Is everything urgent? boost your productivity by reducing reactivity

Thursday, May 5, 2016 - 16:53

By Dermot Crowley

All leaders want their organisation to be productive, and to manage the use of resources as effectively as possible. But many do not realise that in today’s busy email and meeting driven workplace, they could be a part of the problem.

I was recently working with a leadership team in the tech industry. We worked on the individual productivity of each of the executive and their EA support team. But in the follow-on coaching sessions a common theme emerged. There was a particularly reactive culture in place. This was indicated by very high volumes of email, and way too much focus on inputs rather than outcomes. There was a dysfunctional meeting culture, with too many meeting going for too long and involving too many people. Many of these were organised with less than 24 hours’ notice. While this reactivity and urgency was in part driven by their overseas head office and their customer base, it became apparent that some of it was caused by the leadership team themselves, especially their CEO.

Many senior managers see personal productivity as an individual issue. If someone is not managing their time effectively, send them on a training course, and all will be fixed. The issue is that if the person comes back into a reactive workplace which forces them to react to urgency rather than work proactively on the important stuff, all the time management in the world will not really improve productivity. So what can the leadership team do to lead productivity in their organisation? Here are a few ideas that will make a huge difference.

Dial down the urgency

Industries are not reactive by nature. Organisations are not reactive by nature. It is people and their workstyles that cause reactivity most of the time. Because most people don’t have good systems in place to manage their time and priorities in the email workplace (most just use their Inbox as a makeshift to-do list), things often get left until the last minute or we do them the minute they come in so we don’t forget. To help with this I encourage people to work in what I call an ‘Active’ state.

Active sits between Reactive and Proactive, which tend to be polar opposites. It suggests a more balanced approach to our work, where we respond to incoming requests in a timely way, and anticipate what is coming up before it is upon us. Of course, sometimes we need to react when something is truly urgent, and sometimes we need to be proactive and plan accordingly. An Active approach to work dials down the urgency and allows everyone to work in a more balanced way. 

Embrace technology

We are working in a modern workplace, with modern productivity issues. That means we need to resolve these issues with modern tools and approaches to productivity. Your team might all use the electronic calendar to manage their meetings, but that is only half of their workload. Most may still be using paper tools to manage their priorities, meeting notes and project information. Lead by example here and fully embrace technology such as MS Outlook and OneNote to centralise and organise all of your work.

Set expectations around productivity

How is your Inbox doing? Full of noise I expect. Emails that have come to you because someone felt it would add value, but you might disagree. And who sent you this noise? Your people mostly. To truly boost the productivity in an organisation we need to go beyond time management principles and look at how we work together more productively. Every time we send an email, call a meeting or collaborate on a project, there is a risk that we will drag other people’s productivity down, or vice versa. Have a discussion with your team about how you can best use tools like emails and meetings. Get some common understanding about what is best-practice in this space.

Productivity is a leadership issue, not just a HR issue. It should be led from the top, and leaders need to walk the talk if they want others to follow.

Dermot Crowley is a productivity thought leader, author, speaker and trainer.  Dermot works with leaders, executives and professionals in many of Australia’s leading organisations, helping to boost the productivity of their people and teams. He is the author of Smart Work, published by Wiley. For more information, visit or email

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