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Busy Business People

A really common question that all productivity consultants get, is “well, that sounds great in theory… and it would probably work if I didn’t have all these other things to do… but Jim/John/Mary/Sarah, I have a business to run – I don’t have time for all this. What can you do for me?” This time management case study addresses that very question: how do you increase the productivity and efficiency of busy business people – without creating major disruptions throughout their business?

This case study is a little different in that it’s not about a specific person (company in this case), but is based on a presentation that was given to a small business in a non-Internet/non-tech service industry. They have about 25 employees distributed across 4 cities and as far as I know, no-one in the company is a productivity nerd.

We won’t be looking at specific strengths and weaknesses within that company, but rather, productivity concepts and applications that can be applied across all small businesses, with minimal fuss and disruption. These concepts are targeted mainly at a business’ founders or partners, but we’ll discuss how to implement them across the entire employee base as well.

Principles of Productivity


The general principles of productivity are the same, whether applied to an individual or a company. Here are the important ones for a busy business person.

Touch it Once

The touch it once concept is the notion that each piece of paper, each activity, email or task should only have to be handled once. Realistically, twice if you have to assign it to someone or if you need to file it for actioning later. But the concept still holds. And the simplest application is this: avoid filing things “for later” into an overflowing physical in-tray. Deal with them as they arise, and either:

  1. Do it.
  2. File it away for actioning at a specific time.
  3. Delegate them to someone on the team.

No Meetings, Only Workshops

Don’t hold meetings. Meetings are the biggest time wasters in the business world. The allure of a meeting is that it feels like you’re getting work done… when really, it’s just a big session of mental masturbation. You discuss ideas, draw pretty flowcharts… and walk away with everyone “informed” and some “meeting minutes” that no one ever looks at again.

Instead, hold workshops. Workshops are essentially super-powered meetings. They start on time. They have a specific purpose in mind (“create a solution for claiming unpaid invoices”), and they have a time limit. It’s fine if the solution isn’t completed by the end time. You can always schedule another workshop.

If you absolutely must have traditional-style meetings, borrow a page from military field command – hold them standing up. You’ll waste a lot less time.

No Multitasking

This should be obvious but business people ignore this principle all the time. Multitasking is doing two or more things at once, or within close chronological proximity (i.e., within a few minutes of each other). A really common example is typing a document, chatting with a team member over Skype, and then answering the phone when it rings. Or compiling a spreadsheet, then stopping when someone appears at your office door.

Killing multitasking completely will yield unheard-of productivity increases everywhere. Even in a business where you have walk-in clients, as a director/partner/founder, you have the luxury of having a receptionist asking people to wait. It makes your time seem more valuable (because it is), and it allows you to take what you’re currently working on, tidy it up so that you can easily restart it at a later time, and then talk to the client.

Eat That Frog

AE Thanh has the authoritative article about this. The short version: do your most important task first, especially if it’s the one you really don’t want to do. This could be accounting, this could be reviewing legal papers, it could be firing that one employee who’s causing trouble. Do it first, and the rest of your day/week/month will be much better. See more in the section on rituals and health below.

Uptime, Downtime, Full Engagement

When you’re at work, you’re in uptime. You are fully engaged in what you are doing. With the exception of real-life emergencies, you do not break this state. You keep at it, and you keep on working.

When you’re off work, you’re in downtime (normally). Do your best not to think about work, or to take work calls. Really try to engage in your time off – it’s recharging your concentration and motivation and self-control levels, which you’ll need at optimum for when you’re back in the office.

No News Media

This is a pet peeve of mine. I hate – absolutely hate – when people forward non-work-related emails to my work address. Like pictures of the royal wedding. Like pictures of cute kittens. Like pictures of (insert today’s internet meme here). Your work time is your work time – it’s not time to be reading the paper, Cosmo/GQ or looking at YouTube videos. That’s all for downtime (and even then, I would suggest minimizing the presence of news media in your personal life too).

You should be able to work out the exceptions – like if you’re in publishing, you have to read certain periodicals and blogs. Business people should also read their industry’s trade periodical.

