Famed investors Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger found out, success in investing is more about avoiding losers, than finding winners aka “the inversion principle.” Productivity often follows a similar pattern.
Asking how to “become more productive” can produce a virtually endless list of answers. With no clear direction, cue feelings of overwhelm leading to procrastination.
Reverse the problem.
Instead of asking, “How can I increase my productivity”, ask, “What is causing me to be unproductive?”
While you can probably quickly generate a mental list of answers, that question on its own still leaves confusion for exact next steps. Again, lack of clarity often leads to procrastination.
Enter the following 5 questions. By taking just 5-10 minutes to answer them, it helps you clearly identify the roadblocks in your path causing you to be unproductive and formulate a precise plan to eliminate them:
- What are you trying to improve?
- What is your current process for what you are trying to improve?
- Where are the biggest bottlenecks in your process?
- What could you do to eliminate or improve the bottlenecks?
- What ONE bottleneck will you focus on eliminating/improving this week and how specifically will you implement it?
Gaining even one hour back per week by eliminating a productivity roadblock gives you 52 additional hours per year! The significance of that can’t be overstated. And if you are being honest with yourself, in time, you can probably gain back more than just one hour per week by repeating this process.
With that said, let’s deconstruct the 5 questions:
1. What are you trying to improve?
Becoming more productive begins with stating what you are comparing against, logging what your current baseline of output is.
This includes specifics such as:
- Example #1: In 10 hours, I turned out 1 article.
- Example #2: I spent 10 hours this week checking emails.
- Example: #3: I spent 5 hours in meetings.
In short, it usually follows this pattern: “In X amount of time, Y happened.”
With this baseline level of productivity established, you can then hone in on how you can improve your efficiency, either output wise or time wise.
2. What is your current process for what you are trying to improve?
With your baseline established, what is your process for accomplishing your current results?
With Example #1: “In 10 hours, I turned out 1 article”, this means detailing things like:
How do you come up with ideas? I usually will spend 30 minutes to an hour trying to generate ideas off the top of my head.
Do you just start writing or begin with an outline? I will just start writing the article without an outline
When do you write? It depends. Sometimes in the morning. Sometimes in the afternoon. No consistency here.
Do you get distracted when you write? If so, how and when? When I need to cite research, I often get pulled down a wikipedia rabbit hole.
With Example #2: “I spent 10 hours this week checking emails.”, it may be more descriptive, such as, “I check my emails randomly throughout the day whenever they come in.”
With Example #3: “I spent 5 hours in meetings.,” it may be “my manager plans a 1 hour meeting everyday that pulls me away from my work and it takes me some time to get back into it.”
3. What is causing the biggest bottlenecks in your process?
Here is where, based on your “process answer” to #2, you write down all the perceived ways your productivity is being slowed. This list will probably look similar to #2 above, but with all the positive, productive parts of your process stripped out, thus leaving only the bottlenecks.
With the article writing process, the bottlenecks may be:
You lack a idea generating process.
- Not having an outline causes your mind to wander and it takes you longer to get underway.
- Not having a consistent writing place and time causes inconsistent results. Researching while writing causes you to get distracted.
- Lack of impact*
*Producing more articles or reducing time writing articles may not be goal #1 but having greater “impact” may be what is desired. In this case, you would define what impact means, i.e. “getting more traffic”, “getting more sales,” “getting featured on a prominent blog” and deconstructing what you are currently doing (or not doing) to achieve your “impact” goal.
With “checking emails” too much, the bottlenecks may be:
- You check emails every time they come in.
- Your belief that you need to check emails/respond right way.
With too much meeting time, the bottlenecks may be:
- Meetings have no clear agenda.
- You do not have a clear plan how to mentally resume work after a meeting.
- The team is too afraid to speak up about the lack of productivity of the meeting.
4. What could you do to eliminate or improve the bottlenecks?
Based on your answers to #3, what could you do to address them. Try to be specific but you will get even more detailed as you move onto question #5.
In many cases, this step will be fairly obvious as it involves taking your answers from #3 and reversing them.
With the article writing process, it may be that:
- You have no idea generating process ---> Develop an idea generating process.
- No outline ---> Create an outline before writing.
With “checking emails” too much:
- You check emails every time they come in ---> Batch emails at 3 set times per day.
- Your belief that you need to check emails right way ---> Set an appointment with your manager to confirm or deny this expectation.
With too much meeting time, it may be that:
- Meetings have no clear agenda ---> Work with your manager to set agenda (being mindful of making them look good too).
- No plan after meeting to get back to work ---> Create a “mental refresh” plan
If you get stuck here, someone before you has figured out how to remove friction. Google possible solutions and add them to your list.
5. What ONE thing of the above list will you focus on eliminating/improving this week and how specifically will you implement it?
If you have trouble choosing, don’t fret. Just pick one and move on.
Ideally you would choose the one thing causing the most loss in productivity. In reality, picking any bottleneck is better than waiting to eliminate the “most difficult” problem. Eliminating any problem is beneficial and like dating the idea of “the one” is more fantasy than reality. You will be repeating this process and (hopefully) eliminate almost all the bottlenecks as time goes on.
Once you decide on your bottleneck to eliminate for the week, get hyper specific on plans to take action. When will you do it? (the sooner the better). Where? What do you need to get started?
Once you've identified your solution, plug this into your planning system (you have one right?). This becomes your most important task of the week.
After running through steps 1-5, the last step is to evaluate your results. What happened? What went well? What do you need to improve upon?
Then it is back to the beginning and the process starts a new.