Efficiency and effectiveness are often considered productivity synonyms. But if you look deeper into the meaning of productivity itself and these two synonyms, you find that they actually represent separate dimensions of productivity rather than encapsulating it fully.
First, let’s start by defining productivity. Productivity is the amount of impact you create per hour or your impact per hour – that is, what difference are you making on your surroundings and how long does it take you to make that difference. (Surprised by this definition? We’ve written a whole article unpacking this definition and explaining the implications of defining productivity in this way.)
The two productivity synonyms each account for one of the two dimensions of this definition of productivity. Efficiency addresses the “per hour” or time dimension of the definition, while effectiveness addresses the “impact” dimension. Improving your efficiency and effectiveness is the most comprehensive to maximize the impact you create.
Let’s define each and then explain a cross-disciplinary, context-agnostic way to improve each.
Productivity Synonym #1: Efficiency
To improve your efficiency, you need to create the same impact in less time.
For example, the average professional sends 40 emails per day. You can either use your mouse to create a new email, click the necessary buttons to create it, and send it – or you can use keyboard shortcuts. Keyboard shortcuts are, on average, twice as fast as your mouse and more accurate. If you use keyboard shortcuts to send your 40 emails, you’ll spend 7.5 fewer minutes each day than if you use the mouse. That is efficiency. You’re generating the same impact – 40 emails sent – but you’re doing it in less time.
While there are hundreds of task-specific ways to improve your efficiency (like using keyboard shortcuts to send emails), there is a general approach to how you work that offers powerful, cross-cutting gains in efficiency. This approach is based on the business concept known as the experience curve. The experience curve states that as production increases, unit costs decrease. Said simply, the more you make of something, the less it costs you to make each one.
To translate this to personal productivity, we would say that the more you do something, the less time it should take you to do it. For this to work, however, you need to do the same thing each time. To return to our example from above, if you use a different process for sending an email each time, you won’t reap the benefits of the experience curve. The experience curve requires consistency.
The Key Way to Improve Efficiency: Habits
What is the key to consistency in human behavior? Habits. Habits enable us to do the same action or series of actions without thinking about them. As a result, habits are the key lever to improving your efficiency. Develop a system, process, or workflow and then repeat it over and over again. As you do, you’ll be come more and more efficient.
To fully capitalize on the benefits of the experience curve, you must understand one nuance. When we say that you must do the same thing each time, we don’t mean that the process you use to send the first email must be the same process you use to send an email five years later. In fact, the way the experience curve produces benefits is by continuous improvement learned through repetitions. This can happen in two ways that enable you to move up the experience curve, but improve at the same time:
- You alternate between consistency and improvement. You make some improvements and then you lock them in for a season and follow your process without making any changes, making notes of future improvements for your next improvement cycle.
- You hold the core elements of the process constant and just experiment with one element at a time. This enables you to judge the merit of the experimental improvement while benefiting from the consistency of the core process.
Historically, researchers and practitioners have found that for every doubling of output, unit costs decline 10-30%. If you begin a new process for sending emails today that takes you 30 seconds per email during the first week (excluding writing time), you’d spend 20 minutes per day sending emails. By the third week, you’d be able to send emails at a pace of 21-27 seconds per email, trimming your daily time spent sending emails to 16 minutes per day.
Embrace consistency to improve efficiency and increase your impact per hour.
Productivity Synonym #2: Effectiveness
To improve your effectiveness, you need to create more impact in the same amount of time.
For example, imagine your team member makes a mistake. You spend 30 minutes talking through everything that he did wrong so you can be certain he knows he made a blunder and he knows exactly what was wrong. However, research from Gallup shows that strengths- and future-focused feedback is much more effective than the feedback focused on past mistakes. In fact, people who receive this type of feedback are 12.5% more productive. By not using the most effective way to deliver feedback, you undercut your and your teammates’ productivity.
For each skill, there are specific best practices that help you perform the skill effectively, as in the case of delivering feedback. These are important to learn from trusted sources that recommend research-validated techniques rather than anecdotal, experience-based, or celebrity-inspired techniques that may not work at all or may not work for you.
The Key Way to Improve Effectiveness: Deliberate Practice
Beyond these skill-specific techniques, there is a cross-cutting approach, like the experience curve for efficiency, that you can use for any skill or professional area to improve your effectiveness. We all know from personal experience that repetitions don’t guarantee excellence. For example, many people are not impressed by their grandparents’ cooking. Despite having cooked 15,000 meals by the time they’re 70 (if they cook 80% of nights), all seniors don’t cook delicious meals. They likely cook their meals faster now than they did when they were 20 (thanks to the experience curve), but they don’t necessarily cook that much better.
Repetitions alone don’t guarantee improved effectiveness, but a certain type of intentional form of repetition does. This approach is known as deliberate practice. Swedish psychologist, K. Anders Ericsson, who could be called the father of deliberate practice, says that four characteristics distinguish everyday practice from deliberate practice:
- It’s done with full concentration and aimed at improving
- You’re not just engaging in the skill; you’re doing special exercises to improve the skill
- It’s graduated, meaning that it gets harder, continually pushing you out of your comfort zone
- It is followed by guidance and timely feedback
Your grandmother may not be an excellent cook because she never set out to become one. Or maybe she did, but she never broke down the skill of cooking into specific sub-skills that she could work on individually. Maybe she only ever cooked five simple dishes and never stretched herself. Or finally, maybe your grandfather was the type of man who would eat anything, so he never gave her any feedback on how the meal tasted.
If you want to improve your effectiveness in a specific area, design a training plan that includes these components of deliberate practice and you’ll see your impact increase while spending the same amount of time at work.
Efficiency and effectiveness offer the two primary ways to improve your productivity. You can learn hundreds of skill- and context-specific best practices to improve in these areas – which you can do through our online learning platform. But even if you don’t decide to embark on that iterative journey towards greater productivity, you can apply the approaches revealed by the experience curve and deliberate practice to any skill, discipline, or context and watch your impact per hour increase.