This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab
We're officially distracted – and it's only getting worse.
According to a new book, we spend about 20 minutes every hour dealing with unplanned distractions. It gets worse: we spend another full 20 minutes every hour trying to get back to work after getting distracted in the first place.
For me, this issue is especially acute. I was labelled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a kid. Staying on task has always been a challenge, even before cellphones, social media and overflowing inboxes came into the picture. Running a company that employs hundreds of people and works with thousands more franchisee employees has only made focusing even harder.
For all those reasons, staying productive and clearing obstacles from my path is an obsession of mine (little wonder I started a business that's famous for clearing junk from people's lives). Over the years, I've developed a few favourite hacks for getting things done. They're not rocket science, but they've been tested in the best lab I know – decades on the frontlines of a growing business.
When in doubt, delegate
Entrepreneurs often have a hard time letting go, and it can be their biggest downfall. I was several years into running my company, and working way too many hours, before I figured out that it was counterproductive for me to try to do everything. I'd be in the office until midnight, trying to solve every problem. Often, I only made things worse.
Jack Welch, the legendary former CEO of General Electric, said, "Always err on the side of delegation." It challenges and inspires people. Give them parameters and autonomy, too, so they can take ownership over their work. Beyond a doubt, my most important productivity hack over the years has been learning to do exactly these things.
Today, I'm a masterful delegator – it means I work fewer hours, I only see about 25 e-mails a day and I have time to pursue all my life goals. But the benefits actually run both ways. When you hand off responsibility to your employees, it can enrich their work experience, too – giving them greater voice and expanding their career skill set.
Live by the one-page rule
Words to live by: Simple is what comes after complex. In business, this holds true whether you're drafting a business plan, developing a sales pitch or outlining a project. Putting lots of detail and ideas down on paper is easy. Stripping all that down to the essence of the argument – the heart of the matter – is the hard part and takes work.
But it's worth it. The rule of thumb I've applied over the years is that if a business practice can't be reduced to one side of a single page, then it's overly complicated and inefficient. And it's probably not going to work. Boiling your processes down to one page makes your goals clearer and ensures people understand expectations. I've built a business with hundreds of franchise partners operating independently around the world, and having this level of clarity is absolutely critical.
Tame the evils of e-mail
Ready for a mind-blowing stat? McKinsey Global Institute recently released a report on the social economy that said the average knowledge worker spends 28 per cent of their workweek managing e-mail. That works out to more than one day every week spent just on taming your inbox.
Luckily, there's no shortage of tools and strategies these days for getting your e-mail in order. Tim Ferriss, author of The 4 Hour Workweek, recommends checking your e-mail just twice a day. Apps like Sanebox can intelligently prioritize your messages. Meanwhile, many CEOs follow the three-sentences rule, which limits all e-mail responses to just a 140 characters (roughly three sentences) – anything longer requires a phone call.
My personal approach starts with good screening to get rid of the fluff – which can be accomplished with the right e-mail filters or, in my case, with the help of a great assistant. After sorting through hundreds of e-mails, what's left are just a few dozen critical ones. These are then batched into three (and only three) separate folders: personal, end-of-day and end-of-week.
Personal stuff I generally leave until after work. I check in on the end-of-day folder periodically, responding to all messages before leaving the office. And when the time comes to slog through my end-of-week folder, I turn off my cellphone and focus completely until that folder is empty. It's the digital equivalent of clearing the paperwork off my desk before heading out for the weekend.
Define your days
LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner is known for blocking off a couple of hours a day to do nothing but think. He calls these buffers "absolutely necessary" for his job – time out from relentless back-to-back meetings to focus on thinking strategically.
I've found it useful to take this idea one step further and dedicate a whole day to setting new goals, developing ideas and just stopping to think. My "buffer" day is generally Monday. To be honest, this felt like an indulgence at first. Now, it's hard to imagine my life without this time to reflect, plan and dream.
By contrast Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are more focused days. This is when I concentrate on getting things done and addressing day-to-day needs, often grinding through back-to-back meetings. That leaves Friday, which is my free or flex day. Sometimes I'll use it to catch up on the week's backlog. Other times, personal stuff takes centre-stage, like school events with the kids.
I realize that not everyone has the luxury to define their days like this. But the general principle holds true: If we don't set aside dedicated chunks of time each week to step back – reflecting on the past and planning for the future – then the demands of the present can easily monopolize everything else.
It's worth pointing out that productivity comes in many forms. Yes, sitting at your desk – distraction-free – and ticking off your day's tasks is important. Without finding ways to manage this effectively, I wouldn't be where I am today. But my ADHD has been a blessing, too. Being distracted by the next shiny object is actually a virtue if you're an entrepreneur, helping you spot trends and see opportunity before everyone else catches on.
Brian Scudamore (@brianscudamore) is the founder and CEO of O2E (Ordinary to Exceptional) Brands, which includes companies like 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, WOW 1 DAY PAINTING and You Move Me. He's an expert in franchise development, growing small businesses and corporate culture.