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Work Smarter, Not Harder: How to Increase Your Agency's Productivity

While we may be tempted to blame our unproductivity on a lack of time, time isn't the issue. Recalibrating our time and attention to focus on the things that really matter is the art of productivity.
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work smarter, not harder to increase your agency's productivity

Global employee stress levels maintained record highs this year, according to Gallup's “State of the Global Workplace: 2023 Report," with 44% of employees admitting they experienced “a lot of stress" the day before taking the survey.

Surely, if employees are stressed, it's because important things are filling their time and attention, right? Not really. Work about work—that is, wasted time on tasks like searching for information, switching between apps, duplicated work and unnecessary meetings—takes up 58% of the average knowledge worker's workday, according to Asana's “Anatomy of Work" Global Index 2023. Conversely, skilled work takes up 33% of the workday, the report found. Strategic work? Just 9%.

No wonder Americans use terms like “hamster wheel" or “daily grind" to describe their typical day of spending too much time just trying to keep their head above water.

“The simple truth is we live and work in a world that's stuck in autopilot mode, where we fall into a rhythm of doing things simply because they land in our email inbox," says Chris Bailey, author of three productivity books, including the just-published “How to Calm Your Mind: Finding Presence and Productivity in Anxious Times." “It comes back to how intentionally and deliberately we work."

Recalibrating our time and attention to focus on the things that really matter is the art of productivity. “Productivity simply means producing what you want to produce," says David Allen, author of the international bestseller “Getting Things Done." “If you go to a party to boogie and you don't boogie, it's an unproductive party."

But what keeps us from being productive? Why do we not boogie?

While we may be tempted to blame our unproductivity on a lack of time, time isn't the issue. “An entire week is 168 hours," says Laura Vanderkam, author of several time management books, including “Tranquility by Tuesday: 9 Ways to Calm the Chaos and Make Time for What Matters." “We don't have a good sense of where our time goes. And once we have our story that we're starved for time, it's easy to find confirming evidence. We don't think about the hour we spent looking at Twitter in bed."

The secret ingredient we're missing is focus. “We need to bring more intentionality to our work and how we live our life," Bailey says. But when people don't take the time to focus, “they run around making decisions based on what's latest and loudest as opposed to strategic choices," Allen says.

“One of the biggest things I see most often is a lack of focus and organization," agrees Kari Dybdahl Kohal, founder of insurance career, sales and leadership consulting brand Kari Kohal, and president of American Risk Management Resources Network LLC. “There's so much going on in the day-to-day life of working in insurance, and you can get pulled in so many different directions that a day will go by, and you'll have no clue what you just spent eight hours on."

Perfect Productivity

Meanwhile, there's another gremlin holding us back: the misconception that maximum effort equals maximum results. “It's an outdated mindset that has infiltrated business and modern culture," says Greg McKeown, author of two New York Times bestselling books on productivity and host of “The Greg McKeown Podcast." “It sounds right that if you want to make the most progress you put in the most effort. But the inconvenient reality is that it's completely wrong."

McKeown shares a case study from a 1911 race to the South Pole between two exploration teams, one led by British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and the other led by Norway's Roald Amundsen. “The British team had the maximum effort equals maximum results mindset—just go the furthest, fastest, you possibly can," he says. “But when they had a really terrible weather day, they suddenly couldn't make any progress because they were exhausted."

However, the Norwegian team had one rule for progress: “15 miles a day," McKeown says, “which meant they had the energy to achieve their goal even on bad weather days. They didn't have this boom-and-bust approach to execution."

The Norwegian team stuck to that rule rigidly and won—and most importantly, “they had enough energy to make it back," McKeown adds. Tragically, that was not true for the British team.

Referring to Ranulph Fiennes' biography on the exploration, “Race to the Pole," McKeown recounts that Fiennes used three words to describe the productivity of the Norwegian team: “that they made progress every day 'without particular effort,'" McKeown says. “That's outrageous. There's something about that that flies in the face of all this nonsense we're being pillared with on social media, all this bro culture, hack stuff about how you have to kill yourself and then you'll get everything you want."

To many, the mindset of maximum effort equals maximum results is alluring. In fact, in most modern-day cultures, being busy is a good thing. People who appear busy are viewed as important and impressive, according to a 2016 study led by Silvia Bellezza published in the Journal of Consumer Research. “A busy and overworked lifestyle, rather than a leisurely lifestyle, has become an aspirational status symbol," the research team wrote.

In fact, in a 2023 study of American, French and South Korean cultures led by Jared Celniker published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, displaying high effort was found to be considered morally admirable whether or not the effort led to results.

