We all want to be better – spend less time and achieve more.
But many of us find this hard. The pace and responsibilities of modern life, the distractions and the expectations of others all put pressure on us.
In addition, the perfect lives of more organised people showing up on our social media feeds remind us of how we’re not keeping up as they get ahead.
So, what can we do about this? What do we do – and how can we optimize our lives and businesses?
1. The simplest problems can be solved with process solutions
Some of the problems we have can be solved with simple solutions.
That’s usually where most advice on this matter starts. Map out the process and look at where it breaks down or takes too much time.
A manufacturing plant, for example, is usually a fairly simple set of activities.
By mapping the process and identifying bottlenecks, you can figure out where work is piling up and take steps to reduce this.
For example, if it always takes you time to find cereal and feed your kids in the morning while you’re rushing around trying to find clothes to iron – that is a bottleneck.
You could solve this by setting out everything the night before when it’s not a rush and put less pressure on yourself in the morning.
These are the kinds of problems that can be solved by routines, habits, rules and if-then algorithms.
2. More complex problems require a systems approach
Any problem that involves a person other than yourself quickly turns into a systems problem.
You may be perfectly capable of getting ready and out the door in the morning in 20 minutes, but add your other half and the kids into the mix and everything becomes a mess.
At work, the plans and needs of your coworkers and boss will affect your day – as will the availability of materials, resources and how your suppliers and customers act.
These are complex problems – and the ones that involve people, money and stuff are the most complex ones of all.
Here, simple process optimization doesn’t work most of the time.
This is why. Let’s say you set a target that all emails must be answered within 2 minutes.
You’ll find that people will focus on the target, and anything not directly related to the target will be ignored.
Calls will go unanswered. The doorbell will be ignored.
When it comes to targets – especially when they are linked to bonuses – people will do what is necessary to hit the target.
The problem is that the system as a whole may suffer. It will suffer.
A systems approach needs to look at the whole picture, and see how the object of a target is not to meet the target but usually to improve something – probably something related to your happiness or your customer’s happiness.
Have a look here to check how you might look at systems.
3. It’s important to have a clear idea of where you want to end up
I came across the idea of a transition from a present state to a future state here.
This is a nice model – and the idea is that you know where you are right now. You have a concrete picture of your present state.
Now you need to start thinking. Open your mind, brainstorm – go from what you know to exploring new stuff – learn about something new. Engage in abstract thinking.
Then bring it back down to more concrete, future thinking. Get specific about where you want to get to and how.
While the first two approaches – process and system – dealt with improving what is here now – this approach gets you thinking about where you want to be.
Do you want to have more money, more time with the kids, more travel in your life? Do you want to sell your business, grow it, get new partners, pass it to the next generation?
These are questions of strategy, and the state you want to reach in the future.
4. And know when is the best time to do anything
Another way to think about optimization is about timing.
For example, we know that sleep is important. What we don’t realize is that we can optimize sleep in cycles.
Having a nap during the afternoon or late evening can mean that we need less at night – and given how our days are, this can make the difference between performing well or failing.
There is seasonality in many businesses – what you sell during which part of the year. What time of day is best to reach out to people. When you should plan your creative work time and when you should do management and meeting time.
Breaking the day into periods and working on using each period better is a well known tactic – from the Pomodoro method of working in 20 minute chunks to advice from Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, who said:
You can do so much in ten minutes’ time. Ten minutes, once gone, are gone for good. Divide your life into 10-minute units and sacrifice as few of them as possible in meaningless activity.
5. Make sure you’re not simply pushing aimlessly
The goal of optimization should be to make things better.
Not just one thing – everything.
For example, there is little point exercising to the point where you permanently damage yourself.
Or take supplements to lose weight that end up destroying your liver.
The problem with most approaches that are prescriptive is that other things happen as a result that we didn’t expect or plan for.
Look at each thing you do as an experiment. You’re trying to make things better, but watching out and trying to avoid screw ups at the same time.
You won’t get it right the first time, but if that happens you’ve learned something for the next experiment.
Above all, optimization is really about trying a new way to do something – and adopting it if it’s better.