Dr. Amantha Imber23 August 2019

Five Things I Have Learnt From Interviews With The World’s Most Productive People

As humans, we have a habit of elevating successful people up onto a pedestal. We idiolize them and see their abilities as superhuman. But when it comes to how they approach work, are they really doing things that differently to the rest of us? It turns out, they are.

Through dozens of interviews I have conducted for the podcast How I Work, leading innovators have revealed their unique approaches to work. Here are five strategies that we can all learn from.

Develop different rituals for different types of work

It’s not unusual to see Georgetown University Professor and bestselling author of Deep Work, Cal Newport, walking around campus or to and from home to his university. And when you see him walking, you’ll never catch him with headphones in because he is actually working.

“When I’m trying to solve a theoretical computer science proof, the rituals I use almost always involve various walking routes around my town,” Newport explained to me when I interviewed him on the How I Work podcast.

But when doing writing work, of a book or article, you’ll find him approaching this work in a completely different way.

“In my house, I had a custom library table built that was reminiscent of the tables at the university library where I used to work as an undergraduate with brass library lamps next to the dark wood bookcases. And I have a ritual for writing where I clear off that whole desk and I just have a bright light shining right down on the desk and it’s just me and my computer.”

Think about the main categories of work that you do and start to create rituals around them. The rituals might involve your physical location, background noise, and time of day. After a few weeks of practising these rituals, you should find that getting into flow becomes far easier and quicker because your brain associates these cues with certain types of work.

Small hacks can lead to big changes

For WordPress and Automattic co-founder Matt Mullenweg, it’s the small behavioral hacks that can lead to the biggest payoffs.

“If what is closest to me in the bed when I wake up is the Kindle and not the phone, I’m more likely to read,” says Mullenweg. “But if the phone’s on top of the Kindle I’m more likely to look at the phone. If I can reverse that order it’s a bit better.”

“I think it’s good to look at every aspect of your life and say, ‘Where’s something that I can make it easy to do the thing that I want to do’.”

In Work Rules, ex-head of People Operations Laszlo Bock describes an experiment whereby he was trying to nudge Googlers into making healthier food choices. One experiment involved placing healthy snacks at eye level in transparent containers at Google’s snacking stations, while unhealthy snacks were placed closer to the ground in opaque containers. This simple change led to a 30 per cent reduction in the number of calories consumed from candy and fat consumption dropped by 40%.

Batch your meetings

Many productivity experts talk about batching emails. But batching meetings can have an equally big impact. Research from Ohio State University has shown that when you have a meeting coming up in the next hour or two, people get 22% less work done compared to if there was no upcoming meeting.

Wharton Professor Adam Grant found this research affirming for the way he had chosen to structure his days. “On a teaching day, I hold all my office hours (meetings) back to back. I learned that I needed a little buffer so that maybe five minutes between each meeting just to catch up on email or in case a meeting ran long helped, but then I’d have another day with no meetings at all where I could really focus and be productive.”

Consider creating rules around when you don’t book in meetings. In my own work, I avoid having meetings in the mornings and instead batch all meetings in the afternoon.

Use your clothes as a communication channel

It can be hard to find a communication channel that can cut through the clutter, but ex-President of Pinterest Tim Kendall discovered it in his wardrobe. For four and a half years, he wore a t-shirt that said ‘Focus’ every single day (he had about 20 in rotation).

“I got in front of the company and said, ‘I’m going to wear this until we have 200 million users.’ By the way, at the time we had 10 or 20 million, so it was a way out when I started.”

Kendall ended up wearing the shirt until he left the company in January 2018.

“I think that with your outfit, you can use that as a way to symbolically communicate to people,” explains Kendall. “I remember when I was at Facebook one year, it was a seminal year, 2009. Mark Zuckerberg showed up to work on January 4th or 5th, and he was wearing a tie. As you can imagine, for Mark Zuckerberg that stands out, and he said, ‘I’m wearing this every day for the rest of the year because this is a serious year’.”

Read your work out loud

Whether we like it or not, we are all writers. Every day, our success at work is in part determined by how well we can communicate our thoughts through email, reports, and perhaps even articles or books.

For bestselling author Dan Pink, reading his writing out loud helps him craft better work. “Nearly everything I write of significance, so books or articles, I will read out loud because to me, it’s a test of does it sound right,” explains Pink.

“Are there words in there that are clunkers? Is it as clear and gleaming as it could possibly be? For me, reading out loud and hearing the work read out loud is a significant part of my editing process. It’s very time-consuming. It’s very laborious. But that’s how I do things.”

Investing time in these simple strategies will help you achieve greater output in your work. And despite getting strange looks from fellow café dwellers (the location I chose to do the majority of my writing work), my hope is that reading this article out loud as I edited it turned it into a better piece of writing.
Keen to hear more wisdom from some of the world’s most successful people? Subscribe to How I Work on Apple Podcasts.