Fortitude, Personal Development

Productivity Habits for High Achievers

If I have learned anything in my 20+ years of project management experience, it’s that there is always room to grow and improve my skills as a PM. Some of the best things I’m learning about being a successful PM didn’t come from college, expensive seminars, or even on the job training. What I’m about to share with you are several simple habits and tips we can adopt to maximize our productivity on the job and in life. Since we are all managers of ourselves, these tips can help us be better no matter our profession.

Set the environment to be productive

A quick internet search for “most productive work environments” will provide more than you need know about the pros and cons of every conceivable variable in your work space so I’ll just offer a few suggestions. The point is to minimize the distractions that keep you from focusing on your work.

  1. Since your optimum work environment is based on your personal preferences, try to personalize your space to suit you.  Display photos, inspirational quotes, or a trinket to help remind you of why you are working so hard and to offer a bit of encouragement when you look at it during a stressful time.
  2. Consider lighting. Most agree natural light is best, but if you are stuck under fluorescent lighting, try adding a lamp to soften the light at your work area. You can work better when you aren’t squinting all day from uncomfortable lighting.
  3. Your chair is important. Sitting at a desk all day is bad enough on our body. I’ve heard it said that desk work is as bad for your health as smoking. Get a comfortable chair, try a stand up desk, incorporate Deskercise into your day, and stretch your legs occasionally.
  4. Neat or messy work area? I’m not sure it matters, and everyone defines messy differently. I’ll say that if you struggle to find what you are looking for, then you need to tidy up. Remove items from your work area that you don’t use regularly, and make a sensible filing system. When organizing your files and work area, consider this question, “If I died tomorrow, would someone else be able to pick up where I left off and find what is needed to continue my job?”
  5. Temperature matters too. If you are too warm or cold at your work area, you will use precious energy to manage your comfort instead of your work. Dress in layers and use a personal fan or space heater handy if you need it.

Stop time wasting activities

We all have unique time wasting activities. Find a way to make the activity efficient, delegate it to someone else, or eliminate it. One example for me is social media. Mindlessly scrolling the news feed for “quick break” can end up being 20 minutes or more without realizing it. One trick I do is to kill my news feed on my work computer to eliminate the temptation. For work tasks that seem cumbersome or inefficient, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is this a task I must do, or can someone else do it for me?
  2. When is the most convenient time for me to do this task?
  3. What value does this task add? If it’s not valuable, change it to make it valuable, or stop doing it.

Take notes

Write down the pop up thoughts to clear your mind and get back to it later. Sometimes these thoughts are important reminders to do something, but you are in the middle of another task. By writing it down, you free your mind from it, and guard against forgetting about it later. If I’m away from my desk, I’ll add a note or reminder with alarm on my phone. It feels great to clear my head of these pop up thoughts so I can focus on the task in front of me.

The 3 D’s of email

  1. Delete. Our inboxes get filled with worthless mail. If I don’t recognize who it came from, or the subject line is not related to my work, it gets deleted immediately. But first I mark it as spam and have my email service block them from sending me more.
  2. Deal with it. Some work related mail can be dealt with in 2 minutes or less. Those should be done upon reading, otherwise you are just wasting your time to close the email and reopen it later. Just reply and be done with it. Make your reply thorough so you don’t create unnecessary back & forth with the sender.
  3. Defer it. This is the hardest one for me. If I let it, answering email could fill my entire day, every day. To get any of my other work done, I must simply defer some email to a time that fits my day. I do this by blocking out time in my day specifically to handle email. This way, I only handle the email once and it’s done. This strategy helps me fight the urge to react to the “ping” when new mail comes in. When the sender realizes sending urgent email is not getting the desired response, they will call, or meet in person.

-Don’t be a slave to your phone

Unless I’m aware of some mission critical activity taking place after my normal work hours, I simply do not answer the phone. It can wait until morning. In my experience, there is often very little that can be done after business hours anyway. Everyone else is closed, so no action of consequence can be taken until the next business day anyway. Behaving this way teaches others how to respect your time, and your family will thank you.

-Own your morning

In my opinion, how you manage your first waking hours of each day has more impact on your personal performance and productivity than anything else you will do all day. This is the time before the phone calls, team meetings, and the barrage of email, reports, and decisions due throughout the day. Early morning is your time to take care of you so you can best take care of your other responsibilities. Use this precious time to renew your mind, workout, and fuel your body for the day ahead. Keep reading for more details.

-Read & reflect

High achievers read to learn and they take the time to process what they are reading so they can take action on what they learned. Choose any topic that interests you, but it should be for your personal and professional development. Read something that encourages you to be a better human; a better leader, employee, boss, project manager, etc. I like to read long enough to capture an idea to reflect upon. Then I write about it in my journal. The writing exercise grounds me. Thinking and writing about what I just read helps me to process what I read, remember it, and hopefully put it to action right away. I spend about 30 minutes a day on this activity and am convinced it yields the greatest return in my personal productivity for my time investment.


High achievers understand the importance of their physical health. Let’s face it, if we aren’t healthy, we can’t be our best. Ignoring your physical health may not seem like a big deal today, but it will in the future. You need to build healthy habits now to increase your probability of a long, healthy future. Spend some time to exercise first thing in the morning. Twenty to 30 minutes of exercise, 3-4 times a week is all you need. While some will say you must do this or that exercise, but I recommend that you just get moving. Get your heart rate up, break a sweat, and challenge your muscles. It will help clear your mind, reduce stress, and rev up your internal systems for the busy day ahead.

