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Productivity Made Simple: How to Keep Your Projects from Killing You

Productivity Made Simple: How to Keep Your Projects from Killing You

    Some projects can be a real pain in the you know what. Not all of them, of course. But there are some that just keep us awake at night. There can be many reasons of such a situation. Sometimes the tasks that need to be done are simply difficult to perform. Other times it’s the amount of time required that frightens us.

    But sometimes the most frightening thing of them all is that we don’t know what’s going on in a project, and can’t seem to find a way to plan everything out and get a clear picture of what needs to be done.

    In the previous parts of the series we were discussing what to do once everything is perfectly laid out. Once we’re clear about the exact tasks that need to be done, and once we even know when we want to take care of them. But there’s one part missing, and that’s of course the part of planning your projects and selecting your priorities.

    Most projects we decide to execute should be defined and planned according to five main steps. These are:

    1. Setting goals and rules.
    2. Defining your vision for the end result.
    3. Brainstorming.
    4. Organizing.
    5. Selecting next tasks.

    Of course, not every project requires such an elaborate sequence of steps. Some projects are really simple, and defining things like goals or visions would be a complete overkill.

    If you just want to get your car fixed then you don’t need any smart rules to be able to get it done … you probably know what needs to be done without any additional help.

    However, GTD was designed to be able to handle any kind of project, no matter how big or small.

    The steps mentioned above are doing just that. They can be applied to anything. And after you go through all of them you can be sure that your project will be clear and understandable. This, in the end, will improve your chance of executing the project successfully.

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    To explain this whole thing we’ll have to leave our simple examples and take on something a bit more complicated… So imagine that you’re buying a new apartment for you and your family.

    1. Setting goals and rules.

    This is the part where you answer the questions of why and what for.

    For our example the question is: Why do you want a new apartment?

    Some possible answers: you want to live closer to your workplace, you want your kids to live closer to school, you want to have more space for yourself and your family, you want to live in the city center because all the interesting things are happening there, you want a more modern environment, and so on.

    The reasons behind every project are of course different. Furthermore, personal projects are entirely different in nature from business-centered projects. But they still have a lot in common. If, for example, instead of buying a new apartment you’re starting a business then the question remains – why do you want to start a business?

    So no matter what you’re thinking of doing you always need to start with your goals and rules. Goals we have covered (it’s the why). Rules are even easier to grasp.

    Going back to our example; some rules: what is your budget? where do you want to live (what neighborhood)? do you want to get one room for everybody? do you need a garage? and so on.

    Once you have all these things lined up you can go to the next step.

    2. Defining your vision for the end result.

    This is where you’re answering the question of what.

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    Create a complete vision of what you want to get as the end result of the project. The more details the better.

    Your vision reflects the goals and rules you’ve set in the previous step. The goals are the main guidelines on what should and shouldn’t be done inside a given project. So now, you’re using these goals to come up with your vision for the final result of the project.

    A possible vision for our project:

    I want a 4 bedroom apartment in the city center. At least X square meters of space. Large kitchen. It must have a garage. The price should be less than X. Modern furniture.

    This sounds like a good vision. Of course there’s a lot more things we could include here, but for now it’ll do.

    The next step is to take this vision and do some brainstorming around it.

    3. Brainstorming.

    Brainstorming is probably the most creative activity for any project. You’ve been doing it many times, I’m sure. However, brainstorming has very little point when done prior to executing the two previous steps.

    A brainstorming session always has to be created around a strongly defined main idea, so we have some guidance and know where we’re going with it. And this is exactly what defining goals and vision gives us.

    The brainstorming session itself is a very simple thing to do. Essentially, it’s the answer to the question of how.

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    Some people like to set some restrictions, for example, time constraints. This is good if we’re working on a given project at work, and more than one person is doing the brainstorming. But if it’s just you then you can spend as much time as you want. Of course, within reason.

    Start by taking your goals and visions and placing them in a visible place. Then simply let your creative mind loose and write down every idea that comes to mind about the things you might do in the project. And I mean EVERY.

