Being able to achieve more with our time has always been a strong focus in our business. We've spent a lot of time and trial and error working out the best system to help our team produce better work in less time, with fewer resources.
In a two-part article, we're going to take a dive into the productivity hacking techniques and processes we've spent time honing and finely tuning to help us maximise our output whilst maintaining our quality. They work for us and they can work for you too!
Why all the fuss with productivity?
There are a lot of people talking about productivity these days, what it is and how to improve it. But what does it really mean to be productive and why should it be an important focus for you in your day to day business?
When we talk about productivity, we really mean, quite simply, maximising the results - i.e. work we get done - from the effort involved; basically, getting more stuff done in less time.
Before we can look at ways to achieve better productivity, however, we need to fully understand what it means to be unproductive and its impact.
Unproductive doesn't mean lazy
When you think of someone being 'unproductive', it usually carries an image of them sat twiddling their thumbs, looking out the window and not really working very hard. In reality, some of the most unproductive people I know are the busiest, most hard-working and time-generous people you'll ever encounter.
The problem is, they are simply not employing an effective strategy to manage their workload and it's got out of balance. This holds true for many individuals across a company team and has a cumulative effect of making a business reactive instead of proactive.
From a business point of view, taking on too much, switching attention between too many tasks (or trying to remember what tasks you have to do in the first place!) or simply running around attempting to cover all bases, ultimately means you'll actually achieve fewer of your business goals in the long run.
Does that sound familiar so far? It certainly does to me when I think back to starting out in business...
Introducing the 3 T's of superior productivity
When it came to hitting our business goals and delivering client work, we started to notice just how much time we spent running around but not really getting anywhere, or at least gaining ground but slipping back again. Then I came across a great method for boosting productivity that President Eisenhower used and this started a fire under us.
The Eisenhower Productivity Matrix (which sounds as fancy as pie) consists of looking at a given task, request, work item, and so on, and asking if it is urgent or important. Depending on the choice or combination of urgency and importance, you have a set of four options to handle the task:
- Deal with it
- Defer it
- Delegate it
- Or decline it, which helps you prioritise your work if nothing else.
Building on the Eisenhower Matrix and determined to improve the way we worked and get us back on track as a company, we developed our own system of looking at our individual workloads and running them past a three-part screen to see what aspects we could change, improve, reduce, or delegate.
This screen consists of three parts: time, team, and tools.
The first screen or filter is time. When faced with a request or particular task, start by asking yourself a few time-related questions:
- Do I have time to do this?
- What time do I have and what can I reasonably accomplish in this time?
- Can I afford to give up this time right now or can it be done later?
- Could my time be better spent elsewhere or on something else?
- If it's a meeting, can I/we achieve the same results in a 30 min meeting as the scheduled 60 min one?
By looking at the combination of what you need to accomplish and how much time you have available, you can start to devote more time to things that are more important and less time to unimportant or more trivial tasks.
Everyone has access to a team in business. For larger companies this is likely to be your staff. For solo business owners or micro businesses, this might be associates or outsourced partners.
Either way, the next screen to run your work past is the Team screen. In this screen, you want to ask another set of questions such as these:
- Is there someone who could help me with this?
- Could someone else do a better job of this, especially in less time?
- Does another team or department have more ownership of this than me?
- Despite a potential cost, can I actually gain some time by outsourcing this work?
Time is a valuable commodity, so even if you've passed the first screen and have time to tackle the work in question, if there's someone who can help with it (i.e. complete the work faster), or who you can delegate it to, then do it - you've just bought yourself more time!
For certain things, you might have to link Team in with Time. For example, bookkeeping and running a Payroll is hugely important so you need to make time for it. However, you might find that it's not worth dedicating your time to when you can outsource this to professional accountants who will be able to do a better job for you in less time - giving you more time back to get on with something that moves your business forward.
Finally, we come to Tools. We've never lived in such a golden age in terms of the sheer range of applications and tools out there to help with productivity. From phone apps to cloud-based software, no matter what your problem or niche, there will exist a decent solution out there for you.
Take a look at what it is you're trying to achieve or where your biggest challenges lie and research a solution that fits your budget and needs.
For example, if you're stuck in a world of post-it notes or badly organised diaries, an online task management application, like Asana, will transform your working life. If you're team is struggling to communicate effectively and stay on the same page, then there are lots of collaboration tools to help bring teams together and push work forward.
When looking to introduce a tool, take a look at if it will help you in the long run. Depending on your experience, there is likely to be a learning curve to both physically use the tool and integrate it into your company and way of working. This will be worth, however, it if it helps reduce your workload or improves some business aspect in the longer term.
Productivity hacking - using the 3 T screen in the real world
Here is an example of how to apply the 3 T's screening process to a common real-life scenario:
You're scheduled into a weekly progress meeting with your team each Friday morning for 1 hour. An agenda is circulated using a shared MS Word the day before and people are invited to add to the document and forward it on via email.
Obviously, giving up 1 hour each Friday has a big impact on your workload for that day. An hour rarely stays one hour and there is the time beforehand arriving at the meeting, then wrapping it up and getting back into your daily tasks. Add to this the editing and emailing of an agenda document multiple times and your productivity is hampered.
So, applying the 3 T's screen to this:
How important is the progress meeting compared to the time involved in making it happen? Could you skip the meetings and simply catch up on the major points via an email afterwards? If it's an important event you can't miss, then could it be reduced to 20-30 minutes by keeping it brief and to the point? Could it be moved to every two weeks and still have the same results?
Iis there someone else who could attend this meeting in your place, or with whom you can alternative attendance, another manager for instance? This isn't about passing the buck, but about leveraging people better positioned to deal with the task in hand. Another thing to improve could be to delegate a single person as responsible for compiling the agenda. They could gather feedback and agenda items before distributing a single, final document before the meeting.
An obvious part of this scenario to improve straight away would be the passing back and forth of a Word document via email. This could be replaced by a collaborative document on a service like Quip, or Google Docs where people can edit it at their convenience and leave comments and actions for other team members. Using the Team screen example again, team members could also forward their agenda items to the designated single point of contact, which eliminates the back and forth aspect. Eliminating unnecessary emails is a huge part of becoming more productive
Don't forget about the power of the word 'no'
The 3 T's are a great way to start adding some sort of flow and structure to your work stream, but you shouldn't underestimate the power of simply saying 'no'. This doesn't have to be harsh or brusk, but simply declining an invitation or turning down a particular task or meeting can work wonders for your productivity.
Don't become a busy fool! Taking on too much at once can only lead to bad things: either your work will suffer (quality, level of output, etc.), or your personal life will (health, relationships, and such).
Look out for part 2 on our productivity hacking series
We've looked at three great methods to route work into a manageable flow for you and your team mates and staff. In part two, we'll be investigating another angle that builds on the 3 T's, the three states of productivity: Can, Want and Have.