Give it Your 20% Effort!

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One of the biggest obstacles to change is captured in the refrain “my life already takes up 100% of my time and energy…and now you want me to do more?” Truth be told, running a life at 100% is a problem all by itself. Fortunately there is a remedy.

Even though we’ve been bombarded by the “work smarter not harder” platitude, most of us are still chugging away on the “work harder” treadmill. Working harder made more sense when “work” was static and well-defined. However, yesterday’s productive work becomes outsourced, automated, or otherwise obsoleted at an ever-increasing rate and many people are too busy to notice. While working at 100%, there’s no time or energy left to reflect or refine how work is done or how it might be done faster or better.

I once helped a businessman who tracked his inventory on a spreadsheet. At first it was a great, light-weight solution. He only had a few dozen items to track, and since he understood how to use spreadsheets, at first everything was fine. Then the business started to pick up speed, and before long he had hundreds and then thousands of items to track. Meanwhile, the way he did business had changed, and in the heat of battle he developed a baroque code system to describe where each of these items were in the process. Because he had much more data to track, and he was doing more complex work on the data, he became buried under a large set of poorly-automated tasks. He got to the point where even 100% effort wasn’t enough. He knew he had to change.

Fortunately, I was able to switch him away from his spreadsheet towards a database. The solution I developed for him wasn’t fancy or cutting-edge by any means, but it was a better solution for the problem as it stood at that moment. Please don’t cast me in the role of the rescuing hero. In truth, I was the sidekick. My business client made the heroic decision that it was worth giving up some immediate productivity and money to fix a business process that was becoming more dysfunctional by the week.

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The upside was that not only could he better handle the business he had at the moment, but he had extra capacity to handle tens of thousands of transactions with less manual intervention on his part. Because the business was more automated, he was also able to delegate some of his tasks to less-skilled workers, freeing him up to grow his business even more.

Making time to reflect on how work is done is built into some of the best organizations. Internet titan Google has a policy that allows engineers to devote 20% of their time (one day a week) to a project of their own choosing. Based on results, it seems that Google isn’t suffering terribly under the “loss” of that 20% of engineer time. Given Google’s commitment to giving their workers time and space to work outside of the box, I believe most people could benefit professionally and personally by instituting their own version of Google’s 20% solution.

Imagining cutting back to 80% effort, it’s common to believe that any diversion from the work at hand would be professional suicide. Fortunately, you don’t have to test your fear personally to find out this is almost always an illusion. I once knew a manager who suffered a heart attack and spent months away from the office. One day he was at his desk, the next he was gone. As far as I could tell, business went on without a hitch. In my more cynical moments, I thought business went along better than before. Then, after a lengthy recovery, he returned and it was business as usual. He had taken a full six months off. The business had not collapsed, no-one had been brought in to “cover” for him, and he re-joined the organization without a hitch. If he can disappear for six months (albeit with an airtight excuse), I’m confident that most of us can chisel out a bit of time here or there with no ill effects.

If my time in corporate America has taught me anything, it is that measuring productivity by time spent in an office is a near guarantee of low output. This is not a new phenomenon. You may have heard of the Parkinson’s Law, first coined in 1955, which states that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” I’m convinced I have worked alongside and within whole departments that have produced almost no tangible results for weeks and months at a time and no one noticed, or if they did, they did not seem to care. It pays to stop and figure out how much of the time you spend each day contributes to producing results your boss actually notices and cares about. It may shock you to find out how little time that actually takes. The extra time now belongs to you.

Parkinson’s Law doesn’t just affect companies, it also affects you. If you’re serious about carving out that 20% time for creative reflection and development, try setting internal deadlines shorter than what your boss requires. If the report is due on Friday, get it done on Thursday, set it aside, and use the bubble you created for your own 20% project.

Meanwhile, multitasking is another way that tasks become extended and bloated. Responding to emails, instant messages, and other workplace distractions can lead to surprisingly large slowdowns. I’m convinced the mental gear-shifting required for multitasking is directly responsible for that sinking “where did the day go?” feeling. For an hour or two, shut out as many of the distractions as you can and see how long a well-known task takes without them.

If you’re willing to give up “giving your all” in exchange for taking a hard look at what you are doing and looking for ways to do it better, you may well find that 100% effort is not required to get the results you get today. Better still, you now have the time and space to start your own 20% project, keep up with changing times, and redesign the way you work and live your life.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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