    This is not the time to assess the ideas and erase the bad ones. Not now. This is the time to write everything down, no matter how stupid it sounds at first.

    Our example: call the real estate agency, go to IKEA, hire a contractor, ask around and find out if it’s a good neighborhood or not, choose paint colors, get a full-size Elvis sculpture, get an internet connection, get a bank loan, hire a van, check all the installations (electricity, etc.), and so on. The list for such an example can go on and on, so we’ll just stop here.

    Once you reach a point when you can’t think of anything else it’s probably a good moment to stop brainstorming and go to the next step.

    4. Organizing.

    Yes, this is where you get to select the good ideas and remove the bad ones. Brainstorming should give you a lot of both.

    Why brainstorming and organizing at the same time is not the best choice? Because these activities are opposing to one another. On one hand you have to be creative and invent stuff, but on the other you have to get back to the ground and be reasonable while assessing it. Doing this at the same time simply doesn’t work. That’s why organizing is a separate step.

    The process is simple. Just look at your brainstorming list and remove everything that doesn’t have much to do with your goals and visions, or is simply stupid (like the Elvis sculpture … or is it?).

    Once you spend some time on looking through all those things your brain will automatically start to arrange things according to their priorities and what needs to be done first. You should use this state of mind and quickly shift to the final step.

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    5. Selecting next tasks.

    This is where our old friend – the Next Tasks List – comes back into play.

    At this point selecting the next task for your project should be easy. After the phase of organizing all ideas you should have a nice set of actionable things that are in tune with your goals and visions. Things that are absolutely crucial for implementing the project. Now, simply select your next task for the project.

    Everything you have at this point goes into your Projects List. And the next possible task goes to your Next Tasks List. From that point on you can go back to your usual work (GTD style). This is where everything ties together.

    What’s next?

    Basically, that’s it. All you have to do now is use the system to help you get more organized and execute your projects more effectively. Both in personal life and in business.

    Just to recap, and point you towards the specific parts in this series.

    I admit, there’s a lot to do if you want to have GTD fully implemented in your daily life. But would you rather be running around like a chicken with its head cut off because you don’t have a clue what to do next? Probably not.

    One final encouragement for you: if you think you don’t have time for playing around with such methodologies then suspend your disbelief for a moment and have a little trust because after you implement GTD you will find time for everything.

    Feel free to share how GTD is working for you. I’m curious to know. I, for example, have been using it since 2009 and it truly works like a charm.

    (Photo credit: Productivity or Motivation via Shutterstock)

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    Karol Krol

    Blogger, published author, and founder of a site that's all about delivering online business advice

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    Last Updated on January 6, 2021

    14 Ideas on How to Measure Productivity to Make Progress

    14 Ideas on How to Measure Productivity to Make Progress

    Everyone has heard the term productivity, and people talk about it in terms of how high it is and how to improve it. But fewer know how to measure productivity, or even what exactly we are talking about when using the term “productivity.”

    In its simplest form, the productivity formula looks like this: Output ÷ Input = Productivity.

    For example, you have two salespeople each making 10 calls to customers per week. The first one averages 2 sales per week and the second one averages 3 sales per week. By plugging in the numbers we get the following productivity levels for each sales person.

    For salesperson one, the output is 2 sales and the input is 10 sales: 2 ÷ 10 = .2 or 20% productivity. For salesperson two, the output is 3 sales and the input is 10 sales: 3 ÷ 10 = .3 or 30% productivity.

    Knowing how to measure and interpret productivity is an invaluable asset for any manager or business owner in today’s world. As an example, in the above scenario, salesperson #1 is clearly not doing as well as salesperson #2.

    Knowing this information we can now better determine what course of action to take with salesperson #1.

    Some possible outcomes might be to require more in-house training for that salesperson, or to have them accompany the more productive salesperson to learn a better technique. It might be that salesperson #1 just isn’t suited for sales and would do a better job in a different position.

