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On our to-do list: an interview with Google’s productivity expert

November 15th, 2018

Editor’s note: I often wish there were more hours in the day, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon, so I turned to Google’s resident productivity expert Laura Mae Martin for help. In the conversation below—our latest installment of The She Word—Laura shares her secrets on how to lead a more productive life. Turns out they’re not even secrets! They’re easy and manageable ways that you, too, can become a productivity whiz.

How do you explain your job at a dinner party? I help Googlers be as productive as possible. I consult with executives on their productivity strategies (how to manage their meetings, email, time and energy), and run a Google-wide productivity program, which includes trainings and a weekly newsletter.

On our to-do list: an interview with Google’s productivity expert
Not the “Laura 30,” just some quality sister time. Laura’s sister is also a Googler, based out of our Ann Arbor office.

What’s one habit that makes you successful? Every morning I have 30 minutes to myself, I call it the “Laura 30.” No phone, no computer. I just drink my coffee, meditate, journal or play the piano. By taking some time to think, I start off my day in a calm and focused place, and stay grounded before tumbling into my busy day.

I’m glad you brought up the m-word. Should we all be meditating? If someone stopped me on the street and asked me how to be more productive, I would say “start meditating.” But the word can turn people off, so I try to make it seem more manageable. Meditation can help with work-related struggles, like focusing in meetings or resisting the urge to constantly look at email. Think of it this way: if you had to cut a thousand pineapples, wouldn’t you spend some time sharpening the knife? The same is true of your brain as you power through activities. Meditation is “mental hygiene” to support your brain in all of its tasks.

What’s one thing people should start doing to manage their workload more efficiently? Determine your top priorities for the quarter, and write them on a note on your desk. If you’re asked to do something that doesn’t align with one of those priorities, say no. The more you say no, the more chances you have to say yes to something that really matters.

Got it. So if I just say “no” more, I’ll be more productive? Not exactly, but we do need more time to think, and that can mean saying no. You know how sometimes great ideas come to you in the shower? I try to find ways to create more “shower moments” at work.

How do we create more of those moments without actually taking a shower? Find the gaps in your day—a commute or waiting in line— and don’t look at your phone. I call this “opening a loop,” which means you’re giving your brain the space to make new connections (shower moments!). When you answer emails or go to a meeting, you’re closing a loop. It’s important to find a balance, so if you say yes to every meeting when do you have time to open loops?

What’s the first step you take when you feel overwhelmed by your workload? First, I sort through my emails and assign an action to each one—could be “need to read” or “respond”—until my inbox is clear. (Pro tip: Spend 15 minutes max minutes sorting your email. If you can respond in less than a minute, do it on the spot. If not, sort it for later). Then, I write down three big things I want to accomplish that day. And then I open only one tab for the thing I’ve decided to work on.

Can you pass on some of the productivity strategies that you share with Google executives? The first place to start is email—usually executives are getting a lot of emails, and if they’re not attentive to it, their schedules blow up because people think the only way they’ll get an answer or decision is to set up a meeting. And going back to the idea of opening loops, nobody came up with their last great idea when they were in meetings all day. The other thing is, everyone has a set of hours when they’re naturally more productive—mine are 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Define your “power hours” and identify your biggest projects to work on during that time

Google’s productivity expert shares how to get things done
More on how to minimize distraction during your power hours

Earlier this year, hundreds of Googlers joined you in a “read a book a week” challenge for 12 weeks. What did you learn from reading 3,327 pages about productivity? People who craft their time intentionally and give it their full attention end up where they want to be in the long term.

Is your personal life as organized as your professional life? Because I spend so much mental energy staying productive at work, I try to have more spontaneity in my personal life. Right now I’m doing “No-plans November,” when I don’t make any weekend plans until the morning of. To me, that’s work-life balance: not flexing the same muscles at home and at work.