Cut the Fat to Get to Lean Productivity


In a Microsoft productivity survey done in the last couple of years, workers around the world said they only consider about two thirds of their working hours to be productive. If workers could cut those wasted hours, they’d work less and get the same amount done.

Now, I’d argue that you could work even less than that and still get more done, if you focused on the most important tasks only, but let’s take it one step at a time: let’s look at the wasted time.

Let’s see how we can cut the fat to have only lean, productive working hours.

1. Identify the Time Wasters. To cut the fat from your work day, you have to first identify what you do that’s not productive. I suggest you either do a time audit (simply log what you do for a day or two — you don’t need to log the minutes) — either that, or just make a list of the common activities in your work day.

Here are the most common time-wasters — not all of them may be time-wasters for every person, so identify which of these are your worst time wasters:

  • Email (or, excessive time spent on email)
  • IM
  • Meetings
  • Reading blogs, or RSS feed reading
  • Browsing through miscellaneous websites
  • Online forums
  • Chatting with co-workers
  • Impromptu visits from co-workers or the boss
  • Paperwork
  • Routine tasks
  • Personal or long phone calls
  • Unnecessary walking around
  • Long smoke breaks
  • Solitaire or online games
  • Looking for lost items (disorganization)
  • Too many interruptions (including some of the above)
  • Dealing with the same items more than necessary (from postponing decisions)
  • Ineffective objectives or priorities
  • Ineffective communication in the workplace

2. Identify Your Priorities. In order to cut the fat, you need to next identify the meat of your day — what’s the important stuff that you need to get done each day. That entails identifying your top goals and priorities, the things that will make a lasting difference in your life and career.

If you do not set your own priorities and objectives (i.e. they’re set by a boss), and you’re not clear what they are, send an email or hold a meeting with your boss to get them clarified. It will make a big difference to your work.

3. Redesign your day. Next, redesign your work day so that your priorities take the majority of your time, and the time-wasters are minimized. Here are some tips:

  • Set priorities each morning. Choose the 3 Most Important Tasks you want to do today.
  • Firewall your mornings. Set your mornings as your time to accomplish your 3 MITs (see above), with no meetings, phone calls, emails or other time-wasters allowed. None of the time-wasters on your list can be done during this time. Make it a rule, and stick with it. If mornings cannot be done, find as big a block of time during your day as possible, and set that aside for your MITs.
  • Batch process communication and small tasks. Set aside two other blocks of time: one for communication, such as email and IM, and another for small or routine tasks that must be accomplished today. If you do these things all at once, they do not interrupt more important tasks, and you are wasting less time switching between tasks. If you set aside an hour for email and IM, for example, try to get all your communication done at that time, processing quickly (see below), and don’t go over the hour. Set a timer if necessary.
  • Minimize meetings. Meetings are usually a waste of time. They often don’t have clear objectives, and most of the meetings are wasted by idle talk. Most of the time, the objective of a meeting could be accomplished by email. Get out of meetings, if humanly possible. If you have to go to a meeting, insist that an agenda be set with specific things that need to be accomplished in the meeting, and a specific time limit for the meeting.
  • Block interruptions. When you’re trying to get something done, make it clear to co-workers that you are not to be interrupted (use headphones if you are not comfortable doing that), turn of your phones, don’t surf the web or play computer games, turn off email notification and IM. Interruptions are one of the worst time-wasters.
  • Process to empty, and make quick decisions. When processing your physical inbox, email inbox, and any other inboxes (voicemail, RSS, etc.), process quickly, making quick decisions on each item, disposing of it, and moving to the next item. And always process to empty — don’t check your email, for example, and leave items sitting there, unprocessed. Your choices when processing: archive or delete, reply or forward, do the item, or put it on a to-do list for later. At the end of each email or piece of paper, you should delete or archive the item to get it out of your inbox. Don’t procrastinate on decisions.
  • Reward yourself with small time-wasters. You will probably have a hard time eliminating time-wasters completely. To wean yourself, use them as rewards. If you do 30 minutes of work on an important task, for example, give yourself 10 minutes of wasting time (surfing the web, taking a walk and chatting with co-workers, etc.). But set a timer and be sure to stick to your limit.
  • Communicate your accomplishments. If you are successful in cutting the fat and getting more lean, productive work done, you will have a growing list of accomplishments. Be sure to keep a log of all the tasks you complete. And then, either once a day or once a week (whatever’s most appropriate), send an email or tell your boss to communicate what you’ve done. When your boss sees your growing productivity, you might be able to use it to shorten your work week.



I just did a post on my blog listing all those evil time wasters and then came across this post. I think my day needs a serious overhaul and it was good to get all those distractions typed up to see how many useless things I fill my time with. On to step 2!


Hello Leo,
I learn much from your work, and honor it, but I’ve got to add something to this column. You speak of rewarding ourselves with downtime, but I’d counter we can’t afford to do without it. Taking time to stop all the action for just five or ten minutes to meditate, exercise, do some deep breathing, or listen to some relaxing music is crucial for stamina. That regeneration of mind and body allows for better worklife integration.

Thinking that every minute counts (which it does, I suppose in a 24/7 marketplace) we mistakenly believe that making the time for downtime is only acceptable as a reward after reaching a goal or completing the work for the day. Recharging our batteries should be embraced fully in our information age. The mind is on overload and in fueling the core fire that we operate from on a deeper level, we extend our ability to go the distance.

All the best, You’re an inspiration, Judy


I started getting up earlier to be more productive. It worked a bit but I found that I was still procrastinating.

To remedy this I am putting together some spreadsheets with to-do’s for each of my sites so I know what must get done.

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