Our Productivity Experiment: Saving Time on the Job
For this blog post, we called on freelance colleagues to follow some of the common advice found in dozens of articles about how to manage your time better. Emily and Todd are both Millennials and, true to form, both are advocates for daily work-life balance, whether or not they achieve it in real life. Although they have very different workdays, they’re both interested in saving time and increasing their on-the-job productivity.
Emily has been self-employed for the past three years wearing different hats for several companies. She is a writer, copy editor, sales and marketing strategist, outreach coordinator, and occasional travel photographer. Her hours are strange because she works with people “in every time zone,” and while she tries to have a four-day work week, it’s more often a seven-day work week because she spreads her projects out more than she intends. “Of all my friends, I’m the one who needs better time-management skills the most,” she says. Saving time has to be part of her productivity plan so that she can shave a couple of days off from that all-consuming work week.
These are the suggestions she tested along with her results.
1. Set a time limit and actually time yourself.
Emily’s first task was to write a blog for a tech company. Her goal was 850 words. She first experimented to find her approximate writing pace. At six minutes, she had written 162 words. That’s about 27 words per minute, so she figured about 32 minutes to write the entire piece. “Okay! But let’s add six more minutes for stopping to do the math and overthink the formula, and maybe another 15 minutes for wiggle room.” The new plan is 53 minutes to complete the first draft.
Stopwatch in hand, she kept accurate track of how much time she spent, not stopping for anything. “But I kept thinking, what if my client calls? Or what if I don’t finish in time — should I postpone the meeting I have scheduled in an hour? And who really knows how long this will take?”
However, the blog post didn’t have to be posted until tomorrow. “That’s plenty of time,” Emily thought.
Full disclosure – Before starting this experiment, Emily spent an unrecorded amount of time reading articles about saving time at work and increasing personal productivity. However, she didn’t add that hour or two into her blog post time calculation.
Result — Emily completed the first draft of the blog post in one hour and 47 minutes, but she also exceeded her word count so that she could flesh out her topic. Then, she spent another hour or so editing and refining it. After that, she took five minutes to write and send an email containing the post to her client, another ten minutes reading and implementing his suggested changes, and ten minutes more to access the blog site, upload the post, add an image supplied by the client, and schedule it for publishing. Finally, it took her 12 minutes to create and send her invoice for the post.
The time required for the post that was estimated at 35 minutes turned out to be 4:54, or nearly five hours. So, if Emily is interested in saving time, she’ll need to evaluate the full scope of her project more accurately in the beginning.
After talking with her for a while, we learned that she likes to keep her time estimates low so that she can keep her billings competitive. So, one solution for Emily is to separate the idea of labor hours from billable hours.
- “On the clock” hours. Emily’s first mistake is to assume that all of the time she works should be billed to the client when in reality, a freelancer can bill only for the amount of time that the market will bear. In this case, a client could reasonably be expected to pay for about two hours of work at Emily’s current per-hour rate.
- Actual hours. Emily’s time-eating misunderstanding is that her work can be completed fast because she can envision it quickly. Many people who are experts in their fields picture completing a task in a short period, even though any deliverable is likely to need extra time for finishing, double-checking, and polishing before it is fully cooked.
- Planning work sessions. This is where Emily can be saving time by using a realistic time estimate and planning for efficient execution. When she assumed it would take “only 35 minutes,” she planned one short work session, but then spent more than half her day on that project, forcing several other things to be rescheduled, throwing her work week into chaos.
Going forward, Emily should assume that any blog post can take five hours, and plan to break that up into three different sessions over three separate days. This way, she can schedule her time appropriately, thereby improving her productivity, and not have an unplanned incursion into Saturdays and Sundays. (The time Emily will save is her weekends.) Planning this way means that when Emily gets requests for additional blog posts, she’ll need to tell her client, “I can start that next week,” rather than “I’ll have it done by morning.”
