Q&A with Robert C. Pozen, author of ‘Extreme Productivity’

Of all the intriguing details Michael Lewis revealed in his Vanity Fair profile of President Obama this month, the bit about the suits sticks with me. The president wears either blue or gray. With so many high-octane decisions to make each day, why waste even a moment lingering at the closet (or the tie rack or the sock drawer)?

“My wife makes fun of how routinized I’ve become,” he told Lewis.

(Ron Barrett/For the Washington Post)

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If you ask Robert C. Pozen, such routines can be a powerful tool in modern life, where so many of us are haunted by the sense that we’re not getting enough done or managing our lives well enough.

Pozen ran a global financial services firm while teaching a full course load at Harvard Business School. He’s written six books, including “Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours” — published this month. Setting priorities is key to working fast and smart, he says. And working fast and smart is key to career-boosting performance at the office and a full and satisfying life beyond it.

He took the time to talk about his philosophy and strategies. The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

“Extreme Productivity” sounds exhausting. In a nutshell, what’s your philosophy?

“Extreme Productivity” is not about working harder; it’s about working smarter. The practices that I advocate do not require you to be a superhero. Instead, the book offers many practical lessons on how you can improve your output for each hour that you work.

The general philosophy of these lessons is that you should focus your time on your most critical goals. So first, you have to identify and rank your priorities, based on your own skills and desires as well as the needs of your organization. Then you clear away the lower priorities with as little headache as possible. Finally, you perform your high-priority goals more efficiently by quickly reaching tentative conclusions, instead of spending days or weeks researching basic facts.

So the key to productivity seems to be setting priorities and targets. How do you do that efficiently?

You can’t start achieving your goals until you know what exactly your goals are. So it’s worth taking the time to go through the following exercise. First, write down all your medium-term (one year or so) and short-term (one week or so) professional goals — including projects, their associated stepping stones and any routine assigned tasks.

Then, rank your medium-term goals by importance. Although you should certainly consider what you want to do and what you’re good at, you should also think about what your organization most needs from you. For instance, although you might be very skillful at designing advertising campaigns for new products, your company might need you to manage its recruiting campaign instead.

Finally, think about the broader implications of your short-term goals: a highly ranked short-term goal can either be an intermediate step to help you achieve an important longer-term goal, or it can be a task that your boss considers highly critical. This exercise can help you create a list of your highest ranked goals.

You talk about ranking objectives according to what you want to do, what you’re good at and what the world needs from you. How do you balance the needs of others with your own goals?

This balance depends heavily on the stage of your career. In many sectors, the key challenge is making entry. In order to get your foot in the door, you should be ready to forgo temporarily your strongest desires in order to serve an organizational mandate. But that only makes sense if you believe that this particular job will lead to better opportunities down the road — by helping you gain skills, meet people, or gain the loyalty and respect of your boss.

By contrast, toward the latter parts of your career, you should be reluctant to take a job that does not really appeal to you. The chance of that job leading to what you want is relatively low — unless it helps to prepare you for a stimulating retirement.

You note that most professionals have a much better grasp of how they spend their money than their time. Why does that matter?

It’s certainly understandable that many people find it easier to keep track of their money than to keep track of their time. Money can be easier to count and you probably spend money only a few times each day, instead of every minute of your life.

But in many ways, time is a much more valuable resource than money. You can earn large profits and save them for use years later. However, once time is gone, it will never come back. That’s why it’s so bizarre to me that professionals often use their time inefficiently — by procrastinating, by perfecting an unimportant task, or by just sitting around in the office, trying to be seen. It seems to me that professionals should husband time as an irreplaceable resource.

How important is it to manage your boss?

Your boss is probably the most important person in your professional life (other than your family). He or she has the power to hand out your assignments, to recommend you for promotion, to set your salary and bonus, and ultimately to fire you. So it’s critical that you take the effort to manage your boss.

To manage your boss, you need to communicate with him or her, early and often. Once each week, sit down with (or e-mail) your boss to make sure you’re both on the same page about what you should be doing: Create a list of your assignments and rank them by priority, and then ask your boss if he or she agrees with your ranking. This gives your boss an opportunity to add or remove a task, or let you know if something has dropped or risen in priority.

If an assignment begins to run into roadblocks, be sure to tell your boss as quickly as possible. This gives you and your boss a chance to reevaluate the project or discuss possible solutions. There’s nothing that bosses hate more than surprise blowups.

