Google’s Productivity Advisor Shares Her Top Time-Management Secrets

Laura Mae Martin dishes on how to beat procrastination, declutter your inbox, and more.

When the engineers and executives at Google feel stuck or overwhelmed with their workload they turn to someone with such a knack for productivity, she even wrote a book on it.

Over the past several years, Laura Mae Martin has distinguished herself among the sea of exceptionally productive Googlers as a master of time management. She began her career at the company in sales and astonished her peers by consistently meeting her ambitious targets — without working 12-hour days.

They all wanted to know how she did it. So Martin began to share her secrets, teaching her coworkers how to declutter their inboxes, reorganize their work calendars, and structure their mornings so that they could more easily find their flow. Now, she’s Google’s Executive Productivity Advisor and is letting everyone in on her workflow secrets in her upcoming book, Uptime, out April 2.

Martin blocked off some time for us on her own rigorously arranged schedule to chat about the small things all of us can do to become just a little bit more efficient and hopefully save a whole bunch of time — from how to tame your chaotic inboxes to advice for working moms on how to build a morning routine.

Katie Couric Media: What are the most common productivity issues Googlers come to you with?

Martin: One issue that comes up a lot is packed schedules. A lot of times, people will have back-to-back meetings and they’re slammed, and don’t have time for big-picture thinking. They don’t see the importance of breaks in their schedules, and that’s a common pitfall.

We talk about email a lot, too. By inefficiently managing your email, you might be wasting energy. Just by looking at an email that you don’t need or never wanted — or opening an email four or five times, forgetting that you’ve seen it before — all of that eats away at your store of energy.

Can you explain this concept of what you call “power hours,” and how we should be thinking more about when we’re most productive during the day?

A lot of people don’t have a good understanding of when they do their best work. If you’re a morning person, maybe your power hours are that 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. slot. Or if you don’t like to get up early, maybe that slot is sometime in the afternoon. When you plan your days out, you should be really trying to protect those power hours and keep them for tasks that require a high level of energy and concentration. So if, for example, someone reaches out and wants to have a career mentorship chat, don’t book that during your most valuable time block.

What tips do you have for creating a more efficient work calendar?

I try to get a lot of executives to cultivate a zero-based calendaring mindset. That means starting from scratch by thinking through what your ideal schedule and flow would look like. First, you take a blank calendar and start filling in the things that you cannot move, like a staff meeting. From there, you want to block off your power hours. For me, that’s 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. — I know that I can’t reserve that time for myself everyday, but I try at least to keep those slots free two days a week. If you typically experience a slump in the afternoon, maybe you keep that time for coffee chats or responding to email or administrative tasks.

Then you can comb through and look for other energy pitfalls — things like the time right after a long meeting or presentation where you might want to schedule a short break, instead of jumping back into another meeting. You can look for ways to consolidate meetings, or see if you can turn a meeting into an email catch-up instead. Just sitting down and coming up with that ideal template can make a huge difference.

You share some great tips for beating procrastination in Uptime. Can you give us a couple?

One that I used a lot while writing this book was stopping work in the middle of a task, instead of at the end. We have this natural inclination to stop at the end of a section when we’re working on a project, but when you go back in, that can make it seem like you’re starting a large task all over again, which feels daunting. As much as possible, if you’re in the middle of an email and you’re gonna head out to lunch, it’s better to stop writing and pick it back up later.

I think the most effective tip is to act like your own assistant. Let’s say I’ve been meaning to make banana muffins, but just can’t seem to bring myself to do it, and day after day I’m watching my bananas go bad. I’ll think about what I’d ask my assistant to do for me: So in this example, that’s measuring out ingredients and gathering up all the equipment I’ll need. The next day with everything there on the counter, it’s much easier for me to say, I might as well make these now. So the trick is splitting up the task and creating easier starting points.

What advice do you have for organizing email inboxes?

I have a three-step process that I go through. The first is making sure that you’re only seeing what you need to see. We’re all signed up for things like promotional emails, and stuff like that. But what people don’t realize is that even that tiny action of seeing a message and deciding whether or not to open it is a waste of energy.

So the first thing you want to do is go through and say, What can I get out that I truly do not ever open or need to see? I like to search my inbox for the word “unsubscribe” or “view in browser,” which usually appear in things like ads. I’ll set a timer for 20 minutes and use that time to unsubscribe and get rid of all the junk I’m not going to look at.

The second piece is really calling out the things that are most important. If your boss emails you directly, for example, that should look different in your inbox than an email your boss sends to the entire organization. So you can create filters and labels so that these important emails are highlighted.

The third piece is organizing your email using what I call the “laundry method.” When you do laundry, you don’t open the dryer and pick out one shirt and fold it, leaving the rest of the load. But that’s how we treat email and it’s very inefficient. Instead, sort your messages into piles using different folders: one for emails you need to respond to, another for emails that need to be revisited, and a third for those that can be deleted. Once sorted, complete each of those tasks separately. It’s a mentality shift and the piece that clicks it all into place.

Can you tell us about your morning routine and how you get into your work flow with three kids under 5?

The mornings are crunched for sure. One of the biggest shocks I had when I became a mom was how the kids completely forced me to change my peaceful morning routine — the one back when no one bothered me except the puppy. One thing that’s important is to try to wake up before your kids need you — don’t let your children be your alarm. Even if it’s just 10 minutes before, give yourself the time to sit and drink your coffee and feel like you’ve started your day on your own terms.

I also make sure to do something the night before to prepare, whether it’s pack lunches or setting my coffee on a timer. I call it a “delightfully done” — something you can check off your to-do list so the morning doesn’t feel so daunting. I also had to adjust my power hours, which are now partly being taken up by caring for the kids. That was hard at first, but you can learn to shift that slot by just an hour or so and still protect that time block.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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