High-Performance Habits: 7 Expert Tips From an Executive Coach

Ken Larson

Ken Larson

As a business leader, you must focus on the business at a high level and not get stuck in the day-to-day. For this, you need to know world-class high-performance habits.

So many leaders have too many things on their plate and focus on the wrong things rather than the future of the business. These seven hacks are meant to help you eliminate stress and focus more on the work that matters. 

Each of these tips on its own is very powerful. But the real value comes when they’re used together in a synchronistic combination, in your own style. Feel free to adjust these high-performance habits/tools so they work in your life to meet personal needs.

High performers do these things naturally, but most leaders need some help to put these best practices into place. Reading books like ” Deep Work” and ” Digital Minimalism” can help you weave these effective practices into your daily schedule.

Here are 7 habits of high performers to help you focus on the important things to get more done!

1. Priority Management

A major concern many of my clients have is their ever-growing to-do list. When everything feels like a crisis, it’s hard to know what to prioritize. The idea behind mastering priority management is that very few things will ever actually become a crisis. The more you can plan, the easier it will be to gain perspective and help your team complete tasks that will move your business ahead in measurable ways. 

Getting clear on the most important tasks for you is foundational to all the other high-performance habits. There are many different apps and tools available, but some that work for one team won’t work for others. An executive coach can help figure out what makes the most sense for your situation, but here are a few things to consider when determining how to set priorities effectively.

3Ps 

When there’s an item that appears on your to-do list, ask yourself which of the following categories it should fall into:

  • Priority 1: Urgent and Important
  • Priority 2: Important, but not Urgent
  • Priority 3: Something that will be important but not yet

You may expect me to recommend getting rid of Priority 3 tasks but don’t. There are many things you don’t want to lose track of. 

When we’re looking at priorities, look at the value of those tasks. If the value is low, it may not be as urgent as you think. 

Use a Priority Matrix

A priority matrix is an excellent tool for identifying the value of each task. There are four quadrants in the matrix:

  • Quadrant 1: These are must-do’s now that are high impact and highly urgent. 
  • Quadrant 2: Major projects that are high impact but less urgent.
  • Quadrant 3: Fill-ins activities that are low impact but seemingly urgent (but aren’t really). 
  • Quadrant 4: These are a waste of your time as they are low impact and not at all urgent. 

You want to work to eliminate anything in the last quadrant whenever possible. But you may be surprised at the time you put into tasks that aren’t high enough in the matrix (e.g. above the line). Assess your priorities. How do these bring value to the business, and how does it align with the future? Look at it both objectively and subjectively.

  • Objective value: Results in that projects get done, revenues go up, or expenses go down
  • Subjective value: Culture, teamwork, relationships with vendors, suppliers, or other key alliances improve

Too many leaders get caught up in what’s due today. Too many get caught up in the now instead of looking ahead. This is a mistake. Get out in front. Think big picture. 

Beyond the priority matrix, there are other tools that teams can implement to make it easier to identify priorities. Try Trello, Rike, Teams, or Monday. Research these options and see which tool is best for your team.

2. Time Management

No executive has enough time in the day to accomplish everything they wish. Yet, that’s precisely why time management is one of the most important high-performance habits you can have. When you can overcome the limitations of time, you’ll find it easier to manage your priorities and reduce your stress load at the same time. 

Time Matrix

We are all addicted to urgency — even if the urgency isn’t real. It’s the dopamine hit we all seek. But this effect will wane and puts us in a position to make poor choices about where and what we spend our precious time. 

Many leaders think that when things feel urgent, they must be important, right? Wrong!

This is the default thought, as noted. We tend to spend our day on the left side of the time matrix, which includes distractions like phone calls and emails. These are often self-generated because we are seeking more dopamine. But by the time the work is complete, we are exhausted from the intensity required. 

The rest of our day ends up in the bottom-right quadrant, where we spend time on things that are both not urgent and not important — like the 40 minutes I wasted yesterday fiddling with my new Apple Watch.

