Productivity Rules from An Individual Contributor

I love figuring out new ways to become more productive, organised and better at my work. There’s a finite number of hours in the working week, so the challenge is to optimise our time so that we produce our best work, but also have clarity on what’s going to have the biggest impact.

Although completely cliched by now, instead of working longer, we need to work smarter, and produce more from the time we spend at work. To that point I’m interested in marginal gains - the idea that many small improvements can lead to a significant aggregated increase in performance and how it can be applied to productivity.

Throughout my career I’ve received lots of formal training, but productivity is one area where we're left to work out what works best for ourselves. I know each company and context is different and that makes scaling productivity training difficult. However, my view is that everyone follows some kind of prioritisation system, and you can always improve a system. This post contains five rules I’ve been following to get the most from my own system.

I appreciate that if you work in a client facing position, these rules might prove difficult to follow or even have a negative impact, but as someone who is an individual contributor serving sales, rather than managing people, I find they help get me get more of my best work done:

1. Fill your calendar with work, not just meetings
Each Friday I plan what I need to accomplish the following week and add the tasks to my calendar that will help me do just that. In the past I only used my calendar for scheduling meetings, but using it as my to do list helps me become more efficient. I know exactly what I plan to do each day and can visualise the tasks and how long they will take.

2. Carve out two 30 minute blocks of time each day for unplanned work
With the best will in the world I can plan out my working day, but end up receiving lots of requests from the sales teams that I work with. When this happens I must respond quickly (often a big deal is at stake), so I need to have some slack or unplanned work time built into my day. Having this flexibility enables me to be reactive as the sales enablement lead, but also productive, so I can complete work that benefits the whole sales organisation.

3. Carve out three 10 minute blocks each day to send and answer email
I also dedicate three 10 minute chunks of time each day to sending and answering emails. Typically, this happens at the start of the day, after lunch (when my team in the US comes online) and later in the afternoon before I leave. As a company we often use Slack to communicate, so if possible I try and send an instant message, rather than write an email.

4. Make the default length of meetings 20 minutes
It feels like there’s no logical reason that meetings default to 30 minutes in our calendars (research suggests 15 minutes is the optimal length). I’ve started making my meetings 20 minutes long, which forces us to be more concise. Occasionally you need more time, but currently this is working - I don’t feel like I’m missing out and nor do my colleagues.

5. Respond to something immediately if it can be completed in under two minutes
Not all email is created equal. Some assign work, others provide information and many ask a question. I scan all my emails and if the request can be completed in under two minutes and requires little thought (such as a short reply or sharing content), I respond immediately. This means I don’t slow my colleague down and reduces unread email in my inbox.

I have been trialling these rules for the last three months and found they’re helping me be more productive. While it’s valuable to have productivity rules in place, I’m also aware of how important it is to frequently refactor how I work. That’s the one productivity rule that underpins all others.