Secrets to Higher Productivity & Work-Life Satisfaction

Our Ask the Coach series shares perspectives from experienced executive and team coaches. This week we discuss work/life satisfaction, the remote work revolution, and achieving higher productivity with leadership coach and efficiency guru Matt Plummer. Matt is the founder and CEO of Zarvana. 

RB: Hi Matt, thanks for chatting with us today. To start, can you tell us about the work you do, and how you came to it?

MP: Sure. Early in my career I worked at a consulting firm, where I saw quickly that many of my peers would work for two years until they burned out, and then attend business school as a way of taking a break and regaining some of their life. I didn’t want to do that and thought there had to be another way. 

I began meeting with one of my coworkers every other week to talk about productivity. We did that for six months and didn’t really have anything to show for it. So we decided to treat the problem as a client case. That quickly produced results: Over the next six months we both cut down our working time by 15-20 percent. It got to the point where we were working 40 hours a week while everyone else was doing 50 to 55. 

That got the attention of our peers, so we launched a pilot program to replicate those results across our company. Over the next year and a half we ran it across three offices with 40 to 50 people. That experience really taught me that small behavioral changes that you stick to over time can dramatically change your lifestyle. And that got me into Zarvana, wondering: How do I take this and make it more widely available and scalable? 

RB: What kinds of shifts are you seeing right now, during the pandemic, among your clients and colleagues?

MP: The biggest shift I’ve noticed is that the things we used to take for granted we are now beginning to question. For decades in the business world we believed that putting groups of people in one central location at the same time was the way to work most productively. That belief has now been shattered. When you shatter such a fundamental belief about how you do work, you begin to wonder if other things you’re doing could be different. For example, the burden of traveling to clients is going to be much higher in the future, when travel resumes, because we’re realizing we didn’t really need to be there in person after all. 

At the corporate level and the team level, managers are rethinking of the types of interactions they have, the number of meetings. All their routines have been disrupted and called into question, and most people have been forced to develop new habits and new routines. This is a real advantage for some people, and others are really struggling.

RB: It’s a common belief that any disruption also presents opportunities, which it sounds like you’re hinting at. What opportunities are you seeing in your field that excite you?

MP: The beauty of the time we’re in is that we are no longer artificially bound by these constructs that have restricted us but haven’t necessarily been aligned with our work-life satisfaction and our productivity. This is the biggest opportunity. 

Most people still believe that to be productive, people have to get together in the same place and at the same time to do work. The biggest challenge I hear from managers is that they have no time to do their own work because they are always in meetings. There’s this assumption that as a manager your calendar is going to be full. That you’re going to do your own work – which is often your most important work – at night and on weekends.   

In our work at Zarvana we rarely have meetings. We use other tools and have learned to operate largely without meetings. If all managers could right-size meetings and reap 25 percent more time because of that, they would have huge leaps in both productivity and work-life satisfaction. They would have more time to think and to invest in the development of their people and teams. That’s a huge opportunity. 

RB: Reopening is beginning in some way in every state now. We’ll be getting back to whatever the new normal is. What do you recommend leaders focus on in the short term?

MP: Nobody knows what will happen, but what I do know for sure is that the experience of working remotely has been a game changer for many, many people. Some of my clients have realized they don’t want to go back to working in an office full time. They would even consider changing jobs to be able to do so. 

So if you are a leader you need to think of a world where people are going to want to work remotely. Where it will become a prized benefit. As such, you need to reframe your thinking from ‘How do I get through this?’ to ‘How do I get as good at this as possible?’ I recommend investing in this capability and seeing it as a long-term investment that will be relevant for a long time. 

RB: We know you’re passionate about productivity and effective time management. What do you find is the chief culprit that gets in the way of individual productivity?

MP: There are three main issues: email, interruptions and meetings. According to McKinsey, we each spend an average of 2.6 hours a day handling email. And according to widely cited UC-Irvine data, the average person is interrupted at work every 11 minutes, and then takes an average of 23 minutes to get back to their original task. In terms of meetings, senior managers often spend more than 4.5 hours a day in meetings, and individuals about 3.5. This is despite the fact that at least half of people rate their meetings as unproductive. Furthermore, 62 percent of senior managers say meetings do not bring their teams closer together. 

So right now, people are throwing all sorts of meetings on their schedules to compensate for not being in the office together. But just putting more meetings on the calendar won’t prevent social isolation, which is a big challenge for remote workers. It will just overwhelm those workers. Meetings have to be intentionally crafted to create certain kinds of interactions to ease social isolation. 

But the chief culprit behind unproductiveness is more psychological. It’s the time we lose in small increments in repeated actions that are so invisible that we don’t feel we are losing time. And the big time suck there is jumping around in your task list. We switch context at work every 3 to 12 minutes. That habit costs the average person 13 percent of each workday. That’s about one hour every day that you never realize you’re losing. 

The lesson here (and what we recommend to our clients) is that to maximize your productivity, you’ll do best by scheduling out a full day in advance and then letting the calendar push you through. By taking 10 minutes upfront you save 50. 

RB: That’s fascinating! And also we’ve been wasting a lot of time over here…. Ok, last question: Is there anything else you’ve discovered about productivity that is widely misunderstood, or a misconception?

MP: What I often run into in the world of productivity is the idea that there are either task-focused people or people-focused people. And the assumption is that if you are productive you are task-focused, and being productive is not thought to be correlated with investing in people. 

But this could not be farther from the truth. This is because the best way to achieve higher productivity is to get other people to do your work. That’s how all businesses are built. 

Your ability to develop people and get them to operate at their highest potential determines their productivity. That in turn determines how much work you can give them and how much they produce without your time or effort needed. So if you want to be productive, you should put a very high value on the development of your people. You should be investing in both their professional development and their overall holistic development – very deliberately and very intentionally. 

Want more of Matt’s insights? Matt and his team put together a toolkit on how to be productive while working remotely that you can download for free. You can also check out his productivity app and training and coaching service, Zarvana. In just a few minutes a day, Zarvana identifies your time-wasting habits and replaces them with time-saving ones. How cool is that?