It’s no surprise managers rate their top performers as their most valuable employees. VitalSmarts’ latest research sought to measure just how much more valuable top performers are and exactly what it is they do that makes them so valuable.

Our study of more than 1,500 employees found that top performers aren’t just a little bit more valuable. Rather, both managers and peers say top performers are three times more valuable than the average employee. Top performers also do 61 percent of the total work done in their departments.

In our study, we asked managers and peers to rate their direct reports and coworkers on a 10-point scale. Then, we asked them a couple of questions: “Do tens work harder or smarter?” and “Do top performers’ work habits add to their stress or reduce it?” Both managers and peers agreed that tens work smarter, not harder, than the average employee. To top it off, tens are also significantly less stressed. In fact, 83 percent of leaders and 77 percent of peers said a ten’s work habits reduce their stress.

How do these top performers do it? What stress-reducing, performance-enhancing habits do they practice routinely and regularly? Below are five productivity practices of highly valuable and highly productive employees:

  1. Collect everything that owns attention: Capture all commitments, tasks, ideas, and projects rather than keeping them in your head. Use just a few “capture tools” you keep with you all the time, such as lists, apps, email, etc.
  2. Decide what your stuff means to you: Clarify whether the items you’ve captured have an action or not. If they do, be very clear about what the very next action is and who should take it. Without a next action, the task will likely languish on a list or somewhere in your brain. In both cases, the task is taking up precious space that could be occupied by more enjoyable and fulfilling items.
  3. Use the two-minute rule: If an action can be completed in two minutes or less, do it immediately. Don’t defer. The time you’ll waste letting simple actions occupy your attention and to-do list is not worth it.
  4. Do more of the right things by reflecting in the right moments: Rather than diving into your messy inbox first thing, take two minutes to review your daily calendar and your action lists. This reflection ensures you make the best decisions about how to use your time.
  5. Review weekly: Keep a sacred, non-negotiable meeting with yourself every week to re-sync, get current, and align your daily work and projects with your higher-level priorities.

The message in this research is that a small number of self-management practices can change a person’s life. In fact, when you compare people who consistently demonstrate these key productivity skills with those who don’t, productive people are:

- 55 times less likely to start projects that never get finished;
- 21 times less likely to experience tasks and responsibilities falling through the cracks;
- unlikely to ever miss deadlines or assignments;
- 18 times less likely to feel overwhelmed;
- and 9 times less likely to feel depressed.

These skills are also extremely beneficial to the organization, as they dramatically improve performance. Productivity is more than just being busy. Employees who learn to manage their workloads quickly and efficiently don’t just get more done – they get more of the right things done. They stop carrying the weight and anxiety of work, and they free up their time and mental capacity for new and better ideas. It’s a win-win for both the individual and the business.

David Maxfield is a New York Times best-selling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. He leads the research function at VitalSmarts.

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