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Andy Sherwood is a time-management expert who has taught more than 50,000 Canadians to make better use of their workdays. He owns the Southwest Ontario office of Priority Management International Inc., a training company.

Over the course of his 47-year career, Mr. Sherwood has watched knowledge workers become the predominant group in the work force. But with constant demands on our time and attention, productivity hasn't increased since we were a society of physical labourers.

We spoke to him about productivity killers in the workplace.

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Does e-mail affect productivity?

Yes. People spend all day with e-mail open, and every time there's an e-mail they stop and look at it. Everybody is addicted, literally addicted. It's almost a badge of honour, they have to stop and open it.

Thirty-five years ago I was an executive and I had 25 to 30 pieces of mail per day. Did my assistant walk into the office every 22 minutes, ring a crystal bell to make positively sure that she had distracted me, and then hand me an envelope that had not yet been opened? Of course not. So why do we let e-mail do it?

Why has the entire Western world given their lives away to this monstrosity called e-mail?

How can we make e-mail more manageable?

Turn off notifications in your e-mail program, and only check it on a regular basis, a few times per day or every hour. That point alone transforms how people work.

Here is my "4-D" process for handling e-mails:

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  • Delete: When in doubt, throw it out.
  • Delegate, up, down or sideways: Who’s the correct person to handle this e-mail?
  • Do it or file it: If it’s a quick e-mail, handle it now.
  • Date-activate – Give yourself a start date for the task, with the appropriate priority.

How does "date activate" help?

Set up a specific to-do list for today. I might have 165 items to do over the next 18 months, but when I walk in to work, there's 11 for today. That gives me focus, as does the acronym FTFFF: first things first, focus and finish. Ideally, eight times a day the inbox is empty.

Are to-do lists helpful?

The No. 1 item on my list of productivity pirates is a messy desk. People write on Post-it notes, scraps of paper and business cards, and they leave items unread in their in-box. The average person has what they need to do in 12 to 30 different places. It works, but there's a better way.

Can't we simply remember our coming tasks?

The brain is designed to remember the past, but where is a to-do task? It's in the future. You cannot program the brain to remember a to-do task only at the specified time, and so you think of that pending task over and over and that's where the stress comes from: What am I forgetting to do?

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Is "In-box Zero" really attainable?

The only thing on your desk should be the current project you're working on. Instead, the in-box of many knowledge workers has dozens, hundreds or even thousands of e-mails. The in-box is a garbage can, a filing system, or it's a to-do list if something still needs to be done with them.

If e-mails are garbage, throw them out. If an e-mail needs to be kept, then it belongs in a file, not a pile. It doesn't belong in the in-box; we need it stored in folders.

We believe strongly in priority management, which increases productivity and reduces stress. If the in-box is not empty, then it should at least be totally under control.

How do open-concept workplaces affect workers?

You can return to a simple task easily after being interrupted, but more complex tasks are different. For knowledge workers using working memory, a 15-second glance at e-mail can be enough to lose five minutes of work. If this happens a few times, they're 45 minutes into the task and they've got nothing done, so they put it aside and procrastinate until it becomes a crisis.

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The fallacy is thinking that the door must always be open. It all starts with not controlling interruptions; some tasks don't lend themselves to being done with regular interruptions.

Have smartphones increased productivity?

Everything in life is not a crisis. It's one thing to check e-mail on a smartphone, but without good time-management skills, these devices can make you less productive, not more.

Meetings: a useful tool or the bane of the office worker's existence?

Meetings should always achieve explicit results or decisions. The agenda, with all items in the form of a question, should be sent to all attendees 48 hours in advance, and minutes should be delivered within 24 hours. Properly done, we make or manufacture better decisions with meetings.

With 10 people making $100,000 a year in a two-hour meeting, that's a $2,400 meeting. What decisions are you making in this meeting? Are they worth it?

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How can I get my employees to stop grumbling about meetings?

Meetings should start on time. It's Psychology 101: If you don't start on time, you punish the punctual people and reward the others. When you reward the deviant behaviour, it continues. It's courtesy and common sense that professionals in a well-run team show up on time.

Andy Sherwood's 10 "productivity pirates:"

1. Messy desk.

2. Crisis management.

3. Doing the low-value-added tasks first.

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4. Attempting too much.

5. Unnecessary interruptions.

6. Ineffective delegation, teamwork.

7. Ineffective meetings.

8. Procrastination.

9. Can't say "No."

10. Unrealistic deadlines.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

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