-The secret weapon

We have all experienced the energy and motivational slump that occurs in the mid-afternoon. Our mornings typically go by fast, but once lunch is behind us a couple hours it seems extra hard to tackle another pressing task. The reason we struggle at this time of day may not be what you think. Unless you are disciplined about how much water you drink throughout the day, it is very likely that you are dehydrated. The secret weapon to revitalize yourself is simply water. A decent rule of thumb is to drink half your body weight in ounces of water every day. For me, that means by 3:00 p.m. I should have drank at least 60 oz of water. Trust me, this works. The sluggishness we feel, the headache that we blame on staring at the monitor, and the irritability we sense is not from “that guy” but from your body telling you that it needs more water. Stay hydrated and plow through your afternoon with vigor and clarity.

 –Create margin in your calendar

Have you ever experienced a work day when everything went as planned? Me either. Despite our best efforts to not double book ourselves for meetings, or to tackle that complex issue right after lunch, the day of a project manager is routinely hijacked by the unplanned, the interruption, and the hair-on-fire crisis. The days can be stressful and frustrating to say the least. That’s why it’s so important to create margin in your calendar. You must block out periods of time in your day and week that are reserved for important tasks. These are closed door, leave-a-message, I’m-not-available-right-now times so you can do your vital task. Block out the time for whatever it needs to be, but you must schedule it. Maybe you need an hour to catch up email or return calls without interruption. Maybe you need to focus on the budget report. Maybe you need to get a workout or eat a healthy lunch. Block it out on your schedule. Here’s what I’ve learned by doing this:

  1. The margin greatly reduces the stress of work. I feel more in control of my time and energy.
  2. I am more productive and produce higher quality work faster.
  3. Work “emergencies” are resolved better when I have uninterrupted focus to handle them, versus trying to multi-task.

While there are lots of good ideas here, I recommend trying just one or two at a time to start. Get those firmly ingrained into your daily/ weekly routine before moving on to the next one. Taking on too much at once is a recipe for failure and discouragement. What are your tips and tricks to optimize your personal productivity? Encourage us with your comments below.

Fortitude, Personal Development

Manage Yourself: 3 Timeless Principles to Manage the Most Important Project


Stephen R. Covey’s 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People teaches timeless, universal principles to help us be our best. I couldn’t help but notice how nicely these habits apply to making me a better Project Manager.While this article is not meant to be an exhaustive commentary on Covey’s 7 Habits, perhaps you can relate to some of my observations.

Habit #1 Be Proactive (You’re in Charge)

Proactive means acting in anticipation of future problems, needs, or changes. Being proactive is a helpful quality for one who is to be successful and happy in life.

Unfortunately, many of us believe we are proactive when we really aren’t.

For example, it may surprise you to realize that failure to be proactive explains why you get upset about something that does not go your way. I’m sure you can think about many situations in hindsight and say, “Dang, if I had only ______, then this wouldn’t have happened.” Proactive people say in hindsight, “I’m sure glad I _____, so everything could work out like this.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that being proactive will make everything work in your favor every time. I am saying that it definitely helps.

Proactive people take responsibility for their actions. People who are not proactive often find others to blame when things don’t go right. They say, “It’s not my fault. If “they” would have _____, then none of this would have happened.”

Personal responsibility is important in project management. Generally, the project manager is responsible for the success of the project. The PM is the leader, the orchestra conductor if you will, to make all the moving parts of a project come together at the right time for the right price. A PM needs to be proactive by asking lots of questions, engaging the experts, and following up on the details. Expecting someone else to do these important tasks is recipe for disaster.

Here are a few suggestions on how you can be more proactive with your projects today:

  • Are you waiting for someone to provide info, answer a question, or give a status report? Make a point to follow up with them today.
  • Did someone tell you that a deliverable would be ready at some date in the near future? Trust but verify that date is still accurate today to ensure there are no changes to the schedule.
  • At the start of your project, record the items that typically hold up the project or otherwise provide difficulty. Initiate communication with your team on how these items can be mitigated before they come up.

Habit #2 Begin with the End in Mind (Have a Plan)

Having a Plan is important in project management as you might imagine. Nothing can set up your project for success more than having a solid plan. You can read my thoughts on project planning in Planning for Success in Projects and Triathlon.

Planning and being proactive go together. Being proactive means you have a plan. The key is to be disciplined and follow the plan.

Knowing the end product or primary outcome is necessary to building a plan for how to get to the goal. That seems obvious, but the reality is that many projects fail for lack of a plan.

Habit #3 Put First Things First (Work First, Then Play)

The idea of First Things First seems easy when we are telling our kids to get their homework done before they can play with their friends. The same habit should apply to our work as well.

Have you ever started your work day with great intentions for all that would be accomplished by noon, but when noon comes you realize nothing was accomplished?How did that happen? Aside from losing the discipline of Habit #2, my guess is you got bogged down in low urgency, low importance tasks, or you found yourself fighting fires all morning.

Urgent – requiring immediate action or attention

Important – of great significance or value; likely to have a profound effect on success, survival, or well-being.

“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

What can you do to incorporate First Things First in your projects?

  • Understand the difference between urgent and important. Eisenhower nails it.
  • Go back to Habit #2 and follow your plan
  • Recognize that many tasks are important to others, but not to you. Remember: “Bad planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”Sometimes you need to say ‘No’, or schedule it appropriately into your plan.
  • Limit mindless web surfing and other time wasting activities. Mental health breaks are necessary, but keep them in check to maximize your productivity. I like to incorporate exercise into my mental health breaks to care for my mind and body at the same time.

These first three habits are primarily inward or self-focused. To be successful in managing projects, I believe you have to manage yourself first. Live intentionally, purposefully, take responsibility for your actions, practice these three habits. The remaining four habits are outward focused or others focused. I’ll discuss them in a future post. I’d love to hear your ideas and tips for living these habits in your life and projects.