Adam Grant, an organizational psychology professor at the Wharton School, is a man in demand. In addition to his teaching duties, he’s a popular author (of the bestselling Give and Take), consultant, and speaker – and after a New York Times profile revealed his predilection to grant favors to almost all comers, he was besieged with 3500 emails in the ensuing weeks. How does he manage the deluge? Quite well, according to the Times, which lauded him as quite possibly “the most efficient and productive… in an academic field that is preoccupied with the study of efficiency and productivity.” Here are three unexpected productivity tips he shared in a recent interview.
Carve out blocks of time for email – but not other forms of writing. Many writers (myself included) argue that in order to make progress on a major writing project, such as a book, you need to block out at least a few hours at a time. Hogwash, says Grant. He cites Robert Boice’s book On Professors as Writers, which “took apart the myth that writing is something you have to have a huge amount of time to do. What I like to have long windows of time to do is help students and colleagues, or in some cases clean out a messy inbox, but for actual writing, I can sit down for 15-30 minutes and plant the seeds of an idea. I actually write every single day for at least 15 minutes based on that.” Grant then lets the material sit for 2-3 weeks, which allows him to get enough distance to edit the piece. But when it comes to responding to emails (which don’t usually require the same level of editing), Grant prefers to spend focused time, sometimes as much as 3-4 hours each day. “I try to get as close as I can to cleaning out my inbox every night,” he says.
Leave it unfinished. If you can’t complete a task in one sitting, it’s obvious that you should break it off at a logical stopping point, like the end of a page or a paragraph. Right? Grant doesn’t think so. “I start a lot of things and purposely leave them unfinished,” he says. “When I have a bunch of really long emails and I need time to think about the response, I’ll actually start replying, leave them as drafts, and move onto something else mid-sentence.” Psychology research reveals that we have “a better memory for incomplete, rather than complete, tasks,” says Grant. “Complex tasks are often better handled in the back of our mind, and that’s often true of creative tasks – when you have something complex to deal with in writing or research or responding to an email. I’ll start working, put it aside, and sometimes I’ll wake up the next morning with a solution, or I’ll find one when I exercise. If I finish a paragraph [when I’m writing], it takes a while to get back to where I left it three days earlier. But if I left a sentence unfinished, more often than not, I can literally dive right back into where I was.”
Use every minute. It’s 9:52 a.m. Your meeting has just ended, and your next one starts at 10. What do you do? If you’re like most people, you’ll slack off until it’s time to reconvene. That’s not how Grant operates, as a colleague recently pointed out to him. “You and I will sit in a meeting where we’re supposed to produce something,” she pointed out, “and there’s 8 minutes left and I’ll move into, ‘Let’s catch up, because we’ll never get anything done in 8 minutes.’ And you’ll say, ‘Let’s see how much progress we can make.’” Indeed, he says, “I have lots of micro-goals of trying to get things done, whatever the amount of time available.”
Have you tried Grant’s productivity strategies? Do they work for you? What others would you add?
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter.