Work and Productivity Tips from History’s Most Productive

By | Posted December 12th, 2012

Productivity is a popular topic among business owners. The equation is simple: the more productive your workers are, the fewer workers you need to get the job done, and the healthier your bottom line is. The key is to balance productivity with workload so you and your staff are not overworked or overstressed.

Some of the most famous people across history, from Ben Franklin to President Obama, have offered wisdom that we can all use to maximize productivity.

Sharpen Your Focus

Ben Franklin was a wealth of practical advice, and most of his wisdom is timeless. One piece of advice that rings particularly true amid all the distractions of today is, “Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.” If he were alive today, he might say “Don’t play Angry Birds when you’re supposed to be working.”

Stephen King may be the most prolific writer in history. His writing philosophy is simple and direct. He sets a goal and achieves it. Every day. No excuses. Ten pages a day, 365 days a year, adds up to a lot of novels (more than 50 to date), and an incredibly productive work schedule. The lesson here: Set daily goals—and keep them.

Dallas Mavericks owner and HDNet ceo Mark Cuban‘s advice for productivity is as straightforward and unconventional as he is: Skip meetings. “Meetings are a waste of time unless you are closing a deal.” Let’s face it, it’s hard to get things done when you spend the whole day talking about getting things done.

Steve Jobs once offered an invaluable piece of advice to the brand-new (at the time) ceo of Nike, Mike Parker. “Nike makes some of the best products in the world,” Jobs said. “Products that you lust after. Absolutely beautiful, stunning products. But you also make a lot of crap. Just get rid of the crappy stuff and focus on the good stuff.” That’s pretty simple, and it applies to workload as well as to shoes. What are you or your workers doing that doesn’t sell, or wastes time and money? Stop doing that.

Know Your Customer

Mark Zuckerberg, the face of Facebook, offers this sage advice: Be where your customers are. Simple indeed, but many customers leave businesses in the dust, lured away by shiny things from competitors. Customers are fickle and the market changes constantly. Businesses that can’t keep up are like Oldsmobile—big, clunky gas-burners trying to compete against sporty, fuel-efficient cars. One Wall St. analyst put Oldsmobile’s demise down to lack of imagination. Whatever the root cause, one thing is certain: they lost sight of the wants and needs of their core customer base. Oldsmobile did not go where their customers were.

Motivate Your People

Jack Welch was the legendary force behind the mercurial rise of G.E. His plan for success includes this sage advice for effective leadership. “Leaders know how to spark/motivate others to perform. They outline a vision and are able to direct other people to carry it out. Energizers know how to get people excited, and they are able to give credit when due and accept responsibility for mistakes.” Be dynamic. Engage your people. If you can pull your team into your vision, they will work their hearts out to make it happen.

Get Your ZZZZZs

The one thing we all lack today is rest, and many of history’s most productive people were adamant about getting theirs. In 1735, Ben Franklin published “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” In October 2012, Arianna Huffington said, “My single most effective trick for getting things done is to stop doing what I’m doing and get some sleep.” Some things remain true no matter how many centuries pass.

Organize, Prioritize, and Balance

President of the United States is one of the most demanding jobs on the planet. So what does President Obama have to say about productivity?

Get a head start on your day the night before. President Obama spends his evenings organizing and prioritizing to get a jump on the next day.

Limit decision fatigue. What’s for lunch? Who cares? The president doesn’t waste time with frivolous decisions like what to wear or what to eat. His staff knows what he likes and what his nutritional needs are, and all his suits are gray or black. He expects memos to have decision boxes for him to read and check off: either “agree,” “disagree,” or “let’s discuss,” so he can make snap decisions on small matters and move on. The takeaway: Don’t sweat the small stuff.

His other tips are more personal. He keeps two periods of time sacrosanct: family dinner time with his daughters, and morning exercise. These things are vital for physical and mental health, and even a person as busy as the president can appreciate the importance of work/life balance.

Bottom line: focus; avoid distraction; organize; set goals; don’t waste resources on losing projects or unproductive pursuits; inspire others; get enough sleep and exercise; and don’t ever forget your family. In other words, history’s most productive people practiced something that’s not so common today—common sense.