What Makes Some People More Productive Than Others

By Robert C. PozenKevin Downey

Library of Congress/HBR Staff

Would you rate yourself as highly productive?

We’ve learned a lot about personal productivity and what makes some people more productive than others. Last year we published a survey to help professionals assess their own personal productivity — defined as the habits closely associated with accomplishing more each day. The survey focused on seven habits: developing daily routines, planning your schedule, coping with messages, getting a lot done, running effective meetings, honing communication skills, and delegating tasks to others.

After cleaning up the data, we obtained a complete set of answers from 19,957 respondents across six continents. Roughly half were residents of North America; another 21% were residents of Europe and 19% were residents of Asia. The remaining 10% was comprised of residents (in descending order) from Australia, South America, and Africa.

Our survey had its limits — for example, respondents were a self-selected sample of readers of HBR.org, and the ratings were self-assessments of habits rather than objective measures of people’s productivity. Nevertheless, we believe the survey results provide useful insights into important productivity habits and challenges facing professionals.

Three general patterns stood out: First, working longer hours does not necessarily mean higher personal productivity. Working smarter is the key to accomplishing more of your top priorities each day. Second, age and seniority were highly correlated with personal productivity — older and more senior professionals recorded higher scores than younger and more junior colleagues. Third, the overall productivity scores of male and female professionals were almost the same, but there were gender differences on particular habits that promote personal productivity.

More specifically, we found that professionals with the highest productivity scores tended to do well on the same clusters of habits. They planned their work based on their top priorities, and then acted with a definite objective. They developed effective techniques for managing a high volume of information and tasks. And they understood the needs of their colleagues — for short meetings, responsive communications, and clear directions.

Let’s go deeper into the survey results. On geography, the average productivity score for respondents from North America was in the middle of the pack, even though Americans tend to work longer hours. The North American score was significantly lower than the average productivity scores for respondents from Europe, Asia, and Australia. On the other hand, the North American score was significantly higher than the average productivity scores for residents of South America and Africa (though recall these were the areas where we had the least data).

Drilling down into the data, we found the higher productivity scores for Europe, Asia, and Australia were driven by strong habits in areas such as daily schedules, not constantly checking messages, focusing early on the final product, and thinking carefully before reading or writing.

While our survey turned up significant differences in productivity scores by continent, it showed minimal differences between the average scores of male and female respondents. Overall, the respondents were 55% male and 45% female.

Yet there were some noteworthy differences in how women and men managed to be so productive. Women tended to score particularly high when it came to running effective meetings — women were more likely than men to send out an agenda in advance, keep meetings to less than 90 minutes, and finish meetings with an agreement on next steps. Women were also more likely to say that they prepared their calendars the night before and responded promptly to important emails.

By contrast, men did particularly well when it came to coping with high message volume — not looking at their emails too frequently and skipping over the messages of low value. Men were also more likely than women to report keeping free slots in their daily schedules, getting quickly to the final product, and composing outlines before writing memos.

Beside geography and gender, we analyzed the responses to our questionnaire by age and seniority. There were five age brackets — with the most respondents in the under-30 bracket and the least in the over-60 bracket. We found that the productivity scores of respondents rose systematically the older they got. This trend seems to reflect the benefits of learning from years of experience how to work smarter. The drivers of these higher productivity scores for respondents in older age brackets were their stronger habits in four areas: developing routines for low-value activities, managing message flow, running effective meetings, and delegating tasks to others.

The story was somewhat similar when it came to seniority. There were five levels of seniority captured in the data, with 5 being the most junior and 1 being the most senior. The number of respondents was highest in the most junior level and lowest at the most senior level. As with age, the productivity scores rose systematically with successively higher levels of seniority. This may suggest that business professionals attain higher levels of seniority in part by cultivating good productivity habits (or vice versa, people become more senior and then have to become more productive). However, the drivers of higher scores for senior level respondents were different than those for older respondents. More senior respondents achieved high productivity from better planning of their schedules, getting a lot done, and stronger communication skills.

Finally, we focused on the tails in each of the four demographic categories. We defined tails to include all respondents whose total score fell outside of two standard deviations from the mean. The left tail comprised those with the lowest scores; the right tail had the highest scores. We didn’t find any geographic or gender patterns on either tail, though we saw a few of the youngest and most junior professionals in the right tail with the highest scores.

The professionals in the right tail with the highest productivity scores were particularly adept at overcoming procrastination, getting to the final product, and focusing on daily accomplishments. Low ratings on these three habits were typically reported by professionals with the lowest productivity scores. In addition, professionals in the right tail were much better at advance planning — reviewing schedules the night before, sending out meeting agendas, and setting success metrics for their teams. Professionals in the left tail had low scores on these aspects of advance planning. They also did not leave open slots in their schedules and did not use outlines before writing memos.

So what should professionals take away from the results of our survey?  If you want to become more productive, you should develop an array of specific habits.

First, plan your work based on your top priorities, and then act with a definite objective.

  • Revise your daily schedule the night before to emphasize your priorities. Next to each appointment on your calendar, jot down your objectives for it.
  • Send out a detailed agenda to all participants in advance of any meeting.
  • When embarking on large projects, sketch out preliminary conclusions as soon as possible.
  • Before reading any length material, identify your specific purpose for it.
  • Before writing anything of length, compose an outline with a logical order to help you stay on track.

Second, develop effective techniques for managing the overload of information and tasks.

  • Make daily processes, like getting dressed or eating breakfast, into routines so you don’t spend time thinking about them.
  • Leave time in your daily schedule to deal with emergencies and unplanned events.
  • Check the screens on your devices once per hour, instead of every few minutes.
  • Skip over the majority of your messages by looking at the subject and sender.
  • Break large projects into pieces and reward yourself for completing each piece.
  • Delegate to others, if feasible, tasks that do not further your top priorities.

Third, understand the needs of your colleagues for short meetings, responsive communications, and clear directions.

  • Limit the time for any meeting to 90 minutes at most, but preferably less. End every meeting by delineating the next steps and responsibility for those steps.
  • Respond right away to messages from people who are important to you.
  • To capture an audience’s attention, speak from a few notes, rather than reading a prepared text.
  • Establish clear objectives and success metrics for any team efforts.
  • To improve your team’s performance, institute procedures to prevent future mistakes, instead of playing the blame game.