MONEY productivity

Productivity Hacks From an MIT Efficiency Expert

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Only handle it once.

Between endless email chains, office chatter, and meetings to discuss future meetings, it can be hard to get work done some days. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Bob Pozen, the author of Extreme Productivity (and five other books), former vice chairman of Fidelity Investments, a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, knows a thing or two about maximizing your productivity at work. And no, spending more time in the office is not something he would suggest.

“I want people to think about what were the important goals for this week and did they get them accomplished, not whether they spent the hours” at their desk, Pozen says.

Unsurprisingly, Pozen believes that two of the biggest time killers in the workplace are email and meetings. Here’s how to streamline both.

Only Handle It Once

When it comes to email, Pozen, who teaches executives how to manage their workloads, suggests following the acronym OHIO, or Only Handle It Once. If you receive an email you need to respond to, reply to it immediately and be done with it. “If you need to wait a few days to gather information, put a reminder in your calendar to respond to the request on a specific date in the future,” he says. Often people put off responding to certain emails and messages, leading to further distraction, because the unanswered email is never far from your mind. This also eliminates the chance that you’ll forget to respond to something important and frees you from combing through your inbox later on.

“You may remember a week later, then you spend half an hour searching for it,” Pozen says. “Only handle it once. If it’s important, respond to it right then and there.”

That isn’t just a good tip for getting more done in the office. Whether it’s saving money, having a serious conversation with a friend or spouse, or facing other problems, it’s always best to handle the issue up front, without delay—and then move on.

Beyond that, the fewer times you check your email during the day, the more productive you’re guaranteed to be. “Do not look at your email every two minutes or five minutes. Try to retrain yourself to look at your email every hour or two,” Pozen advises.

Another tip? Never hit ‘Reply All.’

“Organizations should train people not to copy a bunch of people on an email,” Pozen says. “Really confine the email to the people who need to know. Reply All just leads to huge amounts of email.” And who has time for that?

Finally, Pozen says, a respite from email for at least an hour or two when you get home at the end of the day will help you unwind and be more efficient when you get back to work. “Have some oasis time for two hours, whatever works for you,” he says. “You may have to go back on at 10 pm … but the thing that really irritates the hell out of people is when you come in and you’re supposed to be concentrating on other people and you’re on your email.” So take a break when you get home—you deserve it.

Keep Meetings to a Minimum

Are you apt to spend meetings staring wistfully out of the window or doodling on your notepad under the guise of taking notes? Then this next set of tips is for you.

Pozen says there’s hardly a bigger office time killer than meetings. Sometimes even the knowledge that one is coming up in the next hour can limit our productivity because we feel as if we can’t start a new task before our workflow will be interrupted. And how often does your boss call a meeting, only to spend half of it clarifying what the meeting is about?

“Are those meetings really productive?” Pozen asks. “The answer is a small number are, most are not.”

Instead of convening a meeting to exchange information, Pozen suggests doing that in a different format, such as office messaging systems like Slack or, yes, even email. And when everyone is on the same page and ready to make actionable suggestions, then get everyone together in the conference room.

When you do, try these tips to maximize efficiency:

  1. Send an agenda ahead of time, including any materials attendees need to read, so they can come prepared.
  2. Use most of the meeting for discussion and debate, not reiteration of purpose or summation of materials (the two goals of every meeting should be “energy and interactivity,” according to Pozen).
  3. Leave with next steps established and responsibility assigned for each task.
  4. Limit meetings to 90 minutes, and ideally quite a bit shorter than that. “There’s a lot of evidence to suggest people don’t really pick up much after 90 minutes,” Pozen says.

What qualifies as a good reason to have a meeting? Negotiating something, Pozen says, or meeting a client or colleague for the first time.

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