Why big changes happen when you focus on small improvements

Matt Boyden
Matt Boyden / Published July 8, 2020

Here's a productivity tip: do more things in less time!

If you don't think that's useful advice, good. It isn't. "Do more" isn't a solution to productivity—it's a quick path to burnout. It's far more productive to focus on small improvements.

I help train Zapier's customer champions, the support team who interacts with our customers primarily via email. As a support trainer, I've learned that getting more done depends on thinking small. Find one small thing you can do better, focus on doing that for a week, then repeat that process.

One of the primary productivity metrics for our support team is "replies per hour" (RPH), which measures how many support email replies a customer champion sends on average every hour. Many customer champions are looking to increase their RPH—basically, to reply to more customers in less time.

The tricky part here is you can't really just "send more emails" (maybe you can move your fingers faster as you type?). Instead, a high RPH is the result of doing lots of small things well, as well as not doing some other small things. Here's how I teach people to do just that—and how you can teach yourself.

Identify small improvements you can make

Very few people perform the same single task again and again and again all day, which means that how much you get done is a combination of all kinds of small things. What these things are, of course, depends on what your job is.

Odds are there are a bunch of small improvements you could make to your workflow or environment to get more done. Step one is figuring out what those things are. If you're having trouble with this, consider roping in your peers or asking your manager.

Back to the support team here at Zapier. We send emails every day, but there are a bunch of small things that could help improve replies per hour. Maybe it's eliminating one or two distractions in our workspace, like keeping our phones in another room. Maybe it's trying a new work schedule, or adding new or refining existing text snippets used for common responses. Or maybe it's a matter of finding three support tickets that really slowed us down, figuring out why, and working out ways to respond more quickly next time.

The specifics don't matter—just make a list of things you could improve to start.

Work on one improvement every week

Now it's time to get to work. Every week, you're going to choose One Thing from your list and focus intensely on it. The goal here is to raise your awareness, as if you're looking through a microscope at the Thing.

Think of ways to improve this One Thing every day. Experiment, and see what works (and what doesn't). Talk about this One Thing with your manager, and ask for feedback specifically around it. Doing this can be uncomfortable, but feedback is a great way to grow and level up, which is the goal here. Consider also mentioning your One Thing to your coworkers, so they can offer you advice and hold you accountable.

The idea is that focusing on your One Thing helps you identify tangible ways to improve that small part of your work. Let's say my One Thing is eliminating the distraction of my cell phone. On Monday, I can focus on simply observing how often I check my phone during work hours (or see if there are any apps that track my phone usage). On Tuesday, I can share this info with my manager for accountability and outline how I plan to curb that usage. On Friday, I can share my findings with my manager and my team to see if this One Thing helped me or not.

Communicate how small changes helped you improve

A screenshot of Matt's weekly update where he talks about a small improvement he's working on
Here's an example of me talking small in my weekly update on Zapier's internal blog

After a week of this zoomed-in focus, our natural tendency is to want to share how we did toward our output, which is great. Maybe you really did get more done, and you want to tell everyone about that. Just make sure you also talk about the small thing you focused on. I call this "talking small."

For example, if you work in sales, you might normally say, "This week, I had ten sales." Consider instead saying, "This week, I focused on asking one more question per sales call, and I had ten sales."

In support, we might be inclined to say, "This week, I wrote 6 replies per hour." By talking small, I'd say, "This week, I focused on leaving better internal notes on my support tickets, and I wrote 6 replies per hour."

Talking small will help reinforce both for you and your colleagues that focusing on the little things over time can have some big results. Success doesn't happen overnight.

Small things add up to big ones

Large, abstract goals like "become a better manager" are intimidating. This is why focusing on small things helps—it reduces the pressure we feel when we face a large goal in front of us.

By breaking our overall goal into smaller areas of focus and improvement, we put ourselves in a position of more control over our own development. So instead of "I want to become a better manager," you could say, "I want to dedicate one hour a week to preparing more for my 1:1s with my team." That's an actionable goal, which means you're more likely to actually follow up on it.

That's why this strategy works. Find small ways you can improve, spend a week focusing on one of them, then communicate how that small improvement helped. Build this cycle into a habit. You'll find that, by focusing on the small things, the big things take care of themselves.

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen Unsplash.

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