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Productivity Boosters

“Productivity Boosters”

Working fast and smart: How to get more done in less time.

You’re most productive when left alone to work. But that rarely happens. Instead, you race around putting out fires.

Regain control by squeezing the most out of every minute. Rethink how you read, lead meetings, talk on the phone and organize your workspace. By analyzing work routines, you’ll uncover pockets of waste or inefficiency. Armed with this awareness, you can apply strategies to save time and increase efficiency — even when under fire.

Reading Faster and Smarter

Do you ever stop in the midst of reading, realize you’re not paying attention and reread a passage? That’s a sign you’re losing focus.

When reading for business, concentrate on retaining key points. Rather than plunging into the text word for word, scan the page for important terms, phrases or action steps. Use a yellow pen to highlight to-do items, as well as the author’s warnings, recommendations and opinions.

Look for "transition words," the connecting devices that writers use to construct their memos and reports. Examples:

  • On the other hand.
  • However
  • In addition
  • Yet/but
  • Nevertheless
  • Similarly
  • By contrast
  • As a result.

By underlining these words and phrases, you can capture the flow easier and evaluate the writer’s argument faster.

The most efficient readers thirst for facts. They separate concrete information from opinion or conjecture. They also read in sequence, gathering and absorbing all the relevant facts before they begin to draw conclusions, evaluate options or make recommendations.

Manage Runaway Meetings

Most entrepreneurs and senior managers spend 60% to 70% of their time in meetings, according to Interaction Associates Inc., a training and consulting firm in San Francisco. Employees dragged into these meetings think that about half of them are a waste of time.

If you rush from one conference room to another, you may squander hundreds of hours a year on needless meetings and sit through discussions that you could just as easily skip. Try these techniques to avoid needless meeting hopping — and win back precious time:

Send an emissary. Ask an employee to attend a meeting in your absence to take notes, collect specific information or convey your concerns.

Start on time. When you’re the host, set a specific time to begin (such as 8:35 a.m.) and stick to it. The let’s-wait-five-more-minutes routine penalizes those who are punctual; the next time, they’ll arrive late and the problem will escalate. Never keep people who show up on time waiting.

Stand and deliver. To limit a meeting to a few quick items, convene everyone in a room with no chairs. Or stand and ask everyone to do the same. When people stand, they want to finish up faster.

Prep the participants. Alert everyone in advance of what they should know, do or ponder to prepare for the meeting.

Before scheduling a meeting, evaluate whether it’s truly necessary. Assess your objectives and the best way to achieve them. If you want to solicit employee feedback, try e-mail. To brainstorm, encourage teams to test new ideas and track their progress. If you want to review your company’s financial performance, send a memo.

The way participants communicate largely determines whether the meeting will prove productive. If conversations veer off track every few minutes or loudmouths hog the spotlight and prevent others from contributing, then hours slip by before anything is accomplished.

Prevent this by choosing the right facilitator. Don’t assume you must single-handedly run the meeting because you’re the business owner. It’s often wise to ask an outsider (such as an organizational consultant or a recently retired executive from your firm) to moderate.

Maximize the Phone

Accomplish more without leaving your office by setting phone appointments and preparing a simple agenda or checklist for important calls. The key is to notify others in advance of items to be discussed, what data you need to review and what decisions you expect to make.

Establish a speak-listen rhythm from the start. Limit your speaking to two or three sentences. Then ask a question and let the other person talk for about the same length of time. If everyone’s chiming in at quick, regular intervals, the odds increase that information will be exchanged rapidly, mutual understanding will be enhanced, and agreements will be reached faster.

Phone conversations can drain productivity if one party refuses to listen. A pontificator can blab on, driving a beleaguered listener to doodle or rifle through paperwork.

When a conversation goes in circles, put others on hold for a few seconds. That’s better than wasting time repeating points or fretting needlessly. Etiquette mavens may point out that call waiting or putting people on hold is rude — and they’re right in certain situations. But you can save time by temporarily halting a discussion that’s veering far afield from critical issues. When you return to the line, say, "I only have a few minutes to finish this up." Then refocus on what matters most.

Set the stage for a productive phone call by taking these steps:

  1. Minimize background noise so that you can hear a speaker the first time.
  2. Set parameters on the conversation at the beginning: "I need to head out in a minute or two" or "I have some quick questions for you." This signals that you’re intent on gathering specific information, not chitchat.
  3. Slow the tempo. This may sound counterintuitive if you’re rushing to convey lots of details in a limited time. But speaking more slowly lowers your odds of misunderstanding. It’s also less intimidating to listeners.

