In Pursuit of Profession: Being extremely productive

Ever want to be more productive, but don’t know how to get started? I talked to author Robert Pozen, former President of Fidelity Management & Research Company, senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution about how his book, Extreme Productivity, can help us get more done.

We all know the following person. Both she and her husband work and they have four young kids, but no live-in nanny or other family members helping to raise them. She not only seems to get enough sleep, but she can also find the time to volunteer at all the school events and she stays involved in the community by serving on the neighborhood HOA board and teaching Sunday school! Barring the off chance that she’s part of some clandestine government program that’s cloning people, how in the heck can she do it all? In this, the second article of our two-part summer book review series, I had the good fortune to speak with Robert Pozen, who not only wrote the book, Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours, but he’s one of those people that when you look at all they accomplish within the same 24-hour day we all get, you wonder if he might have a cape underneath his suit and tie.

It can be learned

My wife is one of those extremely productive people. Over the years, I think that I’ve figured out the secret that makes her extremely productive: she can’t sit down. While I can lay back on a lounge chair in the back yard for as long as my drink stays cold and the book in my hand remains interesting, I will bet any takers that she can’t do the same thing for more than five minutes before she’s up, “puttering around.” She might trim a few plants that have become a bit unruly, pull some weeds and clean the patio furniture if she feels it’s needed. As I sit there and wonder if it would be too much to ask her to top off my iced tea while she’s already up, I also wonder if she’s born with some kind of extreme productivity gene or if her desire to be that productive is a learned behavior. “Being productive is not an inherit trait, it can be learned and is very learnable,” said Pozen. “It depends on your wants and methodology. The question to ask yourself is, how important is being productive in your life versus other things? If you have clear thinking and are disciplined in practicing being productive, there’s no limit to how productive you can be.” A great example of being disciplined about one’s approach to productivity comes from Pozen’s own life. At one point, he held two full time jobs, served on two boards, and wrote three books all while maintaining a solid family relationship at the same time. “I was very clear about what are high priorities in my life, and I worked hard to reach those metrics,” said Pozen. For example, even though he was President of Fidelity Management and Research at the time, he wanted a good family life so he made it a top priority to be home for dinner at 7:00 p.m. every night. That meant that he then had to go back to office later that night to finish up on work for the day. He would leave the office to go to his kids’ games, and encouraged his employees to do the same. “Most productivity objectives are too vague. The key is to be specific and efficient in the way you go about managing your daily schedule,” said Pozen.

Time wasters

With a lifetime of business experience, Pozen has identified many time wasters in typical office environments that sabotage productivity and offers various techniques in his book on how to avoid them. A few of the biggest ones are pretty evident – spending time on social media, getting overwhelmed by email and simple procrastination. But it was Pozen’s thoughts on meetings as time wasters is what stuck with me. “We’ve all been to a bad meeting. You walk in, are handed an agenda, then the person leading the meeting will use a PowerPoint presentation to review the agenda for most of the meeting, and then the actual discussion takes place at the last 10 minutes. You walk out and think, ‘What just happened?’” Pozen said.

So I asked him about the format for a good, productive meeting. “The meeting leader sends out an agenda the day before to give everyone a chance to read associated material and prepare discussion points. In the meeting, the leader keys up the topics, only talks for 10 minutes, and then rest of the meeting is discussion and attendees come away with a list of action items,” said Pozen. Oh, and one other important element of a productive meeting. “They go no longer than 90 minutes,” Pozen said.

It’s not about the hours

Another critical point that Pozen raised is that in order for people to be extremely productive, we must, as a society, stop thinking about work in terms of number of hours. He offered up an example where I go into my editor with a story that I worked on for 10 hours and my editor hates it. “But I worked on it for 10 hours,” I say. “Well,” my editor replies, “you just wasted 10 hours.” “The world has been going on hours for so long – the concept of face time – we must get off that to make organizations more productive,” said Pozen. “In a knowledge-based economy, the focus needs to be on what gets accomplished. If a work group has a task, they must first agree on their success metrics and efficiency techniques and then the group carries out the work. That’s what motivates, because individuals control their workload and control their own space.”

In addition to writing the book, Extreme Productivity, Pozen leads a two-day productivity course, Maximizing Your Personal Productivity: How to Become an Efficient and Effective Executive, as part of the Executive Education Program at the MIT Sloan School of Management. For more information, visit