Create Future Business

Dan Kennedy calls this “priming the pump”. I prefer the term “future business”. It’s essentially a way to set yourself up for future success. Every day (and I do mean every day), do something extra that could result in future business. Whether it’s emailing a client to see how they’re doing, whether it’s posting a short blog entry to the company website, whether it’s giving a pep talk to a discouraged team member – give away something of value that can result in future business (and profits).

Health and Fitness

Health and Fitness

If there’s one thing that will increase the productivity levels across your entire business, it’s the health and fitness of your team members.

Simply put:

Happy + healthy team members = productive team members

As a business owner, you must lead by example. This doesn’t have to be complicated – some exercise or physical activity suited to your age and physical condition, a proper diet and some rituals to put it all together.

Think of other high-performance organizations, like sports teams or the military. They spend most of their time training and practicing for a game or operation. In the business world, you have to do the same – the game or mission is your work, that is when you perform. And one of the largest factors for success is your health and fitness.

Also, remember to get at least 6 hours of sleep a day. Preferably 8.


Two rituals are extremely useful for businesspeople.

The first is your morning ritual on days where you work. You should include the basics upon waking up:

  1. 500ml of water.
  2. Hygiene/make yourself presentable.
  3. Some movement to get the blood flowing.
  4. Personal email/Facebook if you must. It is better to defer these to the end of the day.
  5. A proper breakfast. Coffee and a bagel as you walk into the office is not breakfast.
  6. Once at the office, look at your plan for the day, make changes if necessary and then start with your most important task.

The second is what you do before you leave the office – you want to clear to neutral. Essentially, you want to review what you completed during the day, plan what you’re going to do the next day, and lay out all the materials and resources that you will need for a running start the next morning.

Email Management


We’ve written extensively about email management before, but here’s a slight twist on the standard AE email management system that works better for busy business people who get a lot of email, and who use email to manage their team on a daily basis.

In general:

  • Separate personal and business email accounts. This should be obvious.
  • Check email twice a day – once at noon, and once before you finish up for the day. If you don’t think this is enough, put in 2 more checks at even intervals (for example, 10am, 12pm, 2pm, 4pm).
  • Don’t leave Outlook/Mail open during the day. Close it when you’re not using it. Turn off any new mail notifications or reminders.
  • Any incoming email should either:
  1. Be replied to or actioned if it will take less than 5 minutes.
  2. Filed if it doesn’t require actioning or follow up.
  3. Left in the inbox for later, if it involves someone having to get back to you on something, or if it’s something that will take more than 5 minutes to action.

The reason that this system deviates from the standard AE email management methodology is that a lot of businesses still use old POP3 servers, which makes storing items in separate folders inefficient. I’ve also found that teaching the concept of Inbox Zero to business people a large exercise in futility – most are in the mentality that the Inbox is a holding box for things that need to be worked on.

Instant Messaging

If you use IM (Skype, MSN, AIM) to communicate with your team, create a separate account where the contact list is only your team. You can leave the application running, but set it to NOT notify you when you have an incoming message. This is usually the Do Not Disturb or Busy status.

Treat IM like email – deal with it in batches, at specific times.

The Phone

Put your cell phone/mobile on silent, but within visual range.

Never take phone calls immediately – train a receptionist to take messages, and set aside time to return calls in batches.

Door Policy

Office Door

There is to be no open door policy. People who want to see you should make an appointment, including your own team. There is nothing worse than trying to solve the crisis-of-the-day than trying to solve the crisis-of-the-day while being constantly interrupted by employees wandering in to ask questions that they could look up on Google.

The only time anyone should interrupt you is in an emergency – if the building’s on fire, and even then, only if you need to evacuate.

Getting Work Done

In concert with the closed door policy, create your own interruption-free time by using timeblocks/timeboxes. This is essentially an appointment you make with yourself, where you work on one specific task or project.

This is what a timebox looks like.
This is what a timebox looks like.

The pomodoro technique is perfect to use in concert with timeboxes. Set it for a 50 minute work period with a 10 minute break, where you physically get out of your computer and move around. Whether it’s wandering over to the kitchen to get some water, or popping downstairs for some fresh air, you must leave your desk during the break.