I appreciated your discussion about procrastination and how there are more and less obvious ways to put off doing your work. Do you have winning strategies for procrastinators?

Procrastination is not an effective way of getting work done. Instead of making measured progress every day, procrastinators try to cram it all into the last days or hours of a project. Aside from the sheer unpleasantness of those final days or hours, this strategy leads to rushed, shoddy work.

Of course, we all procrastinate a little bit — putting off tough tasks until tomorrow. Most people can keep this habit in check by recognizing what they’re doing and pushing through it. But some people literally cannot start a project until the deadline is looming. For these “chronic procrastinators,” the solution is simple: If you can’t work without deadlines, then create more deadlines.

For some procrastinators, it might be enough to create small personal rewards for achieving each of these mini-deadlines: a favorite candy bar or a favorite TV show. For others, however, these rewards might not be enough to make the mini-deadlines seem “real.” These more serious procrastinators should formalize their mini-deadlines by writing them down and giving them to their boss. That makes the mini-deadlines “real” in every way.

Why is it helpful to quickly draw tentative conclusions at the start of a project?

As a lecturer at Harvard Business School, I have observed many students and research assistants performing complicated, long-term research projects. These talented individuals often spend days or weeks in the library at the beginning of their projects, performing basic research. Only after they’ve gathered a plethora of data and information do they begin to contemplate what their conclusions may be. Although this strategy will help these individuals gather a lot of facts, it is highly inefficient; most of those facts will likely not be relevant to the underlying research question.

Instead, when you’re engaging in a long-term project, you should try to formulate a set of tentative conclusions about the entire project as soon as possible. That will force you to quickly analyze the project’s fundamental issues, which will in turn allow you to greatly narrow the scope of the rest of your research. While you may need to revise (or completely scrap) your conclusions as you continue your research, this strategy is usually faster than haphazardly spending days or weeks at the library.

You make the case that billable hours don’t necessarily add up to productivity. How can the model be changed? Why don’t more clients insist on value-oriented billing?

The practice of billing by the hour encourages lawyers to do their work inefficiently and leads law firms to overstaff projects. While law firms may like this arrangement — it can lead to higher fees — it harms both lawyers and clients. It harms lawyers because it forces them to spend too many hours in the office. It harms clients because they have to compensate their lawyers for this inefficient use of time.

Over the past decade, some clients have insisted on alternative billing arrangements. In fact, one survey found that, between 2008 and 2012, law firms doubled the proportion of their revenue that they earned from non-hourly billing arrangements. Such arrangements include flat fees for certain projects, monthly retainers for repeat work, or a low base fee combined with a bonus contingent on a favorable result. However, hourly billing is still the dominant billing practice in the legal industry.

Why haven’t clients rebelled more strongly against billable hours? Perhaps it’s because law firms aren’t ready to change the entire way they do business. However, I predict that hourly billing will survive only in the most specialized practices where lawyers have hard-to-get skills. More generally, there will be a growing shift to a new type of lower-cost model for charging for legal service.

In companies where managers still equate face time with results, what can workers do to change the culture?

Many organizations have a culture that rewards “face time” at the expense of results produced. This undermines the incentives for productivity: If workers have to stay late in order to come across as a “hard worker,” what motivation do they have to finish their work efficiently?

I admit that changing your organization’s culture is a tall task. But if you run a team, you can restructure your relationship with them. Make clear to your team that you care about the results they produce, not the hours that they spend in the office. Then lead by example: Take an afternoon off to watch your children’s Little League games or run a family errand.

Changing your boss’s habits is more difficult. Begin by gaining his or her confidence that you can create high-quality results regardless of the hours you work. Before each major project, have an explicit discussion with your boss about how to measure the project’s outcomes. This will give your boss objective criteria for judging the project’s success — and help shift him or her away from the simplistic metric of numbers of hours worked.

You note that meetings can be a huge drag on productivity. Given these principles, how do you run a meeting?

The best way to run a meeting is to avoid it in the first place. Don’t call a meeting if an e-mail or phone call would suffice. And don’t be afraid to politely decline meeting invitations; point out your looming deadlines or pressing obligations. Even if a meeting is necessary, you should keep it small (ideally no more than six or seven people) and short (usually shorter than 60 minutes, and never longer than 90 minutes) — which will help minimize the total time that employees spend at the meeting.

