Productivity Advice From the Expert Who Coaches Google Executives: Q&A

"Instead of just forwarding something labeled as urgent, it may be more appropriate to say, 'this is urgent, but not important.'"

Laura Mae Martin
Laura Mae Martin coaches Google executives on how to be more productive at work and life. Fortier Public Relations

When Laura Mae Martin took her role as Google (GOOGL)’s productivity Czar over 10 years ago with the launch of the Productivity@Google program, she never foresaw writing a book on the topic as part of her journey. When Martin wasn’t spending one-on-one time coaching executives on best practices for optimizing productivity, she was busy publishing external blog posts on an array of topics from time and energy management to tips for maintaining well-being. 

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Martin’s new book, “Uptime,” is a culmination of her work in helping professionals boost productivity through various approaches that not only allow the reader to understand what causes hurdles such as procrastination, but how to effectively clear them. 

“Uptime” is a tech term representing the time that a computer is operational and productive. For humans, Martin employed the term to represent being productive regardless of what’s being done, including checking items off of the to-do list or enjoying some much needed relaxation. 

“I think of productivity as holistic,” Martin told Observer in a recent interview. “If someone stopped me on the street and asked how they can be more productive, I wanted to give them something that provides the entire view opposed to fragmented pieces—that’s how the book came together.”

While Martin has spent a great deal of time working with Google executives, not to mention publishing a newsletter on the subject for roughly 50,000 Googlers and new Googlers (Nooglers), she says “Uptime” is for anyone with a to-do list from parents and entrepreneurs to artists and students that are in search for a solid method to better manage their time.

Observer spoke with Martin in late March. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

Observer: What was your biggest challenge in finding the bandwidth to write a book focused on the topic of productivity?

Laura Mae Martin: I think that I learned a lot about my own productivity rhythms. I’d never written as part of work, it was mainly a lot of coaching and I had figured out when I had the best energy for that and followed up with that. I figured out when I write my best newsletters and perfected my schedule in that way. And then when I threw writing in as an activity, I actually assumed that I would write best during what I call those power hours. But it was during the lower energy times that I felt the writing flow more. So I was readjusting and iterating my process for writing and editing until I perfected my workflow and figured out how to do that best.

Do you believe the pandemic served as a catalyst for workers to reevaluate what approaches to productivity work best?

I definitely think it was a huge catalyst in multiple ways. The first thing I noticed, especially during a lot of my coaching, was that many people for the first time thought about their natural energy and how they would spend their time if they had full control. During that time, when everyone stopped commuting, and all of a sudden, everyone was at home, and thinking, ‘Oh, wow, I actually like to wake up and work from six to eight, and then take a break from eight to 10, and do a workout.’ And those are the kinds of things that never came to light when they were on someone else’s schedule between nine and five. So it did allow people to find out those patterns about themselves.

What advice would you offer a person who had the freedom to shape their schedule around their individual productivity patterns while working from home who now has to return to the office?

So many people had to learn these things about themselves; how do they focus at home; when do they do their best work; and when do they prefer to take meetings if they have the whole day to decide? And I encouraged people when the transition back to the office started to happen, to take a moment to write down three to five things that they learned about themselves and about how they work. Because that was such an insightful year, you don’t want to lose that insight and just get right back into the swing of the office.

I think that in a lot of cases, people have the flexibility to work one or two days from home and one or two days in the office or two or three days in the office. And what I encourage people to do is really figure out, use those days strategically for what they are.

The overuse of the term “urgent” in regard to situations or projects is highlighted in “Uptime,” especially when the use of the word as a description is exaggerated. What prompted you to provide examples intended to help people differentiate between what’s “urgent” and what’s “important?”

The inspiration for that section was Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “urgent versus important” matrix. But I took a different approach and that’s where I came up with a system for labeling your feelings in a big emotional moment that can help prevent you from feeling overwhelmed. But people love the word “urgent.” The word urgent is so overused so when you actually ask yourself,  “is this urgent?” And this is common with teams that use that language amongst each other. Instead of just forwarding something labeled as urgent, it may be more appropriate to say, “this is urgent, but not important.” So it’s just putting some structure around the constant use of urgent, which seems to really disrupt people’s productivity.

People seizing every opportunity to bemoan meetings is all the rage right now. Do you believe meetings fit within your model of productivity or should they be eliminated all together? 

I definitely think in some cases, they are necessary. When you look at the types of meetings that I listed, I think where they get overused is information sharing. Brainstorming meetings and connection meetings, those are important in the decision making process. Sometimes you can’t make an important decision like that over email, it just makes it much harder to share opinions and bounce ideas back and forth.

I think that meetings are an important part of culture and connecting and shouldn’t be completely eliminated. But I think there’s a lot of waste when it comes to meetings. The Parkinson’s Law states that meetings expand to the time allotted. I promote how meetings can be aggressively short—because people need to be more intentional about how they’re using your time.

“Uptime” features a section titled, “Turning your Tools into Power Tools,” that promotes the optimization of digital tools and workspaces. How have you leveraged A.I. as a productivity tool and how would you suggest your readers do the same?

As you know, books are written in, like, a year and a half. So I think there’s a little A.I. in there, but it just had started becoming its own beast. And it was hard to know where it was really gonna go and how everyone was using it. Since then, I’ve really leaned into using it. I think it stays consistent with the book’s principles, which is how do I take what I have to do, and shrink that in the best way possible so that I can do more of what I want to do or more of what I need to do. And A.I. is just kind of an extreme version of that. 

I started using it so much for tasks like template generation. If I’m about to start planning for an off site or something similar, I always use Gemini in Google Sheets to start that template. I use it so much for email and it has also helped me write blog posts. I just posted a LinkedIn blog post about five ways to say no to a meeting. I had my general ideas, but I wanted some more context and sentences, and I started to write it, then I realized that Gemini could do this for me.

The tech job market has been turbulent during recent years. How would you suggest people set aside fearful mindsets to focus on their productivity and well-being? 

I would suggest people focus on meditation practice. There’s nothing that substitutes that sense of calm that you can create for yourself. And I think in the book I described that there’s always that kind of storm, and that mental load of what-ifs and other negative thoughts. But you cannot wait for conditions to be perfect in order to stabilize yourself. I’ve suggested that people give meditation a chance, and after 20 or 30 days, they told me that it really made a difference. The problems, work and pressures are still there but it helps to rise above it and gain a new perspective and find some peace.

I describe in “Uptime” how systematizing self care and making those natural triggers for when meditation is needed. I think you have to be regimented with it. Whether it’s working out or walking or meditating to rise above it mentally, I think that allows a person to place the best versions of themselves in any situation.

Productivity Advice From the Expert Who Coaches Google Executives: Q&A