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power points

Treat time like your bank account.

“If someone asked for money from your bank account, you wouldn’t say, ‘Sure, here is my routing and account number – grab however much you’d like.’” Google’s productivity expert Laura Mae Martin writes in Uptime.

“So why do we do that with our time?”

Ms. Martin works in the office of the chief executive officer at Google, where she coaches executives on strategies to be more calm, grounded and effective; holds workshops on productivity; and publishes a newsletter that a third of the company’s employees have subscribed to. She believes balance is the key to productivity. A Saturday she spent binge-watching old episodes of Heartland, for example, was a wise and productive use of her time, allowing her to recharge. In a world where everyone cites how busy they are, she says we should be instead bragging about how much balance we have brought into our life.

“We confuse busy with important,” she notes. “Some of the highest-ranking executives have some of the loosest schedules and spend significant amounts of time brainstorming, reading industry news, creating or just thinking alone.”

The first step for productivity is defining clearly what you want or need to do. Because goals tend to be far off, she recommends focusing in the immediate future on three top priorities for your work and non-work life. Keeping your priorities to three is a continual reminder you have to put something down to pick another up; there is always a trade-off.

One executive she was working with chose for the next quarter completing a large reorganization of his team, spending more time with his young kids and defining a next-year vision for the organization he was leading. For each of those priorities, they developed three high-impact tasks to support that effort, writing each in a sentence that began with a verb.

Assume urgent things will pop up every day to demand your time. Set aside a block of time to handle those, perhaps telling your staff so they know that’s when they can best address you with urgent issues or keep it to yourself so if none arise you can use it for priority tasks. But she also says if an item pops up as urgent too frequently, something is wrong with the system and must be fixed.

She stresses that prioritizing is not reordering. When most people have a list of things to do, they think of prioritizing as figuring out what order to tackle them. Instead, she urges you to figure out what can be knocked off the list and how to say no to those things that don’t deserve a spot on your list. She suggests asking yourself: What is the worst thing that would happen if I never do this; is there any other way for this to get done without me doing it; and is there any way for me to half-do this and move on from it?

She keeps everything she has on her plate in a main list, divided into six categories based on common activities: Computer – work; computer – personal; calls; around the house; to buy; and errands. She uses that to build a weekly list and then a daily list, which she handwrites on a pre-prepared template with these sections: Today’s top priority; today I’m grateful for; other priorities; hour-by-hour plan (which includes those other priorities); snack-size to-dos; mindful moments she took during the day to refresh; and tomorrow’s priorities.

Nobody, she says, will look at your schedule and remark that you need more time set aside for thinking and brainstorming. Yet those are valuable activities, when you get the ideas that propel you forward. These need not be long – scheduling a 20-minute break in the day, preferably in silence, is sufficient. A lunch break without your mobile is one handy tool.

Keep in mind that productivity is not frenzied back-to-back work. It comes from a carefully thought out, balanced schedule.

Quick hits

  • University of California, Irvine professor Gloria Mark, who has studied the science of attention for two decades, says when we are interrupted it nags at us afterward, so the best antidote is to immediately write down your interrupted task, offloading the memory of the task. There’s now no need to keep replaying it over and over in your mind as you won’t forget it.
  • Atomic Habits author James Clear says the reason people get good ideas in the shower is because it’s the only time when most people are away from screens long enough to think clearly: “The lesson is not to take more showers, but rather to make more time to think.”
  • Public speaking coach Gary Genard offers these three C’s for presentations: Clear, concise and consistent.
  • Author Mark Manson says you don’t remove self-doubt. You learn to act despite it.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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