Topic: Personal productivity article

Date: 9-7-2000


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10 ways to get more done in less time


by Robert W. Bly


                 “I am always quarreling with time! It is so short to do something and so long to do nothing.”

                 --Queen Charlotte



The ability to work faster and get more done in less time isn’t slavery; it’s freedom. You’re going to have the same big pile of stuff to do every day whether you want it or not. If you can be more efficient, you can get it done and still have some time left over for yourself – whether it’s to read the paper, hike, jog, or play the piano.


                 Here are 10 ideas that can increase your personal productivity so you can get more done in less time:


1.                            Master your PC. Every engineer or manager who wants to be more productive should use a modern PC with the latest software. Doing so can double, triple, or even quadruple your output.


Install on your PC the same software as your colleagues, other departments within your organization, vendors, and business partners use. The broader the range of your software, the more easily you can open and read files from other sources.


Constantly upgrade your desktop to eliminate too-slow computer processes that waste your time, such as slow downloading of files or Web pages. If you use the Internet a lot, get the fastest access you can. DSL is getting cheaper by the month and is well worth the money at its current price levels.


2. Don’t be a perfectionist. “I’m a non-perfectionist,” said Isaac Asimov, author of 475 books. “I don’t look back in regret or worry at what I have written.” Be a careful worker, but don’t agonize over your work beyond the point where the extra effort no longer produces a proportionately worthwhile improvement in your final product.


Be excellent but not perfect. Customers do not have the time or budget for perfection; for most projects, getting 95 to 98 percent of the way to perfection is good enough. That doesn't mean you deliberately make errors or give less than your best. It means you stop polishing and fiddling with the job when it looks good to you -- and you don't agonize over the fact you're not spending another hundred hours on it. Create it, check it, then let it go.


Understand the exponential curve of excellence. Quality improves with effort according to an exponential curve. That means early effort yields the biggest results; subsequent efforts yield smaller and smaller improvements, until eventually the miniscule return is not worth the effort. Productive people stop at the point where the investment in further effort on a task is no longer justified by the tiny incremental improvement it would produce. Aim for 100 percent perfection, and you are unlikely to be productive or profitable. Consistently hit within the 90 to 98 percent range, and you will maximize both customer satisfaction as well as return on your time investment.


“Perfection does not exist,” wrote Alfred De Musset. “To understand this is the triumph of human intelligence; to expect to possess it is the most dangerous kind of madness.”


3. Free yourself from the pressure to be an innovator. As publisher Cameron Foote observes, “Clients are looking for good, not great.” Do the best you can to meet the client’s or your boss’s requirements. They will be happy. Do not feel pressured to reinvent the wheel or create a masterpiece on every project you take on. Don't be held up by the false notion that you must uncover some great truth or present your boss with revolutionary ideas and concepts. Most successful business solutions are just common sense packaged to meet a specific need.


Eliminate performance pressure. Don't worry about whether what you are doing is different or better than what others have done before you. Just do the best you can. That will be enough.


4. Switch back and forth between different tasks. Even if you consider yourself a specialist, do projects outside your specialty. Inject variety into your project schedule. Arrange your daily schedule so you switch off from one assignment to another at least once or twice each day. Variety, as the saying goes, is indeed the spice of life.            


Approximately 70 to 90 percent of what I am doing at any time is in familiar tasks within my area of expertise. This keeps me highly productive. The other 10 to 30 percent is in new areas, markets, industries, or disciplines outside my area of expertise. This keeps me fresh and allows me to explore things that captivate my imagination but are not in my usual schedule of assignments.


5. Don’t waste time working on projects you don’t have yet. Get letters of agreement, contracts, purchase orders, and budget sign-offs before proceeding. Don’t waste time starting the work for projects that may not come to fruition. An official approval or go-ahead from your boss or customer makes the project real and firm, so you can proceed at full speed, with the confidence and enthusiasm that come from knowing you have been given the green light.


6. Make deadlines firm but adequate. Of 150 executives surveyed by AccounTemps, 37% rated the dependable meeting of deadlines as the most important quality of a team player (cited in Continental magazine, October 1997, page 44).


