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The Power of Tiny Gains in Personal Productivity

October 12, 2015

“Habits are the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day.”  – Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

This year I started paying closer attention to my productivity and I began by carefully observing my workdays on a granular level in order to identify opportunities to increase my productivity. What does this mean in practical terms? Workplace productivity is typically understood as working smarter and not harder or longer to achieve a desired output. An increase in productivity would translate to more work being done, more effectively, with time staying constant.

    • I began to observe how I started my workday and whether I was clear on my priorities as soon as I sat down at my desk.
    • Did I start my day by checking email and allowing for my attention to be dispersed and driven by reactive behavior? Or did I proactively start on the most important work I had to work on that particular day?
    • I started to notice how a few poorly scheduled meetings in a day could easily create unproductive 30 minute gaps of time. These gaps become ‘lost time’ because I would transition from one meeting to the next with 15 – 20 minutes to ‘kill’.
    • I saw that I spent a lot of time navigating files, folders and emails in order to find critical information.
    • On days that I was particularly busy with meetings, internal discussions, and answering ad hoc questions, I was switching tasks so often that I did not have a solid grasp of where my time had gone. As a result, the day would pass and I would emerge unable to confidently assign a time value to the activities that had taken up my day.

 

1% Can Go a Long Way

What this caused was a steady list of things that impacted my daily productivity. As the list grew, I started to ask myself how I could change my approach or my behavior to add time to my day.

Let’s assume that you work a fairly standard 9 hour workday. If you save 1% of your time today, that’d be 5.4 minutes, which is not going to have any real impact on your productivity. However, if you save those same 5.4 minutes every day by becoming 1% more productive on a specific task, then you’re looking at 27 minutes in a week. This may not look like much, but for every small improvement that you make in your day, you will continue to add to your marginal gains.

Marginal Gains from Daily Minutes Saved

This table helps to illustrate the productivity gains that you could see just by improving 1-2% of your workday. Assuming you save 5.4 minutes today, if you are consistent with this, it will add up to 27 minutes in a week. In a calendar month with 20 workdays, this will equal 9 hours of time saved.

This is a gradual process that will require patience. By chipping away at your inefficiencies daily, over time you will become a more effective worker. For example, if your inbox is a disorganized mess, you may feel the urge to allocate 10 hours to cleaning it up. But is that really the best use of your time? Instead, allocate 15-30 minutes a day to this activity and in some 3-4 weeks you will have an organized inbox. To keep it that way will require diligent consistency moving forward so that it does not fall into disarray again.

Which Habits to Change First

To get you started in thinking about the types of habits you could begin to change at work, we’ve developed an infographic with 21 ideas that could improve your daily productivity. Use these ideas as a springboard for brainstorming what you could change in your day.

Begin by observing how you work for a day and make detailed notes on how you spend your workday with particular attention on where your pitfalls lie in eroding your productivity. Once you have built your list, start to think about it in terms of how easy it would be for you to implement a positive habit and how much time it could possibly save in your day.

Plot it out and start with the habits that would be the simplest to implement. Focus first on those habits that are easy to do. This will make it easy for you to succeed.

How to Master New Habits

In my slide deck at MozCon 2015, I talk about picking 21 habits and beginning to implement them over 21 days, progressively adding one new habit each day and actively focusing on practicing that habit for the next 30 days. If this is too ambitious for you, start with one habit or start with five, but be consistent in trying to do it every day.

This is one of the tricks of mastering a new habit – consistency.

Print out the infographic or build your own list and highlight the habits that you are trying to change. Keep the list handy in a place where you will look at it every day.

This next step is important and key to maintaining consistency. Integrate the new habits around existing habits that you do already. This is based on the principle of tiny habits developed by Stanford Professor, Dr. BJ Fogg. For example, let’s say that when you walk into the office, the first thing you do is drop your bag and grab a coffee.  If you want to start the habit of having a 5-10 minute daily work planning session then you may say to yourself:

“After I sit down at my desk with my coffee, I will have a 5-10 minute work planning session”

Another example may be running a timer when you begin a task, in order to measure how long your work takes and to log your time in real-time. You then might say:

“Before I start a new task, I will set the timer”

All of these tasks, no matter how big or small, will require conscious awareness of your actions and how you are interacting with your work. If you tear through your day without stopping to think about what you are working on or why you are working on it, then you may spend the next year doing things as you always have. Developing good habits, means making good decisions.

Don’t wait for tomorrow. Make the commitment to improve just 1% of your workday. Start today and tell us which habit changes help make you more productive!