Sunday, February 24, 2008

Productivity and Efficiency

The topics of productivity and efficiency are near and dear to the hearts of many overachievers. We're constantly looking to do things "better, cheaper, faster" in both our professional and personal lives. In the last month, organization and personal productivity thoughts began hitting me from all sides.

It started when I picked up a copy of Timothy Ferriss' book, "The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich," as part of my monthly pleasure reading. His creative and envelope-pushing ideas on how to get more done, and the suggestions for how to live an idyllic 4-hour workweek, had me quickly join the ranks of his cult-ish following. I've recommended it now to a number of people who would love the idea of personal outsourcing, creating hands-off revenue streams, and traveling the world in search of more life.

Then a friend, and fellow Balanced Scorecard believer, came over to visit with a copy of David Allen's "Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity." While it's VERY different from Ferriss' book, it offers some great ideas on how to manage your mental and physical inboxes; it teaches tools to help triage the information and task overload that we all deal with.

At the same time, I was reading the "The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It," by Michael Gerber, which offers an effectiveness methodology for small business owners. By analyzing the business in terms of workflows and trying to systematize the process, we can get more done without the stress that comes from having to switch hats frequently throughout the day.

Then at the gym on Friday, I was doing the elliptical machine and flipping through the DIY magazine Ready Made and came across an article on the "new crop of organizational gurus." It was a short article, but it did a great job of summing up the new (but old) trend of productivity preachers and pundits. The article helped me group these books together in my mind and that alone made me feel more organized.

From the Ready Made article:
The inquisition of inefficiency breeds new gurus and inventions in every era. During the 1980s, Steven R. Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was the bible, and must-have trappings included overstuffed Filofaxes, Rolodexes, and Franklin Day Planners. In the 1990s the Container Store - which now brings in revenues of $491 million - expanded nationwide. In 1999, the BlackBerry debuted, combining a phone with 24/7 access to email. It quickly earned the nickname CrackBerry, as it became the addiction choice for knowledge workers and their unhappy assistants everywhere.

The 2001 publication of David Allen's Getting Things Done kicked off the Internet Age cult of productivity. As the speed of work and volume of messages increased a zillionfold, workers needed new ways to cope with information overload. Allen's book promised that and more, by itemizing a complex, hyper-controlled, geek-friendly system for managing attention, ideas, and tasks. There are now 600,000 copies in print, and Getting Things Done has been embraced by such companies as Google and Sony. It also spawned an entire movement known as "lifehacking," a system of tips and tweaks to engineer your life to work better. Today, Lifehacker ( ranks the #6 blog on the Web."

It's interesting that the productivity and efficiency question has been around for a while, and every decade gurus take a different swing at it to include the newest antidotes for the latest overload. (I wonder what the productivity pundits would say about the fact that I just hand-typed that entire excerpt because it wasn't available online.)

While there is a lot of advice out there, it seems like there isn't a hard-and-fast solution to this pervasive "overload" problem. Maybe it's because individuals are unique in how they feel most productive, and each person's approach is customized to their situation. Or maybe it's because we're just doing so much in our lives and find it justifiably overwhelming at times.

I think that the real reason we keep bumping into this issue is that we continually push ourselves to greater heights. The moment we become more efficient, we decide to take on more. Ah, the classic pattern of an overachiever!

  • Do you have any productivity or efficiency suggestions that work for you?
  • What tricks or tools do you use to remain productive and efficient?


runningfor3 said...

Break up tasks and assign them to different days so that your one long to-do list is not too overwhelming.

RGL said...

I’ve often thought about business methodologies (balanced scorecard, six sigma, etc.) and why it’s so hard for them to catch on. I think the key is that it takes an energetic leader to champion and support these ideas within an organization (someone who is influential or connected is helpful too!). This leader builds the strength and works hard to get it going.

But when you start talking about personal productivity, it’s difficult to be your own champion, providing energy and inspiration to stick with a program. I think in both cases (business and personal), getting started is the hardest part, but once you have momentum (and some quick wins) it gets easier for the methodology to stick.

Anonymous said...

Methodologies are only as good as the people or companies who use them. The “pundits” who come up with them are really just people who have thought about these things for a while and have come up with a system that works well for them. Then they take their show on the road as consultants and build up credibility and a following. Then they write a book on their personal experience and that of their clients, to generate that passive revenue stream that allows them to travel the world (like the 4 Hour Workweek guy is doing!). I enjoy reading these types of books, but can’t help wondering if I should make a book of my own “isms” and get rich quick!

Hoop said...

I am a huge to-do-lister! I love checking things off, and it helps me be more productive because I'm motivated to see the number of to-dos left start to dwindle. I like the idea posted above about assigning tasks to different days too, because it makes everything seem more manageable.

I also like the concept of batching, which helps with efficiency. I definitely apply this concept for laundry! There's a good post on it here:

Eric said...

Not watching TV. Making lists helps too.