Good work habits go hand and hand with success in every area of endeavor. There is nothing that will bring you to the attention of your boss and co-workers faster than developing a reputation for being a good, dependable worker. How you work determines the quality and quantity of your rewards. How you work determines how much you earn, how effective you are, how much you are respected in your organization, and how much real satisfaction you get out of your job.
Unfortunately, many people are poor workers. They are unorganized, unfocused, and easily distracted. They work at about 40 percent of capacity. Sadly enough, they don’t even seem to know how to do it any differently. Much of the blame for poor work habits goes back to their school system, to the attitudes of teachers toward academic excellence and the attitudes of parents toward homework.
If people go through 10 or 12 or even 15 years of schooling and never have to learn how to settle down and produce good-quality work, it’s not surprising that they will have a hard time producing high-quality work when they enter the workforce. Here, I’ll show you how to develop the habits of highly productive people.
The foundations of good work habits can be summarized in two words: focus and concentration. Focus means clarity concerning the desired results and the relative priority of each step toward the results. When I think of focus, I think of a photographer adjusting his or her lens to keep the subject in sharp focus. In order to be truly effective at work, you have to be continually adjusting your lens to be sure that what you’re working on is the most important thing you could be doing toward achieving your most important goals. The very worst waste of time is doing something very well that need not be done at all.
Concentration, on the other hand, means the ability to stay with the task until it is 100 percent complete. Concentration means to work in a straight line from where you are to where you want to go without diversion or distraction, without getting sidetracked into doing things of lesser importance.
There’s a story of a traveler in ancient Greece who met an old man on the road and asked him how he could get to Mount Olympus. The old man, who turned out to be Socrates, replied by saying, "Just make sure that every step you take is headed in that direction." If you want to accomplish your goals, then just make sure that everything you do is taking you in that direction.
Here are the big four steps to high productivity, and they cannot be repeated too often. First, set clear goals and objectives in writing. Think them through carefully before you begin. What are you trying to do? How are you trying to do it? Whenever you experience frustration of any kind, go back to these questions. What are you trying to do? How are you trying to do it?
The second step to high productivity is a detailed plan of action for achieving the goal. This answers the question, How are you trying to do it? When you have done this, you will have the answers to what and how, something that very few people ever take the time to think through.
The third step to high productivity is clear priorities with activities organized in a hierarchy of value and importance to the desired result, with the 80/20 rule applied over and over again, day by day, hour by hour, before you embark on any task or activity.
And finally, the fourth step, single-minded concentration on the highest-paid-off task leading to the goal. This is the key to getting things done. There are real benefits from learning how to concentrate. For one, important task completion is a source of energy and enthusiasm and self-esteem. Incompletion or only partial completion of major tasks is not only a major source of stress, but it also has no motivational power. When you complete a task that’s important to you, you feel a burst of energy and well-being. But when you work on something that is unimportant, even if you complete it in a timely fashion, you get no feeling of satisfaction at all.
Another benefit of concentrating on the job until it is finished is that task completion gives you confidence, competence, and a feeling of mastery. It gives you a feeling of self-control, that you are in charge of your own destiny. The habit of completing your transactions, of finishing what you start, is an essential part of character building. You cannot imagine a fully mature human being who is unable to finish what he or she begins.
You can accelerate the process of becoming a highly productive person by visualizing yourself over and over as focused and channeled toward high achievement. See yourself as a highly productive, effective person. One powerful method you can use is to think of an incident in your past when, for whatever reason, you concentrated very hard on the completion of something that was really important to you. Now, take that memory and replay it over and over again as you think of yourself today. The subconscious mind functions in such a way that it records each replaying of an emotionalized experience as though it were happening again. If you replay your memory of successful task completion repeatedly on the screen of your mind, you will program your subconscious. You will then find that it gets easier and easier for you to stick with the job once you start.
Another way you can accelerate the process of becoming a highly productive person is to assume the body language of high performance. There is a body position or physiology for almost every mental or emotional state. There’s also a physiology for good work habits. If you work at a desk and you sit up straight and erect and lean forward, you actually trigger a feeling of being more productive. If you walk briskly with your head up, with your shoulders back, and with your chin held high, you tend to feel like a more confident and productive person.
On the other hand, if you slouch in a chair or if you walk slowly with your head down or if you put your feet up, you will actually feel a lack of self-confidence and lack of enthusiasm for productive work. A good exercise is to stop every so often and observe how you are sitting and doing your work. Ask yourself, Would a highly effective person work like this? And if the answer is no, then change your posture and your position so that it is more consistent with the way you think a highly effective person would sit and work.
