Are You a 10? The productivity secrets of top performers

Sara can’t concentrate on what her daughter is saying. She’s frantically trying to recall the commitment she made to a now-angry customer. “Did I get this answer right?” her daughter asks as she works on her math homework. But Sara’s daughter doesn’t really expect much of a reply. She’s used to a mommy who’s there, but not really there. She puts away her unfinished homework while Sara stares into space, heart racing, palms sweaty with anxiety, head spinning. What else has slipped her mind? When will this house of cards come crashing down on her?

Have you ever been in Sara’s shoes—overwhelmed at work, not really present at home and anxious about what you may have lost track of? If so, you’re in good company. Our survey of 2,016 employees shows that a third feel overwhelmed, nearly half are unable to focus, and one in five struggle to be present when they are home.

These are all signs of a failing personal productivity system. It turns out, all of us have a personal productivity system, even if we don’t know it. Sara’s system is to capture to-dos on sticky notes, constantly review her email and check her calendar. This system got her through college, her first job and her first promotion. But life is much more demanding now.

Marriage, children, community commitments and managerial roles have increased the complexity of Sara’s life. The system she used in the past to stay on top of her work and commitments isn’t robust enough for her new situation.

Imagine, for a moment, that Sara could wave a magic wand and transform her sputtering personal productivity systems into the Ferrari model. How would that fancy new system with the latest features change her life? Would she become more or less of a workaholic? Would her stress increase or decrease? Would her capacity to experience joy grow or shrink?

We wanted to find out, but we didn’t start with the Saras of the world—people struggling to get by. Instead, we began at the top, with top performers—people rated 10 out of 10 by their managers.

We wanted to know what it means to be a 10—to be rated as a top performer by your boss. While we assumed these top performers would be rated as more valuable than average performers, we wanted to measure how much more valuable they are.

We surveyed 1,594 managers and peers, and asked them about employees they rate as “10s on a 10-point performance scale.”

What we discovered is that top performers aren’t just a little bit more valuable. Both managers and peers say 10s are three times more valuable than an average employee and are responsible for more than half of the total work done in their departments.

But the finding that surprised us most had to do with stress. It turns out 83 percent of their leaders and 77 percent of their peers said 10s’ work habits reduce their stress.

How is this possible?

To answer this question, we did a second study where we tested some key productivity habits to see whether doing those habits and practices could make someone a 10.

In this self-report study, we had 2,072 respondents assess the impact of their productivity practices on two key areas: performance and stress. We wondered whether at the end of the day, quality of work and quality of life are friends or enemies?

We used several statistical methods to test the impact of these productivity scores on performance and stress.

Regression Analysis: Scores predicted more than half the variance between High and Low Performance and Stress.

T-Tests: Participants with high productivity scores had performance levels 68 percent higher and yet half the stress of participants with low scores.

Item Analysis: We looked within the Performance and Stress scales to illustrate the profound impact these new productivity practices have on individuals’ lives. And it turns out, they dramatically improve performance while reducing stress. Specifically, people with high scores are:

  • 55 times less likely to say, “I start projects that never get finished, even when others are relying on me.”
  • 13 times less likely to say, “I’m not truly present at home because I think about work and wonder if there are other things I should worry about.”
  • 18 times less likely to say, “I often feel overwhelmed. I start to think of tasks looming over me and that are about to crash.”

Actions You Can Take

Our research shows that learning the productivity skills demonstrated by top performers is key to both personal and organizational success. The message in this research is that a very small number of self-management practices literally change a person’s life and are also beneficial to the organization. In short, they dramatically improve performance while also reducing stress. Below are five productivity practices of top performing employees:

  • Collect everything that owns your attention. Capture all commitments, tasks, ideas and projects rather than keeping them in your head. Use just a few “capture tools” you keep with you all the time such as lists, apps, email, etc.
  • Decide what your stuff means to you. Clarify if the items you’ve captured have an action or not. If they do, be very clear about what the VERY next action is and who should take it.
  • Use the two-minute rule. If an action can be completed in two minutes or less, do it immediately. Don’t defer. The time you’ll waste letting these simple actions occupy your attention and to-do list is not worth it—two minutes becomes your efficiency cutoff.
  • Do more of the right things by reflecting in the right moments. Rather than diving into your messy inbox first thing, take two minutes to review your calendar and your action lists. This reflection ensures you make the best decisions about how to use your time.
  • Review weekly. Keep a sacred, non-negotiable meeting with yourself every week to re-sync, get current, and align your daily work and projects with your higher-level priorities.

Anyone can become a 10—a top performer who experiences far less stress. But it will require a range of new productivity practices. The good news is that these new skills and practices aren’t necessarily difficult, in fact most people have done them before—just not with regularity. Change can be rapid and profound—change that not only creates a higher quality of life, but leads to success both at home and at work.

David Maxfield, Justin Hale and Emily Hoffman are leaders at VitalSmarts, a corporate training and development company. They are responsible for engineering the latest product innovations for the organization including the brand new, Getting Things Done® Training.  

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