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Want to be more productive? Try being lazier.

That's Michael Lewis's secret.

The author of a string of bestsellers – including Moneyball, Liar's Poker and, most recently, The Undoing Project – always seems to have a new big initiative under way. But, in fact, that's not true. There are times when nothing excites him. And when that happens, he contents himself with doing nothing.

"My laziness serves as a filter. Something has to be really good before I'll decide to work on it," he told the 2017 Insight Summit, Minda Zetlin reports in Inc.

Mr. Lewis is willing to wait for inspiration – for a suitable project. The alternative, which many of us succumb to, is grabbing onto some handy initiative that won't be as valuable. "People waste years of their lives not being willing to waste hours of their lives. If you mistake busy-ness for importance –which we do a lot – you're not able to see what really is important," he says.

So be more productive. Be lazier.

Other productivity tips:

Rethink your to-do list

Equally counter-intuitive is this advice from Getting Things Done guru David Allen, famed for telling us to write everything swirling through our mind onto lists: "The concept of daily or weekly to-do lists is as outdated as rotary phones." Yes, we still need a broad view of all the things we want to accomplish and the actions required to start any of them. But when we're all overwhelmed at work, we need more efficiency, which involves making use of what he calls "weird windows of time."

So instead of focusing your day on a list of priority items developed in the morning (or even last night), Mr. Allen advises: "There are very few times and places we really have the appropriate energy level, tools, and uninterrupted time frames to work on some of our 'most important' work. The rest of the day, we shouldn't be feeling guilty that we're not working on 'job one.' Rather, we should be maximizing our productivity by picking things to do (that we're going to do anyway, some time) that match the situation."

So catch up on your reading before a meeting or set up appointments while waiting to board a plane. In order to do that, however, you need a list, not just of priorities, but non-priorities. And don't consider it procrastination. Mr. Allen says there's a subtle difference between doing less important things as procrastination and doing them because it's the most productive use of your time at that moment.

Develop 'maker schedules'

Some people in organizations are managers. Others are makers – designers, programmers, writers, and others who create important ideas and material.

But in organizations, managers rule, with schedules geared to their needs, according to a 2009 essay by venture capitalist Paul Graham. The day is chopped into one-hour chunks of time for meetings. And those prevent makers from having the uninterrupted time they need to concentrate on their work – a maker's schedule.

Productivity writer Calvin Newport, a maker himself as a professor of computer science at Georgetown University, notes in his blog that "almost no organizations support makers schedules." Instead, we have constant messaging and meetings, with no barriers on those behaviours.

If makers are important to your organization's success, consider the two options he offers to improve on this score:

  • Dual schedules: This more moderate option is to have makers switch back and forth between maker and manager schedules by day of the week. For example, Monday, Wednesday and Friday might be maker days. No meetings can be scheduled with makers on those days and e-mails sent to them will be held by the server until the day ends, although there would be a special phone number for emergencies. The other two days would be manager days, with makers expected to check in-boxes constantly and fill much if not all of the day with meetings.
  • The maker firewall: This more extreme possibility creates a definitive split in the organization between makers and managers. “To enforce this split you need a strong barrier between the two worker types. My suggestion is to eliminate any general way for people to contact a maker: No e-mail address, no Slack handle, no phone. Instead, each maker is assigned a manager. All communication to and from the maker go through that manager. (The exception, of course, is that makers working in teams have ways to communicate within their team.) The manager handles all incoming requests, and in return, brings to the makers each day a schedule of what they should be working on – otherwise leaving them to put their head down and craft valuable things,” Mr. Newport says.

The second choice obviously requires substantial shifts in organizational structure, but he suspects this would lead to much greater profitability. But even the less-extreme version, Mr. Newport says, would bring big advantages if managers would be willing to give up the notion that the organization revolves around their scheduling needs.

Three steps to increase productivity

Leadership blogger Joseph Lalonde shares three steps to improve your productivity immediately:

  • Write it down: Studies have shown that you are 42 per cent more likely to accomplish a task or goal if you write it down. In the past, Mr. Lalonde has tried to leave it to his brain to remember and sort through his to-dos. But writing them down helped him to focus.
  • Schedule everything: He made various schedules this year for his activities such as a personal calendar, an online business calendar and a podcast calendar, and schedules activities on them. “I have noticed when I don’t schedule out my day I float around accomplishing a few goals here and there, but my brain and attention wanders throughout the day,” Mr. Lalonde writes. “I accomplish only a few things while touching a number of things but not finishing hardly anything. So now, I schedule out my time throughout the day. I have time for reading, playing with my kids, social media, writing, creating, interviews, etc. Everything is accounted for so I can stay on task more efficiently. Try it for yourself and see if it works.”
  • Focus like a laser: If Mr. Lalonde had three projects he was working on over a three week-period – label them A, B, and C – he would shift between them throughout the day, trying to make progress on each. The problem was he often didn’t completely finish any of them. Now he would work on project A in the first week, project B during week two, and project C on the final week. “This one concept has helped me finish so many different projects over the past few weeks. My productivity is increasing already just by following this simple concept. I would highly recommend trying it,” he says.

BLUF your way through e-mail

This tip, from information-overload expert Nathan Zeldes, may actually require more time on your part but will save time and increase productivity of those around you: Begin every message, notably e-mail, by putting the "bottom line up front," the so-called BLUF approach of the U.S. Army. Essentially, it involves condensing the five Ws: What, where, when, who and why.

A sample he gives for starting an e-mail, using the acronym to highlight the point – "BLUF: Starting June 12, all meetings in the company will end five minutes before the hour or half-hour, to allow people to get to their next meeting on time."

You could also try another army approach, BLIND, which requires e-mails begin with:

  • BL – the bottom line
  • I – the impact on the organization
  • N – the next steps to be taken
  • D – details.

Quick hits

  • To attract millennials to your firm, HR consultant Tim Sackett recommends offering as a sign-on to pay off their student debt or home mortgage assistance, tying both to the individual staying for three years, since few employees leave after that period of time.
  • Lesson from Pepsi’s fiasco with an ad tied to protests, according to advertising blogger Bob Hoffman: Trend-chasing is dangerous, as that company has shown by jumping from one fad to another with no coherent brand strategy. “Pepsi thought they were saying that they’re a hip, sensitive, and concerned brand. What they communicated was that they are shameless, clueless opportunists,” he says.
  • The most significant competition many industries face is not from other entities within their industry but from other industries, says Columbia Business School Professor Rita Gunther McGrath. Young consumers, for example, will spend money potentially aimed at jeans for cellphone minutes.
  • No one learns to ride a bike from a book or a video. We learn by doing – by doing it wrong, falling off, and trying again. That approach works for a lot of other things, says entrepreneur Seth Godin.
  • Catch problems when they are small and they are easier to solve, says consultant Wally Bock.