Maximum effort makes us feel important. Needed. Even morally justified. Perhaps when we fail to set clear, meaningful intentions for our time, we substitute effort as our measure for success. Because surely, if we're so busy we don't even have time to catch our breath, we must be doing something right—right?

For the British South Pole exploration team, that mistake had life-and-death consequences. And it can for you, your colleagues and your agency. Burnout, which results from chronic stress, has severe health consequences, according to a 2017 study from Denise Albieri Jodas Salvagioni et al., published in PLOS ONE Journal. Burnout was a significant predictor for hypercholesterolemia, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, hospitalization due to cardiovascular disease, insomnia and more, the study found.

Cut the Crap

Knowing what's at stake, how do we become more productive without falling into the fallacy of busyness? “Don't ask yourself, 'How can I work harder to achieve more?'" McKeown says. “Ask yourself, 'How can I make this effortless?' Figure out what's essential, and then how you can make it as effortless as possible to do what's essential."

Here are five steps from the experts to achieve greater productivity:

1) Discover where you spend your time. Vanderkam recommends starting by tracking your time. “If you want to spend your time better, you need to know where it's going now—otherwise you're relying on impressions and feelings," she says.

2) Capture what you need to get done. What should you be spending your time on? Instead of relying on your memory to guide you past the distractions and temptations of the day, write it down.

“Your head is just a really crappy office," Allen says. “Most people try to use their head to remember, remind, prioritize—but your head didn't evolve to do that. In fact, cognitive scientists have proven the number of things you can keep track of in your head is four. That's it."

That's why Allen's Getting Things Done® methodology—a five-step productivity system—starts with “Capture: Collect what has your attention."

3) Prioritize which tasks deserve your attention. There are multiple ways of organizing those tasks you've written down. “One of my favorite is the Rule of Three, which is when you ask yourself, 'By the time this day is done, what three main things do I want to have accomplished?'" Bailey says, adding that he typically picks a set of three priorities for work and another set of three for his personal life. “It helps us set intentions, but it also lets us consider our limitations every day."

Another helpful framework for daily priorities is what McKeown calls the 1-2-3 Method. “First, one most essential thing that is your priority; two, essential and urgent things, such as items with a deadline; and three, maintenance items that don't feel essential but if you don't do them life will be harder, like laundry," he says.

Of course, different individuals have different levels of autonomy over their schedules, but that doesn't mean they can't be focused. “A customer service representative versus a broker is going to look a little different because your demands of the day are going to be different," Kohal says. “But even when your job requires you to be at the beck and call of the phone, you can still set an intention—say, closing five services cases today."

For a more long-term view of priorities, Bailey applies the Rule of Three to a holistic view of work. “Write out every single thing that you're responsible for in your work over the course of a typical month, and then ask, 'What's the most important thing on this list?' Then pick a second one, and then a third," he says. “Those are the things you should be doing all day. After that, our marginal productivity falls off. Everything else left over, we need to ask how we can delegate, or at least downsize the time we spend on them."

Taking time to analyze your priorities also allows you to escape the tyranny of the urgent and recognize the items that help you achieve goals. “You start spending more time on the things that matter to you, and less on the things that don't," Vanderkam says.

4) Reorient your schedule for focus. Now that you have your tasks out of your brain and clearly prioritized, your schedule needs to reflect your goals. One method is blocking out time for a high-priority task.

“When I was a wholesale broker, I would block out power hours for prospecting every Wednesday," Kohal says. “I have carried the concept of organizing daily focuses and power hours on my Outlook calendar into my current role as president. One day, my focus would be executive management, another would be sales, another client meetings."

Another popular way to dedicate time is the Pomodoro® Technique, created by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, which involves setting a timer for 25 minutes, working on that task with no interruptions until the timer rings, then taking a break for five minutes before diving back in. After four Pomodoro cycles, take a longer break. Dedicated Pomodoro timer apps and websites include

What happens if we interrupt our dedicated task time by checking social media or responding to a quick email? Depending on how far off the interruption is from the original task, it can derail your focus significantly.

A study led by Gloria Mark, professor at University of California, Irvine, found that interruptions result in higher stress, frustration and time pressure. While short or relevant interruptions aren't necessarily detrimental, context switching—when we interrupt one project to attend to a completely different topic—means “you have to completely shift your thinking," Mark told Fast Company in an interview, adding that “it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task."

So, if you've ever wondered why you can't get anything done if you have a sick child at home or a coworker who keeps on messaging you with “urgent" questions, know that every derailment takes a big chunk of time with it.