    How to Measure Productivity With Management Techniques

    Knowing how to measure productivity allows you to fine tune your business by minimizing costs and maximizing profits:

    1. Identify Long and Short-Term Goals

    Having a good understanding of what you (or your company’s) goals are is key to measuring productivity.

    For example, if your company’s goal is to maximize market share, you’ll want to measure your team’s productivity by their ability to acquire new customers, not necessarily on actual sales made.

    2. Break Down Goals Into Smaller Weekly Objectives

    Your long-term goal might be to get 1,000 new customers in a year. That’s going to be 20 new customers per week. If you have 5 people on your team, then each one needs to bring in 4 new customers per week.

    Now that you’ve broken it down, you can track each person’s productivity week-by-week just by plugging in the numbers:

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    Productivity = number of new customers ÷ number of sales calls made

    3. Create a System

    Have you ever noticed that whenever you walk into a McDonald’s, the French fry machine is always to your left? 

    This is because McDonald’s created a system. They have determined that the most efficient way to set up a kitchen is to always have the French fry machine on the left when you walk in.

    You can do the same thing and just adapt it to your business.

    Let’s say that you know that your most productive salespeople are making the most sales between the hours of 3 and 7 pm. If the other salespeople are working from 9 am to 4 pm, you can potentially increase productivity through something as simple as adjusting the workday.

    Knowing how to measure productivity allows you to set up, monitor, and fine tune systems to maximize output.

    4. Evaluate, Evaluate, Evaluate!

    We’ve already touched on using these productivity numbers to evaluate and monitor your employees, but don’t forget to evaluate yourself using these same measurements.

    If you have set up a system to track and measure employees’ performance, but you’re still not meeting goals, it may be time to look at your management style. After all, your management is a big part of the input side of our equation.

    Are you more of a carrot or a stick type of manager? Maybe you can try being more of the opposite type to see if that changes productivity. Are you managing your employees as a group? Perhaps taking a more one-on-one approach would be a better way to utilize each individual’s strengths and weaknesses.

    Just remember that you and your management style contribute directly to your employees’ productivity.

    5. Use a Ratings Scale

    Having clear and concise objectives for individual employees is a crucial part of any attempt to increase workplace productivity. Once you have set the goals or objectives, it’s important that your employees are given regular feedback regarding their progress.

    Using a ratings scale is a good way to provide a standardized visual representation of progress. Using a scale of 1-5 or 1-10 is a good way to give clear and concise feedback on an individual basis.

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    It’s also a good way to track long-term progress and growth in areas that need improvement.

    6. Hire “Mystery Shoppers”

    This is especially helpful in retail operations where customer service is critical. A mystery shopper can give feedback based on what a typical customer is likely to experience.

    You can hire your own shopper, or there are firms that will provide them for you. No matter which route you choose, it’s important that the mystery shoppers have a standardized checklist for their evaluation.

    You can request evaluations for your employees friendliness, how long it took to greet the shopper, employees’ knowledge of the products or services, and just about anything else that’s important to a retail operation.

    7. Offer Feedback Forms

    Using a feedback form is a great way to get direct input from existing customers. There are just a couple of things to keep in mind when using feedback forms.

    First, keep the form short, 2-3 questions max with a space for any additional comments. Asking people to fill out a long form with lots of questions will significantly reduce the amount of information you receive.

    Secondly, be aware that customers are much more likely to submit feedback forms when they are unhappy or have a complaint than when they are satisfied.

    You can offset this tendency by asking everyone to take the survey at the end of their interaction. This will increase compliance and give you a broader range of customer experiences, which will help as you’re learning how to measure productivity.

    8. Track Cost Effectiveness

    This is a great metric to have, especially if your employees have some discretion over their budgets. You can track how much each person spends and how they spend it against their productivity.

    Again, this one is easy to plug into the equation: Productivity = amount of money brought in ÷ amount of money spent.

    Having this information is very useful in forecasting expenses and estimating budgets.

    9. Use Self-Evaluations

    Asking your staff to do self evaluations can be a win-win for everyone. Studies have shown that when employees feel that they are involved and their input is taken seriously, morale improves. And as we all know, high employee morale translates into higher productivity.

