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  • alyssaabarton

What the Most Successful People Do At Work

Having read a lot of success mentality, motivational, and career advice minded books (obviously!) I value information that’s concisely presented and to the point. As many of us do, I also appreciate when the productivity strategies and tactics I employ at work are validated by others who’ve done the research and can verify that these are effective practices. This short read is just such a resource.

“What the Most Successful People Do at Work,” by Laura Vanderkam, is a mini-book available on Kindle or audible. I listened to it on audio and its quick and straight to the point! Laura lays out 7 disciplines that the “most successful people” do at work for you to use as a roadmap for your own success. Based on my own experiences, I agree that these are foundational practices for any worker – whether employee or entrepreneur – to master.

Discipline 1: Time Management

Laura jumps in with an analysis of that most precious commodity: time.

“[W]e all face the truth: that our lives are built in hours. What you will accomplish will be a function of how you spend those hours… Successful people know that hours, like capital, can [and MUST!] be consciously allocated… because time is absolutely limited.” (Chapter 1- introduction, at 14:53). Well said. At the end of the day, successful people spend as much time as possible on meaningful billable work that actually helps the company make money or achieve its mission, and minimize busywork that doesn’t.

Keeping a timelog can both keep you on track during the day and provide the basis of performing a task and time audit after you’ve kept the log for awhile. I personally recommend that those interested in becoming more efficient and productive at work spend one to four weeks tracking your time while at work, documenting precisely the activity or task you are performing in minute by minute, or 5 minute, intervals. Afterwards, review the log and look at the proportion of time you’re spending on different tasks. Is the amount of time you’re spending on each task reasonable?

“Nutritionists will tell you to keep a food journal, because evidence shows it works.” (Discipline 1, at 23:45). Likewise, keeping a timelog can lead to accountability and better results. By reviewing the data you will probably identify tasks that are eating up too much of your time or causing too much distraction.

Think about ways you can allocate more time to focus on productive tasks – like batching unproductive tasks, limiting distracting busywork to 1 time a day, and reserving your morning hours to the most difficult tasks to get them out of the way - and implement these strategies. We are all faced with “non-work” tasks that keep us busy but aren’t productive, (like emails, certain meetings, admin, etc.); how we handle this busywork can be the difference between success and mediocrity.

When I started my first attorney job out of lawschool I kept just such a timelog. Lawyers have to keep timelogs, though many use a billing system. We generally bill in 6 minute increments, and even if we don’t, it’s essential to track time in the event we want to support an argument for attorney’s fees at a later date. I worked for a small startup solo law practice, so we didn’t want to spend the funds for an expensive billing and client management system for only 30 clients. I kept track of my time in a Word document instead. Tracking my time in 6 minute intervals was really eye opening because I was able to see just how much of my day was devoted to responding to client emails! As I was not just an attorney but essentially an office manager, I was also able to see how much time was spent on things like trouble-shooting our finicky Ricoh printer, and handling administrative tasks like filing. Not cool.

“Perhaps the most important insight to come out of this experiment is an understanding of exactly how long activities take.” (Discipline 1, at 23:45). Keeping a timelog allows you to manage your expectations and not set yourself up for failure by biting off more than you can chew. Over-commitment can be avoided when you realize that that pesky quarterly report you thought you could zing through in 2 hours, turns out to actually take 8.

Discipline 2: Plan

“Knowing where you’re going vastly increases the chances that you’ll get there.” (Discipline 2 at 39:15)

Laura talks about how lots of folks she interviewed to create her book self-reported that they didn’t give themselves a planning period. Why is this so? I agree that I sometimes don’t carve out enough time to plan, which is why I’ve implemented a weekly “planning” time on my calendar.

The problem is that in today’s workplace, we feel like we don’t have time to plan – we’re just too busy!

I see this problem at my work.

I have observed inefficiency from folks who fail to plan in advance and thus, foreseeably, end up wasting time – which is a waste of resources. For example, how many of us have witnessed colleagues fail to build in planning time prior to a meeting and thus arrive to the meeting unprepared?

