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How to Be More Efficient at Work in 3 Steps

How to Be More Efficient at Work in 3 Steps

Since the Great Recession, many professionals have been facing more challenging schedules and more daunting to-do lists. This makes it all the more important for professionals to be able to get their work done quickly and effectively. Here are the three steps that I consider most critical to be efficient at work.

1. Establish your priorities

The first step might be the most important. You should take some time to literally write down a ranking of your major goals and tasks—for the next year and for the next week. As I have written previously, don’t just think about the supply side: what you’re good at and what you like to do. Also consider the demand side: what the world, your organization, or your boss needs most from you.

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(Here’s a great Lifehack article that can help you set your goals).

2. Clear away your low priorities

When you write down your goals, you’re likely to find a multitude of small tasks that need to get done, but really aren’t that important. Tasks like these might include writing a status report, attending a routine meeting, or responding to a slew of emails. If you’re not careful, these low-priority assignments can take up your entire day—leaving you with no time to deal with your higher-priority goals.

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The best way to clear your docket of low-priority tasks is to avoid having to do them at all. If you can graciously bow out of attending a boring meeting, do it! If you can decline an assignment by explaining your impending deadlines, great! One less unimportant task for you to do.

Of course, you can’t decline every small task. However, you should recognize that very few of these small tasks need to be perfect. You don’t have to agonize about the phrasing of every email. You don’t have to spend hours perfecting the formatting of every internal report. For a lot of your low-priority tasks, “B+” is good enough.

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Along the same lines, you should be quick to delegate tasks like these to any employees that you manage—even if there’s a chance that the result won’t be “perfect.” You still need to put in the hard work of establishing goals and metrics for the project, occasionally checking in, and offering feedback. But you can avoid the time-consuming process of actually doing the entire project yourself—giving you more time to spend on your higher-priority goals.

3. Start at the end

For your higher priority goals, you obviously need to make a strong effort to create top-notch results. However, in my experience, many professionals could still achieve these results more efficiently.

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As a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, I sometimes assign complex research projects to students or research assistants. Quite often, their first step is to spend days or weeks gathering facts about everything and anything related to the topic. After these days or weeks, they sit down, look at the information that they have gathered, and try to make sense of it all. Although they’ve certainly learned quite a lot of information, how much of it is relevant to the underlying research question? Not much.

Here’s a better approach. After a day (at most!) of basic research, try to establish some tentative conclusions for the project. That way, you have to quickly think about the issues most central to the project—allowing you to focus the rest of your research.

Of course, your tentative conclusions may turn out to be wrong. And if you don’t realize the error of your ways until the end of your project, you will have wasted a lot of time. So I advocate making a “mid-flight check”: around halfway of your project, take another close look at the evidence that you’ve discovered to see whether your conclusions need to be revised or even scrapped completely.

Featured photo credit: Abstract green clock via Shutterstock

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The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

It’s a depressing adage we’ve all heard time and time again: An increase in technology does not necessarily translate to an increase in productivity.

Put another way by Robert Solow, a Nobel laureate in economics,

“You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

In other words, just because our computers are getting faster, that doesn’t mean that that we will have an equivalent leap in productivity. In fact, the opposite may be true!

New York Times writer Matt Richel wrote in an article for the paper back in 2008 that stated, “Statistical and anecdotal evidence mounts that the same technology tools that have led to improvements in productivity can be counterproductive if overused.”

There’s a strange paradox when it comes to productivity. Rather than an exponential curve, our productivity will eventually reach a plateau, even with advances in technology.

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So what does that mean for our personal levels of productivity? And what does this mean for our economy as a whole? Here’s what you should know about the productivity paradox, its causes, and what possible solutions we may have to combat it.

What is the productivity paradox?

There is a discrepancy between the investment in IT growth and the national level of productivity and productive output. The term “productivity paradox” became popularized after being used in the title of a 1993 paper by MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson, a Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and the Director of the MIT Center for Digital Business.

In his paper, Brynjolfsson argued that while there doesn’t seem to be a direct, measurable correlation between improvements in IT and improvements in output, this might be more of a reflection on how productive output is measured and tracked.[1]

He wrote in his conclusion:

“Intangibles such as better responsiveness to customers and increased coordination with suppliers do not always increase the amount or even intrinsic quality of output, but they do help make sure it arrives at the right time, at the right place, with the right attributes for each customer.

Just as managers look beyond “productivity” for some of the benefits of IT, so must researchers be prepared to look beyond conventional productivity measurement techniques.”

How do we measure productivity anyway?

And this brings up a good point. How exactly is productivity measured?

In the case of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity gain is measured as the percentage change in gross domestic product per hour of labor.

But other publications such as US Today, argue that this is not the best way to track productivity, and instead use something called Total Factor Productivity (TFP). According to US Today, TFP “examines revenue per employee after subtracting productivity improvements that result from increases in capital assets, under the assumption that an investment in modern plants, equipment and technology automatically improves productivity.”[2]

In other words, this method weighs productivity changes by how much improvement there is since the last time productivity stats were gathered.

But if we can’t even agree on the best way to track productivity, then how can we know for certain if we’ve entered the productivity paradox?

Possible causes of the productivity paradox

Brynjolfsson argued that there are four probable causes for the paradox:

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  • Mis-measurement – The gains are real but our current measures miss them.
  • Redistribution – There are private gains, but they come at the expense of other firms and individuals, leaving little net gain.
  • Time lags – The gains take a long time to show up.
  • Mismanagement – There are no gains because of the unusual difficulties in managing IT or information itself.

There seems to be some evidence to support the mis-measurement theory as shown above. Another promising candidate is the time lag, which is supported by the work of Paul David, an economist at Oxford University.

According to an article in The Economist, his research has shown that productivity growth did not accelerate until 40 years after the introduction of electric power in the early 1880s.[3] This was partly because it took until 1920 for at least half of American industrial machinery to be powered by electricity.”

Therefore, he argues, we won’t see major leaps in productivity until both the US and major global powers have all reached at least a 50% penetration rate for computer use. The US only hit that mark a decade ago, and many other countries are far behind that level of growth.

The paradox and the recession

The productivity paradox has another effect on the recession economy. According to Neil Irwin,[4]

“Sky-high productivity has meant that business output has barely declined, making it less necessary to hire back laid-off workers…businesses are producing only 3 percent fewer goods and services than they were at the end of 2007, yet Americans are working nearly 10 percent fewer hours because of a mix of layoffs and cutbacks in the workweek.”

This means that more and more companies are trying to do less with more, and that means squeezing two or three people’s worth of work from a single employee in some cases.

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According to Irwin, “workers, frightened for their job security, squeezed more productivity out of every hour [in 2010].”

Looking forward

A recent article on Slate puts it all into perspective with one succinct observation:

“Perhaps the Internet is just not as revolutionary as we think it is. Sure, people might derive endless pleasure from it—its tendency to improve people’s quality of life is undeniable. And sure, it might have revolutionized how we find, buy, and sell goods and services. But that still does not necessarily mean it is as transformative of an economy as, say, railroads were.”

Still, Brynjolfsson argues that mismeasurement of productivity can really skew the results of people studying the paradox, perhaps more than any other factor.

“Because you and I stopped buying CDs, the music industry has shrunk, according to revenues and GDP. But we’re not listening to less music. There’s more music consumed than before.

On paper, the way GDP is calculated, the music industry is disappearing, but in reality it’s not disappearing. It is disappearing in revenue. It is not disappearing in terms of what you should care about, which is music.”

Perhaps the paradox isn’t a death sentence for our productivity after all. Only time (and perhaps improved measuring techniques) will tell.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

Reference

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