- How does this relate to your role? In your job, are there tasks that require online research, conversations, emails, and revisions before the work is complete? If so, factor that time into your calendar, even if you don’t charge for it or want others to know that you spent it.
2. Turn on sound to focus.
We took a turn on this traditional advice because we’re influenced by the Young Entrepreneurs Council on Forbes.com that recommends listening not to music, but to binaural beats to increase focus. Unlike conventional music, binaural beats are sounds delivered to each ear at slightly different frequencies. Your brain focuses on putting the sounds together for a tone you think you hear, and this neural activity is believed to help you focus.
For this part of our experiment, we turned to Todd, a software engineer who always listens to music as he works. Todd admits that he can easily get distracted by changing songs, Googling lyrics, and “favorite-ing” artists to revisit later.
We let Todd choose his own tune, so he YouTubed “binaural beats for productivity and focus” and chose one called, “Super Intelligence: Memory Music, Improve Focus and Concentration with Binaural Beats Focus Music.” He says, “So far, so good. I’m not really paying attention to it like I would if I had chosen music I like, and I am feeling focused.” However, he notes, “I’m unsure if this is a placebo effect because of the pressure I’ve put on myself to be more focused, but it’s worth a shot, right?”
Todd notices that the sounds are there, but they’re not detracting from his concentration. Also, he hasn’t encountered an instance where he couldn’t think of the code expressions he wanted to use, which might be a testament to tunes without lyrics. He says he is relaxed without feeling sleepy or dazed.
“I’ve never actually been, but this is what I expect a spa sounds like,” he says. “It’s pleasant. It’s soft. It’s a bit weird. I’ll definitely try it again if I find myself not being able to concentrate.”
Results — Todd’s focus could be due to any number of things, but there have been several studies on the benefits of listening to music while you work or study. So, because he’s making good headway on his coding project and saving time by avoiding external distractions, we’re calling the binaural beats experiment a success.
- In the zone. Todd’s concentration seemed pretty tight, and he was productive. Yet, he also told us that he felt relaxed. His rhythm and his energy were steady, and he made focused progress on his project. It’s the way we’d all like our work days to go.
- Interruption-less. The tones didn’t seem to interfere with the part of Todd’s brain that uses words and code hierarchies, and it didn’t change levels or introduce interruptions like stopping work to select another artist, as standard music might. It’s the sound equivalent of hitting all the traffic lights while they’re green, so your pace can remain steady. Todd saved time because he wasn’t disengaging from his task to serve external distractions, and he was completing work at a pace that exceeded similar work the day before.
- How would this affect your work? If noise causes a distraction for you – whether that’s manufacturing noise, traffic, or listening to lyrics while simultaneously trying to compose your own thoughts — give binaural beats a try. It can put you on a more focused track. However, if careful listening to others is an important part of your role, then binaural beats are not for you.
3. Install a productivity app that blocks certain websites.
We went back to Emily for this part of the experiment, and it was a bust. She sampled and installed several apps that promise to block distractions, force you to focus and eliminate time-wasters, but instead, they ended up preventing her internet research, so there was no productivity gain in her situation.
To simulate the promised results, she pretended that productivity apps were turned on and took a pledge not to access social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, or Pinterest, until the end of the experiment. At least, she says she didn’t, and we trust her.
FYI, Emily has several friends and colleagues who swear by productivity apps. When she first installed one, she started to type “F-A-C” to see if it would scold her for trying to access Facebook. “I got weirdly nervous, but it didn’t allow me to access Facebook, so I was saving time — mission accomplished.”
- Productivity apps don’t help when you’re in online research mode. However, when not engaged in research, Emily found these tools a useful way to remind herself not to waste time going down the rabbit hole when lured there by news media posts or the latest meme fad.
- Will they help you stay focused on your priorities? If your task can be isolated and depends on you alone, then a productivity app may be helpful. But if your work keeps you actively online or requires collaboration with others, you’ll need to find another way to save time, as you’ll end up fighting the app and losing time in the process.
Read more about saving time and being productive in Part II of our blog post, coming soon!