When we spend too much time on the left side of the matrix, then fall into the bottom right near the end of the day, I call this “The Bermuda Triangle.” That’s because we either ignore and/or avoid those precious items in Quadrant 2, the important, high-value tasks and points of focus. As this habit progresses, the items in Quadrant 2 are left behind until they become urgent. 

This feeds into those “Bermuda Triangle” feelings. This is a dangerous place for leaders to be in. And let’s face it, we’ve all allowed ourselves to be trapped. It’s the opposite of these high-performance habits!

time matrix with a triangle going through quadrant 1 3 and 4 skipping 2

Time Blocking and the Floating Task List

This is the most powerful, high-performance time and priority management tool you can incorporate: Block a 30-minute (60 minutes maximum) window of time on your work calendar for the week’s P1 and P2 tasks. 

Enter these into the body of the time block in the order they need to be completed. Tackle them in order. 

Once you complete them, either cross them off or delete them altogether. If you run out of time (and you likely will if your tasks take longer than the time blocked), mark the item as “in progress” and drag the time block into an open spot the following day. 

Rinse and repeat daily. At the end of your week, you’ll find that you got more done than you realized was possible. This helps ensure the most important things are getting done first, and that’s what high-performance habits are all about.

3+ Types of Time

Leaders are high achievers, but it’s vital to learn how to manage your energy, so you don’t burn out. Staying in so-called high-performance mode all day is impossible, and we all need energetic peaks and valleys in our days. 

To put it in words, there are three categories of time: Focus, Buffer, and Free. 

Focus time is deep work (P1s and P2s)

The key to getting into this place is creating mental and physical space to get that deep work done (see all previous suggestions). 

Shut off or minimize your other programs and place your computer into mute mode. Minimize clutter or clear off your physical desk to mitigate and/or eliminate further distractions. Focus on the important stuff for about 30-45 minutes at a time. An hour would be a stretch unless you are naturally good at focusing and eliminating distractions. Do your deep work for an hour or less, and then take a break. It’s precisely what I’m doing as I write this article!

Buffer time includes things that happen in between focusing and free time

These tasks can include:

  • Replying to some emails
  • Sorting, filing, and organizing
  • Making a few short calls
  • Scheduling
  • Handling some paperwork on your desk

These are more of the necessary yet less critical tasks to create space for deeper work. 

Free time

Sometimes, we need to take a break and do nothing. This is different from wasted time, which is any activity that attracts us, distracts us, and helps us procrastinate. It’s a scary place, yet we all do it. Some examples of free time, which support other high-performance habits, are as follows.

Micro-Breaks

Take micro-breaks. Small breaks help our brains relax and rejuvenate after bouts of focus and deep work. They don’t have to be long. Five minutes to half an hour is fine. This concept is based on the scientifically proven Pomodoro Technique. Some examples of micro-breaks are:

  • Get up and walk around
  • Fix yourself a coffee
  • Chat with a friend
  • Take a quick nap, if working from home
  • Read a chapter in a book (fiction, preferably)

Do not sit at your desk! Step away from anything and everything that might get you thinking about your tasks. 

Set an hourly reminder to stand up and walk around or drink water (there are all sorts of apps for this). At 10 minutes to each hour, my watch reminds me to take a big breath, relax, and be grateful. This takes about 15 seconds. Got time for that? Do you have time not to?

Macro-Breaks

Macro-breaks are longer in duration, usually a day or preferably more. These breaks allow deeper rest that’s more than just a mental recharge. Depending on your beliefs, they help the rest of our high-performing selves emotionally, physically, and perhaps even spiritually. Not every day has to be filled with high-performance habits!

Take a day, a long weekend, or a vacation (or staycation). Macro-breaks are incredibly critical to becoming a high-performing leader. Just like deep work, we need deep rest to balance our lives. If the latter outweighs the former, this can (and most likely will) cause a plethora of problems, some critical. 

However, here’s a word of caution. If you plan to work on these so-called breaks, you are defeating the purpose and will only burn out faster. I ask our leadership clients what would happen if they took a month off (with backup, of course) and had no text, phone, or email access. If they convulse and get the shakes and glaze over, I know there’s an issue.

