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Work Smart

Three Productivity-Killing Routines Most Leaders Fall Into

From meetings to business travel, these business rituals can fast exceed the point of diminishing returns.

Three Productivity-Killing Routines Most Leaders Fall Into
[Photo: Flickr user Alexander Mueller]

You’ve worked long and hard to get to your level, and now your working life reflects it. You always have a seat at the strategy table, people are constantly contacting you for feedback and approval, and your travel calendar is busier than it's ever been.

All that is fine—and to a certain extent, those rituals and routines are necessary. But they can hit a point of diminishing returns. The most effective leaders are those who can constantly reevaluate those executive norms rather than be consumed by them. From long hours to back-to-back meetings and and constant travel, here's a look at the common habits that can gum the works, and how to prevent that.

1. Long Hours For Their Own Sake

If you assume that you’ll need to work late, you probably will.

As the well-known adage of Parkinson’s law states, "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." Thinking you can always book more time by working late or on the weekends cripples your ability to make clear choices about what's really important. And that's an ability you actively need to practice, by delegating and eliminating tasks from your docket.

Most people’s productivity plummets after 50 hours a week. So those incredibly long hours rob you of important time for life outside of work without adding significantly to your company’s bottom line.

It’s normal to have to work a late night or weekend every once in a while. But if you consistently find yourself doing that, you might be delivering little more than the appearance of commitment to your company, rather than something of real value. Here are some strategies that can help you break out of the cycle:

Set an end time. Aim to finish work by a certain time each night, no matter what. If that’s a struggle, give yourself a "soft" end, like winding down whatever you're working on at 6 p.m. so you can actually close the door behind you and hit the road by 6:30 p.m.

Put a cap on your hours. If a set end time is hard to keep, consider giving yourself a weekly time budget of 50 hours a week. That way, if you work late one or two nights, you’re giving yourself that time back on another day—or, at the very least, keeping your weekends work-free.

Plan after-work activities. Sometimes it's great not to have anything you're committed to doing during your time off—many of us need some unstructured time to recharge. But white space on your calendar is too easily surrendered. So defend it by scheduling things that leave you no way to give that free time up to do more work. If you’ve told your family you’ll come home for dinner, made plans to meet up with friends, or registered for a gym class, working late will always mean having to give those things up.

2. Being Perpetually Away From Your Desk

"Thanks, I'll get to that as soon as I'm back at my desk." Yeah, sure you will.

The higher you rise in management, more of your time gets allocated to making decisions and giving others direction, which usually means more calls and meetings. That's good—you should have a seat at the table where decisions are made. But that leaves another seat cold and empty much of the time: the one at your own desk.

If you let your schedule fill up that way, not only will your brain get fried, but you won't have enough time to do your own solo work. Here are a few ways to win it back:

Schedule desk time. The same way you'd schedule a meeting, schedule time alone to work at your own desk, whether that leaves you time for emails, strategic thinking, or longer-term projects.

Set a cap on meetings. A few people can do six hours of meetings every day and remain effective and present, but most hit their max at around four to five hours. Be conscious of how much meeting time your brain can handle, and don't commit to more. Any time your meeting calendar goes past your threshold, find the least important ones and reschedule them for later.

Budget time to wrap up. Always try to factor 15 minutes of wrap-up time into every meeting to go over the steps everyone there needs to take afterward. That can help prevent lost or forgotten action items from slipping through the cracks and piling up on your to-do list later.

3. Endless Travel

One of my time-coaching clients jokes that his top goal this year is not to make it to platinum status with his preferred airline.

Yes, travel is an important part of closing deals, making connections, and bolstering your organization’s image. Face time matters. But if you aren't strategic about your travel decisions, it can cost you certain professional opportunities, strain your relationships, and even take a toll on your health.

Sometimes the value of business travel doesn't outweigh the costs. Here's what to think about before you rush to your gate.

Question the payoff. What is the in-person meeting you're about to travel to supposed to accomplish? Could you get similar results through video conferencing, or postpone this trip until another, more essential visit to the same city that you're planning to make a few months from now?

Group meetings together. If possible, group together travel on consecutive days to avoid taking multiple trips to different places all within the same week. You should also try and schedule meetings within a certain geographic area on the same trip, particularly if it involves a significant time-zone difference from where you're based.

Declare no-fly zones. Even if their role requires a lot of travel, most executives—particularly those with families—do best if they can have at least one no-fly week each month. No-fly times can help, too, like not traveling Friday to Sunday.

Tally the costs. What won’t happen if you’re out of the office? Which initiatives will be delayed? Will you miss one-on-ones with your staff for the third consecutive week? Will you not see your kid’s championship game? It’s not only what you will do while you're away but what you won't that matters.

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