More Is Not Always Better

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Efficiency versus Effectiveness The term “efficiency” has been abused through over-use. In its most general form, efficiency is defined as the number of results produced in a given period of time. Given this definition, efficiency is not necessarily improved by multi-tasking, connection, and even interaction. As many professionals have discovered, we do not usually produce more simply by having more conversations, attending more meetings, or reading more emails.

In fact, these activities frequently undermine our efficiency. We become distracted from our ultimate goals, overwhelmed with tangents, or bogged down in trivia. In my experience, however, the most pernicious result of my increased communications with colleagues and customers is the dramatic explosion of my task list. It seems that I leave every meeting with ten more things to do. Every email I receive requires that I write two more. At one point, my list of To Dos was over 200 items long!

Worse still was that, in my desire to “accomplish” something, to show progress, and to reduce the stress of so many things to do, I would scan the list each morning and immediately focus on those items that could most quickly be completed and “crossed off.” (Before you chuckle smugly at this clear breach of common sense, review your own day’s tasks, paying special attention to Sunday afternoons. How many times have you swept the floor of your garage instead of organizing your old photos? Those in glass houses…)

While I am always diligent in meeting deadlines and keeping my promises, I let many other “evergreen” projects slip from week to week. Usually I only recognized that I had neglected to address some of my more difficult, less measurable tasks during my yearly review. As you might expect, this was an unpleasant realization for both myself and my bosses! Let me add to this another hurdle. In my spare time — most often in during take-off and landing when I am forced to turn-off my computer — I would write lists of tasks on small scraps of paper. And then lose them. I migrated to a paper file system where I kept all of my tasks in a dedicated notebook. I quickly found that I was making too many changes — notes in the margin, scribbles, large x’s, diagrams — for any of the items to be legible.

The cause of all of these changes is the nature of tasks themselves. First, they increase in importance as their deadline draws near. The note to complete my taxes is laughable in February, serious in March, panic-inducing in April, and desperate in May. Second, tasks are almost always inter-connected. The reminder to write this article is related to re-reading Stephen Covey’s books (see below), as well as connected to a review of psychology as it relates to procrastination. Third, I often attack large tasks gradually. The simple item “repair plumbing leak in basement” has an attached note with the list of items I?ll need and the steps I should consider taking.

In my quest for neatness, I spent more time re-writing the list than in actually completing tasks.

The Power of the Digital Word

Enter the handheld computer. The To Do list on my Palm (alas, while I have owned many Palm OS devices, I have never owned a Pocket PC or Linux device) is far-and-away the most valuable benefit. Yes, I use my address book, schedule, and memos often, but these were similarly valuable in my paper planner. It is the Task List that has dramatically improved my efficiency. To be specific, it is the capacity for me to easily change the priority of my tasks, add notes, and dismiss (yet archive) completed items without an ugly black mark through the page. As a result, my list is neat and orderly. I no longer have the excuse to procrastinate by “organizing” myself. It’s already done. The categories come in handy as a way to focus my time. When at work, I only attack tasks in the “work” category. On Sunday afternoons, it’s the “house” category.

I have trained myself to work from top to bottom, or from highest priority to lowest priority. Which begs the question: how do I prioritize my tasks? For this, I turn to Stephen Covey’s suggestion in “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” While many aspects of this book are too grandiose to implement quickly, and others are trite, glossing over root cause of inefficiency to treat a symptom, Covey’s prioritization scheme is right on the money.

Efficiency versus Effectiveness First, he differentiates between importance and urgency. Important tasks are those that create value for the company or the individual, both in the short and long term. Urgent tasks are those that other people are screaming for. Clearly, there are some items that are important but not urgent: surprising my wife with a fancy dinner, for example. Other items are urgent but not important, like cleaning the gutters. The result is a matrix like the one at right.

What is most remarkable about this prioritization scheme, once I had applied it to my own task list, was the huge number of items that were labeled 2 and 4. The former were items such as learning Spanish, calling my cousins, and the aforementioned date with my wife. I had postponed these because they never seemed immediate. The latter items were easy to complete and therefore cross of my list, but they were of very little value to my life.

Because my handheld device continually puts the Priority 1 tasks in my face, I am more able to focus on generating results, which is what efficiency is all about.

But prioritization is not the end of the benefits of a digital task list. An application called Life Balance by llamagraphics compares the tasks that I complete with the tasks that I would like to complete. For example, if I declare that exercising is important to me, Life Balance will remind me if I’m keeping this promise to myself. Unfortunately, such a comparison requires that I inform the program of what I care about. Hence, the setup for this software application is time-consuming. Luckily, the programmers make it as painless as possible.

There are also several programs that introduce an extra level of sophistication into my task list. To Do Plus from HandsHigh Software lets me nest sub-lists, add pictures and diagrams, and create alarms for tasks. All very handy. It only the program could change the priority of an item as its deadline approaches, then I would be truly flabbergasted!

But let me stop here to ask a final question, before I digress into a discussion of myriad other efficiency enhancing software titles. I have searched far and wide for techniques to improve efficiency, with and without a handheld device. I have read books galore, from self-help to economics treatises to spiritual mantras. I have attended seminars. Heck, I even got an MBA to delve more deeply into the subject. Some techniques are more powerful and useful than others.

So here’s my question: what techniques do you find helpful to increase your efficiency that you would recommend to others? I look forward to a lively conversation in the Brighthand Forum.


About the author
Ted Ladd is a productivity fanatic, focusing on the technology and habits surrounding organization and communication. He held several roles at Palm, Inc. since 1998, from developer relations to enthusiast marketing to company spokesman. He and his wife now operate a management and technology consulting business in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Please send comments to info@hewittladd.com or, better yet, visit the Brighthand Forum listed at the bottom of each article.

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