"A mind which is not crippled by memory has real freedom." - J. Krishnamurti

1) Be insanely optimistic in the long-term.

Long-term optimism is a prerequisite for being highly productive and achieving great things. In percentage terms, assume that there is only a 1% chance that a company will grow to become the leading company in its industry. Even if the percentage chance of huge success is minimal, there is still a chance. Therefore, assuming anything except the best will only diminish the chances of the company capturing that possibility.

A long-term optimistic mindset also provides tremendous guidance in working through short-term challenges. If Harry is working in an entry-level position at a software company, he should still believe that he is capable of running the company. This will inspire him to work hard, persevere, develop relationships across the organization, continue self-development, learn the marketplace, and in the end – will dramatically increase his chances of achieving his insanely optimistic goal of running the company.

The same mindset can be applied to people. If I have the absolute highest expectations of my subordinates or peers, then they will feel inspired to work and achieve at their highest level. Each short-term obstacle or hurdle should be viewed within context of the long-term insanely optimistic goals.

2) Be 100% consistent with 100% follow through.
As stated by Maren Hogan on Brazen Careerist, consistency and follow through are two of the most underrated skills. You should never drop the ball on anything! If you find yourself dropping the ball, then you may be over-complicating the issue, not listening enough, or trying to accomplish too much. It is much better to aggressively take things off your plate (habit 5), and be 100% reliable rather than trying to do too much. Being consistent and reliable helps develop the utmost trust and respect with the people around you.

3) Single task, but multi-project. Do not multitask.
Multitasking is one of the worst developments in the “blackberry” age. Numerous studies have shown that trying to do two things at once diminishes the quality of work on both activities. The brain cannot physically process two things at once, and instead rapidly switches between the two disparate activities causing under-performance on both items. It is extremely important to deeply focus on the single item in front of you, fully complete it, and then move to the next item. This does not mean to not work on multiple projects. Once you finish sending that e-mail and following through on all the action items related to that e-mail, it is appropriate to move to the next task or project. But, writing that e-mail while someone else is talking to you in a meeting is not effective. Interruptions and multitasking are only appropriate in emergency situations.

4) Be Proactive
Nobody plans to be reactive. Unfortunately, a lot of projects, people, and organizations operate in “reactive” mode where everyone is extremely busy, but nobody has the time to plan, improve processes, or coach others. If your organization or project is always working in emergency mode, then there is likely an organizational or structural problem. It is essential to take a step back, analyze the operational bottlenecks that are causing everyone to be too busy, and start reorganizing the work flow to create more slack in the organization.

5) Choose 1-3 very clear MITs (most important tasks) per day, per week, per month, and per year.
It is far too common to assume responsibility for 10-20 projects and allow each of them to drag on for months without fully completing them. This is not an effective way to productively complete work. It is much better to focus on achieving 1-3 absolutely key MITs each day, each week, each month, and each year. These MITs should be fully completed from start to finish. This methodology of choosing 1-3 goals to accomplish each day will lead to a much more satisfying and productive completion of work.

6) Outsource, delegate, delete, and aggressively take things off your plate (while still accomplishing your goals).
One of the most important characteristics of being a highly productive individual is understanding what not to do.

Do you subscribe to newsletters that you never get a chance to read? Unsubscribe! Do you get CCed on e-mail chains that clog up your inbox? Politely ask people to stop CCing you on e-mails that are not relevant to your work. Are there 3-4 e-mails being sent back and forth about a project? Pick up the phone and give the person a call to talk through the issue. If you meant to get to something, but never seem to have the time, create a “some day” list and remove that item from your “active” projects.

An office assistant or virtual assistant may also help in doing administrative tasks such as making reservations, checking time sheets, and preparing reports. Actions that can easily be created into a process or automated, should be automated!

A key tool to leading a highly productive lifestyle is learning to automate, outsource, delegate, or take things off your plate effectively.

7) Always work in action steps, with a single owner of a task, process, or responsibility, and with an expected completion time.
A variation of Habit 2 (be 100% consistent and reliable), is to learn how to break everything down into actionable steps.

Any time someone is assigned a task or responsibility, make sure there is a single owner. Too often, a “team” is expected to complete a project, but there is not a single project manager. It is critical to assign one person who is ultimately responsible for delivery of a project or action.

There should always be an expected timeline on completing the project or task. If a manager assigns three individuals to create a marketing plan for the business, then the project team should assign one single person responsible for delivering the overall project, assign owners to sub-tasks, and create timelines.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, before missing an expected deadline, it is critical to communicate that to the requester before the deadline passes.