Do you work through lunch every day? Do you go to work early or stay late? Have you not been home to put your kids to bed in months? Have you not stopped to take your dog on a 10-minute walk? If this sounds like you, you need to find a way to incorporate micro and macro breaks into your work life and get serious about time management.

3. Task Management

You may know your priorities, and you may even be able to juggle your responsibilities with the limited time in the day. But if you don’t know how to handle tasks appropriately, you’ll never get ahead and thrive as a leader. One of the most important high-performance habits is knowing what tasks are worth your time and the most efficient way to check them off your to-do list.

Clarity/Language

Clarity is king. If a team doesn’t have common clarity, they don’t have any. 

If you’re in a meeting and each person in the room has a different viewpoint on a topic, there is no clarity. This needs to be discussed to make sure everyone is on the same page — literally! 

A good measure of clarity is if there are no questions from anyone. Then you and your team have clarity. If there are questions, then you don’t have clarity. You and your team need to talk it out until you do. Once this is achieved, the best next action steps should automatically be obvious. Decide what it is, assign a champion, set a due date and move on.

Chunking and Value Chaining 

If you have a large task and you’re unsure how to get it accomplished because it seems too big, break it into doable chunks within the required time frame. We’ll break down how to do this in a minute.

Those smaller chunks of tasks need to be broken down deeper into a value chain. A value chain shows the step-by-step process of getting the larger task completed. Then, place those tasks into your floating task list, one of the high-performance habits discussed in the Time Management section. 

Think through your larger project: What needs to be done? Consider crafting:

  • An outline
  • Research on each item in the outline
  • Bullets summarizing the information into a logical and doable list

The very best resource for this process is explained in Tom Wujec’s TED Talk on Drawing Toast. Go to his website and watch the 11-minute video if you’re unfamiliar. Go back to your larger task, perform the exercise with your team (not alone), and see the process through fresh eyes.

Sometimes it’s good to break these projects down by beginning with the end. This is known as reverse-value chaining. Look at what the result is first. In this case, you need to complete the project. Then consider the very last step and work backward until you’re where you’re standing right now. The Drawing Toast exercise can be used for this as well. 

Doability

Don’t bite off more than you can chew when it comes to tasks. If you have a task that you want to get done in a day, take a look at your calendar and see if it’s feasible to do that day. If your day is packed with meetings and other obligations, you won’t have the time to finish it — or perhaps even start. 

Leaders often overestimate what can be done in a short period and underestimate what can be done in a longer period. Talk to your team, or preferably an executive coach with fresh eyes, to help you look at the doability of a project or task. They will always be thinking of things from a different perspective. They will consult with you about how much you have to do versus how much availability you have. 

Having an executive coach to think about these things when you’re stuck in the trenches is invaluable.

4. Workplace Management

Albert Einstein once said, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” Obviously, no leader wants either. That’s why workspace management is a crucial part of this list of high-performance habits. 

Today’s workspace isn’t just a desk. Now, top executives must consider their desks and their devices and all areas around them, wherever they happen to be working.

Your Screen

Take a look at your screen(s) — what do you see? Do you see way too many tabs and programs open? Is your email constantly pinging and popping up? 

Most people have too many things on their screen and too many notifications distracting them. Put your phone on silent, turn off your speakers, and minimize the tabs that have nothing to do with the task at hand. 

Get a second monitor: one monitor for the task at hand and another for everything else. That way, you can focus on the deep work that needs to be done and then switch to another monitor for the buffer items. I like this approach so much that I have three screens: email on the left, a calendar on the right, and a very large screen in the middle where I can have all the files I need to accomplish a task.. 

Try it! But here’s a special note on focus: When I’m on a client call, I close every program until the call is over.

Your Desk 

Clear everything off your desk that is a distraction, or put it in a pile out of sight while doing your deep work. 

Customize your desk: Have friendly reminders on your desk of who you are and what’s truly important to you. These can include:

  • Pictures of family
  • Personal items that are important to you
  • Reminders of a hobby that you love
  • The tugboat you built with your grandfather (wait, that’s me!)

