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Investing time to save time

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2013. Investing time to save time. Intercom November/December: 21–22.

If you’re like me, you often delay finding ways to accomplish a task better or faster. This can range from procrastination over simple things like creating a new AutoCorrect entry for Microsoft Word, to more complex procrastination such as not holding a meeting to revise your team’s workflow or your document templates. The best way to get past that procrastination is to convince yourself you’ll save so much time that you’ll never miss the time you invested. Randall Munroe of XKCD provided a helpful graphic that lets you figure this out by consulting a simple table of values. Unfortunately, his calculations only work for a payback period of 5 years, and this may be long enough to demotivate you.

Inspired by XKCD, I’ve created a more flexible approach for calculating the payback time so you can define your own criteria for whether it’s worth your time to streamline a task or process. First, I’ll present this verbally for those who aren’t comfortable with algebra. Then I’ll present it mathematically for readers who prefer an equation.

Verbal approach

First off, figure out an appropriate frequency. Let’s start with weeks:

  1. Determine how often you do the task in a typical week (its frequency).
  2. Figure out how much time you save each time you perform the task using the more efficient method.
  3. Multiply the time saving by the frequency to determine the total time you will save each week.
  4. Estimate how long it will take you to solve the problem.
  5. Divide this development time by the total time you will save each week to determine the number of weeks before you recover that initial investment.

Other frequencies may work better. For example, if you copy certain files manually to a Dropbox account every day, choose “days” for your time units; for infrequent tasks such as monthly reports, months may be more appropriate. So long as you use the same time units in all calculations, there won’t be a problem.

If you’re willing to wait that long to repay your investment, stop procrastinating and solve the problem. After you recover your investment, you’ll save this much time each time you do the task. If you’re not willing, don’t give up just yet. Someone in your team or one of the subject-matter experts you work with may be able to solve such problems quickly, and may enjoy the break from their usual work.

Mathematical approach

As in the verbal approach, choose time units appropriate for how often you perform the task. We’ll use the following variables in our equation:

F = how often you do the task (its frequency) each week
S = time saving each time you do the task (in minutes)
T = time saved = F × S (in minutes)
I = time invested to solve the problem (in minutes)
ROI =  your return on investment (how soon you recover your invested time)

Using these simple criteria, perform the following calculation:

ROI = I / T (in weeks)

After you recover your investment, you’ll save S minutes each time you do the task.

Stop procrastinating, start saving!

The only difficult part is estimating how long you’ll take to solve the problem. Sometimes this is simple: once you know the text you want to avoid typing, it takes less than a minute to create a Word AutoCorrect to do the typing for you. Sometimes it’s more complex: it may only take 10 minutes to revise a document template, but you may have to add 10 minutes for each of your team members to review the template, 60 minutes to reconcile differences of opinion, and 30 minutes to incorporate the review comments in the template. Sometimes all you can do is come up with an educated guess. For example, changing a process or a policy can take many hours: you’ll need a brainstorming meeting to come up with possible solutions, time to test each solution to confirm it works, another meeting to discuss the results of these tests, yet another meeting to get management approval, and a final meeting to confirm the results were as good as expected.

Don’t let that stop you from trying. The only way to develop estimating skills is to spend time designing and implementing solutions. The time you save can be enormous. For example, mastering just three keystrokes for more efficient movement within a file saves me up to 15 minutes of editing time daily. My payback time was less than a day, and that investment freed up 15 minutes each day to ponder and implement other efficiency tricks.

Or to stop work early for the day.


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