Some people just get stuff done. By the time most are pouring their second cup of joe, these super-achievers have been to Crossfit, hit inbox zero, and nailed the rough draft of that report due next week.
How do they do it? Actually, you can, too, says Paul Rulkens, author of The Power of Preeminence and president of Netherlands-based Agrippa Consulting International, which works with multinational companies like ExxonMobil and SABIC.
“High performance starts with a mind-set that translates into things that you do. Once you’ve got the mind-set, you will have the behaviors, and then it will turn into action. Everyone can become a high performer,” Rulkens says. They know these 12 things.
People who are highly productive have established clear goals and a vision for what they want to achieve long term. They focus on what matters and realize that “80% of what you do doesn’t matter,” Rulkens says. Instead, they focus on the 20% that does and apply their efforts there.
Extremely productive people know that “important and urgent are two different things—many things are urgent, and that’s usually determined by someone who expects an immediate answer,” says professional organizer Alison Kero, founder of ACK Organizing. If you get sidetracked by unimportant urgent issues, you spend your time fighting needless fires instead of getting done what matters.
When some of the smartest people in the world want to be productive, they attend Robert Pozen’s executive education course, Maximizing Your Personal Productivity, at MIT. Pozen, who is the author of Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours, is himself a highly productive person. He writes and speaks, teaches courses, and holds a post as a fellow at the Brookings Institution, among other things.
To stay on track, he says he is meticulous about planning his to-do items around his appointments and then setting goals for what he wants to get out of each appointment to ensure those meetings are worthwhile.
You don’t have to have a pristine desktop or 27 organization apps, but you do have to have a system that lets you find the information and files you need when you need them, Pozen says. He keeps files on each of his courses so he can easily access them and adds relevant news to each file as he comes across it. That way, he can update his courses with the most current events.
When you make the more mundane aspects of life routine, you free up brain power and time, Pozen says. His days are highly regimented. He usually wakes at the same time and has simple morning routines. He lays out his clothes the night before. It may sound boring, but think about how much time is wasted wondering what to wear or have for breakfast. Reclaim those valuable resources by making them a routine, he says.
Those 10 minutes before your next meeting or the two hours your flight is delayed can be great news for your productivity, Pozen says. When you keep a list of things that need to be done, you can quickly scan it and pick out the actions you can take in the time you have. Answer a few email messages or return a call in the few minutes before your next meeting, or start the research for your next project while you wait for your plane.
Meetings are a necessary evil and can aid productivity when they’re used wisely. But poorly planned meetings waste precious time, says business coach Melissa Mizer, founder of the coaching firm MoreSeekers. Mizer says effective meetings must have five components:
- Make sure the right and necessary people are in the room.
- Make sure roles are clearly defined.
- State the meeting purpose upfront (e.g., brainstorming, decision making, etc.)
- Set objectives for the meeting.
- Define next steps and action items before the meeting ends.
Sometimes you have to “eat the frog,” Rulkens says. Overcoming procrastination—at least most of the time—is essential for high performance, he says.
At the heart of procrastination, you’ll often find one of its root causes: perfectionism. Let that go, Kero says. It’s not attainable and will just lead to dread when it’s time to start big or challenging projects. “Your desk doesn’t need to look perfect all the time if you don’t want it to, and your proposal doesn’t need 10 drafts,” she says.
Sometimes you get lost on the way to the meeting. Sometimes a meeting runs long. Sometimes you just need some time to think. Highly productive people leave room for all of these things, Pozen says. When you’re too tightly scheduled, you can end up undermining your productivity, because if one thing goes wrong, your schedule could be disrupted for the rest of the day. Give yourself time, which you can always find a way to spend wisely.
Pozen bristles at the anti-multitasking research of late. Multitasking is essential for productive people, but you have to choose the activities to pair. You wouldn’t write a paper while driving a car, but you might check your email or write a note while you’re on a call. “The tasks should be complementary in the sense that usually, one task is much more important than the other, and the other one can be done with a limited amount of energy and diversion,” he says.
Think high performers are the “quitters never win” types? Wrong, says Rulkens. Winners quit all the time—they’re just more thoughtful about it. Strategic quitting means ditching the things that you shouldn’t or don’t want to be doing because they aren’t worth your time, or delegating those things that can be done more cost effectively or efficiently by someone else. And that does more than free up time.
“I work with high-performance organizations. Whenever we do a workshop on quitting—what it is we’re not going to do—you see a lot of energy being released, and that energy is then focused on new things that really matter,” he says.