“The single most important resource we allocate from one day to the next is our time.” - Andy Grove
It is increasingly challenging to get things done during a whole day of meetings and seemingly never ending to-do lists in our busy, connected, and dynamic lives. Career stress is also rising: 67% of all workers believe burnout has worsened during the pandemic.
As a startup tech advisor, helping a stellar group of CEOs elevate their core business with technology, and as builder of operational platforms for companies like Din Tai Fung, CVAI, and ed tech companies, I love to take on new challenges. I work with domain experts to transform their business, and each new business presents me with an exciting opportunity that I could hardly say no to.
In continuing to keep up my track record of successes and pursue ongoing growth, I ended up struggling with severe burnout. In 2008, my hyper-stressed nervous system broke down, forcing me to hit the pause button on upcoming opportunities that I was really excited about.
I spent the following year resetting my career and rebalancing my priorities for work, play, and life. Through the process, I learned to define what matters, make time for my goals, and create flow in my daily life.
The truth is that in order to reach peak productivity and maintain momentum, it’s critical to focus on energy management. Like Dr. Julie Gurner says, “Cutting time waste helps you see the landscape and be aggressively strategic.”
Here are the best ways to build up towards your personal peak productivity and momentum.
#1: Master The Art of Attention Direction
Heidegger argued that living a truly authentic life—becoming fully human—means facing up to the fact that finitude defines our lives. The present moment is the only time that matters.
Have you ever gotten caught up in your iPhone scrolling mindlessly on Twitter while in between meetings only to realize 30 minutes have flown by? Similarly, have you ever been fully focused on painting or writing to see that you’ve managed to create something interesting in 30 minutes of being fully present? In the first case, time flies by because your attention lacks clear direction. In the second case, time expands in the moment to what you’re directing your attention to.
Since my work is centered around people, my day can easily get fragmented by the demands of others. Much of my career, I would multitask (write emails, distill strategy, review docs, etc.) during meetings. While it feels good to check off two things at once, I could not bring insightful ideas or questions to the table. When you deliberately direct your attention, the detail and quality of what you’re focusing on expands. On the other hand, when you are constantly multitasking or worrying about the next thing, you may get to the end of the day without having accomplished anything meaningful because of the lack of direction you gave your attention.
Gay Hendricks found that this feeling of expansion often happens when we are in our Genius Zone: the zone where our talents, skills, and strengths are all aligned. My personal Genius Zone, or my superpower, is helping people solve problems creatively. When I coach my clients to navigate challenges, the hour often just flies by.
Achieving this state of focused attention and flow can be accomplished by incorporating a few techniques into your workflow:
- Stretch Your Focal Range. Let’s say you have “Q4 OKR Planning” on your schedule. Zoom in to identify the line items you’re going to present. Zooming in will help you see the immediate benefits to what you’re doing. After thinking about the immediate benefits, it’s time to shift to a higher altitude. It’s time to zoom out. Think about the long term benefits you will get from planning Q4 OKR. Consider the difference it will make in your life as you prioritize the work that makes a difference.
- Take Horizon Vision Breaks. Set your alarm on your phone to remind you to carve out 5 min to look out your window and stare at a broad vista when you feel stressed. According to the Stanford neurobiologist Andrew Huberman, when you look at a horizon, you can dilate your gaze and relax your peripheral vision.
- Actively Express Gratitude. Research from Harvard shows that gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, and build strong relationships. Consider sharing something kind to three different people every day. The more you focus on gratitude, the more you will begin to experience it daily.
#2: Set Success Milestones
It’s easy to lose sight of specifically what success is or where the goal posts should be. Taking dedicated time to get crisp on the vision and the roadmap generates motivation, which in turn helps to fuel productivity.
It often can help by beginning with the success of someone you admire to help rejuvenate what your own vision may be. Begin by identifying five people you respect, admire, and want to learn from. They can be a business leader, a modern icon, or anyone who makes you want to be like them. Some of my clients’ favorites include Elon Musk, Brené Brown, Malcolm Gladwell, Sam Altman, and Sheryl Sandberg.
Study the career trajectory of each individual. Write down the milestones that they achieved that inspire you. For example, they may have created a successful mission-driven product that can help billions of people, transformed businesses through investing in the people, or coined an idea that changes the way you live your life. Identify the one or two things that inspire you from each individual. These will be your inspiring milestones to start.
Next, break each of these major milestones down into smaller goals. Goals are the stepping stones toward milestones, and the actionable daily or weekly tasks where we can direct our focused attention. Goals help us prioritize competing tasks and should lead us toward achieving a milestone.
Your goals can range across many areas. Here are a few to start:
- Impact: Do you appreciate your personal impact on the organization and your product’s impact on the world?