These three things: owner; action; deadline – are the fundamental components of effective project management and stellar customer service.

8 ) Respect everyone’s time by facilitating good meetings.
Meetings are an extremely important vehicle to drive forward certain initiatives. At the same time, they are often one of the most wasteful, unproductive uses of time if they are not effectively facilitated.

The key to effective meeting facilitation is: assign a facilitator; do adequate preparation; do adequate debriefing; and start and end on time. In addition, the bare minimum number of people should attend a meeting.

The meeting facilitator should have a clear purpose, agenda, ground rules, and targeted goals for each meeting. If the goal of the meeting is to brainstorm, then that should be explicitly stated and attendees should be given the topic in advance so that they can bring ideas to the table. If the goal of the meeting is to reach decisions or consensus, then that should be explicitly stated.

The facilitator should also do everything possible to understand the points of view of the meeting participants before the meeting begins. This prevents the meetings from devolving into endless back and forth and unnecessary conflicts. Constructive discussion about key differences during the meeting is healthy. But repeated back and forth about minor points is a waste of time.

There should be implied or explicit ground rules for each meeting. If a discussion between two individuals is going for too long, assign a “follow up action” for a sub-committee to solely tackle the one issue that is holding people up.

Finally, clear notes and follow ups (with owners, actions, and deadlines) should be communicated to all meeting participants as part of the debrief.

9) Follow Inbox 0
Inbox 0 is a fundamental concept in e-mail productivity. The idea is to bring your inbox down to 0 each day. The is accomplished by understanding that e-mail is not something to do in between tasks. E-mail processing time needs to be focused and uninterrupted. You do not want to browse e-mails on your blackberry, send half-hearted responses saying “I will get to that tomorrow” without recording that action into a trusted system.

E-mail should typically only be touched once, and fully processed.

If there are actions or deadlines related to e-mails, then those actions should be stored in your trusted system. (My preference is Google Calendar.)

Then, the e-mail should be filed, typically in a “done” folder. I only use one folder – “done.” I touch each e-mail once, fully process it, and move it into “done.” This way, your “inbox” should easily be able to reach 0 once / day, or minimally, once / week.

10) Have a weekly review to go over your projects, and clear your inbox, action steps, and follow ups.
Finally, the habit that ties everything together is the weekly review. In your trusted system, you should have a list of your projects, MITs, “some day” projects, inbox, personal errands, and action steps. This list should be fully reviewed once / week such that you review each of your active projects, and come up with “next action” steps at least once / week. The “some day” list should be reviewed to see if you want to move a project to an active project. The daily, weekly, monthly, and annual MITs should be reviewed to make sure your daily priorities are aligned with your monthly and annual goals. Finally, you should follow up on each of the items that you have delegated to others to ensure that other people’s projects are happening at the same level of quality and consistency as your own projects. Most importantly, your inbox must be returning to 0 at least once / week. I recommend conducting this “weekly review” each Friday afternoon. If you are unable to keep up with everything, then there is too much information coming in, and you need to aggressively take items off your plate until the amount of work coming in is manageable.

Putting It All Together.
These habits can be applied to your personal life as well as your professional life. If your home life is becoming stagnant, then try creating MITs related to your personal life and reviewing them on a weekly basis. Do not talk to your significant other on the phone while you are e-mailing a colleague. Be eternally optimistic with your friends and family no matter what the circumstances.

Also, remember that these habits are a constant struggle and challenge for anyone. Nobody can follow all of these items all the time. Trying to follow these habits is a process, and some days will be great, and some days will not. No matter what – enjoy the journey, and as Leo Babauta from Zen Habits reminds us, “smile, breath, and go slowly.”

Book References:
Getting Things Done by David Allen
4 Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss
Built to Last by Jim Collins and Jerry Poras
7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin
The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt

Link References:
Inbox 0 Video
New York Times on Multitasking
Guy Kawasaki’s 10 Things
Ben Casnocha
Productivity Zen
Seth Godin
Brazen Careerist on Consistency and Follow Through

My (old) philosophy:

  • Keep things simple
  • Do one thing at a time
  • If something takes < 5 minutes to do, do it right away
  • Outsource everything possible
  • Remove distractions and organize information consumption
  • Work in terms of action steps
  • Follow the Inbox Zero principle for your e-mail
  • Have a weekly review to go over your projects, and clear your inbox, action steps, and follow ups