From time to time, I’m contacted by reporters doing stories on time management. They often frame the request like this: “We’re looking to help our readers find an extra hour in their days.”
There are certainly ways most people can save time. Turning off the television is a big one. (Or only watching while running!) At work, scheduling 45-minute meetings instead of an hour, or 20-minute phone calls instead of 30-minute ones will, over time, add up. Email management programs that send unimportant messages to a separate folder are likewise a good idea.
The problem for these articles, though, is that one of the best time savers at work is not a quick trick. It takes a huge investment of time up front, but then you reap the dividends for years. We all face a learning curve when we take on new tasks, which means that you can save immense volumes of time just by getting better at what you do.
If you’re a consultant writing proposals for projects, for instance, you know that you win some and you lose some. But figuring out how to improve your batting average just a little—say from four out of 10 coming through to five out of 10—means that winning 20 projects would take 20% less time. Better yet, if you do an amazing job on 20 projects in a row, clients may start coming straight to you. That’s clearly more efficient than poking blindly at lots of nebulous possibilities.
Or take an example from my work. When I first started writing for magazines and newspapers years ago, an editor might assign me a 1,000-word story. I’d do my research and interviews—which were often all over the map—write a rough draft, and check the word count. It would be some number like 2,000. While it’s easy to cut 10% to 15% in excess wordiness from anything, you can’t get a 2,000-word story down to 1,000 words without changing the scope of what you’re trying to say. That takes a lot of time. A decade later, though, after a lot of tough editing sessions, I’ve gotten better at figuring out what you can fit in 1,000 words and what the laws of physics decree that you can’t. Over the long haul, that knowledge will save me a lot more time than hitting only double numbers on the microwave (:22 instead of :20—really, someone suggested that as a time-saving tip once).
To be sure, getting better at your job isn’t straightforward. In their 2012 book, Practice Perfect, Doug Lemov, Katie Yezzi, and Erica Woolway describe 42 strategies for improvement, which boil down to ensuring lots of repetition and seeking tight feedback loops. The feedback loops in particular can be painful. If your team has just lost a big project to a competitor, it’s excruciating to do a postmortem on everything that went wrong. But it’s also excruciating to keep doing things the same way and to keep wasting time. If you get better, you’ll get more efficient. And that will save enough time for anything you need to soothe your bruised ego.
[Image: Flickr user Joe St.Pierre]