Productive people set and meet deadlines. Without a deadline, the motivation to do a task is small to nonexistent. Tasks without assigned deadlines automatically go to the bottom of your priority list. After all, if you have two reports to file – and one is due a week from Thursday, and the other due “whenever you can get around to it” – which do you suppose will get written first?


Often you will collaborate with your supervisor or customer in determining deadlines. Set deadlines for a specific date and time, not a time period. For example, “due June 23 by 3 pm or sooner,” not “in about two weeks.” Having a specific date and time for completion eliminates confusion and gives you motivation to get the work done on time.


At the same time, don’t make deadlines too tight. Try to build in a few extra days for the unexpected, such as a missing piece of information, a delay from a subcontractor, a last-minute change, or a crisis on another project.


7. Protect and value your time. Productive people guard their time more heavily than the gold in Fort Knox. They don’t waste time. They get right to the point. They may come off as abrupt or dismissive to some people. But they realize they cannot give everyone who contacts them all the time each person wants. They choose who they spend time on and with. They make decisions. They say what needs to be said, do what needs to be done – and then move on.


Assign a dollar value to your time. If you work 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, that comes to 2,000 hours a year. To calculate your hourly rate, divide your salary by 2,000. Example: $75,000 annual salary divided by 2,000 hours comes to $37.50 an hour.


A productive person can tell you in an instant the worth of his or her time, because he’s already done this calculation and committed the answer to memory. Productive people weigh the effort required for specific activities – and the return it will produce – against the cost of the time based on the dollar value of their hour.


For instance, if my time is worth $37.50, and I spend an hour driving to a discount store to save $10 on supplies, I have not used my time wisely -- I am $27.50 in the hole. On the other hand, if I saved $1,000 on a new computer for the same trip, it obviously was worth the time.


8. Stay focused. As Robert Ringer observed in his best-selling book Looking Out for Number One, successful people apply themselves to the task at hand. They work until the work gets done. They concentrate on one or two things at a time. They don’t go in a hundred different directions. My experience is that people who are big talkers – constantly spouting ideas or proposing deals and ventures – are spread out in too many different directions to be effective. Efficient people have a vision and focus their activities to achieve that vision.


9. Set a production goal. Stephen King writes 1,500 words every day except his birthday, Christmas, and the Fourth of July. Steinway makes 800 pianos in its German plant every year.


Workers and organizations that want to meet deadlines and be successful set a production goal and make it. An individual who truly wants to be productive sets a production goal, meets it, and then keeps going until he or she can do no more -- or runs out of time -- for the day.


Joe Lansdale, author of Bad Chili and many other novels, says he never misses his productivity goal of writing three pages a day, five days a week. “I’m not in the mood, I don’t feel like it, what kind of an excuse is that?” Lansdale said in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly (September 29, 1997). “If I’m not in the mood, do I not go to the chicken plant if I’ve got a job in the chicken plant?”


10. Do work you enjoy. In advising people on choosing their life’s work, David Ogilvy, founder of the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, quotes a Scottish proverb that says, “Be happy while you’re living; for you’re a long time dead.” The Tao Te Ching says, “In work, do what you enjoy.”


When you enjoy your work, it really isn’t work. To me, success is being able to make a good living while spending the workday in pleasurable tasks. You won’t love every project equally, of course. But try to balance “must-do” mandatory tasks with things that are more fun for you. Seek assignments that are exciting, interesting, and fulfilling.


Can you train yourself to like work better and enjoy it more? Motivational experts say we do have the ability to change our attitudes and behavior. “Attitude is a trap or it is freedom. Create your own,” writes Judy Crookes in Inner Realm magazine.


“Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans,” advised Max Ehrmann in his 1927 essay “Desiderata.” “Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.”


About the author:


Bob Bly is the director of the Center for Technical Communication (phone 201-385-1220; fax 201-385-1138; e-mail, a Dumont, NJ-based consulting firm that helps engineers, managers, and other corporate employees improve their communication and interpersonal skills. Bob has presented seminars for numerous clients including Foxboro, IBM, Cardiac Pacemakers, Metrum Instrumentation, Medical Economics, U.S. Army,  Arco Chemical, and Thoroughbred Software. He has written more than 100 articles and 45 books including 101 Ways to Make Every Second Count  (Career Press).