Task Management

If you are super motivated to improve your productivity, take a look at our OmniFocus series.

For everyone else, I would suggest that the simpler the better. The AE primer on Simple Task Management is ideal.

What you do is create a simple task list on paper or in a Word document, which then carries forward day-to-day.

From this list, pick the 3 most important things for the day, do a quick analysis of which is a priority, and do that first. At the end of the day, carry all remaining tasks to the next day. Any information or notes should be at the bottom of the list.

An adjunct to this is to use the task functionality in Outlook, or in iCal. Both are super simple task managers that can work very well for busy business people. If you’re going to use either of these programs, having a legal pad or notebook nearby to store information is also a good idea.


Decisions in the company that involve technology or computers should be made on the basis not of “what is the latest and coolest”, but on the basis of “what makes work easier”. When you are making architecture or buying decisions, think “developing world”: what is the simplest and cheapest solution that works. As an example, yes, online storage and redundant RAID arrays are nice and fancy, but a $100 USB hard disk works just as well for file backups.

Some advice from my mentor Jim: If it costs you less than $500 and makes you more productive, buy it.

Business Systems

An essential part of every business system.

Every successful business owner knows that the long-term profitability of their business lies in systems. Systems are where you meld habits, people, technology and processes together to create a profit-making machine.

You should be constantly investing in systems that let you and your team work faster, better and more efficiently.

Note: if you are a business owner or starting a new business, we have something super cool for you. Just email either of us introducing yourself (a simple hi will do) and we’ll talk.


Everything that you’ve read in this case study is not hard to implement. The hardest will be the principles and mindsets at the beginning. Everything else, is something you can use right away – how you handle your email, turning off your IM client during the day, timeboxing your day.

The thing about habits is the more you do them, the easier they become. It will be difficult at first, but the payoff from implementing more efficient practices is far greater in the mid-to-long term.

These are things that can be taught to employees and team members too. The best way of teaching is through leading by example – show them how you are effective, and they will naturally follow.

Most business owners I know are already quite determined and disciplined – they know the value of putting in the hours and work. That’s all you need to implement this.

Photos by: Dan Zen, mikebaird, zieak, dsix, valeyoshino, Alex E. Poimos

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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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  1. Your advice is very helpful. I think that time management should be a mandatory lesson for employees. After all, planning tasks will help to make a profit. I really liked the advice – No News Media

  2. I will soon start with some team training and managment effciency. Eventhough some of this concepts were already known and applyied, I’d love to use your format and some expressions. for sure I’d love to credit you for all of them! Thanks for saying it in a straight forward and refreshing way!

  3. Am from Nigeria,we also do training, Please I need your affirmation to use some of this illustrations as you identified here in our time management training while i will also reference your site.

    1. Tim, you’ll have to contact the individual photographers on Flickr or follow their attribution rules to use the illustrations.

  4. I work for a local corporate college and am preparing a training session on time management for an organization the college is working with. Would it be possible to use some of the concepts you mention in your article during my workshop? I would of course credit them to your site.
    Thanks for your consideration.

  5. Mostly good paper, thanks. I have a point though. The productivity that can be achieved with each one only being interrupted “at proper times” (such as a avoiding the open door policy) can clearly make u more Efficient. But, in a work place where more and more is done through collaboration and communication is critical, that might not be the most “Effective” action to do (close ur door for example). That’s my thinking. I would like to hear back some comments on it.

    Btw: sorry for th typing, iPhone isn’t meant for long texts typing.

    1. Hey João, in reality you really need both. There are times when having full-spectrum open-communication between team members in critical – but that’s not all the time. Some tasks are definitely best done in-collaboration and those can best be handled by “hey, do you have 15 minutes in 5 minutes time free to discuss something?”. Other tasks are most definitely best done in “silent cockpit” mode where you can completely focus on one thing and one thing only.

  6. Do you mind if I quote a couple of your articles as long as I provide credit and sources back to your site? My website is in the exact same area of interest as yours and my visitors would really benefit from some of the information you provide here. Please let me know if this okay with you. Many thanks!

    1. Hi Cathern as long as you credit us with a link for quotations it’s fine. Looking forward to seeing your posts!

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