Since ProjectConnections is in large part a template repository, that's the sort of question that would normally raise eyebrows. But I couldn't help asking it when this cartoon popped up in my Feedly feed last week.
XKCD is a web comic notorious for its nerd-friendly outlook on life. The joke here, of course, is the time that was spent compiling the chart. (The alt text gives it away: “Don't forget the time you spend finding the chart to look up what you save. And the time spent reading this reminder about the time spent. And the time trying to figure out if either of those actually make sense. Remember, every second counts toward your life total, including these right now.”)
Of course, this is (nerdishly) over a five-year period, and may break down for shorter time periods. My math isn’t very good. But at the same time, this is a great reminder about proportional effort in your process improvements. If you compile a status report every week and you spend a few hours figuring out how to do it five minutes faster, you may be further ahead than you thought. If it takes you all week to find improvements and finesse them, quit while you’re ahead.
Justifying Minor Process Improvements
In some situations, a minor improvement can make a huge difference. Take our hypothetical status report, for instance. If you’re filling something out regularly -- say, every week -- and your usual process is to delete the last week’s content and use that as a template, you’re spending at least 30 seconds every time just deleting text. That time may go up if you’re a re-reader, processing the old text every time to be sure you didn’t lose anything. Then, of course, you have to re-save the document with a new name (being sure you didn’t overwrite and lose the old one, not that I’ve ever done that). Then you settle in to writing this week’s report.
It’s not much time, of course. It’s seconds; maybe a minute total. But if you just take that old text out one time, delete it, confirm you’ve got all your headings and prompts set up the way you want them, and save it as a template, it won’t take very long. Thirty minutes tops. We’re way ahead in that math. You’ve made a trivial improvement in your weekly process flow, but it adds up and makes your life and your job easier over time.
Silly examples, I know. But most of our deliverables tasks aren’t that trivial. Having a standard format for a monthly status report that normally takes you all day to put together could save you hours. A standard format for a project plan that normally takes you a week to create could save you even more, by helping you catch missed tasks as well as streamlining your workflow. In short, templates really can make a difference, as long as you’re not going overboard.
Staving Off Meaningless Process Improvements
Going overboard would be easy, obviously. I know I’ve been stuck in that trap more than once. I’m a productivity junkie, and it’s a great form of procrastination.
For example, I recently decided to take speech recognition software for a whirl. The software installation itself is pretty easy, so I’ve had it for a couple of weeks now. But I’m a fast typist, and I don’t blog that often -- about once a month. So if I spend a couple hours training the software and shave five minutes off my blog time, eventually I will come out ahead, but that “eventually” curve is quite a way off. I could have written a blog in the time it took me to make it easier to write a blog. If I’m doing it every day, or even several times a week, that makes a lot of sense. But for something I do more or less monthly (often less) it’s a far less obvious gain.
But here’s the kicker: to use speech recognition, I would have to turn off my music. I am always running my music. I tune it to the mood I want or need for the work I’m doing. It might be rock, jazz, funk, classical, old standards, Arabic pop … but it’s always on. It keeps me thinking, keeps me moving, keeps me motivated.
So speech recognition stays off. I’ll save it for when I’m distracted by music because I’m working on something out of my ordinary routine, and won’t spend time setting it up for routine tasks. I’m sure it would be a huge time-saver in certain circumstances (cue all the comments about how much time people have saved by using speech recognition software), but for this particular task in my particular workflow it’s somewhat meaningless.
Is It a Toy, Or a Tool?
I was tempted to use speech recognition software as an example here, but that’s a huge productivity improvement for tens of thousands of people. Just because it doesn’t work for most of my work doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. (Did that work?) But as the saying goes, one person’s trash is another’s treasure. Case in point (PMs, start your flame-throwers): Project scheduling software.
I took a course on using Microsoft Project for a previous employer back in the early 90s. It was supposed to improve our workflow and standardize our project plans for use across the entire company. It took about a week to learn the software, after which I didn’t open it again for at least three months. The thing is, most of my projects weren’t (and aren’t) complex enough to justify the use of such intensely detailed scheduling software. It was indispensable for many of my colleagues, but for me it was just an extra layer of complexity on simple tasks. It was a toy, not a tool.
In the decades since I have learned Project, I have used it for only a handful of projects. It is undeniably useful, and for people organizing complex, highly involved and highly detailed projects, it is certainly the best way to capture all the different dependencies, relationships, predecessors, and so on. But I’m great with Excel. I can easily do most planning in a simple spreadsheet with a few formulas, some conditional formatting, and the occasional pivot table—much of which would cause novice users to either sob or scream in frustration. As usual, it’s always what works for your particular situation. Is that fancy new online contact management or project tracking software going to improve your workflow? Or is it just a great justification for spending some of your excess time and budget for the quarter without truly improving the way you do your work?
Of course, toys have value too. There can be a whole level of intangible value in having a more enjoyable way to do things. But only to a point.
(Irony alert: I was having such trouble capturing my thoughts on this particular point that I ended up dictating it in speech recognition software. It probably would have taken me hours to get through this if I sat in front of a blank page waiting for inspiration. Sometimes the toy really can be a tool.)
Time Is Money
In the end, this comes down to the same math our grandparents taught us: Never spend a dollar to save a dime. But it can be much harder to value our time the same way. As Kimberly Wiefling says, sometimes “good enough” … is. But for tasks you do frequently, or tasks that take up a big chunk of your time on occasion, it can be worth pausing for a moment to examine your workflow. Are you reinventing things on a regular basis? Are you losing precious hours trying to consolidate and interpret several non-standard formats? It might be worth getting everyone on the same page, using the same template. Just don’t spend too much time staring at the chart trying to work out the math. Remember, seconds counts -- including these right now.