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Monday, June 25, 2020

How to work less and accomplish more

A simple way to increase your productivity without spending another minute working

There’s an easy way to get more done in the same total time. It doesn’t require fancy software, special organizational tools, or even understanding anything new. All it takes is to slow down and understand the realities of how you spend your time; then apply what you will learn.
Let’s begin with a simple picture of spending 20 minutes working on a single task. It will take you a little while to get into the work, say 5 minutes. That’s for getting things together, settling down, and starting your mind working in the right direction. Before you leave the task, you’ll need maybe another 5 minutes to wind down, put things away, tidy up, and shift your thoughts to what you’ll need to be doing next.

Simple arithmetic shows that, of the 20 minutes total time elapsed, 10 minutes in total was available for productive work, with two sets of 5 minutes allowed for starting up and winding down. That gives a productivity ratio (productive to non-productive time) of exactly 50%. It look like this:


However, if you increase the total period of uninterrupted, focused time on that task to 30 minutes, your productivity ratio immediately increases to 67%, since it takes no more time to start up and wind down. You now have 20 minutes of fully productive time out of 30 minutes total time elapsed, like this:


If you can increase the uninterrupted time to 40 minutes (and the task will take at least that long to complete), your productivity ratio will rise to 75%. With one hour spent like this, productivity rises to 83%. And if you could set aside two hours free from interruption, your productivity ratio would be 92%.

Now see what happens if you have uninterrupted time, as before, but decide to multi-task: that curse of much management thinking. We’ll go back to a period of 30 minutes in total, since that makes a chart that will fit on this page, and assume only two tasks for the sake of simplicity.

Because research has shown that it takes time to swap between tasks—the human brain can’t just jump fully-effective from one to the other—and you still have to allow start up time and wind down at the end, your total effective working time is sharply reduced. You still spent exactly 30 minutes, split between the two tasks, but your productivity ratio has fallen to 33% from the 50% in the first case in this article.


Being interrupted is the very worst thief of productivity, as this chart shows. With no multi-tasking and only two interruptions, 40 minutes being “busy” gives only 10 minutes of truly productive time: a productivity ratio of only 25%. Imagine how low that ratio will fall with more interruptions and a vain attempt at multi=tasking as well. Is it any wonder that people reach the end of a hectic day and cannot see any results for all that effort?


The lesson is simply this. To get the most done in the least time, focus on only one task, remove all possible interruptions, and never multi-task. And try to allocate as long a period to the task as you can, before you have to stop or change to something else. The longer the focused period, the higher the productive ratio of useful time to time spent in starting up, winding down, and the like. That’s why “chunking” time, thought much better than multi-tasking, still isn’t much of a help unless the “chunks” are good, big ones.



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6 Comments:

Wally Bock said...

Research I've seen would add two points to your excellent, clear post. First, the optimum time for uninterrupted project work is probably somewhere around 90 minutes for most people. That includes getting in, working productively, and wrapping up. Second, productivity seems to go up overall if you follow a period of effort (90 minutes) with a break of 20 to 30 minutes.

1:14 PM  
Steve Roesler said...

Nice illustration, Coyote.

As I sat down to devote a block of time solely to reading my favorite blogs and commenting, I felt smug about "single tasking."

Then I realized that my mind was wandering to a calendar book open to 2 "to-do's" as well as an unread business publication sitting nearby. So I began "multi-guilting": 'the process of inflicting pain on one's self for only doing one thing when the call of the desktop Lorelei beckon."

I was probably aware of that phenomenon before but didn't pay much attention until reflecting upon your post.

My next task is to reorganize the desk space:-)

I promise I won't take any calls until it's finished.

2:24 PM  
Kearnj said...

I have a question related to this. Where I'm currently working I have no tasks assigned to me and to be honest no work to do. However, I am required to spend 8 hrs everyday doing "something productive." I have yet to determine what that productivity is and how I can get out of doing nothing all day. I would appreciate any advice on this.

3:07 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Wally.

Great points.

Keep reading, my friend.

3:27 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for this comment, Steve. It's a good one.

I've suffered from the guilt trip that you mention. Of course, it really makes no difference. It's still better to focus on one thing at a time, however many other tasks are waiting.

Your plan to tidy up the desk seems a good answer. If untouched tasks or items to read are not staring at you, maybe they won't be such a distraction.

Still, it's worth reminding ourselves that a great many of the distractions that we all face are self-inflicted. You may no be able to stop the boss demanding instant attention, or colleagues wandering by and expecting everything to stop for them, but you can turn off e-mail notification noises, dump the IM, and refuse to answer the telephone.

It all helps.

Keep reading, my friend.

3:35 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Wow, Kearnj.

I can't see any way that you can be productive if you have nothing to produce.

All that I can suggest is that you decide on something that you believe might be worthwhile and do that. At least it will be better than sitting around doing nothing whatsoever.

Who knows? What you decide on might turn out to be a great success. If not, at least it will amuse you.

I suffered myself, long ago, from a period of "exile" caused by getting on the wrong side of a powerful bully. I knew that the idea was to force me to leave. Instead, I created some projects for myself that turned out to be so useful that, when I did hand in my resignation (in my own time and for a job i really wanted), the organization tried to persuade me to stay!

I enjoyed that.

Keep reading, my friend.

3:41 PM  

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