Extreme Productivity: Taking Time to Make Time

Editor’s Note: Robert Pozen speaks with the Harvard Business Review about his new book, Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours (HarperCollins Publishers).

In Extreme Productivity, Pozen offers performance-enhancing tips on everything from how to sleep better on overnight business flights (window seat, no alcohol, earplugs, and eyeshades) to dealing with employees’ mistakes (“No matter how spectacularly the project flopped, don’t attack the person”).

Classic productivity books often focus on time management, but Extreme Productivity takes a much broader look. It reads more like a businessperson’s handbook. Did you intend that?

It takes a lot more than organizing your schedule to be productive. I wanted to discuss skills that have been critical in my own career. Communication is one—reading, writing, and speaking. Another is how you operate within your organization and deal with both those above you and those who report to you. I also wanted people to think about how they are managing their careers in the evolving context of their own professional and personal lives.

The book addresses aspects of business life that are vexing to many of us. For example, what are some ways to make meetings more productive?

You should not schedule meetings that last more than an hour, or 90 minutes at the most. There are tremendous diminishing returns in lengthier meetings. When you only have an hour, you don’t waste time on nonproductive tangents. You also need to think about how you structure the meeting. When meeting materials arrive in your email five minutes before the meeting starts, it’s a signal that the person in charge hasn’t laid the groundwork for a productive use of time. There should be adequate time in advance for everyone to prepare for a thoughtful discussion.

All meetings should have an effective close. People should think, “What are the to-dos, and who’s going to do them?” Senior executives tend to think that they can accomplish this by just telling people what to do. But there’s a big difference between assigning a task to be completed by next Tuesday vs. introducing a challenge, getting buy-in on addressing that challenge, and having everyone come together on a way it can get done by a mutually agreed deadline.

On the subject of management styles, you write about the wisdom of adapting your personal style to that of your boss. What if your boss’s style is interfering with your productivity?

By “adapting,” I don’t mean that your style needs to be the same as that of your boss, but you should be in sync and try to make sure your skills complement each other. For example, if your supervisor is a “big-picture” thinker, you could balance that by being detail-oriented. The notion is to understand your boss and position yourself accordingly. And if the differences you have with your boss are compromising your ability to do your job, you just have to take the leap and talk about it directly.

Those are sensitive conversations. How do you make them productive?

People fear that if they air their differences with their bosses, they may be fired, but that’s not my experience. If you raise topics politely, explain your perspective on the issues, and stay away from personal attacks, I think most bosses will respond positively. Even better, go into that conversation with a suggestion or two that would lead to better results. You may think you’re sticking your neck out, but if the conflict is there and neither of you addresses it, you are probably not long for that job anyway.

You take exception in the book to the practice, at many professional firms, of organizing work around billable hours. How does that hurt productivity?

The most obvious answer is that there is a negative financial incentive to solving problems quickly and efficiently. Hourly billing is a deeply ingrained model of measuring work, but it comes from a time that predated our knowledge-based economy. When your goal is a great marketing plan or a brilliant idea for a software system, it doesn’t matter if it took 2 hours or 20 hours. The client is paying for the quality of the solution.

What do you think about the issue of flexible work hours?

There’s a long way to go yet, but once you embrace the concept that results are the most important factor in evaluating performance, if someone leaves early or comes in late in order to take care of a family matter, it’s a non-issue—as long as that person is getting their work done and achieving good results. And that concept of being able to attend to outside obligations should be as important to those at the organization’s highest levels as it is to middle managers.

We often find that work obligations overwhelm our best intentions when it comes to spending time with family. How do you juggle conflicting priorities?

Many managers insist that their jobs routinely require them to stay late at the office, but when you press them, they admit that isn’t true. Some occasional emergencies need to take precedence over everything else, but unless you work in a hospital, those situations are rare. Even if you have to catch up with work after dinner, take a couple of hours every day to connect with the people in your life who should matter most.

You stress the importance of reading, writing, and public speaking. Any hints?

When it comes to reading, prioritize. Determine which information is most important to you, and spend more time reading that information care- fully. I’ve worked with a number of high-school students, and what I tell them about writing is just as valid for managers: begin with an outline. It keeps you from getting halfway through and not knowing where you should go from there. With public speaking, don’t read from a script. Instead, have one piece of paper with an introductory sentence, brief notes on four or five points that you want to make, and a conclusion sentence.

You advise against doing too much career planning. Why?

I think people should keep their options open. An annual self-assessment is a wonderful tool, but it is not productive to sit in a room and try to figure out where you want to be in 10 or 20 years. Instead, think about what you can do in the next year or two to broaden your learning, experiences, and choices. Career planning should be an exercise you engage in throughout your life, and it should take into account the changes that occur along the way.