How to Remove Productivity Bottlenecks

One of the most effective ways to get more done is to find and eliminate productivity bottlenecks. What do I mean by bottlenecks? These are simply the limiting steps in a process. If it takes you ten minutes to drive to your office, but an hour to find parking, then finding parking is a bottleneck in trying to get to work. Bottlenecks destroy your productivity and they might be hiding in your schedule without you realizing it.

Why is Eliminating Bottlenecks Critical?

Bottlenecks are the perfect example of a small change that can have a huge impact on your productivity. If an activity takes four hours, but three and a half are spent on just one step, speeding up that step could make you 7-8x more productive. If something that normally takes an entire day could be finished in an hour, wouldn’t you want to know how?

What Causes Productivity Bottlenecks?

There are a lot of ways you can get caught in a bottleneck. Here are just a few of the possible causes:

Working in a Team. Waiting on team members to finish work can bring a project to a crawl. If a key member isn’t moving fast enough, the whole team might get stuck.

Difficult Tasks. Hard tasks can slow down your schedule, even if they don’t need a lot of time. It might take you weeks to brainstorm the perfect topic for a paper, even if it only takes a day or two to write.

Unpleasant Tasks. Anything you procrastinate on regularly can become a bottleneck. If you don’t enjoy doing something, you’ll probably waste time getting started.

Perfectionism. Being unable to say “good enough” can stall a project. Doing a good job is important, but constant tweaking wastes time if it isn’t necessary.

Waiting for Information. I’m sure we all know the person who takes a week to respond to a simple email. Waiting for info can become a bottleneck that’s difficult to avoid.

Bottlenecks tend to fall into two categories, those caused by other people and the ones you get caught in yourself. Completely avoiding bottlenecks isn’t always possible, sometimes they catch you by surprise. But you should be able to spot the bottlenecks on in any activity you repeat regularly.

How to Find Hidden Bottlenecks in Your Schedule

Where can you find these bottlenecks that are zapping your time and energy? There are a couple ways you can look for them. My biggest suggestion is to start by doing a timelog. A timelog is simply a recording of the time spent on every activity you do each day. Getting actual numbers can help you pinpoint where time is flowing out of your day.

Once you’ve done a timelog, there are a few places you can start looking:

Where do you procrastinate? If you procrastinate on a particular task frequently, it will probably become a bottleneck. Creating a strategy to beat your procrastination on this one task could save you a lot of lost time.

Where are your creative blocks? If you have a creative job, you might spend a lot of time trying to come up with ideas or solve difficult problems. These creative blocks can become bottlenecks, slowing down any progress you can make.

What is the least energy-consuming step? If an activity takes a long time, but doesn’t require a lot of thinking, you can probably find a way to avoid it. For computer-related tasks, look for software that might automate the step. For other tasks, you might want to outsource the job to someone else.

Where do you rely on other people? Almost any group work that requires input from someone else before it can move forward is a potential bottleneck. While you have less control over these bottlenecks, you can still find ways to speed them through.

Eliminating Bottlenecks

How do you get rid of bottlenecks? I’ve found doing a brainstorm with the specific task is enough to come up with ways to eliminate them. When I realized that idea-generation was a bottleneck for my writing, I decided to split off the step to a separate brainstorming phase. As a result, I saved a few hours each week.

Each bottleneck might require a different strategy, but here are a few general solutions that can speed up these limiting steps:

Automate. If a task takes a long time, but isn’t intellectually stimulating, there is probably a way to automate it. Software solutions can automate a lot of the grunt work if you know how to find it. Outsourcing to a virtual assistant or hiring a specialist can also save time.

Build Momentum Through Procrastination Spots. If you have a task you tend to procrastinate on, give it more focus in your to-do list. Try to schedule it for when you’ll have the most energy so you won’t put it off.

Communicate Early. When you make a request, ask the person what their expectation is for a due date. Then double that number. That’s a realistic estimate for how long it should take to get the work in. Communicate early and communicate often to make sure your request doesn’t get buried.

Split Up Creative Tasks. All ideas come from two phases, an idea-generation phase and a refining phase. If you try to do both at the same time you get writer’s block (or programmer’s block, artist’s block, engineer’s block…). Split the two into separate steps so you can collect a lot of raw idea material before trying to tweak them into something usable.

Photo: istockphoto


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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