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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

6 Productivity Tricks You Can Learn From CEOs

Everyone knows that leading a company one of the toughest gigs around. Whether running a small business or a multi-national corporation, CEOs have to manage time, resources, and multiple demands while finding the time and head space to make decisions and plot strategies that will determine the course of their business.

Which means that they’ve developed some master systems and tricks to maximize their productivity.

So, why can’t we steal a few moves from their playbooks? Whether you aspire to run your own business or want to be more productive at your current job, check out this list of CEO-proven tips that you can apply to any facet of your life.

1. Take Breaks Every 90 Minutes

Tony Schwartz, president of the Energy Project, suggests taking breaks every 90 minutes to maximize your productivity. The reason? Human bodies have an energy cycle that operates at 90-minute intervals throughout the day. When we’ve been working on something for an hour and a half or longer, it’s natural that our alertness levels will go down and our attention will wander or we’ll feel drowsy (or start checking Twitter or Facebook).

The counterintuitive secret to sustainable great performance is to live like a sprinter. In practice, that means working at your highest intensity in the mornings, for no more than 90 minutes at a time, and then taking a break.

So, the next time your eyes are glazing over, instead of reaching for another cup of coffee, step away from your work for a few minutes instead. You might be surprised how much you’ll get done in the long run.

2. Make Yourself Uninterruptable Sometimes

There’s nothing more frustrating than finally getting into the zone working on a big project—and then being interrupted by a co-worker or boss who drops by your desk. Worse, research shows it can take up to 25 minutes to get back on track after an interruption.

And that’s exactly why Andrew Marsh, CEO of Fifth Column Games, has developed a system to make sure that everyone in his office can work without being interrupted. By placing a “cone of silence” on their desks, employees have a tangible symbol that conveys that they should not be disturbed unless it’s an emergency.

I use the cone of silence when I'm working on a complex project that I need to concentrate on. Being able to focus intensely without interruption is a valuable productivity tool for everyone at Fifth Column Games.

Whether you need to stay focused on intense tasks for a couple of hours a day or you’re working on a big project, using a system that informs people of this will get them into the habit of sending you an email for non-urgent tasks instead of dropping by your desk.

3. Manage Your Energy, Not Just Your Time

You know it’s important to budget your time wisely—but it can actually be more effective to also manage your energy. Our own CEO, The Muse co-founder Kathryn Minshew, is a fan of optimizing her workday by doing her most concentration-intensive tasks during her peak hours, those golden hours when her energy levels are at their highest. Meetings, on the other hand, are something she avoids during these hours and saves for other times in the day.

I find it's been immensely helpful for me to pay attention to when in the day I'm most productive (what hours, under what conditions) and aggressively guard that time for focused work.

If you’re a morning person, do your most important tasks first thing and save the tedious, mindless tasks for later in the day when your energy is waning. Not sure what your peak hours are? Try energy mapping to find out and make the most of your workday.

4. Don’t be a Slave to Email

Gina Trapani, founder of ThinkUp, is a fan of checking email only at specific times of the day. Why? Instead of feeling that you have to respond to emails the minute they hit your inbox, you can save time and stay focused by setting a schedule for checking and responding to email (for example, once in the morning and once at the end of the day).

Shut down Outlook, turn off new email notifications on your BlackBerry, do whatever you have to do to muffle the interruption of email.

Depending on your position, this may not feel like an option—especially if your boss or colleagues rely on you for quick responses. But you may be surprised at how supportive people will be about your new productivity strategy when you explain it to them. Tim Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Work Week, suggests emailing colleagues to alert them to your new email schedule, explaining that the reason behind it is to increase your productivity, and asking that they call you for urgent matters. You can also set up an autoresponder with a message explaining when you’ll be checking email again and how people can get in touch with you if it’s important in the meantime.

5. Keep Your Emails Short and Sweet

CEOs don’t have time for reading novel-length emails—or writing them, either. Andrew Torba, co-founder of Kuhcoon, even goes so far as to sometimes write one word emails and suggests treating your emails as if they have the same 140-character limit of Twitter.

Challenge yourself to think critically and efficiently when connecting via email or any other form of communication.

By keeping emails short and to the point, you’ll not only save a lot of writing time, you’ll also save your co-workers a lot of reading time. If your issue is too complex for a short email, scheduling a brief (5-10 minute) phone call can be much more efficient than a lengthy back-and-forth email exchange.

6. Delegate, Delegate, Delegate

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by feeling that you have to do everything yourself. Delegating, however, is one of the best ways to manage your time. Passing projects off to other members of the team lightens your load and lets you focus on the projects that you do best. Entrepreneur Daniel Tan Kh takes this one step further, and advises not only delegating the tasks, but really trusting that the new owner will take full responsibility for getting them done.

Delegation is the most important fuel for productivity.

Delegating doesn’t mean trying to get out of doing your work—but if you have too much on your plate, delegating one of your tasks to another member of your team can help devote more attention to your more pressing projects. Don’t have a co-worker who can take on your task? Matt DeCelles, serial entrepreneur, suggests outsourcing your dreaded tasks to a freelancer on

Tackling your to-do list may sometimes seem impossible, but if you try making these small changes from the masters, you’ll be amazed at how much you can accomplish during your workday.

Photo of productivity courtesy of Sean MacEntee.