“Work smarter, not harder.” It’s a phrase we’ve all heard before. It sounds easy at first, but it can become overwhelming if you think about it for too long – especially given the number of articles out there producing lists of entirely different ways you can achieve this mantra.
“Make a to-do list of your priorities, then break your priorities down into micro-goals, but don’t make too many micro-goals because you might end up multitasking, which is also bad because—”
It is something I try to live up to whenever possible, though. If there’s one thing you should know about me, it’s that I’m productive – a little too productive, if I’m being honest. Even when I’m relaxing, I aim to be efficient – I only ever watch Netflix if there’s laundry to fold. When playing video games, I create spreadsheets with details on the most efficient ways to obtain specific achievements. Maximizing productivity is something I’m passionate about – and gap intelligence as a whole is pretty passionate about it as well.
As part of our “A+ work, don’t be a jerk” core value, our company has a “Research Debt” committee entirely dedicated on systematically reviewing inefficient processes and streamlining workflow efficiencies. This committee essentially peeks into each and every thing that the research department does (including daily processes, weekly deliverables, custom reports, etc.) and determines what we can either streamline to make more efficient, or delegate “to the floor” and stop doing entirely.
What’s “Research Debt,” and Why Should I Look into It?
Research debt is not always derived from the way a process is created or delivered. In fact, you may build out every process as efficiently as physically possible, taking no shortcuts before your report is delivered to your clients.
It could take weeks, if not months, to build out these processes or custom reports, as we want to perfect it and make it easy to update before it’s in clients’ hands. The type of debt our committee focuses on is one that is based primarily on how long this process or report has existed. However, similarly to how tech debt is formed*, deliberately deciding to do a process manually in order to deliver it to the client faster – knowing that it should be automated instead – definitely incurs research debt.
Think of a file or process that you complete on a regular basis. Do any of the below scenarios apply?
- Perhaps it was important at the time of creation, but is not as relevant today
- Perhaps the way it was built was as efficient as possible, but you and your team have learned so many new shortcuts and formulas since, so it can be improved
- Perhaps there’s a piece of the process that’s highly repetitive – the same keystrokes on the same file, with little to no changes, every week
- Perhaps the file is still important and has been improved, but is no longer relevant to your job title
If you’ve answered “yes” to any of the above scenarios, and you aren’t taking the time of pay off this built-up research debt, then your workflow is inefficient, and you are wasting your time (and the company’s time) doing things you don’t need to be.
How Do I Tackle Research Debt?
Any site can give you a list on “30 ways you can work smarter” – and these can be very useful! But if you really want to focus on fixing what you’re working on, rather than how you’re working on them, then you must go a little deeper than just “work smarter.” Quitting your multitasking habits and creating more micro deadlines may help you learn what to focus on, but not how to examine what you’re focusing on.
These are the steps I’ve found crucial to helping me accomplish my goals of speeding up everything I do:
- Evaluating & re-evaluating what you’re doing on a regular basis
- Determine what’s causing you pain points: what repetitive processes are you doing, that could be sped up?
- Stop procrastinating
- Take advantage of the snowball effect
1) Evaluating & re-evaluating what you’re doing on a regular basis
Sure, creating File X was important at the time it was started – but is it still important today? If so, then what about it is taking up the most time, and can it be automated? If not, can it be delegated, replaced, or eliminated?
My coworkers and I have been manually putting together a specific set of files and delivering them to our clients every week. This process had been ongoing for several years, and since our live Dashboard service was not yet available when this process had started, it was not possible to automate. However, we recently determined that we could modify a feature on the Dashboard to allow our clients to automatically generate these files themselves, without any manual labor whatsoever. When we realized this, we decided to notify our clients that we were moving from a manual deliverable to an automated one instead – one that they can generate with the click of a button and access at any time, without having to wait for us to put it together.
Yes, it hurts to even think that you’re taking something away from a client. But just because it’s the way the company has always done it, doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. If you never stop to think about which parts of your current workflow might be outdated, you’ll never realize what you can improve.
If you have an idea for how to improve something, set aside time to try it out.
