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Efficiency, effectiveness and productivity in your personal life

Any task you do should be done both efficiently and effectively. Efficiency is doing something in the best possible way, while effectiveness is doing the best possible thing.

When you do something as efficiently and effectively as possible, you are being productive. In business, productivity is frequently referred to as the amount output per unit of input.

Productivity is a combined measurement of efficiency and effectiveness. It can be influenced by many factors, including the skill of the workers, condition of equipment, environment, and even the culture of the organization.

Efficiency, effectiveness and productivity need not be work-related. You can be very efficient at picking wild berries; but if they’re poisonous you’re not being very effective. On the other hand, picking delicious, nutritious berries might be effective, but doing so by choosing only the large ones and removing them from the bush one at a time might not be the most efficient way of doing it.

If efficiency in life were measured in units of happiness per unit of input we could easily use these terms when discussing quality of life. The quality and type of input is important. If it consists of minimal effort, an unhelpful attitude and negativity, output will be poor and efficiency low. But if your input in life is positive, helpful, friendly and joyful, output will be high, efficient and fulfilling.

As in everything else, there are exceptions. But having the odds in your favour is a great stress reliever as well. And stress seems to be a catalyst for many diseases, including high blood pressure, diabetes, anxiety, heart attacks and even cancer.

To be productive, you must create value, whether that is in the form of useful products, improved health, a happier life or a needed service.

Isaac Asimov, known primarily for his science fiction novels, wrote over 500 books, hundreds of short stories and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards before he died at age 72. He created value, not only in terms of revenue, but in bringing entertainment to millions of people.

Mother Theresa, Catholic nun and missionary, dedicated her life to helping the poor, the sick and the dying. She was responsible for the opening of orphanages, hospices, leper houses, schools and clinics.

Vincent van Gogh produced 860 oil paintings over a ten-year period for an average of 86 a year. Both quantity and quality were involved – and certainly value.

“Garbage in garbage out” refers to more than just computers. It is equally true for life itself. If you want good friends, be a good friend. If you want to get, give. If you want to succeed, help others succeed. If you want good health, live a healthy lifestyle. And so on.

In your personal life, purpose, mission, personal goals, policies and values all help increase your effectiveness. And technology, creativity, routines, habits, organization and the wise use of time all help increase your efficiency. These factors are not restricted to the business world.


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Personal productivity revisited.

Beuatifull woman at the office celebrating her success
Productivity isn’t all about efficiency.

Ever since I broadened my field of interest to include holistic time management, I have been amazed at how many factors influence our productivity besides the usual efficiency – organizing – planning triad of strategies. I have written about them in previous blogs – everything from music to physical movement, office greenery to window scenery and from colors to coffee shops. I am in the process of tying them all together in a new book on the impact of working environment on personal productivity – to be published by the process of doing all this, I’ve been forced to modify my narrow definition of personal productivity. In the past I have defined personal productivity solely in business terms, such as output per unit of input, whether that is the number of invoices processed per hour or the number of customers served in a day or the number of tasks completed during the week.

Other business writers all seem to do the same thing – define personal productivity in terms of the volume of work-related output, which presumably will assist corporate productivity as long as the individual is productive in a direction that aligns with corporate goals.

The problem with this approach is that it does not allow for a truly “personal” output, which may or may not have anything to do with corporate efficiency or productivity. For example, it has been shown that nature walks, friendships, and volunteering can all help, either directly or indirectly, to increase work-related productivity. But they can also have other beneficial outputs such as happiness, hope and well-being, which may or may not influence work-related productivity one iota. And yet who can deny the possible personal benefits of such things, including mental health, mindfulness, and empathy and so on.

What I choose to do, therefore, is have two distinct definitions; one for personal productivity and another for corporate or work-related productivity.

Corporate productivity is a term I will use for the volume of output per unit of input, such as the number of widgets for hour. It is solely a measure of the efficiency of production, whether by an individual or team. Corporate productivity can be increased by increasing the output without increasing the input or increasing output drastically with only a slight increase in input. This might be accomplished through the use of technology or by workers simply working smarter and more efficiently.

Personal productivity can then be defined as the value of your personal life in terms of quality, quantity and contribution. Personal productivity might be increased through varying inputs, such as social relationships, an active lifestyle, love, forgiveness, and a continuing relationship with nature. The personal productivity of an individual in most cases will have a positive influence on corporate productivity if the person is involved in a business or career; but that is not necessarily the case. The challenge is to balance the two.

The tendency in the workplace is to increase input rather than change input. For example, the impulse is to work harder, even though it has been shown that the top performers tend to work no more than 4.5 hours a day. And how many people would actually think to get more sleep in order to get more done?

But with an equal focus on personal productivity, which relies heavily on health and lifestyle issues, it’s easier to buffer the traditional methods of increasing corporate productivity, which are driven solely by efficiency and achievement. This will insure that not only the company will gain in terms of increased productivity, but the individual will gain as well in terms of personal growth, fulfillment, and physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

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Use the “Triple 90” strategies to get the important things done on time.


Organizing business and personal tasks and meetings
Organizing business and personal tasks and meetings

There are three rules that might help you maintain focus and get the essential things done in the today’s hectic environment where 24/7 connectivity is the norm and your office is more a state of mind than a specific place. They involve the three essential strategies of goal setting, planning and scheduling.

The 90-day rule
for goal-setting.

Short-range goals are more realistic in this digital age of speed – for example, 90-day goals instead of annual goals. This allows for an ever-changing environment, the rapid advances in technology, and the instantaneous influence of social media and so on. Priorities also seem to change more quickly in this digital age of speed.