These will keep you positive and happy and remind you why you’re doing all the work in the first place. Remembering your motivation is one of the best high-performance habits you can have.

Surrounding Area

What does the surrounding area of your workspace look like? Is it cluttered? Is it full of things that remind you of personal tasks, like a pile of laundry in your home office? These are just distractions waiting to happen.

Declutter and make the surrounding area a motivating, inspiring, and non-distracting workspace. Add pictures or posters on the wall that are inspiring to you.

Background Noise

This is a personal preference. Some people enjoy some sound in the background while working, while others prefer silence. Studies show that classical music (Baroque, in particular) in the background can help keep brain waves on a good, productive cycle. Try this out one day and see  how it works for you.

5. Information Management

We have too much information on paper and online. To minimize clutter and create efficiency, we need to purge some items and clean up. Once you get rid of some stuff, you will have more clarity on the important things, where they are, how to access them, and when they come into play. 

When you perform information management, ask yourself one core question: Will I ever need this again? If the answer is yes, then keep it. If the answer is no, or maybe, it’s time to remove it. 

Filing Systems: Physical

Keep your physical files (like a filing cabinet) neat, clean, organized, and minimized. Try to condense your paper filing so that it’s not overwhelming or too difficult to keep track of. Most organizations can cut their physical files by well over 50%. 

Better yet, spend the time and money to get a data synchronization specialist (at Champion PSI, we have one of the best) to help convert as many physical files as possible into your online filing system. It involves some effort upfront, but it won’t take long before you see the benefits of these high-performance habits.

Filing Systems: Online or on Your Computer

Like your physical filing system, you need to keep your computer’s desktop organized and free of clutter. 

Your email inbox should not have thousands of unread emails. That’s not manageable, and it is a huge distraction. Some leaders actually boast about how many emails they have in their inboxes! 

Although it’s most likely a P2, make it a priority to minimize and purge your online filing regularly. Take the last 15 to 20 minutes of your workday for just online file and email organizing. Go through your emails and declutter by filing them away or purging the ones that have been addressed and completed. And unsubscribe from any newsletters that aren’t providing you high value.

Try to get as close to zero in your inbox as possible to eliminate this common distraction. This is a high-level goal, but it’s possible with effort and time. As a rule of thumb, if you have to scroll, you have too many emails in your inbox!

Action Extraction

When it comes to action extraction, you first have to decide what to do and if there’s a toolset to plug it into. 

There needs to be a workflow. Most don’t have an effective and efficient workflow. When you don’t have those, it will stress your high performers, and they will be unclear and inefficient. Strong workflows systems and processes put your high performers into a position where they are the only limiting factor to their success. Are you holding your high performers back?

How do we incorporate a workflow that includes tools to ensure we are spending our time, money, and energy on the right things? One of the most challenging high-performance habits is learning to make tough choices.

Make the Tough Choices

Redundancy can only go so far before it becomes a waste of time and energy. Use a minimalist viewpoint to choose what to keep and what to let go of.

Keep only the valuable stuff. Everything else can go. Start with those old filing cabinets! Clear these out and minimize. Remove things that are out of date or irrelevant. Purge what is not essential.

6. Communication Management

Have you ever uttered, “Hey, did you get my email?” This is the utmost example of inefficient and downright annoying communication. As a leader with high-performance habits, you have to do better. Learning to manage your communication will help you and your team rise to meet whatever goals you set. 

The Email Monster

Monster coming out of envelope text says Beware of the Email Monster
Monster coming out of an opened envelope text says Beware of the Email Monster

This is the least urgent form of communication! Email is a Godzilla.

This is the most misused, misunderstood, and dangerously addictive tool in our arsenal. Email is not a conversational tool, and it’s also not an urgent form of communication. If you need a quick response, email is not the answer. 

Using email in this way can even hurt your relationships with the people you’re communicating with. Email is also misused for potentially emotional or directive use. 

In standard language:

  • 55% of communication is nonverbal body language
  • 38% of communication is the tone and attitude we use
  • 7% of communication are the actual words we use

That’s why email is so ineffective. Use it less.