2) Pain points & repetitive processes
Maybe keeping that File X up to date is still important to clients – but is there a specific portion of it that’s driving you up the walls? If you can determine which part of this task is creating a time sink, you can use your frustration almost as a springboard to tackling it.
One of my “Wednesday morning” tasks required the same manual copy-paste-switch tab-copy-paste-drag (etc.) keystrokes every single week. While it wasn’t difficult to do at all, and it was still very tedious – and very repetitive. I used to speed through this process very quickly, but developing tendonitis in 2018 forced me to slow down, and basically complete these copy-paste-drags in slow motion. Otherwise, I risk my wrists flaring up in pain.
This frustration forced me to look into this task and figure out what it is I could do faster – not by typing more quickly, but rather, by automating it. It took me several weeks to create an automated script for this manual-intensive “Wednesday morning” task. But now all I have to do is open the file, run the script, and… that’s it. 10 seconds, and it’s done.
The script turned out to be more valuable than I initially thought, as other coworkers also have to complete the same task. For some, this weekly task only took 15 minutes. For others, it could take up to a full hour, as they must perform this task four times as frequently. Our Research Debt committee decided to employ my script across the entire department – dropping my 15 minutes to 10 seconds, and someone else’s hour to just 10 minutes.
And to think, all of this came from me being frustrated with “I wish I didn’t have to copy-paste the same things every Wednesday,” and actually acting on it.
3) Do. Not. Procrastinate.
From emails to phone calls to dishes to laundry – we all know that the longer you put something off, the more it can pile into something bigger. However, what I mean in this specific case is to not procrastinate on dedicating time to look into what ways you can make your processes more efficient. The more important something is to complete regularly, or the more time you know you can save by streamlining it, the quicker you should tackle it.
I had spent a lot of time this month pushing to automate two manually-intensive repetitive tasks. If gap intelligence hadn’t implemented these changes as quickly as it did, (1) we’d still be doing them manually, and (2) we wouldn’t be allocating these saved resources today to other things. Shaving off an hour a week definitely adds up, and this extra hour allows you to focus on more important things. This includes simply wrapping up your workday sooner.
4) The snowball effect
Once you finish automating or eliminating a task, it’s hard to stop. You’ll be in the mood to start reexamining other pain-points, trying to figure out what else you can lump in the “this can be better” or “we don’t need this anymore” categories.
It might be hard getting into a new workout routine. But once you get going for a week or two, regardless of how long each workout takes, it becomes a natural habit. While you may or may not enjoy it, you may enjoy the outcome of working out, and it becomes something you make time for – even if you “never had time for it” before then.
I’ve found the same mindset is true for me when it comes to streamlining my workflow. Now that I’ve automated one file and eliminated another, I’m determined to discover what else can be made more efficient. Sometimes, all it takes is pushing through the initial resistance of that first step to make a difference.
But also: Do take breaks. Burning out is a terrible scenario to get into, and something you want to prevent at all costs (These are all the ways I keep myself from burning out, which you may find useful as well.) When I couldn’t overcome a specific obstacle while working on my automated script, I became exhausted, and took a week-long break from working on it. When I returned to complete it, I was actually able to finish it, in one sitting, thanks to having a clearer mind.
Make time to save time
There are many lists out there declaring the best ways to “work smarter, not harder.” Take more breaks, meditate to reduce stress, do things in chunks rather than all at once, and so on (and I agree with all of these suggestions). However, one piece of this mantra that doesn’t get talked about enough is specifically tackling the “debt” that builds up with working on your processes over time.
You not only have to look at things that make you feel more productive and more energized, but you should also be taking a step back and really look at the work you’re currently doing. When you do this, you can figure out which processes you can improve or stop doing entirely, and speed up what’s holding you back. At first, it may seem like you’re sinking in more time than if you just completed your work as usual. But in making time to research and implement these improvements, you’ll 100% save more time in the long run – which is always worth it.
If you would like to learn more about tech debt in particular, gappers Eugene and Timur have written articles about why paying off tech debt is important and how to do so. Email us at email@example.com or call us at 619-574-1100 to learn more.