Some years ago Reader’s Digest reported on a study of genius. The study examined the life and habits of many geniuses in an attempt to determine what the common characteristics of genius were. The writers finally concluded that geniuses have three things in common. First, is that all geniuses seem to take a systematic and orderly approach to problem solving. The second habit is that geniuses seem to have a sense of wonder, the ability to look at things in a fresh, almost childlike way. They keep an open mind and a flexible attitude on all subjects. The third quality of genius is that geniuses seem to have the ability to concentrate with greater depth and intensity than the average person. Someone once said that genius is simply an infinite capacity for taking pains.
In fact, my experience has led me to conclude that anyone who can discipline himself or herself to concentrate single-mindedly on a single subject until he or she masters that subject will begin to perform at exceptional levels in that subject area. This applies to sales, management, parenting, negotiating, or anything else. High performance seems to be a matter more of perspiration than of inspiration.
Now let’s look at nine more ideas that you can use to increase your productivity and increase the rate at which you get things done. Number one, use concentration of power. This means that you concentrate your talents and abilities so they will yield the highest payoff to you. In our corporate strategy sessions, we focus on the idea of increasing return on equity. The purpose of strategy for a corporation is to allocate the company’s resources in such a way that they yield the highest possible financial return on the equity invested.
In setting personal strategy, we call it return on energy. Your job is to allocate your talents and abilities in such a way that you achieve the highest possible return on your energy invested. This comes from asking yourself, What talents, skills, and abilities do I have that account for my greatest successes to date? What is it that I have done that has gotten me this far? Almost invariably there is a strategic key to any situation. There is a pressure point or a specific area where great breakthroughs are possible if it can be identified and exploited. You must always allocate your time with the determination to be continually increasing your personal return on your mental, physical, and emotional energy invested.
Number two, concentrate on the few major areas where superior performance will bring outstanding results. Always apply the 80/20 rule to everything you do. Remember that it is often less than 5 percent of what you do that accounts for most of your results. So continue asking yourself, What can I and only I do that if done well will make a real difference?
Number three, do things that you are better at. When you do things that you are better at, you have more fun, you make fewer mistakes, and you achieve greater personal productivity. So what are the few things that you do better than anyone else? What is it that you do that seems to be difficult for others? Focus on your unique talents and concentrate on the few things from which you can achieve superior results.
Number four, concentrate human strengths, your own and others’, on major opportunities. Focus on the opportunities of tomorrow rather than the problems of yesterday. One of the rules for success in any organization is to concentrate the talents of your best people on your best opportunities. Many companies make the mistake of putting their people to work to salvage the mistakes of yesterday rather than deploying them to maximize the opportunities of tomorrow. So ask yourself, What are my biggest opportunities for the future? Where can I make a real breakthrough if I concentrate?
Number five, fish for whales not minnows. Remember that if you catch a thousand minnows, all you have is a bucket full of fish. But if you catch a single whale, you will pay for the whole voyage. In business this is an important rule. Look at your marketplace and try to determine who the whales might be and then make a plan to go after them. Sometimes landing one big customer or selling one whale or an order will be enough to make a business or an individual successful.
Number six, identify your key result areas and work in them exclusively. Your key result areas is the answer to the question Why am I on the payroll? Each person has one or two key result areas where they can make an important contribution to the organization. It is in concentrating your efforts on your key result areas that will enable you to achieve the most significant results in the shortest period of time.
Number seven is set deadlines for important goals and stick to them. Deadlines act as a forcing system that causes you to work harder and more effectively as the deadline approaches. In fact, a goal or an assignment without a deadline is usually an exercise in futility. Promise other people that you will finish the job by the deadline. When you promise others, you motivate yourself to fulfill the promise. In this case, ego can be a wonderful thing.
Number eight, allow enough time to do everything well. Take the time to complete the task in an excellent fashion. Highly productive workers always allow enough time to do the job right.
And finally, number nine, don’t hurry. Maintain an easy pace and work steadily. Remember the fable of the tortoise and the hare. Highly productive people work with a certain rhythm that enables them to flow through enormous amounts of work without becoming stressed or anxious. Remember, our great business in life is not to see what lies dimly at a distance but to do what lies clearly at hand, right now.
Peter Drucker says that a hallmark behavior of effective executives is that they do one thing at a time, the most important thing, and they stay with it until it is complete. In other words, they set priorities and they single handle.
Remember, in developing the ability to get things done, results orientation is a key characteristic of all peak performers. You can develop this ability to concentrate single-mindedly to practice and repetition over and over until it becomes an ingrained habit of success to serve you for the rest of your life.