Eliminate Time Wasters

The quickest way to boost productivity is to identify wasteful work habits and correct them.

Three big time wasters for fast-growth business owners:

  1. Micromanaging. You may think you delegate, but the real test is whether you do too many simple tasks yourself.

    Solution: As you move from task to task during the day, ask yourself, "Who else can do this?" Classify which employees can do it immediately, with training or not at all. Then follow through and arrange for others to handle larger chunks of your work.

  2. Disregarding "time pockets." If you were to analyze every minute of your work day, you’d probably discover at least an hour of transition time when you’re commuting, waiting or procrastinating between projects. Don’t write off that time.

    Solution: Use pockets of downtime to tie together past, present and future. First review any commitments made in the last 24 hours and monitor progress in fulfilling them. Then assess what can be done right now to maximize time (return phone calls, read and sign correspondence, practice a foreign language on audio tape while driving in traffic). Finally, look ahead to the next 24 hours to determine what lies ahead, such as outlining a speech, meeting with a difficult employee or reviewing a contract. Take steps now to make headway on these tasks.

  3. Overselling. Your enthusiasm for your business knows no bounds. That’s great — to a point. By rattling on to everyone about tremendous growth prospects, new products or fantastic employees, you’ll miss opportunities to listen and learn.

    Solution: Apply the 80/20 rule to conversations: Listen 80% of the time and limit your speaking to the other 20%. This ensures you don’t squander time bragging, lecturing or repeating yourself. Aside from wasting time, blabbing can also drive away potential allies.

The biggest challenge in overcoming time-wasting activities boils down to awareness. Acknowledge and combat the dangers that can eat up your day, rather than indulging in sloppy work habits that perpetuate the problem.

To quantify productivity, chart time management over a typical week. Carry a notebook and jot down how you spend your time in 10-minute increments. Be specific. Rather than write "studied financials," describe actions more thoroughly ("proofread letter to investors — 20 minutes; checked profit-and-loss statement — 10 minutes; reviewed quarterly accounts-receivable report — 10 minutes").

Such a log can expose ways that productivity is lost. You may realize that you spend a disproportionate amount of time on activities that you enjoy but are not crucial to your business. Or you may find that you’re talking so much to partners or senior managers that you’re losing touch with customers and employees.

Assess the log with an eye toward pruning away fluff. Find more valuable ways to allocate time.

Design a Productive Workspace

Sit at your desk. Look around. Do you see an office that promotes productivity?

Don’t judge it in terms of neat vs. messy. Instead, focus on how you store supplies, file paperwork and shelve books and manuals. You should be able to see at a glance what tasks merit attention — and reach easily for the tools that help accomplish those tasks.

Example: If plastic, stackable trays serve as "in" and "out" boxes, you’ll wind up using them as a place to let papers accumulate. You’ll become a stack-and-pile pack rat, and the sight of these overflowing trays will induce stress. It’s better to use graduated metal file holders where you can see each file tab. Then put the files in chronological to-do order.

In terms of your desk, never position the chair so that you’re facing the door full flush. You’ll look up whenever someone walks by, and they’ll drop in more often as a result. Don’t face away from the door either; visitors can sneak up and peer at confidential notes. It’s best to put your chair and desk at a right angle to the door.

Position two clocks in your office, so that both you and your visitors are always aware of the time. The advantages are twofold: You can monitor efficiency more easily and allow others to gauge how much of your time they’re taking. You can also glance at the clock suggestively to prod others to reach a decision, make a point or explain the real purpose of their visit.

Finally, use your office as a refuge. Identify when you’re best suited to concentrate on the most demanding solitary tasks based on your daily work cycle, energy level and mood shifts.

Make sure your workspace is comfortable to maximize productivity during peak periods. Example: If you’re mentally sharp soon after waking up, arrange for someone to deliver a small breakfast at your desk every morning. Establish a routine so that you look forward to that high-quality "focus time."

Writer: Morey Stettner, a management writer and trainer in Portsmouth, N.H., is the author of "Skills for New Managers" (McGraw-Hill, 2000) and "The Art of Winning Conversation" (Prentice-Hall, 1995).