When participants fail to prepare in advance of a meeting by reading the agenda and background materials, this can result either in a delay of the meeting, or even worse, using the meeting as a time to catch the unprepared up on the materials that should have been reviewed in advance. This can mean that the full meeting time might not be available for the brainstorming and Q&A essential to achieving the actual purpose of the meeting. In this scenario, those who prepared waste their time explaining to the unprepared the purpose and background for the meeting. This can result in missed deadlines and delays, which can have real impacts when you’re dealing with grants with time-sensitive deliverables.

In addition to failure to plan how to use your time, I’ve also observed failure to strategically plan. Have you witnessed how lack of strategic planning – either at the organizational and issue level - can cause inefficiencies?

From a policy perspective, if you’re going to attend a coalition or stakeholders group that is working towards a specific policy outcome on an issue, each participant should spend time up front analyzing the policy issue and developing a plan. First and foremost, this can help to determine whether you want to - and can - participate! Participants should also plan by, amongst other things: assessing your goals and priorities and evaluating the policy issue in terms of those goals and priorities; performing stakeholder interviews to understand the intentions of other participants and potential future paths the project could take; identifying the scope of work, duties entailed, skills, and time commitment required; and determining in advance what potential outcomes you want or will accept from the coalition or stakeholders group process.

While not everyone has time to fully evaluate all of these details, failure to MAKE the time for this planning can, amongst other things:

  1. Lead to indecisiveness or flip-flopping over time on the issue, due to lack of clear goals and/or lack of a deep understanding of the issue

  2. Lead to a realization later in the process that you lack capacity to continue

  3. Lead to failure to achieve your goals or, even worse, a policy outcome that is fundamentally adverse to your goals

In addition to planning, accountability is another key ingredient in the recipe for success at work.

Discipline 3: Make Success Possible

Accountability is one of four traits that good leaders demonstrate, per the authors of “Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager.” You must meet deadlines, keep your word, and be a reliable leader in order to succeed. I think this is pretty self-explanatory.

For those that struggle with accountability (whether to yourself or others), Vanderkam talks about an accountability app called “Stick” that can help users set and track goals. It allows you to set up a punishment for failing to meet your goals. For example, failing to meet your goal might result in paying money to a friend or to an “anti-charity” – an organization that you fundamentally oppose. The theory? “Make failure as uncomfortable as possible, and use that to make your goals happen.” (Discipline 3, at 46:47).

There are lots of other accountability apps and strategies out there. Gretchen Rubin has an accountability app called “Better,” and has extolled the value of finding an accountability partner (

Discipline 4: Know What is Work

“Businesses lose nearly 1.1 billion a week in time spent on fantasy football teams.” (Discipline 4, at 48:44)


Even worse, “a problem that drains far more cash than the 1.1 billion lost weekly to fantasy football are the things that look like work but aren’t actually work.” Id. Workers at all levels of the ladder can suffer the timesuck of email, meetings, tedious admin work and pointless phonecalls.

“According to a 2012 McKinsey Global Report on the social economy, knowledge workers spend 28% of their time wading through their inboxes. According to Lookout, the mobile security firm, 58% of smart phone users say that they don’t go an hour without checking their phones.”

As discussed under the timelog section, successful people audit their hours and devote time to tasks that are REAL work. As yourself, “is this task something that is going to benefit the organization? Does it get at the fundamental mission and goals of the organization?” If not, implement tactics to minimize the amount of time you spend on it! Try these tactics for yourself and see how it goes:

  • Lock your phone in a drawer and don’t check it unless you’re on lunch break or taking a bathroom break.

  • Delegate 30 minutes to an hour at 12pm and 3 or 4pm to check your email every day, and no more!

  • For every meeting, ask the person calling the meeting to identify the meeting leader, share the agenda, and make the desired outcome(s) of the meeting clear. If the desired outcome can be reached over email or answered by a lesser number of the requested participants, ask for the meeting to be cancelled and for the issues to be resolved over email!

Discipline 5: Practice

Practice makes perfect!

