Matt Plummer left his job after 6 years as a management consultant at the prestigious nonprofit consultancy The Bridgespan Group, a Bain & Company spin-out, after uncovering a few secrets to “hacking productivity.” He is now the CEO & Founder of Zarvana and lives in Redding, CA. For a deep-dive into the topics mentioned in this article, check out the Community Voice Podcast: Keeping the Flame Alive: Zarvana’s Quest to End Burnout.
The challenge of being more productive is one that no one seems to have solved. It just takes a keyword search to of “How to Be More Productive” to realize this. On the first page of search results, the headlines fail to converge: “21 tips to become the most productive person you know”; “9 habits of productive people; “5 ways to instantly become more productive.” As my conversation with a behavior change expert on the latest podcast episode of Community Voice led me to conclude, a lack of productivity is a function of goals not translating into habits that stick.
“Lack of productivity is a function of goals not translating into habits that stick”
First of all, what is productivity and why does it matter? It usually means getting more done in in less time at the same or higher quality. Employers certainly care about their employees being more productive, because it impacts value creation for the business and correlates with longer employee retention. With 87% of employees worldwide not being engaged at work (Gallup 2016), employees are more likely to experience burnout or seek out a new job.
However, according to behavior change expert Matt Plummer, productivity can be reframed to be about “having more time to do what you love.”
Combining lessons from his work as a consultant and research from behavior science regarding habit development, Matt started his company Zarvana to “put time back in your life” and uncovered some insights to productivity along the way.
As a consultant, Matt and one of his coworkers made a pet project to uncover the secrets of productivity, but found their progress plateauing after 6 months. They realized they produced better work as sleuths when they were on a client case using a hypothesis-driven, data-validated approach.
They defined a metric, ran a pilot, and over the course of a few weeks realized they had found a way to drop the hours they worked per week by 15-20% without sacrificing work output.
Along the way, Matt distilled the 3 limiting behaviors that prevent people from making the habits that ultimately help them reach their goals. He mentioned how the experience curve–so common in consulting parlance–translated to a key insight about habits.
The experience curve dictates that for a company that produces widgets, the more widgets they produce, the company should be able to produce those widgets at a lower cost such that the cost per widget goes down as the company gains more experience.
This is why habits are so powerful,” Matt explains, “because the more I do something, I should deceasing the time it takes me to do it. If you do it the same way every time, you stand to benefit from experience curve.” However, there are a few blockers that get in the way of keeping a habit.
You aren’t developing habits quickly and iterating to find one that works.
Lack of motivation is one of the reasons we do not develop habits, which is why Dr. BJ Fogg from Stanford University championed the pursuit of “tiny habits.” Basically, if you are starting a habit, start small. If you want to get in the habit of flossing your teeth, start with a goal of just flossing one tooth in the morning. You will find that momentum quickly builds, as a little effort can go a long way.
Tackling this first behavior of quickly developing “tiny habits” is also a key in balancing short-term tasks versus long-term goals. “If you have a big task, start by breaking that down into the small tasks required to do it. …In consulting, we’re always doing work plans. The art and skill of work planning is taking a big 6 month project into ‘here’s what we’re going to do next’ and ‘here’s what each person is going to do next.’ So it’s taking that same skill that’s applied [often] at the team level and applying it in the context of your individual experience. This is important not only to get work done on time, but it equips you with a list of small tasks that are specific and discrete that you can focus on with a level of prioritization and a deadline.”
Limiting Behavior #2:
You do not recognize when the context does not make sense to use that habit.
Even if you set a goal to live a healthier lifestyle, you may find that some habits have a greater ROI for you than others in achieving your standard for a “healthier lifestyle.” Striving to meet your goal of exercising for one hour every day, you may begin to work out after work and then realize that on some days, you are too tired to continue the habit. Instead of getting discouraged at the futility of exercising, gritty individuals continue to tweak habits until they make sense. Perhaps the time of day is the key lesson, and you opt in for morning workouts.
You see your habit or your personality as static.
Molding and adapting habits is the best way to ensure their longevity. “If you keep the same habit on Day 1 as on Day 21 in terms of how you’re implementing it and rewarding yourself for it, it’s not going to be as effective” according to Matt.
Plan for disruptions. Sometimes your context is not conducive to using a particular habit. For example, I learned this lesson when I made it my goal to journal first thing in the morning right after waking up, but this plan is usually shot on Mondays, when my alarm goes off sometime between 3:30-4:30 AM for my 6:00 AM flight to my client. These are the days when doing anything but rolling out of bed seems all that I can accomplish. On those travel days, I adjust my goal and tell myself that all I have to do to meet my goal is journal before the day ends.
Thinking that habits are static behaviors or thinking they are only reserved for “Type A people” are the core assumptions that most productivity articles get wrong.
Matt shares on Community Voice that he ultimately quit his job to found his company in a small town like Redding because he believed in the power of job creation as the route to community revitalization.
“You often think as you’re building your career or as you’re building your company, that you’ll get around to doing stuff that will impact your community or the impact the world later when it’s more convenient. But the reality is that, as anyone who has worked in a demanding environment for some time knows, rarely do you get all the time that you would like to do these things. Become more productive now so you’ll have more time to invest in the things that are important to you, rather than letting some of those things lie fallow for years. It’s good to invest in things that are important to you even in small ways from the beginning.”