For Product Managers Efficiency Must Be A Habit
No one intends to be inefficient. No one wants to feel the discomfort of wasted time, lost papers or forgotten tasks. But inevitably we may develop behaviors that lead us down that path, and our environment plays a key role.
A very perceptive William James wrote in 1892 “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.”  We may move through our day believing that we are making conscious decisions about our behaviors, how we interact with people or how we spend our time but unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) that’s not the case.
In research conducted by Duke University, they found that the majority of our behaviors are habits, meaning that they are automatic and execute when cued by our immediate environment. Think about it, did you have to decide which shoe to tie first? Did you wrestle with several options for how to get to work this morning? Did you map out all your options for checking your email? Did you try a new system for taking notes in a meeting? Or, in all these cases did you just do what you always do?
What’s more, the Duke researchers found that just having information promoting other options is not enough to change a habit. So being bombarded with endless options of how to make ourselves better, more efficient, or healthier is not enough to change our habits. Our opinion might change, our judgment might change, our beliefs might change….but not a habit. The researchers found that the key is in changing the environment preceding the habit.
So how do we tie all this into developing an efficiency habit? The first step is to decide on a single habit to shift or change. Choose one that is costing you the most in your inefficiency. Don’t try to change several habits at once but be encouraged knowing that a single habit shift often leads to further positive adjustments simply as a result.
The next step is to set up your environment to support the new habit and make the old one really difficult to continue. For example (here’s an easy one) if you write notes on a sticky pad and then misplace your notes, remove all sticky pads from your office and set out a spiral notebook on your desk, keep a small notebook in your backpack and another small one in your pocket with a collapsible pen. Now you have no choice but to build a new habit of using a notebook for notes and you will enjoy the efficiency of never losing a sticky paper again.
For a more complex inefficient habit like checking your email 50 zillion times a day (and this does lead to inefficiency by interrupting your thought process on any other task you are completing). Decide a reasonable number of times to check email per day and set a time for each, say 9 am, 12 pm, 3 pm, and 6 pm. Then, remove the environmental temptation to check it. Log out of the email system on your computer, BUT set a reminder on your phone or computer for your scheduled checks. Make it too difficult to support your old habit of just clicking on your email tab or window every two minutes.
If you have a habit of losing mail or receipts, then deposit them in a basket or box but set it in front of your monitor or on top of your backpack. You can’t move the box out of your way unless it’s empty. Period. You’ll need to process the papers, receipts, etc. in the box to begin your work or in order to leave for the day. The change in the environment will change how you handle mail and receipts. The initial environmental change, even if it seems odd or unusual is enough to break the old habit. Once the new habit is well established in your routine, you won’t have to go to such extreme measures to follow through.
The automatic nature of a habit can be used to your advantage. Through strategic shifts in your environment, you can harness those cues to reduce habits that are draining your efficiency while creating an environment for new habits that boost your efficiency.
 James, W. (1983). Talks to teachers on psychology and to students on some life’s ideals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Originally published 1899.
 Bas, V., & Wendy, W. (2006). Interventions to Break and Create Consumer Habits. Journal Of Public Policy & Marketing, (1), 90.