I'm not here to make a semantic argument, really. But there's a difference between being productive and being efficient, and efficiency wins every time.
Productivity measures how much you do or produce within a given timeframe. Efficiency, on the other hand, is about being productive with less effort. So if you answered 50 more customer support tickets this week because you worked through them as fast as possible, you were more productive. But if you answered 50 more tickets because you used a text expansion app to respond to commonly-asked questions, you were more productive and more efficient.
So to be more productive in a way that won't burn you out in the long run, you have to figure out how to be more efficient.
My Own Journey Toward Greater Efficiency
Several months ago, I wrote a Twitter post complaining about the studies that are released every so often saying things like "bloggers spend an average of three hours writing a blog post." As someone who almost always spends two full workdays writing one piece, this statistic seems ridiculous to me.
A couple of people replied and agreed. But one person replied and said that it never takes her more than a day to write a 3,000-word blog post. That got me thinking: is it possible to reduce the amount of time it takes me to do the same thing?
To find out, I broke down all of the tasks I complete when writing an article:
coming up with ideas
researching those topics
conducting SEO research
writing the post
taking screenshots and finding images
editing the draft
entering the final draft into a CMS
After I had a list, my goal was to figure out what I could cut. The answer: nothing. I mean, technically, I could skip the SEO research or leave the editing to my editors. But eliminating those tasks would also massively decrease the quality of the work I was producing.
I asked myself: if the quality is worse, am I truly more productive? I don't think so. I think I'm just worse at my job.
If I was really going to find a way to write faster, I was going to have to take a different approach. I was going to have to dig deep into each one of those tasks to find ways to reduce waste—to be more efficient.
To Become More Efficient, Ask the Right Questions
In his post Automation Is a Mindset, Not Just a Tool, David Zisner argues that when companies have more work than they're capable of doing, they tend to ask the question, "Who will do this work?" But what they should be asking instead is, "How will this work get done?"
I think this applies to individuals too. So as I was performing these tasks, I started asking myself:
How should this get done?
Is this the best way to do this?
Is there a more efficient way to do this?
Should I be doing this?
One of my tasks stood out to me as I asked these questions. In the process of adding a post to a client's CMS, I had to edit every outbound link to set it to open it in a new tab. I was sometimes manually adjusting 150 different links in WordPress, which requires three clicks per link. Once I identified that, I started doing a find-and-replace-all in Google Docs to automatically add the open-in-new-window HTML to every single link.
Six clicks versus 450. Thirty seconds of work instead of 30 minutes of work.
With that win behind me, I started to look at other small activities I could expedite—other things that, when I asked myself Is there a better way to do this?, my answer was, There has to be.
Maybe I could use a plugin like Image Attributes Pro to automatically turn my image filenames into alt text for each image. Or maybe there's a plugin or feature that automatically centers all images in blog posts. There's not, by the way—at least not that I could find.
Even if something only saves you five minutes a day, that's still more than 100 minutes saved per month—and more than 1,000 minutes per year. Five more minutes per day, for me, means I can write one more blog post each year—and that's the efficiency boost from one five-minute-saving task. If I can find 12 more tasks that save me five minutes each, that's one more post I can write each month.
Zapier's automated workflows (Zaps) are a perfect example of small efficiency wins. Each performs a small task that—if you did it yourself—wouldn't take all that much time like adding Typeform responses to Google Sheets, sharing Google Forms responses in a Slack channel, or transferring Outlook events to Google Calendar. But those few minutes at a time add up. My editor at Zapier has saved more than 12,000 minutes with Zaps. That's 25 full eight-hour workdays.
Of course, you can have big efficiency wins too. Should you be doing that task that takes you eight hours a week, or should you automate it, delegate it, or just stop doing it in favor of something else that gets you to your goal with less effort?
Broad Strokes Efficiency
Efficiency, of course, isn't only about how you perform specific tasks. You also need to consider how the general way you work impacts your efficiency.
If you're working in a way that complements your chronotype (internal clock), you'll be more efficient.
If you can find a way to get yourself into a flow state when you need to do deep work, you'll be more efficient.
If you take more and better breaks, you'll be more refreshed and focused throughout the day—and therefore more efficient.
And you can even increase your efficiency by procrastinating on purpose. Sometimes, when I'm trying to write—but every word I put on paper feels like a monumental effort—I'll walk away from my desk and do something else for a while. Inevitably, as soon as I'm not trying to write, I'll think of dozens of things I should be writing about. More output, less effort.
As a leader, you can help your team find ways to become more efficient by setting goals that go beyond simple quantity measures. So instead of a quantity-focused KPI like "Close 20% more support tickets in Q3 than Q2," maybe at least one of your team goals should be "Find three ways that the whole team can close more tickets at scale." The first goal encourages people to work faster to close more tickets. The second encourages people to work smarter, ask the right questions, and look for ways to become more efficient that—if implemented on a larger scale—could lead to significant productivity increases for the whole team into the future.
When it comes down to it, it's better to do less and accomplish more than to do more and accomplish less.
Improving your productivity simply means finding ways to do more. Improving your efficiency means finding ways to do more by reducing the effort required to complete tasks. Both increase your output, but while one often leads to working harder, the other focuses on working smarter.
Be mindful of every task you do during the day—no matter how small—and ask yourself: "How should this get done?"