Sunday, 1 September 2019

Everything faster, everything better: Three productivity techniques you can use in everyday life

Human beings have an innate tendency towards efficiency. The pursuit of maximum output with minimum effort is in our genes. Even children, as soon as they can verbalise their thoughts, begin to demand better results. They will progressively evolve from the passivity of babies to the search of short-term benefits typical of adolescents. Yet, their search will not stop there. As they become adults, they will start to think long-term, that is, if they really become adults.

Unfortunately, techniques that deliver good results in certain environments can lead to poor outcomes elsewhere. We steadily try to improve things, get more beneficial outcomes with less effort, but it's difficult to identify universal prescriptions enabling us to do everything faster, everything better.

Once we reach adulthood, most of our attempts to improve performance will take place in the realm of work. Industrial management researchers have been studying successful companies since the nineteen fifties, trying to identify the keys to outstanding performance. We can profit greatly from the conclusions have they drawn if we turn them into habits, if we grow alert to opportunities to work faster, consume fewer resources, and achieve our objectives with less effort.

The problem with the main three recommendations in the field of productivity is that they are not easy to integrate. At first sight, the may even seem contradictory. It takes substantial effort to implement them consistently in your work and private life, but if you do so, you can draw immense benefits.

Few individuals possess the self-discipline to perform a little bit better each day, not only in their profession, but in all areas. I am talking about cleaning your home faster, cooking healthier food more efficiently, getting in shape with less effort, and so on. Let's take a look the three main lessons from productivity studies, and see how to implement them in everyday life.

No more bottlenecks

First recommendation, the removal of bottlenecks. This is the most basic recommendation to enhance your productivity. When something is not going well, you need to identify the obstacle and remove it. When a process is operating slowly, you need to figure out which step is critically slowing down the whole chain.

It is rarely self-evident or easy to find the key issue. In fact, most people will not even bother to look for it. They will complain about difficulties and delays without really understanding the problem. If you find the bottleneck and remove it, you will achieve immediate improvements, but then of course, another bottleneck will arise elsewhere. Improvement never ends. Productivity can always be increased. You can keep making your results better in all areas, day after day, year after year.

Fewer mistakes

Second recommendation, doing similar tasks together, in batch form, so that you can perform them faster and commit fewer errors. Manufacturers have adopted this approach a long time ago. As long as the demand is roughly stable, they can keep producing similar items in batch form, using the same materials and manufacturing processes. In your everyday life, you can adopt this technique for instance for answering emails. Instead of checking your email in-box randomly during the day, it's more efficient to do it once or twice a day, at a fixed hour, and handle all incoming messages together.

Jumping from task to task is usually a bad idea. If you check your email in-box twenty times a day at irregular intervals, you will inevitably spend extra time reading and filing messages, typing answers and wondering what to do next. It is much more efficient to perform similar tasks together. The same goes for cleaning the house, cooking, ironing, washing your car, doing exercise, or whatever other tasks men and women do regularly. Do not spread your attention and energies too thin. Concentrate your efforts on similar tasks, and get them done quickly and flawlessly.

Less stress

Third recommendation, carry out activities in a continuous flow, that is, with a minimum of interruptions. Try to reduce dead time between tasks, wasted efforts caused by disruptions. Truth be told, it is difficult to achieve continuous flow in any kind of process, industrial or professional, let alone in activities of private nature. However, continuous flow can deliver massive gains in quality, increased serenity, and cost reduction. It obviously requires a lot of planning, a lot of forward thinking, but the payoff can be gigantic.

The opposite of continuous flow is "chasing" items, that is, breaking your tasks abruptly or putting them on hold because you have to chase some missing item, some missing input or missing instruction. People who fail to think ahead will spend huge efforts chasing missing items. That's a complete waste of time, but one that cannot be removed through improvisation.

The more you chase, the more stressed you'll get, but are you willing to make the effort of organising your activities today, so that you will achieve continuous flow in the future? Imagine if you could perform your work each day without having to chase missing items. Imagine if you could cook your meals easily because you have all ingredients at hand. Or if you could always rely on your car because you have performed preventive maintenance at regular intervals.

I always tell people to start by removing the bottlenecks on their way because the improvements will be immediately noticeable. It will seem like magic. You just remove one bottleneck, and you'll enjoy the benefits right away. Working in batch form requires more time investment, and the improvements won't be visible so quickly, even if they prove large. However, if you do want to become highly productive in all areas, you should pursue a lifestyle of continuous flow. It will not only bring you better results, but also increased happiness.


Image: Photograph of ancient Egyptian painting. Photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2019.

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