We’re Over-Relying on Technology to Boost Our Productivity. Here’s the Real Opportunity

November 8, 2018

It’s the year 1900 and you need to head to the other side of New York City for a business meeting. Though rumors of self-powered vehicles have been circulating, your only real option at this point is a horse-drawn carriage… or walking.

Given that it’s still dark outside this morning, you decide to jump in the carriage for the ~9.5 mile trip across the city (NYC was only 91 square miles in 1900). At horse-drawn carriages’ standard pace of 2-3 miles per hour, you’ll make it to your meeting by midday after an almost 4-hour trip. Depending on what time your business wraps up, you may have to find a place to stay the night versus making the long trip back too late.

This is your work life. 8 hours lost to a commute – not across the country – but across what today would be a town or small city.

By 1930, it’s a different story. Cars have largely replaced horses as the main form of transportation in most major American cities. Your cross-city client has requested another meeting, so it’s time for you to make the 9.5-mile trip again. But this time you drive your car at the 10 mile per hour rate the first cars regularly achieved, arriving at your meeting in less than an hour.

The invention of the automobile just saved you over 6 hours of your workday.

Fast forward nearly a century. You’ve just graduated college and started as an analyst at one of the prestigious strategy and management consulting firms. You have a meeting with your client in a few days, so you settle down into your cubicle to make the presentation.

You don’t have PowerPoint, Google Slides, or Keynote. Instead, you have several rolls of different color cellophane, an X-Acto knife, a ruler, and some Band-Aids in case you accidentally nick a finger when you get tired later tonight.

Imagine the amount of work required to create just one transparency with a bar chart. You must calculate the length of each bar individually, then measure and cut each bar precisely with a sharp blade, and then adhere the cellophane to the transparency. A long slide presentation would have taken hours. Changes would have been dreaded.

Today, with the help of PowerPoint and its friends, you can make a bar chart in minutes. Small changes take seconds. PowerPoint saves consultants and other professionals multiple hours most every day.

The Downside of Tech Time-Savers:

These 2 examples highlight the power of technology to save us time, which doesn’t surprise any of us. We expect technological advances to save us huge amounts of time – and they do. But their time-saving power is so salient that it causes us to acquire 2 mistaken beliefs:

  1. We don’t give much importance to the role of our own behaviors in enabling technology to save us time
  2. We are highly skeptical of the idea that changing our behaviors can produce time-savings comparable to tech advances

We discount the power of behavior change to our own detriment. Deloitte leadership describes the importance of behavior change vis-à-vis technology this way:

“Technology is relatively easy, as any veteran CIO will tell you. It’s people that are hard. For all the technical challenges that accompany the introduction of new systems or products, human factors are most likely to determine their ultimate success or failure.”

“Human factors” are the most important predictors of successful systems and products. Take wearable devices (e.g., Apple Watch, FitBit) as an example. By 2015, 12% of Americans owned a wearable device. Most of them had purchased the devices for themselves (63%) for the purpose of increasing their physical activity or losing weight. All signs would suggest this emerging technology would have a significant impact in an important area.

Unfortunately, however, half of wearable device owners had abandoned the devices within 6 months of receiving them.

As the Deloitte report referenced above says, “it’s easy to become enamored with emerging technologies. However, the game has changed.” Gallup has found that companies that apply the principles of behavioral economics – the application of psychological insights into human behavior to explain decision-making – outperform their peers by 85% in sales growth and more than 25% in gross margin. Our behaviors matter. They matter in health and when it comes to saving time.

But what about the time-savings automobiles created?

The Detroit News – which had its home in one of the first cities to adopt the necessary behavior changes to make driving a time-saver – recalls the early years of this transition when human behavior hadn’t caught up with technology:

As early as 1908, auto accidents in Detroit were recognized as a menacing problem: In two months that summer, 31 people were killed in car crashes and so many were injured it went unrecorded.

Tech without behavior change is problematic

However, as people have become better drivers and behavior-aiding changes have been made (e.g., painting lines on the road), driving has gotten safer and safer. Take note of the “Deaths per billion VMT (vehicle miles traveled)” line below:

Behavior change drives improvements

Technology without behavior change created a disaster, not a solution. We are seeing the same thing today as millions of people lose precious hours and important life skills to digital addictions.

The Overlooked Opportunity in Time Management

At Zarvana, we did extensive research to determine how much time people lose each day by not following evidence-based professional practices – and then we created a free diagnostic people can take to see how much time they lose each day.

Prepare yourself. The results are shocking. According to our diagnostic (which is based on findings in 80 external sources and 32 peer-reviewed academic studies), people lose an average of 3 hours and 12 minutes per day. You can take it here if you’re curious how you compare.

As you’re likely doing right now, many of those who take the 5-minute test scoff at how high the savings are. But they would have very little problem believing that some new technology could save them over 3 hours per day. They didn’t with the automobile and they don’t for the tens or hundreds of productivity apps they download.

Technologies will continue to advance and save us more time, but we must not forget that opportunities of the same magnitude exist in the land of behavior change.

Why Behavior Change Offers Such An Untapped Opportunity

How could hard-working, even high-performing professionals be losing so much time?

