3 productivity principles | MBA Learnings

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Second-year student Rohan Rajiv is blogging once a week about important lessons he is learning at Kellogg. Read more of his posts here.

Some of my highest impact learnings as a graduate student have been around productivity. One of my professors in the first couple of weeks described getting your MBA as a two-year course in decision making and trade-offs. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve written about what my process has looked like. And today, I thought I’d attempt to pull out three productivity principles that have become apparent to me in the past year.

1. There is no productivity without a goal.

We are either active or productive. The difference is whether we’re making progress toward a goal. This goal has to be necessarily overarching. For example, if your goal is to become CEO and CEO alone, talking to family becomes an unimportant activity.

So, the first principle of productivity is to decide what matters.

2. Strategic decisions cannot be taken in isolation / You can’t optimize sub systems.

If you’re trying to figure out how to live a good life, you can’t work toward optimizing a “sub system” or part of your life. This means you can’t make a good decision on your career if you don’t consider the impact on the other parts of your life. For example, what is the impact of accepting a new role? Does that compromise your desire to be healthy?

The latin root of decision comes from ‘cis’ or ‘cid,’ which literally means “to kill.” Good strategy involves good decisions that, in turn, involve killing options. And such decisions need to be taken with a view of the whole picture.

A quick additional plug – making decisions while keeping the whole picture in mind helps us be consistent and “walk our talk.” The one word that describes that well is integrity. Integrity is derived from “integer,” which, as you probably know from third grade math, means whole. It all ties together.

3. The key goal – to keep the main thing the main thing.

There’s a story that a productivity coach in the 1920s once gave millionaire Charles Schwab a simple piece of advice – write down the three most important things at the start of the day and don’t move to item No. 2 until you finish item No. 1. He received a check for $25,000 (a big amount in those days) a few weeks later.

Once you understand what you are optimizing for and make decisions that ensure you’re optimizing for the right thing, the next step is getting things done. The first step to getting things done is to constantly keep the main thing the main thing. This isn’t easy to do. But I’ve found that the Charles Schwab technique of being consistently mindful is one of those that works very well. To each their own, though.

I find it unfortunate that discussions around productivity often revolve around tactics – how to keep your inbox at zero, write things down as you think of them, etc. There is a lot of merit to tactics, and maybe I’ll attempt to pull together what I’ve learned on them someday. But they are secondary to strategy.

It is also telling that two out of the three principles I’ve pulled out were thanks to the fantastic book on operations strategy – The Goal, by Eliyahu M Goldratt. As we learned on day one of our operations course, good operations support strategy. After all, if it isn’t contributing toward the goal, it is just activity, not productivity.

Rohan Rajiv is a second-year student in Kellogg’s Full-Time Two-Year Program. Prior to Kellogg he worked at a-connect serving clients on consulting projects across 14 countries in Europe, Asia, Australia and South America. He blogs a learning every day, including his MBA Learnings series, on www.ALearningaDay.com.

0 comments

  1. Isn’t achieving a goal often the sum of activity and productivity? Like you say in point two, any decision will have an impact on various aspects of life. If I should accept a new role because it will help me inch closer to my goal of becoming a CEO then does consideration for my health become an unfruitful activity? Is the categorization of something into activity and productivity an exact science?

    1. While I don’t think it is an exact science, I think it can be done with reasonable precision.

      If your goal is to become a CEO, then taking care of your health may indeed just be activity. But, if your goal is to become a healthy human being who is also a CEO, it becomes productivity.

      It all depends on how you measure success, I think.

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