Driving through the Austin hills, I recently asked Jason Aleem, the leader of Redfin’s Texas business, how he’d become so much more productive over the past year.
It’s hard for folks in the field to break out of a deal-to-deal mindset and make progress on long-term projects, but Jason had worked out the kinks between our Texas agents and Chicago support staff, taken over our diversity council, worked on a talent development program, and become a thought leader on how we could personalize our service to buyers.
“How’d you do all that?” I asked.
“The last time I was in Seattle, I asked Adam Wiener for a few of his productivity hacks,” Jason said. “That was a real difference-maker for me.” Adam somehow leads six different teams, including data science, mortgage, business development, analytics, program management, and growth marketing. He sits next to me, wired into EDM like some brain-damaged precog, getting stuff done at a frightening rate.
When I got back to Seattle, I asked Adam, “What’s the secret?”
Adam shrugged and said, “There’s no secret. Only hard work.” But I kept hassling him about it until he sent over this list of best practices…
Adam’s Productivity Hacks
- Set deadlines and then work backwards: Sometimes folks dive into a complicated project without thinking about when they need to get it done. If there’s no deadline, your project will drift. Or you’ll choose a more complex approach that will take way too long. The first order of business is to decide when you need to be done and then work backwards to set checkpoints.
- Tell everyone what your deadline is, even if it’s provisional: Once you have a deadline, make sure others know about it, so they can tell you whether it’s unrealistic, so they can help you or get out of the way. Communicating your deadline will also create accountability and a little social pressure to finish on time.
- Know what’s important to do every day: It all starts from having a prioritized task list you manage every day. I have three priority levels; you can’t go to sleep until it’s done, you should do it today, and it’s due in the future. I update the list with my progress every night before I leave, and then review it while I eat my yogurt in the morning.
- Track what you’re owed: If I’m waiting on someone else to deliver the goods, I add a to-do to follow-up the day after the work is due. Just make sure you add enough detail on what the other person was supposed to deliver in case you do need to follow-up. “Follow-up on stuff with Adam” isn’t a very helpful reminder.
- Do it or delete it: If I’ve moved the deadline for a task more than three times and no one has asked me about it, I usually delete it. It probably wasn’t as important as you thought it was when you wrote it down.
- Don’t let your list get too long: Bridget Frey, our fearless and freakishly productive CTO, recommends a limit of 20 items on your to-do list. Any longer and you won’t get to everything on the list anyway.
- Know when to toss your list: Your to-do list should create a healthy amount of stress. You should feel some pressure to get things done, but it shouldn’t induce panic. If you look at your list and panic, just write down the three most important things on a whiteboard or a sticky and then don’t look at your list again until those things are done.
- Take notes during meetings: You’ll think you’ll remember. You won’t. I normally use a pen-and-paper notebook during meetings so my laptop isn’t open. Don’t forget to label your notes with the subject of the meeting and the date. It’ll help when you need to refer back to what was discussed or agreed to with someone. Glenn re-writes his calendar into his notebook each morning as a way to commit his schedule to memory and a handy way to reference the notes from the day.
- Make time: In order to get bigger projects done, you need unbroken chunks of time. One two-hour block is much more productive than four 30-minute blocks. Try to group your meetings to create focused work time. If you’re a manager, cluster your 1:1s. Try to put stand-ups first thing in the morning or right next to lunch.
- Work to your strength: Are you a morning person or a night owl? I get more work done from 7:00a to 9:00a than I do the rest of the day. Try to do the hardest work when you’re fresh and schedule meetings or respond to email at times when your energy is slightly lower.
- Create a productive environment: Clean your desk, close the open windows on your computer, get a coffee and a water, and grab your favorite snacks. I sometimes catch myself not plugging my laptop into a monitor and keyboard because I think I don’t have time, which is madness if you’re going to work for more than five minutes.
- Turn off alerts: On your computer and your phone while you’re working. When I really need to get something done, I set Outlook to offline, I log out of Slack and put my phone facedown on my desk. I’ll check in on email, Slack, and texts every hour or two. If anyone really needs you, they’ll figure out how to get in touch.
- Set micro-deadlines: I made myself finish this outline by 9:45am. Challenge yourself to finish a project by lunch or before your next meeting. Have you ever noticed how productive you are the day before you go on vacation? A little self-imposed urgency can keep you focused and give you that pre-vacation productivity boost every day.
- Don’t let new ideas de-rail you: Often when I’m working on one project, I have an idea about another project that I don’t want to forget, but I don’t have time to pursue right then. I ALT-TAB over to my task list, take a quick note and ALT-TAB right back to what I was doing. Glenn prefers to write in his notebook so he can keep the same screen up on his computer. Find what works for you.
- Drive for the finish: New balls will be thrown at you every day, more than you can possibly juggle, so you have to put others down. Be a finisher. Often, when my brain is screaming “you can’t finish now, you’ll have to come back to this project later,” I can hear the Mortal Kombat mantra say, “FINISH HIM.” I try not to stop working at a set time, but based on when I’ve finished a project. Sometimes that’s early. Sometimes that’s late. When I’m done, I feel done.
- Build permanent ways for people to find answers to questions: When someone asks you a question, the quickest solution is usually to answer it. But the next time someone asks the same question, you’re starting over from scratch. Take the time to publish your work. Bridget and the engineering team have built an amazing discipline around writing down answers to common questions in a permanent place, like a wiki. Analytics has invested in turning SQL queries into Tableau dashboards. If you make what you know self-serve for others, you’ll get a lot of scale.
- Know when to say no: The easiest way to be productive is to skip the meetings that don’t require your input and avoid working on projects that are low priority. Just make sure you let everyone know you’re not planning to deliver. No pocket vetos on getting stuff done.
- Learn how to be more productive: It’s always worth investing in your own long-term productivity. Take the time to learn a new technique like the keyboard-shortcuts for changing styles in a Google document, how to filter Slack conversations, or how to query Agent Tools for a particular customer.
- The dirtiest secret of productivity: You can invest deeply in systems to be more productive and the discipline required to get things all the way done, but there is simply no replacement for hard work.
- Get enough sleep: I just wanted twenty items on the list. But actually getting enough sleep is really important. It will make you much more productive.