We all want to be more productive. But what exactly do we mean by “productivity?” The easy answer is that productivity is measured in checked boxes—emails we respond to, meetings we attend, and so on. The problem is, no amount of check marks can guarantee we’re actually moving the needle on our goals.
So, I propose a different definition of productivity: It’s about selecting a specific focus for every interaction—and taking actions that arise out of that focus.
In other words, productivity boils down to intentionality. The more energy you channel into discovering the true intent behind each conversation—the ask, the status update, the request for help—the more you’ll free yourself up to act in ways that drive meaningful advancement.
Let’s take a closer look at three areas where intentionality has improved my own productivity—and brought me a greater sense of focus in my day-to-day work.
Finding clarity in day-to-day workflow
It’s not always easy to assess how much you’ve gotten done in a day of work. I think we can all relate to the feeling of making dozens of calls and replying to hundreds of emails—only to find that nothing significant seems to have changed, and we’ll have to repeat many of those same interactions tomorrow.
Sometimes, for example, we feel obligated to respond to emails that contain no actionable data or specific requests. (Other times, if we’re being totally honest, we’re the ones who send those emails!) And in still other moments, we find ourselves drawn into calls and meetings that seem vitally important, but that leave us surprisingly empty-handed on useful takeaways.
The first step toward fixing these unproductive interactions is to distinguish between the activities that drive meaningful results and those that don’t. Try taking a look back through each block of time on your calendar and asking yourself what the intent of that time investment was—versus what the result turned out to be.
When we take a step back and examine the ways we allocate our time, we can start to notice the gaps between intent and result. Instead of measuring productivity in terms of time spent on each task, look for opportunities to bring clearer intent to the interaction—whether that means writing down a specific goal beforehand, asking for clarification, or scheduling a few minutes of reflection time.
Make clarity of intent a top priority for every task on your calendar, and you’ll soon find that the return on your time investments begins to improve.
Getting to the meat of meetings
We’ve all had the experience of sitting in an hour-long meeting that should’ve taken 15 minutes. The question is, why do we keep finding ourselves in these unproductive hour-long sessions, when everyone in the room would rather be back at their desks getting things done?
One main cause of this disconnect is a lack of basic meeting hygiene. Everyone comes into the meeting with their own agenda and perspective: Some want to deliver a quick status report, others want to ask for help, and still others just want to workshop a problem and get everyone’s input. As a result, issues that could’ve been easily handled in a series of separate discussions get dragged out over weeks of wandering dialogue.
Instead of getting bogged down in this endless round of discussions, try setting the parameters for each meeting beforehand, by asking a series of clarifying questions: “Why did each of you reach out to me? What do you aim to achieve with this meeting? If you’re providing an update, what exactly do I need to know? If you’re asking for help, what exactly do you need from me?”
Of course, you’ll probably want to be more diplomatic in the way you phrase these questions. Even so, a crisp focus on these parameters will keep you and your collaborators mindful of each meeting’s intent—which will enable you to drive more tangible advancement in less time.
In addition to these verbal tactics, set the intention to bring at least one actionable item out of every meeting you attend. It could be a slide you created during the discussion, an answer to a challenging question, or just a need you’re equipped to meet. Make a habit of checking for these items at the end of each meeting, and the distinction between productive and unproductive conversations will soon become abundantly clear.
Giving the mind space to innovate
Our minds can accomplish astonishing things when we simply take a few moments to unplug. Sometimes, in the midst of a morning run or a household chore, the solution to a problem suddenly springs fully formed into our awareness—even though our thoughts were seemingly miles away.
Procrastination can be an incredibly powerful productivity tool, once you learn to work with it skillfully. Schedule time on your calendar for the specific purpose of stepping away from the computer, turning off phone notifications, and letting your thoughts wander freely. This might not sound very productive—but in the midst of a busy workweek, it can supercharge your problem-solving ability.
If you’ve got access to a park or an outdoor space, a brisk walk can be a perfect environment for brainstorming. The point is simply to get yourself away from attention-grabbing screens and alerts and put yourself in a space where your thoughts can flow along new channels.
Keep a pad and pen handy during this “head-down” time—or record memos on your phone as they pop into your mind, even if you’re unsure of their relevance to the problem at hand. Remember, your subconscious mind solves problems in nonlinear ways—so hold onto the notes you make, and you’ll often be surprised at their usefulness in other conversations and projects.
We live and work in a metric-driven world—one that’s constantly asking, “How many, how much, and how fast?” In the midst of a busy workday, it’s absolutely crucial to schedule time in which you take a step back and ask yourself what outcome you’re aiming to achieve with each interaction.
Whether you’re heading into a meeting, jumping on a call, replying to an email, or taking some time to brainstorm, the key to productivity is intentionality—bringing your full presence and awareness into that space, and being clear with yourself and others about the results you expect.
Set a specific focus and intent for every block of time on your calendar, and you’ll quickly begin to find that traction you’re looking for.
Todd Gerber is a senior director of product marketing at Adobe, with experience leading and motivating remote global teams to deliver return on investment.