In this series, professionals share their secrets to being more productive. Read the posts here, then write your own (use #ProductivityHacks in the body).

Your inbox is overloaded, your desk is piled high, your voicemails are 50 deep, and your calendar is wall to wall. And, with the speed of technology, travel and communication that are hallmarks of the 21st century, information overload will only get worse.

While some thrive in this hectic and ever-changing environment, others simply can’t take the pace. Overwhelmed and paralyzed, they have the look of the proverbial deer in the headlights when caught unprepared. Sometimes, they shut down.

I’ve seen it happen, and I bet you have, too. And I’m sure we all understand the urge to shut down, or perhaps run, when faced with way too many pulls in way too many directions. But, I’ve found — and most would agree — a leader’s biggest mistake is not making a decision sooner, so turning our backs on a situation is out of the question.

My solution: I create a priority list that is horizontal, not vertical — because I know I can’t do everything myself — and I assign many tasks to my competent team. I then concentrate my time on follow-up as I monitor their progress. That means we are all completely focused on the task at hand.

I learned this trick not from my mentors in the business world but from my football coaches at Western Illinois University. Focus only on the immediate play, they taught me. All that mattered was the next 30 seconds. Practice that principle, and I’d never let my teammates down.

Multi-tasking on the football field would have been disastrous. So why are we told we need to multi-task in the business world? In reality, this practice has made us less productive, not more so. Take meetings, for instance.  Early on in my business career, I studied the managers around me as they prepared for and participated in meetings and — 40-plus years ago — I committed to always being prepared and, once in the meeting, staying totally attentive. It’s a matter of respect to the others in the room, but it’s also a business reality:  Informed decisions can’t be made without proper preparation and absolute focus.

It’s easy to spot those who follow this creed, and those who don’t. Some have already read the materials and are ready to present. Others just show up, assuming they’ll catch on as the meeting progresses (newsflash — they rarely do). It sends a powerful message when some meeting participants have spent countless hours in preparation, while others are concentrating more on their phones than the task at hand. What kind of message are you sending?

If you are the meeting’s leader, here are a couple of ways to keep your team focused:

  • Video conference. Whether you like Skype, FaceTime or Google Hangouts, video conferencing will keep your team’s eyes focused on you and yours on them.
  • Leave your devices outside. When you go into a meeting at the White House, you must leave your computer and phones in a basket outside the door. Some CEOs and chairmen have the same requirement.
  • Send the unprepared participants home. I’ve actually attended meetings where it was obvious no one was prepared. The answer: “Let’s come back in (one hour, one day, one week) when everyone has absorbed the material and is ready to participate.” Do this once, and my guess is you’ll never have to do it again.

Of course, we all deal with multiple issues on a daily basis, so we need to have the ability to shift gears. Like the football player, we must focus on the play that’s been called, but once the play is done we must move on quickly. Again, it’s easy to lose focus — which is why the above-mentioned priority list is so important. Here are some tricks that have helped me organize and stay focused throughout my business career:

  • Develop strong memorization skills. Back to football, but it also helped me learn the art of memorization. We had to know 60 to 100 plays, and we had to be ready to use any one of them, at any time. I use that skill now when I work the room, paying careful attention to each person I am speaking with. Later, I can recall what participants have said, and I sometimes call them on it. This practice creates the right cultural environment and helps set expectations.
  • Use technology when you can. As much as I hate phones in meetings, they can also serve as recorders. No one remembers everything, so if it’s critical, find a way to capture it. I’ve also found that I can think faster than I can type, so I use a dictation device (a small tape recorder, really). I find I can be more spontaneous, and I’m 25% to 30% more productive as a result.
  • Make it a habit to develop your weekly “game plan.” Just as most football teams know the first 10 to 20 plays they will run in the upcoming game, you need to get ahead of your week before it gets ahead of you. I am fanatical about planning my week and my calendar well in advance. That may mean putting some prep time in on the weekend, but that’s worth it when I’m prepared for the challenges ahead.
  • Triage your work. You simply cannot do it all, so recognize that. I spend my time on what’s important — that priority list I’ve already established — and get rid of the junk mail or other distractions that so often appear.
  • Be prepared for change. The level of uncertainty in today’s world is unparalleled. Sometimes, you will need to be that quarterback calling audibles, or the team player listening for them. The more organizational discipline you’ve created, the easier it will be for you to work smarter and get the most from yourself, or your team.

Finally, as useful as I might find some of the tricks I’ve mentioned, they are far from my favorite and most productive tool — the people around me. You can be a great quarterback but have a losing season because no one can catch the ball. Leaders need to set the tone for productivity, and create a culture that keeps the bar high, because the execution of a business plan is measured in the effectiveness of its implementation. Throughout my career, in the business world and way back when on the football field, I’ve surround myself with passionate, knowledgeable and committed individuals who share responsibility and are aligned with the same goals.

During his 40-plus years in the business world, Bob Nardelli has grown the sales and profits of a number of multi-national corporations including the General Electric Co. and The Home Depot, and he helped save Chrysler and its iconic brands when the American auto industry began to collapse. In addition to his board and volunteer service, he is the founder of XLR-8, LLC, Investment & Advisory Co., which helps companies identify weaknesses and improve performance. Read more about Bob at