at work, brainstorm new ideas, and really prioritize my work in terms of the top things I want to accomplish that day. By the time I get into work, I already have a set of focused priorities, and I also have the energy to make them happen.”

Police Your Own Internet Habits: Notifications Are Evil
Fred Bateman, the CEO and Founder of Bateman Group, said he uses a tool called StayFocusd to keep track of how much time he’s spending on various sites. “To stay ‘in the zone’ and increase productivity in today's digital age, I strongly recommend blocking all audio and visual notifications from Outlook, Facebook, Twitter, etc. I think all notifications are evil because they typically have both audio and visual distraction triggers, which can wreak havoc on your concentration. This extends to my iPhone, which is always, always set to vibrate with all notifications on all email accounts and mobile apps turned completely off, said Bateman. “I also have a tendency to begin earnestly researching something online with the very best of intentions and then get lost viewing irrelevant content and wasting way too much time. To limit this, I turn on a browser extension to Chrome called StayFocusd where I maintain a list of sites I can get lost on for hours--the New York Times and Facebook are my top two. StayFocusd alerts me after ten minutes have passed and then blocks the offending sites to help me resist temptation and stay focused on the task at hand.”

Put Email In Its Place
Anne-Marie Slaugher, a professor of politics and international relations at Princeton University and author of the popular article published last year in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” said basing your work day around the never-ending flow of incoming emails is a huge productivity suck. “My principal productivity tip is that if you are caught up on your email, your priorities are in the wrong place. An extra of hour of email will accomplish very little in the long run, but that hour could be spent reading to your kids before bed, cooking a meal, or taking a walk and clearing your head--all far better choices,” said Slaughter, who previously served as Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department. “More generally, email puts you in response mode, where you are doing what other people want you to do, rather than send mode, where you are deciding what you want to do and taking action.”

Related: 11 Productivity Hacks From Super-Productive People

--Grace Nasri is a journalist and senior associate with the Bateman Group in San Francisco. Find her on Twitter at @GraceNasri.

[Image: Flickr user Massimo Regonati]

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6 Comments

  • Xtrant

    The zero inbox "caught up on your email" comment really resonates. Some people can stay right on top of it, but if your personality type doesn't lend toward that kind of diligence (which is most folks) email will always be nagging you, and becoming a black hole where valuable information disappears. That's one of the things we're fighting at Xtrant.com - We know we can't kill email, but we can give a more productive alternative.

  • Doug

    Connected to "Clear Your Mind, Define Your Focus" I've found its helpful to start the day with a minute meditation on WHY - my purpose and that of the company.  That helps put WHAT I do and HOW I do it into perspective.  

    Doug Levy
    CEO, MEplusYOU

  • fhcgsps

    Productive? Who said they're productive? What's the average tenure of a CEO? If they were that productive, one might think they'd stick around a little longer. How many of them have run organizations into the ground?

  • Paul H. Burton

    One of the unsung heroes of successful leadership is great time management skills. These seemingly remedial behaviors - such as those listed above - are often given short-shrift in the world of talent development. Yet, they are central to individual and organizational success. 

    Recently, McKinsey & Co. shed some world-class consultancy light on this subject with its report titled "Making Time Management the Organization's Priority." You can read that report at https://www.mckinseyquarterly..... I recommend it to anyone in an executive or professional/organizational development position. In addition, last year I wrote a book titled "The Waterfall Effect: Six Principles to Productive Leadership" (Amazon) which focuses on the key interchange between productivity and leadership.  (There's a corresponding seminar I give on the subject.) The singular theme is that leaders are fundamentally charged with getting things done.

    I'm thrilled to see companies like McKinsey and publications like Fast Company take up the cause on the connection between leadership, success and productivity. The human equation is clear in this instance: people enjoy their professional and personal lives more when they feel accomplished, which is all about productivity. Organizations are direct beneficiary of this environment.