Whenever I meet a business person, the most likely opening question I get asked is, “Are you busy?” This is unsurprising as it’s the first question executives tend to ask each other whenever they meet. The expected answer is, of course, “Yes” and this is seen as far superior to a negative response.

But why has ‘busy-ness’ become a badge of honour? Why does working 15-hours a day provide prestige and status to managers? And, critically, why isn’t the question, “Are you productive?” From a company perspective it is far better to be productive than busy, but we seem to have created a business culture where productivity is ignored and the hours spent in the office is taken as the lead indicator of commitment and professionalism.

The problem is that, in practice, the focus on hours creates organisational cultures where long, rambling meetings are tolerated, managers are given too many objectives and are also given administrative responsibilities that would be better done by others.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Here are five steps you can take to lead a fightback in your company, so that you shift the focus to results and productivity, rather than hours spent in meetings and in front of your emails.

  1. Determine your Most Important Task.

    I got this idea by a recent blog post by Dan Pink (see here). His view is that each day you determine your Most Important Task and then do that before you do anything else; before you open your emails, before you have that team meeting and before you make your calls. By identifying and focusing on your Most Important Task you will ensure that you achieve something useful every day!

  2. Carve the time out.

    If you have some important projects you need to work on you will only get them done if you actually set the time aside, probably at least two hours at a time. Most managers’ lives are ruled by their calendars, but they allow them to lie empty so that can be filled up by other people’s meetings. Instead, set aside clear blocks of time to work on your big projects and keep them sacrosanct.

  3. Ditch your to-do lists.

    I hate to-do lists. I see managers in meetings adding to their list which already might have 50 or more actions in there. These to-do booklets act like a weight around their energy and effectiveness. If something is important, create a task in your calendar; if it isn’t, forget it. In addition, to my Most Important Task, I identify three further priorities each day and have them in my calendar to do. If it’s not in the diary, it doesn’t get done.

  4. Reduce time in meetings

    For some managers I know, over 70% of their time is spent in formal meetings. Some meetings are essential and useful, but too many are not. I know that you cannot always control the meetings you must attend, but you can reduce the time you spend by taking some of the following actions: (1) Reducing the standard time for your own meetings from one hour to 30 minutes, or maybe even 15 minutes; (2) Making your meetings ‘stand-up’ events with no seats so that people don’t get too comfortable; (3) Having a clear structure for your meetings and chairing it effectively so that you don’t get distracted; and (4) Proactively questioning the owners of meetings to which you’re invited, so that you reduce the number of meetings you need to attend.

  5. Delegate, delegate, delegate.

    As someone once said to me, if you don’t have a PA you are a PA!. If you want to be highly productive and effective, you must get some support for your administrative tasks and, in fact, for any jobs that you aren’t best placed to carry out. Could you share a PA with other managers, for instance, or use one of your team or even external agencies to help you reduce your administrative load.

  6. Ban cc’s on emails.

    How much of your time is spent reading emails and replying to them? As I walk around offices it seems to be the only thing people are doing. For many managers most of these emails are ones where they have been copied onto a list; they are not the direct recepients of the missive. By banning cc’s you can reduce the number of emails you receive by at least 50%.

  7. Turn off your phone.

    The other thing about emails – and texts and phone calls – is that they can become highly distracting. As soon as you hear the ping you want to see what it is and, before you know it, you’re writing a response. Many meeting leaders ask people to switch off their phones, but I advise that you do this all the time. You can still check in two or three times a day without being a Pavlovian slave to your phone.

I’ve nothing against being busy, or working long hours, if that’s what you really want. However, I am totally against being busy for the sake of it and allowing your ‘busy-ness’ to prevent you from being productive and useful. Life is just too short to waste time in that way. Take these seven actions and you can re-take control, step-change your productivity and enjoy your life more.

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.