90 days – three months – provide enough time to accomplish something significant, yet not so short as to be seen as a glorified “To do” list. Your 90-day goal could very well lead to an annual goal, while having measurable results in itself. But if we work on annual goals, we could deceive ourselves into thinking that a last-minute rush near the end of the year would enable us to achieve the goal.

With shorter goals we are able to adjust or even discover that the goal is impossible or impractical – and we would still have most of the year available to re-evaluate and reset our goals.

Many goals don’t take 12 months in the first place, and Parkinson’s Law could take place as the time it takes to achieve the goal expands to fill the time we have available. Many important goals such as product launches or sales promotions are time sensitive. If you don’t act now you lose much of their benefit. If you can’t make significant progress in 90 days, you probably wouldn’t do much better in 365 days anyway.

Deciding in advance that you will do something and actually planning when you will do it increases your commitment to get it done. There is no real commitment to complete any tasks on a “To do” list with no time frame, and your brain picks up on that.

The 90-hour rule for planning.

You must get your own priorities into your planner first – before your planner is filled with other people’s priorities. This necessitates that you schedule blocks of time for both business and personal activities, tasks and projects at least 90 hours – or about 4 to 5 days – in advance.

That’s why I prefer a week at a glance planner – so I can see my plan for the entire week. People normally ask if you are busy tomorrow or the next day or the next when looking for a time to meet with you. If you don’t have anything scheduled in your planner for the next few days, you can easily give up your valuable prime time to others, leaving only scraps of time to work on your own projects. It’s a lot easier to say no when you see a commitment in your planner at the time slot being requested.

Choose times when you are the most mentally alert and creative to work on your ongoing projects and important tasks. Leave other times blank so you can schedule other people into these time slots or work on the lower priority activities. How much of your week you actually schedule will depend on the nature of your job. If your main job is to trouble shoot or fight fires, you will block off less time. But schedule at least 20% of each day for your own priorities. If you don’t have fires one morning, you want to be committed in advance to work on one of your top priorities. Most people can block off at least the equivalent of 3 or 4 hours each day to get to get the really important work done.

The 90-minute rule for scheduling.

The probability of a scheduled task or project being completed as planned is increased immensely if the time to work on it is scheduled in 90-minute blocks of time.

One of the biggest problems for most people is sustained attention. Working for shorter periods of time is generally more efficient since the longer you work on a project, the more difficult it is to maintain focus, and the more susceptible you are to interruptions – either by yourself or others.

For most of my adult life I have scheduled projects and tasks in 90 minute chunks of time, including the writing of books. Originally, this was simply due to the fact that I found I had to allow about 50% more time than I thought a task would take due to the interruptions that invariably occurred in a corporate office. But since that time, I have accumulated a whole series of reasons why working in 90-minute chunks of time is more effective. And the experiences of other people as well as recent brain research seem to confirm this.

Concentration and energy rises and falls in 90 minute cycles. This is a continuation of the sleep cycles where we go through stages of non-REM and REM sleep that in total last about 90 minutes before the cycle begins again. During the evening we are more easily awakened about every 90 minutes, and during the day we tend to get sleepy about every 90 minutes. So it makes sense to schedule work sessions of about 90 minutes with brief breaks in between to rejuvenate.

In addition, 90 minutes is an acceptable wait time for most people before they receive an answer to their e-mail, text message or phone call. Of course a few people expect instant replies, but those people are simply being unrealistic. 90 minutes isn’t an unrealistic period of time to be unavailable to staff members either.

90-minute segments allow at least two major projects to be worked on each day – possibly both in the morning if that’s your prime time (when you are the most mentally alert and energetic), leaving the balance of the time for other people and less important tasks.

90 minutes is about the minimum length of “working time” before “make-ready” time becomes a factor and starts having a negative impact on your efficiency. If you select too brief a period of time, you spend as much time getting your materials and your mind ready as you spend working on the project.

I recommend you actually schedule these 90-minute “appointments with yourself” in ink if you use a paper planner – since you have every intention of keeping those appointments.

When we react to something, a different part of the brain is being activated than if we plan to do something. Writing down what we intend to do switches us to a more rational mode of thinking. When an interruption does occur, either something you think of or a remark someone else makes, jot it down so you can deal with it later. But continue with your planned activity.

Use “batching” for shorter tasks.

For brief tasks, batch together those tasks that are similar in nature and require the same resources and mental acuity. For example, I might have a 90 minute block of time scheduled for writing articles for both my newsletter and blog, material for my teleseminars, courses or website – all requiring writing, creativity, voice activated software, reference books, notes, my journal and so on.

A batching session could also involve contacting various people by phone, text or email or reading magazines, blogs, websites, books and other resources in search of information on a specific topic.

Batching consumes less energy and causes less mental fatigue since you are using the same areas of the brain and not switching back and forth from one task to another or putting demands on your energy supply by having to make frequent and unrelated decisions. It also increases productivity since you are wasting less time locating materials, interrupting yourself or deciding what to do next.

There is fourth strategy that could be called the “90-second rule.” When interrupted from your train of thought by a drop-in visitor or other incident, if it takes 90 seconds or less to handle it, do it right then before continuing with your work. Otherwise agree on a future time to discuss the matter. Also, when checking email, text messages or voice mail, if you can reply in 90 seconds or less, do it right away. Otherwise just add it to your “To do” list or schedule a time in your planner to do it later. Do everything you can to maintain focus.

Next blog article: 7 ways to maintain focus at the office.