- Title: Are you being recognized as an expert and appreciated for your accomplishments?
- Compensation: What is the compensation that would make you feel comfortable?
- Learning: Do you like to take on challenges that stretch your limits? How much of your learning is transferable?
- Work-Life Balance: How much time would it take to do your job well?
- Team: Do you enjoy the people you speak to? Are they smart? Do they seem to like their job?
With the Success Milestone in mind, and the goals that will lead up towards the milestone, you now have a roadmap to help keep you productivity and in flow. Many times, we’re unable to motivate ourselves and be productive simply because we’re not sure what next step to take. With a clear vision of what success will look like for you in one year, you’ve unlocked one of the biggest blockers to productivity.With the Success Milestone in mind, and the goals that will lead up towards the milestone, you now have a roadmap to help keep you productivity and in flow. Many times, we’re unable to motivate ourselves and be productive simply because we’re not sure what next step to take. With a clear vision of what success will look like for you in one year, you’ve unlocked one of the biggest blockers to productivity.
#3: Conduct Self-Strategy Sessions
A leader who tries to take on too many problems simultaneously will likely fail at them all.
If we chase after every deadline and project, we will lose track of our focus and the long-term strategy. Greg McKeown, the author of Essentialism and Effortless, noticed this paradox: The faster and busier things get, the more we need to build thinking time into our schedule. And the noisier things get, the more we need to build quiet reflection spaces in which we can truly focus. McKeown found that experts, from Sir Isaac Newton to Bill Gates, were able to consistently create space to focus on what matters.
Jeff Weiner, for example, schedules ninety minutes to two hours of buffer on his calendar every day. He divides them into 30-minute blocks and says no to any work-related requests. He uses this time to think: What will the company look like in three to five years? What is the best way to improve an already popular product or address an unmet customer need? What’s the best way to widen a competitive advantage or close a competitive gap? While he’s not thinking about strategic questions, he uses the buffer to catch his breath outside of back-to-back meetings. In his own words: “The buffer is the best investment you can make in yourself and the single most important productivity tool I use.”
The way I’ve applied this to my own life? I religiously block out 8-10AM for my focus time. By investing two to three hours in myself every day, I was able to publish a book, build a coaching business, and have a day job as a product manager.
Here’s how you can stay consistent in blocking out the time and using it wisely:
- Commit to a time early in the day or around your energy peak. It’s easier to avoid getting sucked into urgent issues or new projects when you start your day with what strategy matters for you. However, if you’re not a morning person, schedule this time for whenever your energy is at its peak will help you think the best about things that matter the most.
- Start with 30 minutes. If you’re like most of us, you may be in meetings all day and struggle to find 2 hours. Start by scheduling 30 minutes for the next work day. If that goes well, stick with a 30-minute focus time for a week. If that goes well, schedule a 60-minute focus time for the following week. Even if you never work your way up to two full hours, at least you’ll be building the practice of checking on your long-term strategy daily.
- Block out all other communication during your dedicated strategy time. Once you block out your time, resist your temptation to check emails and pings. During these two hours, only work on your most important goal. If you do this every work day, you will be able to accomplish your goals within the timeline you’ve set out for yourself because you have intentionally aligned your most productive hours with your goal.
- Conduct your daily Self-Strategy Session. It can feel daunting to begin just blocking off time on your calendar without a clear plan. It helps to think of this time as a working session with yourself. Check in with yourself on whether or not you're staying true to your plan to reach your Success Milestones.
Whether you can invest two hours a day, one week a quarter, or just 30 minutes every evening, it is important to make space to advance towards your Success Milestone.
#4: Activate Your Flow State
Now that you've made time for your most important goal, let's explore ways to reliably activate a flow state and maintain the momentum as you revisit the vision of your Success Milestone daily. The goal is to help you create a mindful operating system so that you can be more present and fulfilled at work.
Positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi defined flow as a “mental state where people are completely involved and focused on what they are doing.” How often are you truly in a flow state? Take a look at your calendar from the past week and make a list of the activities where you felt like you were deeply in flow.
The powerful partner to flow is momentum, or the driving force gained by the development of a process or course of an event. Tracking progress—being able to see our inputs lead to outputs that are helping us toward our Success Milestone—is key to maintaining momentum.
Moving slower and more sustainably in the right direction is far better than moving faster in the wrong one. If you work on the wrong problem, it doesn’t matter how good your solutions are. If you work on the right problem every day, the compounding effect naturally kicks in.
If you can focus on staying consistent with making a little progress every day, you’ll be surprised at how far you come by the end of the year.
Between mastering the art of attention direction, setting success milestones, conducting self-strategy sessions, and activating your flow state, you’re poised to reach peak productivity and momentum with your work.