If you must call a meeting, make sure to send out the agenda and advance materials in advance. That way, you can enforce time limits on introductory remarks, since everyone will (hopefully) be familiar with the basics. Then, you can use the bulk of the meeting time to engage in a vigorous debate of the underlying issue. In order to prevent a game of “inside baseball” where people seemingly ignore the negatives, appoint a “devil’s advocate,” who is assigned the responsibility of pointing out the challenges and roadblocks associated with the issue in question. Lastly, at the end of the meeting, make sure that all participants agree on the next steps — with one person and one deadline assigned to each step.

Let’s talk about managing the inbox. I loved your Ohio strategy. Can you talk about that?

I advocate a very simple strategy for dealing with your e-mail inbox: “only handle it once,” or OHIO for short. Whether you check your e-mail constantly or attack your inbox only a few times per day, you should immediately decide what to do with each e-mail. Personally, I have found that about 80% of my incoming e-mails do not require any further action for me. These include widely distributed e-mail updates from national groups or e-mails that my colleagues have sent to me as an “FYI.”

For those e-mails that do require a response, do so immediately, whenever possible. This is a very efficient use of your time and will show your recipients that you care a lot about their queries. By contrast, if you put off answering important to another day, you will have to use valuable brain space to keep track of small e-mails. And then when you get around to responding, you’ll have to waste time re-finding each e-mail and rethinking the issues it presents.

What is your view on e-mail etiquette in meetings?

Most meetings are not very “information dense.” That is, for each minute of a meeting, there isn’t a whole lot of information that you need to process. That’s why I feel that it’s okay to check your e-mail during many internal meetings; if you take 15 seconds to look at your smartphone, you’re not missing much. Nevertheless, this approach is not viable if the meeting is urgent — for example, if it must decide on the firm’s response to an economic crisis.

In any event, your boss’s opinion is far more relevant than mine. If your boss considers it rude to check your e-mail during a meeting, then you probably need to keep your phone tucked away.

You keep your morning routine simple — with no complex choices. So you’re relegated to a life of either Cheerios or Life for breakfast. Why is that important?

Each of us makes many mundane decisions each day: what color tie to wear, what route to take to work in the morning, what to buy at the supermarket, and so forth. Research shows that these decisions gradually wear down your mental energy during the day, making it more challenging to perform the tough mental work required of professionals.

So to minimize the number of decisions I make each day, I “routinize” various aspects of my life that I don’t particularly care about: what I eat and what I wear. The night before, I lay out my clothing for the next workday; each suit goes with a certain tie and a certain shirt. I eat a very simple breakfast each morning (a bowl of cold cereal and a banana) and the same lunch nearly every day (a chicken salad sandwich). This leaves me with more mental energy to deal with those tasks and decisions that matter more to me.

You should figure out what parts of your life you consider “low-priority” — where you are okay with having a standard solution — and get them into a mechanical routine.

I’d like to start taking a nap in the afternoon. How should I break this to my boss?

A nap is essentially an investment of time, which pays off in the form of increased productivity throughout the rest of the day. This is a very high-return investment: empirical studies suggest that a nap as short as 10 to 20 minutes can make you more alert and focused through the late afternoon.

Unfortunately, despite the clear benefits of napping, an employee might be reluctant to take short naps lest they be identified as “lazy” or a “slacker.” In my view, this is the result of a culture of “face time” — valuing employees’ work by the hours they sit at their desk, rather than the results that they produce.

Thus, in order to take a nap, you should agree with you boss on what tasks you need to accomplish that day or that week. When your boss sees that you get those items done well and quickly, while taking a short nap each day, he or she will become a believer. You should also find an out-of-the-way place (such as a conference room) to take your nap discreetly.

I’ll finish by asking you to answer one of your questions: What’s the point of getting more done in less time?

The answer to this question is different for each person, depending on their own preferences and their stage of life. Personally, I try to be productive at work in order to have more time for myself, my friends, and my family. I figure that most people share this aspiration. However, I’m sure that there are professionals out there — say, owners of fast-growing start-ups — that would use the tips in my book to get more work done while keeping the same hectic schedule. But no matter what your preferences are for additional time, you can better achieve your objectives by adopting the practical suggestions in this book.

 
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