At my current job, I work for a boss who is amazing at giving powerpoint presentations without preparing much in advance. He’s an incredible speaker and really knows how to capture an audience. He shows up without notes and can talk for an hour – or more! When I first started working at my current company, I unwittingly started to model that behavior. The problem is: my boss has been working for our organization for 16 years. When he shows up to talk about certain familiar topics, he already has that knowledge stored in his head! Modelling his behavior resulted in me showing up under-prepared.

After giving presentations where I hadn’t practiced in advance, I would leave kicking myself about one thing or the other. I forgot the key point on slide 5! I relied too heavily on my notes! I was nervously shuffling from foot to foot, because my shoes were uncomfortable!

The way to avoid all of these public speaking pitfalls is to prepare in advance, through practice. Be like Michael Phelps. Practice practice practice, and visualize.

The same goes for all tasks that can be mastered. Whether you’re editing someone’s work, handling a tough negotiation or conversation, cold-calling potential customers, or going for an interview: practice can help you prepare better than anything else. Mastery requires effort, practice, and repetition. You might be able to jog around the block once without training, but I doubt you’d place in a marathon without any preparation in advance!

Discipline 6: Pay In

I love this section because Vanderkam focuses on something that some success pundits gloss over. There is a real and strong need for you, and me, and anyone who is working, to build our expertise, knowledge and skills. You can’t just punch in and work from 9-5. It takes real effort.

Success requires real work during and after work hours to stay relevant and connected to your field – both to the body of knowledge in and around your field and to the people who work with you and practice in that field.

“[I]t is no longer sufficient to be employed. One must remain employable.” (Discipline 6, at 1:26:59). “At conferences, do you attend sessions on topics you’ve mastered? Or do you stretch to take in something new? For that matter, are you going to professional development events? Can you take a class on that topic that your boss keeps mentioning? Can you find a mentor who will help you figure out what skills and concepts you should be learning for success in 5 years, 10 years, or 20 years down the road?” Id.

One way to help you pay in to your career is to keep a portfolio of your work, either in a document, binder, online portfolio, or other medium. Keep track of projects or work where you’ve accomplished great results for your company. This type of tool can serve as a measuring stick for your professional growth and development, as a means to support an ask for a raise, or as evidence of your ability to perform the next job you interview for. Better than a resume, it’s a tangible demonstration of results.

You should also pay in to your networks. “People, though occasionally inefficient, are a good use of your time.” (Discipline 6, at 1:30:44).

“What have you done today to increase your exposure and broaden your scope? Anyone can reach out to someone who’s immediately professionally useful. Real career capital comes from having lunch and sharing your network with someone who’s just been fired from a job she loved. These are the moments that matter.” (Discipline 6, at 1:33:47).

The next time you are without a job or are looking to move on from your current one, you will need the support and assistance of colleagues and peers. If you haven’t built your network, you might not learn of opportunities of interest. You also might not have advocates available to toot your horn or provide strong references for you. Moreover, and perhaps even more critically: having a support network in your field can help you emotionally and professionally when you have a question or concern relevant to your work and need a helping hand. I know this is something I struggle with and implement goals around to improve on!

Discipline 7: Pursue Pleasure

Finally, discipline 7 is to pursue pleasure. Real effort requires your interest.

This is “[a]n insight often missed in stories on great places to work that belabor the countervailing perks of free M&M’s and an on-site gym… Successful people know that there isn’t any virtue gained by spending your 40 to 60 working hours each week doing something that doesn’t buoy your spirits… Productivity, we are discovering, is a function of joy. Joy comes not from free M&M’s, but from making progress towards goals that matter to you.” (Discipline 7, at 1:37:41)

To summarize the basis of Vanderkam’s final discipline, working towards and achieving goals that are meaningful and important on a personal level makes people happy. Period. This in turn makes us more willing to work towards the achievement of additional goals – thus we become more productive when we do meaningful work.

In this way, “[t]he daily discipline of seeking joy makes astonishing productivity possible, because then work no longer feels like work.” (Discipline 7, at 1:44:19).

Don’t just wait to find your passion, pursue things that bring you satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment or fulfillment every day!

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