Personal productivity is something that is fairly difficult to quantify. Most people tend to just assume if they are doing better than the average person, then they are doing well. For people who really want to achieve their full potential, simply comparing themselves with others isn’t particularly rewarding because it doesn’t say anything about their true capabilities.
If most of your work is repetitive or easily quantifiable, it is easy to measure your productivity against yourself. You just consider how many of units of work you accomplished in a given amount of time. Unfortunately, most work doesn’t lend itself to this type of measurement.
If we could measure both our skill level and our focus level on any task, we should be able to have a pretty good idea of our productivity. This type of measurement isn’t a hard numbers approach, but it is a good exercise in becoming aware of where we are functioning in relation to where we could be functioning.
For any task, we function at a certain percentage skill-wise. 100% is the highest level of skill on a given task. Very few people function at 100% for any particular task. For example, if I am preparing my taxes, I may have a skill level of 20% at that task. A CPA on the other hand may have a skill level of 80% and a tax lawyer may be somewhere closer to 95%.
In evaluating any piece of work, we need to be aware of our skill level. If our skill level is too low, it may be more effective to hire someone with skill in that particular area. In other cases, we may need to educate or train ourselves in order to increase our skill level. With the tax example, I might read a book on tax preparation, spend a few hours reading on the IRS website, and call up an accountant and ask a few questions. After a few weeks, I may be able to boost my skill level to 35%.
Unless I’m willing to make learning a skill my primary focus, I’m unlikely to ever develop the same level of skill as someone who uses that skill to make a living. Unless I want to devote my life to tax law, I’ll never become as skilled as a genius tax lawyer.
You should have a good idea of your skill level for your common types of work. This gives you an idea of where you should place your development energies and also can help you decide what tasks are best outsourced.
The other component of our personal effectiveness is focus. While you may have a very high skill level at a particular task, your efficiency will be determined by your ability to focus. Your focus level may depend on your mood, the time of day, distractions, and whether or not you really want to do the task at hand.
For most tasks, operating at 25% focus will take you at least 4 times as long as if you gave it 100% focus. Of course this there are some tasks (flying an airplane, doing brain surgery, working on a nuclear reactor) where a lack of focus may result in a terrible accident instead of just wasted time. Most of us are rarely able to operate at high levels of focus for more than 30 to 40 minutes at a time. When you are operating at 90% to 100% focus it is very exhausting. Most people are doing very well to operate at 60% to 75% focus.
By combining these two numbers, we should get a realistic idea of where we are operating in relation to our potential. So, if I have a 20% skill level at preparing my taxes and I’m trying to work on them while watching a TV show that is occupying 50% of my focus, I am operating at 10% efficiency toward achieving my goal. 90% of my efforts are being wasted through lack of skill and through distractions.
In this particular example, I can turn off the television and possibly increase my focus to 75%. This would raise my efficiency to 15%, but that still leaves 85% wasted. The only way for me to really become efficient at this task is to spend some time increasing my skill level.
In general, if you can’t do a task at above 40% efficiency, you should probably consider outsourcing it. For example, I have the proper knowledge to change the oil on my car and I have tools to handle most of it. However, since I lack some of the specialized tools that they have at a quicklube, my skill is probably going to be somewhere around 40% to 60% of what someone working at a shop set up specifically to change oil would have. On the focus side of things, even if I were able to focus at 90% on the task of changing my oil, the fact that I don’t have an environment dedicated to changing oil is going to lower my focus. Instead of just focusing on changing the oil, I’m going to have to worry about buying oil and and oil filter, disposing of the oil, finding soap that will clean grease off my hands, etc. So even if I’m able to keep my mind completely focused, 75% of my time will be spent on things not directly related to changing the oil. By the time everything is considered, I’ll be operating at about 15% efficiency. Unless the cost of hiring a mechanic is very high, I should probably consider having someone else do this for me.
Obviously you shouldn’t break out a calculator to determine your efficiency for each and every task, but being aware of these two factors can help you make better decisions about how you spend your time. By minimizing the areas where your time is wasted, you’ll be able to devote more effort to the areas where you have an advantage over the average individual.
Originally published on February 4, 2006.