When thinking about personal productivity, people often focus on little gains. By “little gains,” I mean simple hacks and tricks that make something we do just a little bit more efficient or productive. Little gains are valid. The efficiency gains one gets from learning keyboard shortcuts, for example, certainly do add up over time. There’s a tiny time savings in using keyboard strokes rather than menus that add up over time, and perhaps more importantly, there’s the fact that flow is less likely to be disturbed if the worker can continue looking at the computer screen and thinking about what ideas come next, rather than turning her attention to software menus.
The Appeal of Little Gains
Little gains are also attractive because they’re easy to implement. They don’t usually require much effort upfront. So you get the satisfaction of having done something positive just by making one small change today. Even if you don’t keep it up over the long haul, you feel accomplished for now. Of course, that feeling can mislead us. It’s similar to the ping of dopamine some people get when a social media alert sounds or some other notification pops up on their phone.
We don’t want to get hooked on the wrong thing, though. We don’t want to merely feel good because we read about a productivity hack and used it once. We want the real, long-terms gains of adding it to our work patter and style.
The Hurdle to Big Gains
Big productivity gains are, as you might expect, harder to achieve and usually require more effort and discipline. An example of a big productivity gain is changing your time-management skills to cut out activities that you deem frivolous and instead use that time for a project you want to completely.
Let’s say you tracked your time and found that you spent on average 50 minutes per day looking at Facebook (and not for work). You decide that Facebook isn’t really important to you, but updating your business plan is. So you vow not to use Facebook anymore during the week days. You also decide to start work promptly on time, not take any meetings in the morning, and only work on your most important task of the day until lunch. At lunch, you break for exactly 40 minutes, no more. In the afternoon, you wrap up your morning task if necessary, handle email and meetings for two hours, take a 15 minute break, and then work diligently for a minimum of 50 minutes on the business plan. By cutting unnecessary activities from your day and focusing clearly on only a few things during dedicated times of day, you will get pretty big productivity gains.
But it’s hard. It’s hard to do it once, and it’s really hard to do it day after day. Researchers have studied the length of time needed to adopt new habits, but the kinds of habits used in studies are usually concrete and easily measurable, like going to the gym, not mastering a new work schedule or curbing internet distractions.
The path to getting big gains can probably be described in books much better than it can be described in five-minute-read web articles. There’s nothing sexy about implementing the steps needed to get big gains either. It’s hard work, and usually it can’t be done in one sitting. But it’s still important to think about whether you will get more in the end out of a big gain you can make rather than a series of little ones.
Image by Jason Devaun, CC.