Of all the intriguing details Michael Lewis revealed in his Vanity Fair profile of President Obama this month, the bit about the suits sticks with me. The president wears either blue or gray. With so many high-octane decisions to make each day, why waste even a moment lingering at the closet (or the tie rack or the sock drawer)?
“My wife makes fun of how routinized I’ve become,” he told Lewis.
If you ask Robert C. Pozen, such routines can be a powerful tool in modern life, where so many of us are haunted by the sense that we’re not getting enough done or managing our lives well enough.
Pozen ran a global financial services firm while teaching a full course load at Harvard Business School. He’s written six books, including “Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours” — published this month. Setting priorities is key to working fast and smart, he says. And working fast and smart is key to career-boosting performance at the office and a full and satisfying life beyond it.
He took the time to talk about his philosophy and strategies. The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity:
“Extreme Productivity” sounds exhausting. In a nutshell, what’s your philosophy?
“Extreme Productivity” is not about working harder; it’s about working smarter. The practices that I advocate do not require you to be a superhero. Instead, the book offers many practical lessons on how you can improve your output for each hour that you work.
The general philosophy of these lessons is that you should focus your time on your most critical goals. So first, you have to identify and rank your priorities, based on your own skills and desires as well as the needs of your organization. Then you clear away the lower priorities with as little headache as possible. Finally, you perform your high-priority goals more efficiently by quickly reaching tentative conclusions, instead of spending days or weeks researching basic facts.
So the key to productivity seems to be setting priorities and targets. How do you do that efficiently?
You can’t start achieving your goals until you know what exactly your goals are. So it’s worth taking the time to go through the following exercise. First, write down all your medium-term (one year or so) and short-term (one week or so) professional goals — including projects, their associated stepping stones and any routine assigned tasks.
Then, rank your medium-term goals by importance. Although you should certainly consider what you want to do and what you’re good at, you should also think about what your organization most needs from you. For instance, although you might be very skillful at designing advertising campaigns for new products, your company might need you to manage its recruiting campaign instead.
Finally, think about the broader implications of your short-term goals: a highly ranked short-term goal can either be an intermediate step to help you achieve an important longer-term goal, or it can be a task that your boss considers highly critical. This exercise can help you create a list of your highest ranked goals.
You talk about ranking objectives according to what you want to do, what you’re good at and what the world needs from you. How do you balance the needs of others with your own goals?
This balance depends heavily on the stage of your career. In many sectors, the key challenge is making entry. In order to get your foot in the door, you should be ready to forgo temporarily your strongest desires in order to serve an organizational mandate. But that only makes sense if you believe that this particular job will lead to better opportunities down the road — by helping you gain skills, meet people, or gain the loyalty and respect of your boss.
By contrast, toward the latter parts of your career, you should be reluctant to take a job that does not really appeal to you. The chance of that job leading to what you want is relatively low — unless it helps to prepare you for a stimulating retirement.
You note that most professionals have a much better grasp of how they spend their money than their time. Why does that matter?
It’s certainly understandable that many people find it easier to keep track of their money than to keep track of their time. Money can be easier to count and you probably spend money only a few times each day, instead of every minute of your life.
But in many ways, time is a much more valuable resource than money. You can earn large profits and save them for use years later. However, once time is gone, it will never come back. That’s why it’s so bizarre to me that professionals often use their time inefficiently — by procrastinating, by perfecting an unimportant task, or by just sitting around in the office, trying to be seen. It seems to me that professionals should husband time as an irreplaceable resource.
How important is it to manage your boss?