The reasons driving was so dangerous in the early 20th century and why so many wearable devices sit idle are the same reasons most people lose so much time:

  1. It’s hard to know what works
  2. When we do figure out what works, it’s difficult to do it consistently

It comes down to the factors that drive behavior change. According to Stanford professor BJ Fogg, whether or not we engage in a behavior is a product of 3 factors: ability, motivation, and prompts. We must have enough motivation and ability, and then be prompted in order to engage in a behavior. Let’s start with ability.

Ability: It’s Hard to Know What Works

Ability is a product of knowing what to do and being able to do it. If you don’t know how to drive a car, it doesn’t matter if your body is physically capable of performing the act of driving – you are functionally incapable. The same is true for time management. If you don’t know which practices will save you time, you are functionally incapable of saving that time.

And most people don’t know which behaviors save them time and which cost them time (though they think they do). This is, due in part, to the faulty assumption that time management prowess develops naturally with overall professional development. If someone is good at their job, they must be good at managing their time, or so the thinking goes. As a result, few companies and professionals take an intentional approach to developing time management skills.

However, in our experience, we don’t find a strong correlation between performance and time management skills. Some of the top performers are wasting tons of time, but manage to do well by working crazy hours.

The other reason most of us don’t know which behaviors save us time is that there is a lot of noise and little signal in the time management space. A quick Google search of “top productivity tips” reveals 179M results. In these 179M results, there are plenty of “shiny ponies” that suck us in with their references to the behaviors of the rich and famous. There is nothing wrong with this, but we must remember that the practices cited are only anecdotes. While Warren Buffett and Arianna Huffington might do this one thing before they get out of bed in the morning, it doesn’t mean that wake-up routine made them productive or that it will work for you.

If you want to take advantage of the time-saving opportunities in the realm of behavior change, you must know what practices actually save you time. Either really do your homework or save time by benefiting from the months of research our team at Zarvana has done to find out what saves people time, which we’ve compiled into a library of over 120 behaviors we know work. (You can sign up for free and access them here.)

Motivation: Time-Wasting Activities are More Motivating in the Moment

As I explain in “The Full Dishwasher Effect: How Most People Cost Themselves Time,” most time-saving opportunities require an initial time investment in order to start reaping benefits. It’s faster in the moment to write a new task on a post-it or not write it at all than to add it to your to-do list. It’s faster in the moment to leave an email in your inbox after reading it than to file it. But in time, the actions that are faster in the moment cost us time.

Motivation is linked, in part, to our beliefs about why we would do a certain behavior. For example, in Smarter, Faster, Better Charles Duhigg describes how Marines ask themselves why they are going through such intense training until they arrive at their core reasons, like making something better of themselves for their families. Believing you’re running miles in the rain because your drill sergeant told you to won’t do much for your motivation. Believing it will benefit your family will.

Consider why you want to be more productive. Is it to exceed expectations at work, have a richer personal life, have a greater impact on the world around you, or give you more time to watch Netflix? It doesn’t matter what the reason is as long as you get past surface responses to a belief that you find really motivating. Then, when faced with the decision of whether to just try to remember your task or add it to your list, remember that core reason. Much more can be done to generate motivation and its cousin, willpower, but this is a natural starting point.

Prompts: Our Workplaces Unknowingly Encourage Us To Waste Time

Prompts are important because they remind us to engage in behaviors that we are motivated to do and capable of doing. When it comes to time management, the challenge here is that most workplaces (and managers) do not prompt us to save time.

Instead, companies, often unintentionally, prompt time-wasting behaviors. The always-on, immediate-response corporate culture has this effect. When we get an email demanding a response, it prompts us to prioritize the interruption over deep work, creating significant switching costs. Similarly, nighttime emails asking for answers before morning prompt us to remain connected to our work, not allowing ourselves to refuel.

A different kind of counterproductive prompt is found in the comments of one of our clients: “Why should I get my work done more quickly if I’ll just be given more work to fill the time?” When we experience work expanding to fill our time, it reminds us that there isn’t much use in being intentional about becoming more efficient.

Another common corporate culture that prompts time-wasting behaviors is perfectionism. Regular feedback requiring minute changes prompts us to spend time on tasks that have little effect on the overall impact of the work – a sometimes necessary, but often time-wasting behavior. I’ve written more about this in Harvard Business Review.

If you want to reap the large benefits of behavior change, you must build in prompts that remind you to do time-saving practices. One of the best ways to prompt time-saving behaviors is to follow these 3 steps:

  1. Develop time management goals (e.g., work no more than 45 hours/week, leave work by 5:45pm 4 out of 5 days per week)
  2. Find a coworker or friend to meet with on a bi-weekly basis
  3. When you meet with your time management buddy, share how you’re doing on your goals

In fact, just following these 3 steps enabled me to cut my hours by over 15% at the very beginning of what ultimately became Zarvana.

Seizing the Opportunity in Behavior Change

Tech advances will continue to save us loads of time, and we as much as any, are working to make this possible. However, over-relying on technology will result in the equivalent of frequent car crashes and idle wearable devices. We can see these already.

Saving 3 hours and 12 minutes by simply changing our behaviors still might seem crazy, but it’s no wonder the time-savings are so large when we consider that it’s hard to know what works, time-wasting behaviors are often more motivating than their time-saving peers, and our corporate and individual cultures generally prompt us to waste time, not save it.

Don’t miss out on this outsize opportunity to save time. More time results in a better life, and you don’t need to wait for some big tech innovation to reap it; you just need to change your behaviors.