Unfortunately, a false sense of urgency can incentivize employees to sabotage their own brains. Fifty-six percent of workers feel like they have to respond to work notifications immediately, according to Asana's “2022 Anatomy of Work Index." Especially if you're in a position of leadership, a great way to help your team decline interruptions is to “watch for high-pressured language," McKeown warns. “Does everything have to be ASAP? Do you need to say 'need' in every message? That's exhausting. And it's kind of wrong. This idea of everything being urgent adds stress without productivity."

5) Plan for margin. “One of the key parts of time management is leaving open space in your schedule," Vanderkam says. “Even if you do plan your weeks well, stuff will happen—both crises and opportunities. That way you don't have to borrow time from the future."

Also, protect your energy margin. “Never stopping at the end of the day doesn't mean you're getting more done, it means you're using up deep reserves that you need tomorrow," McKeown says. “Know what your maximum is, what your peak is, and stop right before it."

5 Questions to Ask About Your Agency's Productivity

Agents can productivity hack away until they're blue in the face, but if their agency remains weighed down by outdated systems, workflows and technology, they will find that their time and energy will be squandered.

Here are five questions to ask about your agency's operational and technological efficiency:

1) When are we not interacting with clients? “Observe your staff. What tasks are they doing where they don't interact with your customer base and instead are just working on spreadsheets?" says Andrew Metz, vice president of sales at Zywave.

Interacting with prospects and clients is part of agency staff's core duties, and the non-core responsibilities should be automated or boosted by technology whenever possible, explains Travis MacMillian, president of the Americas at Xceedance. “For instance, policy checking. Sometimes it's an afterthought, and then it's a scramble to get through a big renewal period, and changes get missed—which turns into an errors & omissions exposure."

MacMillian points out that artificial intelligence (AI) tools are increasingly available to perform those ancillary tasks, equipping the agent or CSR with the information they need to interact with the client.

2) Are all our accounts profitable? Sometimes books of businesses are constructed by “what came in the door," Metz says, pointing out that is not a recipe for an optimal, purposeful book. “It's time to start making strides toward having the book of business that suits your agency the best," he says. “When you win business, what do you do really well? When you lose, why? Where's the wasted energy happening and what gives you a headache at the end of the day?"

And for business that no longer serves your agency, “find another agency in town that wants to write those, and develop a referral relationship," Metz says.

3) Is our tech stack serving us? “There's been these waves of tech where people are just grabbing things that don't fit their book, and they end up with a Frankenstein's monster of a tech stack," Metz says. “Does your tech serve your business and your book of business?"

Unfortunately, this question will never truly be answered. “Agencies may want to just handle this once and forget about it for 10 years, but this needs to be an annual audit," Metz says. With the InsurTech world constantly changing, mostly for the better, it's important to “skate to where the puck is going," he continues. “Think about where you want to be three to five years from now."

Additionally, as a drop in private equity (PE) agency acquisitions is creating room for independent insurance agencies to wade into the mergers & acquisitions space, agencies that have recently been acquired are faced with the issue of combining systems. “After an acquisition, sometimes the agency's AMS might be trying to capture the other agency's data despite not being built for it, so how you marry those systems together creates issues," MacMillian says. “It also means you have the opportunity to evaluate two systems, decide which one works better and right-size."

4) Are we investing in new tech that plays nice? While there are plenty of shiny options out there, any vendor that advertises itself as the end-all-be-all should be carefully considered.

“If you're looking at new technology, you need to make sure it's put together modularly," MacMillian says. “Where we are today and where we'll be two years from now is going to be completely different. If you get locked into a tech stack that's hardwired in a box, it's going to be difficult to change out a piece of it."

How do you tell if a solution is modular? “Application programming interfaces (API) are critical—if a system can't adapt to an API environment, I would challenge whether it's really the best-in-class," MacMillian says. “But also know you don't have to undertake it alone; there are many company partners happy to work with agencies to bring their data and tech up to speed."

5) How do we train our people? “There's a lot of emotional energy that goes into training a salesperson," Metz says. Helping a producer reach the crucial point of validation, when an agent's production as measured by commission is equal to the cost of paying them, can be a large hurdle.

“Independent agencies have phenomenal opportunities to set new hires up for success—that don't involve the old school way of handing them a phone book and saying, 'Go get 'em, tiger,'" Metz continues. “An efficient agency can use data to help them prospect smarter, train them on how to create presentations or quote faster, show them how to challenge incumbent relationships, and help them validate faster."

AnneMarie McPherson Spears is IA news editor. 

Monday, January 1, 2024
Sales & Marketing
Digital Edition