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MIT Management Executive Education

Quality Insider

Ready, Set, Prioritize

Six tips from productivity guru Robert Pozen

Published: Thursday, June 5, 2014 - 17:48

What stands between you and the more productive version of you—the person who meets personal and professional goals on a daily, monthly, and yearly basis?

Robert Pozen provides concrete answers to this question in his new course, Maximizing Your Personal Productivity, offered July 15–16, 2014, by MIT Sloan Executive Education. Pozen is one of the most productive professionals in America. He’s been a top executive at two mutual fund giants. He’s been a government official, corporate director, business school professor, and a prolific author. And he has been several of those things at once.

After publishing several times in Harvard Business Review, its editors wondered how he was able to submit all his articles on time and within the word limit—while juggling two jobs. Its published interview with him on the secrets of his personal productivity went viral, as well as his subsequent YouTube video on the topic. These led naturally to his best-selling book, Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours (HarperBusiness, 2012) and sold-out speaking engagements around the country.

“It became clear that although I spent most of my adult life working in financial institutions, and had written textbooks on the financial industry, all of a sudden everyone was interested in personal productivity,” says Pozen. “People were stopping me on the street to ask for advice, and calling me to say how my book had changed their entire approach to reading and writing.”

When we asked him how the course begins, Pozen focused on setting and prioritizing goals—one of the three big ideas in his book. “Most professionals have not taken the time to write down their goals and prioritize them. Without a specific set of goals to pursue, many ambitious people devote insufficient time to activities that actually support their highest professional priorities.”

Pozen adds that unless you bill your time by the hour, you probably only have a vague sense of how much time you’ve allocated to various tasks and functions over the last year. This discrepancy between top priorities and time allocations can happen to anyone, in any field, at any level of an organization.

His upcoming two-day course begins with an important session on goal setting that forces participants to reflect on their core values and professional priorities. “No matter what your career aspirations are, you should begin by thinking carefully about why you are engaging in any activity, and what you expect to get out of it,” he says.

Pozen takes program participants through a six-step exercise, as outlined below, to establish their highest-ranking goals and to better match their time allocations with these top goals.

1. Write down everything you are doing, or are planning to do, in order to achieve your professional goals. Be as broad as possible in your list of goals; you will prioritize them later.

2. Organize your goals by time horizon, i.e., career aims, yearly objectives, and weekly targets. Career aims are the long-term goals over at least five years. Objectives are the goals for your professional life over the next three months to two years. Targets are action steps that should guide your work on a weekly or daily basis, such as completing project tasks or solving a client issue. Each objective should have one or two targets associated with it.

3. Next, rank your objectives by their relative importance. To do this, you should think deeply about what you want to do, what you’re good at, and what the world wants from you. To nail down your comparative advantage, ask yourself, “What am I better at doing than others?” Your personal preferences are critical to your ranking decisions, but they don’t tell the entire story. You also must consider, “What the most critical needs of your organization and your boss?”

4. For example, rank your weekly targets by their relative importance. Targets might be enablers that help you accomplish your objectives, or they might be assigned to you—the chores that pile up on a daily basis. To keep your assigned tasks from overwhelming you, Pozen gives concrete recommendations on how to handle emails and meetings more efficiently.

5. Estimate how you actually spend your time, and compare that with your objectives and targets. At work, what are the three main activities that consume most of your time? How much time do you spend on your top priorities? Your answers may surprise you. Like most professionals, you may be spending less than half your time on your highest priorities.

“Some professionals have not carefully thought about their objectives and targets,” says Pozen. “As a result, they spend most of the day passively responding to the demands of others, rather than actively pursuing their top priorities.”

6. Address the main reasons for mismatches between your goals and your time allocations. This usually requires a fundamental change in personal habits, such as overcoming your tendency to procrastinate or engage in micro-management.

A second post in this series will address tactics for getting through the burdensome stuff like emails and meetings quickly, while a third post will suggest strategies for managing both up (your boss) and down (your team).

First published on the innovation@work blog.

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MIT Management Executive Education

MIT Management Executive Education’s nondegree executive programs are led by senior MIT Sloan faculty and provide business professionals from around the world with a targeted and flexible means to advance their career development goals and position their organizations for future growth. MIT’s cutting-edge leadership training includes more than 40 short courses, executive certificates, online courses, custom programs for organizations, and its flagship program, the five-week Advanced Management Program.