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How 10 CEOs work smarter, manage better and get things done faster

Larry Page, co-founder and chief executive officer at Google Inc. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

This time of year, we all resolve to find ways to be more efficient: to lead teams better, be smarter about how we manage our time, and find wiser ways to work. But what time-tested ideas actually stick for really busy people?

To answer that question, we looked for ideas that CEOs have shared over the past year about time management, work-life balance and leadership. We tucked away these productivity hacks and management tips — which range from how to run faster meetings to how to manage email overload — and have pulled them together in one place. Whether they come from Silicon Valley wunderkinds, Fortune 500 CEOs or startup founders, these day-to-day habits all have one thing in common: busy leaders credit them as small secrets to their success.

Color-code every minute

VMWare CEO Patrick Gelsinger

The CEO of this software company carefully codes his schedule by color, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal in July. He marks meetings turquoise when they're with customers or partners, purple if they're with media or investors, and yellow for strategy reviews. Then, an intern tallies up how his "time use stacks up to various studies on executive time management," the Journal wrote.

Don’t work on airplanes

Evernote CEO Phil Libin

Phil Libin, chief executive of the note-taking and archiving software Evernote, told PC Magazine that he gives himself a break by not working in the air anymore. "Like everyone else, I used to just work on airplanes—I'd use that as a time to catch up on things," he said in a video interview with the publication. "And I stopped. I basically said when I'm on a plane, I won't work. I'll read, I'll play video games, I'll sleep, I'll watch movies, but I don't work. It makes me look forward to flying. I can get off a long flight, and actually be kind of relaxed."

Make employees put a response deadline in emails

Birchbox co-founder Katia Beauchamp

Katia Beauchamp, co-founder of a popular beauty-sample subscription service, told the Web site Lifehacker that one of her best time-saving tricks is to get coworkers to include deadlines for even simple questions. "I insist people on the Birchbox team indicate when they need a response in all emails," she told the site. "It makes prioritization so much faster."

Give every day a theme

Square CEO and Twitter chairman Jack Dorsey

While Jack Dorsey first shared this productivity idea a few years ago, Lifehacker picked it up in October and it got more attention. Speaking at a Techonomy event in 2012, the Square CEO and Twitter chairman and co-founder discussed how he balances working for two companies at once. One thing he does is to "theme" his days, devoting a different day each week to different types of work. Mondays are for management, Tuesdays are focused on product, Wednesdays are for marketing and communication, and so on. "It sets a good cadence for the rest of the company," he told David Kirkpatrick, and helps him stay focused on broad topics rather than getting too distracted.

Write letters to employees’ parents

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi

In a conversation with then-Fortune managing editor Andy Serwer at Davos in January, Indra Nooyi divulged that she makes a habit of writing letters to her employees' parents. The PepsiCo chief executive said she writes letters to the parents of all of her direct reports, often telling them the story of how much pride her family in India had shown to her mother when Nooyi became CEO, and thanking them for their child.

"All of a sudden, parents of my direct reports, who are all quite grown-up, and myself, we had our own communication," Nooyi shared during the interview. She has now expanded the habit to include the top 200 people in the company, she said, as well as some new recruits. That helped her convince at least one to come onboard. According to Nooyi, a candidate who didn't know she had spoken to his mother went home and said, "'I'm looking at these two offers, Mom, and I'm accepting the other one.' And she goes, 'No. You're accepting PepsiCo.'"

Create a “Yesterbox”

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh

Hsieh first started experimenting with this concept for managing his email at the end of 2012, but it got more notice earlier this year. His approach, which he calls "Yesterbox," helps him navigate the 1,000 to 2,000 emails he receives a day. The idea: Deal with yesterday's emails today (rather than today's emails), so you start the day knowing exactly how many messages must be answered and "feel a sense of completion when you're done," he writes on the Yesterbox site he created.

In a detailed outline of the concept at, he begins to explain the approach this way: "If it can wait 48 hours without causing harm, then you are not allowed to respond to any emails that come in today, even if it's a simple one-word reply. This is the part that really takes a lot of discipline for the first week or so, because it is really really tempting to respond to emails that come in. Basically, you need to psychologically train yourself to not worry about emails that are coming in. ... Your focus today is just on clearing out yesterday's inbox."

Put notes in your address book

Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson

The leader of this online marketplace has a system for everything, from how he manages his email to getting business cards at events. Dickerson is such a fan of systematizing professional tasks that he teaches a class on it to employees, he told Fast Company in an interview earlier this year. "It doesn't matter what your system is, you just have to have a system." When he puts new names in his address book, for example, he always notes where he met the person and what they talked about, that way if he wants to reach out in the future he can reference their specific conversation.

Plan ahead — far ahead

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn

Most CEOs have a full schedule running one company. Carlos Ghosn runs three: He's the chief executive of both Nissan and Renault, and the chairman of Russian automaker AvtoVaz. He spoke with LinkedIn executive editor Daniel Roth in November about how he manages three companies based in three countries. One key: Having his schedule set more than a year in advance.

"I know exactly where I'm going to be, what I'm going to be doing for the next 15 months," he told Roth. "It's not only for me, it's mainly for the people working for me. They know when I'm going to be in Tokyo, when I'm going to be in Paris, when I'm going to be in New York, so they can organize themselves."

Spend a day a week on only mobile

Google CEO Larry Page

In a recent Fortune feature story about Larry Page, whom the magazine named Businessperson of the Year and “the most ambitious CEO in the universe,” the Google CEO told writer Miguel Helft that he “forces himself to do without a computer during much of his day.” He goes to meetings with only his phone, and encourages engineers and product managers to spend at least one day a week working only on their mobile devices. It’s all part of his effort to keep the company’s focus on mobile and to keep “pushing people ahead,” he told Fortune.

Crowdsource meeting agendas

Homejoy CEO Adora Cheung

Fast Company’s new December-January issue is a goldmine for anyone looking for productivity tips, featuring “secrets of the most productive people” ranging from the DJ Diplo to the senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). Start-up CEO Adora Cheung, whose company Homejoy connects housecleaners with customers, shared her simple secret for managing meetings well. To keep things focused and brief, she has coworkers add agenda topics to a Google Doc spreadsheet before a meeting, and then she prioritizes them. If it’s not on the Google Doc, she told Fast Company, “we don’t talk about it.”

Read also:

The trick to setting goals the right way

12 leadership books to watch for in 2015

Dan Ariely wants to help manage your time

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