Great ResignationClimate ChangeLeadershipInflationUkraine Invasion

Want to be more productive? Start understanding your brain

June 30, 2015, 5:00 PM UTC
UNICORN 2015 — Ryan Smith Qualtrics
Courtesy of Qualtrics

The Leadership Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question “What’s your best advice for staying productive at work?” is by Ryan Smith, CEO and founder of Qualtrics.

I would estimate that most people are only productive for three to four hours every day — as in really productive, meaning they’re bringing their A+ game. That’s pretty scary given that most people are in the office eight to 10 hours a day. Think of what you and your organization could do if everyone had more A+ hours as a company. Most of us typically bring our best first thing in the morning and then turn into jelly by the afternoon.

Productivity is a work in progress and a constant iteration. You always have to be tweaking. Here are four principles that can help you break through to get more A+ hours:

Define what success looks like for the day
Most people I know want to be productive, but have a really hard time defining what productivity looks like. If you can’t define what success looks like, other people will define it for you. Start your day with a plan for what will make you feel super productive. Every Sunday night, I sit down and lay out my plan for the week and then break it down every morning so I know exactly what I need to accomplish to make my day successful.

Distractions are always going to be there. The busier you get, the more distractions you’ll have, which is why I like to tackle the hardest tasks first thing in the morning while my mind is fresh. And by hardest tasks, I don’t mean the most labor-intensive tasks, but rather the tasks that require the most creativity. These are things I’ve never done before, like creating a new presentation, restructuring part of the organization, or tackling new problems. Other tasks that require time, but not a ton of thought or innovation, like pounding through emails, should be saved for later in the day.

Set aside “think time”
We all want to run quickly, but if you’re running in the wrong direction, you’ll never get where you want to go. How much time do you have during the day to sit and think? Productivity means you need to make time to give your brain a break. You wouldn’t continue to chop wood with an axe that’s getting duller and duller. My friend and bestselling author, Dr. David Rock, wrote a great book called Your Brain At Work. It helps you understand when your axe is the sharpest and how to prioritize your tasks to coincide with your sharpest self to drive true productivity. Dr. Rock tells people to “passionately preserve quiet time.” His research shows that when we dedicate a portion of our day to quiet thinking, we get more done and generate higher-quality ideas. Whether it’s passive thinking time that allows your brain to relax, or dedicated time to help you work through new approaches to a project, setting aside “think time” increases overall productivity.

Find your latte
Everyone has their thing that helps them through the daily grind. I call that “finding your latte.” This could be going out for coffee, doing 20 minutes of afternoon yoga, or taking meetings while going on a walk outside instead of sitting in the office. Everyone needs something. Build these things into your schedule to make sure they happen. I found I was having a lot of lunch meetings because I felt like it was a good break, but they ended up not being super productive. They would linger longer and I would come back tired. I also found I wasn’t very productive if I wouldn’t eat breakfast. To solve two problems, I now rarely do lunch meetings and moved important meetings to breakfast. That way, I get a good meal to start the day while being way more productive during breakfast meetings. More importantly, I work through lunch — which has allowed me to extend my sharp hours — because I’m still really productive through noon and don’t want to waste that time on lunch. When you do find your latte, it’s important to remember that what it is now will probably change. As problems get more complex, you always need to be reinventing.

Be aware of how you spend your time
Nobody likes surprises. I think most people would be very surprised about how they’re spending their time. I know I was. I worked with a great statistician at Qualtrics to find out where I spent all my time last year, and now I review my time allocation every quarter. Where I thought I was spending my time didn’t line up with the reality of where I was spending it. And neither of those lined up exactly with where I wanted to be spending my time.

For example, last year, 30% of my time was spent on random, unplanned tasks — items or fires that came up in the process of day-to-day business. By setting up an office hour-type format, I saved a lot of time overall. Just last quarter, I reduced the amount of time I spend on random things by almost 10 percentage points. It was easy to optimize, but I didn’t know I needed to do it until I realized how much time I was spending where. I think you’ll be surprised if you take a closer look at where you spend your time. Nothing will make you more productive than figuring that out and then redefining how you prioritize — aligning your time allocation with your real priorities.

Read all answers to the Leadership Insider question: What’s your best advice for staying productive at work?

3 ways to stay productive while working remotely by Jeff Rodman, co-founder of Polycom.

This CEO says you should work less to be more productive by Jim Yu, CEO of BrightEdge.

The biggest career lesson this Navy SEAL learned in Iraq by Chris Fussell, chief growth officer at McChrystal Group.

Here’s how to keep your employees happy (and productive) by Michael Keoni DeFranco, founder and CEO of Lua.

9 things you can do every day to be more productive by Ryan Harwood, CEO of PureWow.

How managers are killing the productivity of their employees by Todd McKinnon, co-founder and CEO of Okta.

Warby Parker’s Co-CEO: Why it’s okay to say ‘no’ to your boss by Dave Gilboa, co-CEO of Warby Parker.