Below is an email I sent to our entire team this week.  As I mention in the introduction, I don’t believe in requiring everyone at Heinz to follow a specific productivity methodology or system.  But I’ve also found that certain guiding principles are critical to whatever system you choose (formal, informal or otherwise) to increase your productivity, impact and success.

Here’s what I sent them:

Hi guys,

I wanted to share some thoughts around productivity best practices.  I literally started writing this email last year (I think I mentioned in an all-hands meeting that I had some ideas to share back in August) and finally got it done on the flight home today.

I’ve spent the past 10+ years trying to hone a system that helps me make the best use of my time.  It’s based on a few key books (Getting Things Done by David Allen, Mastering the Rockefeller Habits by Verne Harnish, and The Eight Habits of Highly Successful People by Stephen Covey have been significant influences), but I’ve incorporated elements from countless writers and peers over the past several years as well. 

This isn’t about working more but rather working best.  I’ve found that this system helps me get more valuable wor done in the time I’ve allotted to it, and also allows me to spend more time on non-work priorities than are increasingly important to my quality of life and happiness.

The last thing I want to do is push a specific system on everybody. We all have different ways of working.  But below are four key areas I think are at least worth considering.  I’ve intentionally bucketed them into one-word categories that help with recall, association and consistency of execution.

Blinders

I’ve found it near impossible to focus on what’s most important if I’m constantly distracted.  This is everything from desktop alerts, mobile notifications, incoming email, Slack and more.  In the past I’ve let my anxiety dictate keeping these on so that “I don’t miss anything.”  But I’ve found equally that 99.9% of these distractions aren’t urgent, aren’t making me better, and the fraction of them I do care about can wait a few minutes or even a few hours.

So I’ve turned most of these off, some permanently.  Desktop notifications are gone.  My email is in offline mode when I’m focused on something specific.  I’ve manually turned off 95% of my mobile notifications.  This takes discipline and expectation-setting.  If your team is used to you responding immediately to anything and everything, you may need to re-train them to not expect that for non-urgent information or requests.  And if they have something that’s truly urgent, they should know to use another channel.

I put this category first for a reason.  It would be easy to put “triage” first, so that you can truly separate the important from the urgent.  But if you’re still distracted constantly, you haven’t truly set the foundation of focus needed moving forward.

Triage

I keep an ongoing list of Projects that gets reviewed at the start of each week, which gets translated into tasks I assign myself throughout the week.  Of course, new tasks bubble up constantly too, but one of Stephen Covey’s most important lessons is differentiating the important from the urgent.  Just because it’s urgent, he says, doesn’t mean it’s important.  Sometimes an important but non-urgent task is a much better use of your time right now than something that’s urgent but not important.

Verne Harnish recommends creating a list of your top five priorities, but also designating your top “one of five”.  He argues that if all you do every day is that top “one of five” you’ll be far more productive and successful than doing priorities 2-5 combined each day.  Of course, selecting the right “one of five” can be tricky as well.  But you get the point.

Regardless of how you look at it, proactive triage I’ve found is key to sustaining productivity not just throughout the week and at the start of each day, but throughout the day as well.

Habits

Most of you know I have a “daily do” list that’s part of my morning routine.  It’s a constantly changing set of tactics I want to ensure get done every day – everything from following up with prospects, active networking within our Target Accounts, saying happy birthday to folks in my network, etc.  Having this list as a checklist makes it far easier & faster to get through everything, but making a habit of doing it early in the day sets up a wide range of responses and opportunities throughout the day as well.

My habits go beyond this to improve productivity throughout the day and week.  For example, I’ve taken up journaling.  No, I’m not as consistent as I’d like to be, but one of my journaling habits is to write down the 2-4 things most important for me to get done that day.  I do this first-thing in the morning.  I then look at my calendar to ensure I’m blocking time to get those 2-4 things done.

Another habit I’m trying to add to my daily routine is getting up and walking around every hour.  Not far, maybe just to refill my water in the kitchenette.  I recently read Daniel Pink’s new book When, and amongst the science presented around the timing of how we get things done he talks about the importance of breaks.  Taken effectively and regularly, breaks don’t take time away from work – they help us be more productive at work.  They reset our minds and energy to refocus on what’s important.  Those of you who take an actual lunch break (away from your desk, not with work in front of you) are already following his advice.  I bet your afternoons are more productive as a result.

Schedule

I fundamentally believe that how I manage my time is the single most important variable in being successful and productive.  I can still be generous with time and flexible with time if I have a plan, if I triage often, if I separate the urgent from the important, and stay proactive about managing what’s in front of me each day.

As you guys know, my schedule is nuts.  But as Sheena knows, I still actively triage what’s on my schedule on a regular basis.  I’ll move things around, postpone things, even cancel things that might make someone else a bit miffed if I think it’s the right thing for our business, our objectives and my priorities.

Even if your schedule isn’t booked all day with meetings, you still have a choice for how you use that time.  What will you do in the next 30 minutes that’s most productive?  Where will you schedule breaks and downtime (and stick to it!) to give you energy and motivation when it’s time to work again?  Where will you schedule time to learn and be creative in addition to time required to execute?

I welcome any and all feedback on this.  Thanks for reading!