Communication Modalities Pie Chart Showing percentages of how to use high performance habits for communication

As a side note, don’t allow your work email to end up on your phone. Keep it on your computer. Are you shuddering at this suggestion? Most will. That’s because:

  1. It’s not an urgent form of communication.
  2. It’s best to review on your computer rather than squinting to see on your small screen.
  3. You shouldn’t be reviewing your work email on your personal time. That’s time you should be spending with your family or on non-work-related things. 

Email can wait, as it’s meant to be a ” response within 24 hours” form of communication.

Texting 

This is a more urgent form of communication, definitely more urgent than email. If you need to reach someone quickly, send a text. But don’t send too many. It’s considered one step up in urgency from email.

Calling a Cell Phone

This is the most urgent (and most personal) form of communication. If you really need to speak with someone, you call. The voicemail tool is fading from our communication modalities. Typically, a voicemail will be left if it’s of great importance or urgency. Don’t ever leave a voicemail just to say, “Call me ASAP.”

Meeting Rhythms 

Daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually: All leadership teams need to have all five of these incorporated in their communication management systems and processes.

Daily

A daily huddle of 10-15 minutes, done standing (a quick getaway once done to get started with your day). Rotate who runs the daily stand-up each time. Each person offers their Three P’s… What’s your point of Pride from yesterday’s work that helped the organization move forward. What’s your Pain (challenge) today that will move the company forward? Therefore… what’s your Priority today?

Weekly 

These are intended for the week’s review, and they should typically last 45 to 60 minutes.

Monthly

These meetings should last between two and three hours. Any more than that is too much. You should be able to review financials, discuss what’s been done over the month, and determine any changes needed in that time. Review all updates and numbers in advance to optimize your time. No time should be wasted in these meetings with verbal updates… post and/or circulate these in advance.

Quarterly

These are usually longer, perhaps a half-day or a full day. You can look back at an entire quarter and how you did people-wise and numbers-wise. You can also look forward and determine what changes need to be made.

Annual 

Your annual meeting should usually be a couple of days long, sometimes three days. These are intended to review the past year and a plan for the following year.

These meetings need to synchronize together for these forms of communication to serve as high-performance habits. What you are doing today will directly or indirectly affect the company’s overall growth over the long term.

7. Accountability Management

The buck may stop with you, but that doesn’t mean you must be accountable for every single element of your company. Determining when to be accountable and when to delegate or dump an activity altogether will make your other high-performance habits even easier to achieve.

Personal Accountability

This one is simple: Do what you say you will do, the best you can, and on time. Set your bar high and keep it there. 

It’s not just good for the organization; it’s good for you. It generates a sense of pride and, hopefully, a deeper connection with the organization’s purpose and how you influence it, either directly or indirectly.

If there are extenuating circumstances, this needs to be accepted. Create alternate or backup plans early.

The 4Ds

Far too many leaders feel they have to do everything because they think no one can do it as well. This is mostly ego-driven, and it sends the message of mistrust. 

If you want to set a good example of being held accountable, choose carefully what you, and only you, can do. The 4Ds are a great practice:

  • Do: Decide what only you can do
  • Delegate: What someone else can take off your plate, even if it’s with a bit of coaching from you
  • Delay: Delay stuff that isn’t important yet, but will be in the future (just don’t let it be forgotten) 
  • Dump: Do away with the stuff neither you nor anyone else should do

Teams/Divisions/Departments/Locations

Set up systems and processes to hold your team members accountable. No one wants to show up to a meeting without their stuff done. Now, the process holds people accountable, which takes a load off of you. 

Follow the High-Performance Habits for Success

There you have it, some excellent high-performance habits and hacks. These best practices need to work in synchrony for truly optimal personal and professional performance.

Think of it like your favorite rock band or 80-piece orchestra. The musicians are all playing off the same song sheet (your strategic plan) in the same key and with the same base rhythm and the right cadence. 

If you need help bringing all of these techniques together to work for

you, an executive coach can help you and your team make beautiful music together.