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    Using self-evaluations is also a good way to make sure that the employees and employers goals are in alignment.

    10. Monitor Time Management

    This is the number one killer of productivity in the workplace. Time spent browsing the internet, playing games, checking email, and making personal calls all contribute to lower productivity[1].

    Time Management Tips to Improve Productivity

      The trick is to limit these activities without becoming overbearing and affecting morale. Studies have shown that most people will adhere to rules that they feel are fair and applied to everyone equally.

      While ideally, we may think that none of these activities should be done on company time, employees will almost certainly have a different opinion. From a productivity standpoint, it is best to have policies and rules that are seen as fair to both sides as you’re learning how to measure productivity.

      11. Analyze New Customer Acquisition

      We’ve all heard the phrase that “It’s more expensive to get a new customer than it is to keep an existing one.” And while that is very true, in order for your business to keep growing, you will need to continually add new customers.

      Knowing how to measure productivity via new customer acquisition will make sure that your marketing dollars are being spent in the most efficient way possible. This is another metric that’s easy to plug into the formula: Productivity = number of new customers ÷ amount of money spent to acquire those customers.

      For example, if you run any kind of advertising campaign, you can compare results and base your future spending accordingly.

      Let’s say that your total advertising budget is $3,000. You put $2,000 into television ads, $700 into radio ads, and $300 into print ads. When you track the results, you find that your television ad produced 50 new customers, your radio ad produced 15 new customers, and your print ad produced 9 new customers.

      Let’s plug those numbers into our equation. Television produced 50 new customers at a cost of $2,000 (50 ÷ 2000 = .025, or a productivity rate of 2.5%). The radio ads produced 15 new customers and cost $700 (15 ÷ 700 = .022, or a 2.2% productivity rate). Print ads brought in 9 new customers and cost $300 (9 ÷ 300 = .03, or a 3% return on productivity).

      From this analysis, it is clear that you would be getting the biggest bang for your advertising dollar using print ads.

      12. Utilize Peer Feedback

      This is especially useful when people who work in teams or groups. While self-assessments can be very useful, the average person is notoriously bad at assessing their own abilities.

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      Just ask a room full of people how many consider themselves to be an above average driver and you’ll see 70% of the hands go up[2]! Now we clearly know that in reality about 25% of drivers are below average, 25% are above average, and 50% are average.

      Are all these people lying? No, they just don’t have an accurate assessment of their own abilities.

      It’s the same in the workplace. Using peer feedback will often provide a more accurate assessment of a person’s ability than a self-assessment would.

      13. Encourage Innovation and Don’t Penalize Failure

      When it comes to productivity, encouraging employee input and adopting their ideas can be a great way to boost productivity. Just make sure that any changes you adopt translate into higher productivity.

      Let’s say that someone comes to you requesting an entertainment budget so that they can take potential customers golfing or out to dinner. By utilizing simple productivity metrics, you can easily produce a cost benefit analysis and either expand the program to the rest of the sales team, or terminate it completely.

      Either way, you have gained valuable knowledge and boosted morale by including employees in the decision-making process.

      14. Use an External Evaluator

      Using an external evaluator is the pinnacle of objective evaluations. Firms that provide professional evaluations use highly trained personnel that even specialize in specific industries.

      They will design a complete analysis of your business’ productivity level. In their final report, they will offer suggestions and recommendations on how to improve productivity.

      While the benefits of a professional evaluation are many, their costs make them prohibitive for most businesses.

      Final Thoughts

      These are just a few of the things you can do when learning how to measure productivity. Some may work for your particular situation, and some may not.

      The most important thing to remember when deciding how to track productivity is to choose a method consistent with your goals. Once you’ve decided on that, it’s just a matter of continuously monitoring your progress, making minor adjustments, and analyzing the results of those adjustments.

      The business world is changing fast, and having the right tools to track and monitor your productivity can give you the edge over your competition.

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      Featured photo credit: William Iven via unsplash.com

      Reference

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