The Five

Learning Series

April 11 2016 // 12:27 AM

Five Ways to be More Productive and Improve Efficiency

Written by John Baucco | @PAEVENjohn


Before we get started, let me give you a little background about me since this is the first article in The Five blog series. My name is John Baucco, and I grew up in the eastern suburbs of beautiful Cleveland, Ohio with my mom, dad and two sisters. After high school, I attended The Ohio State University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Currently I am an Intern Structural Engineer at a small architecture and engineering firm in Northeast Ohio. I have always been interested in the architecture and engineering industry, so I consider it a joy to have a hand in the design of structures on a daily basis. Having learned a great deal already on my journey to becoming a structural engineer, I look forward to imparting some of that knowledge to you!

The first post in the series surrounds one of my favorite topics, efficiency.

Five Ways to be More Productive and Improve Efficiency

We’ve all been there. It’s 2:00 pm on Wednesday, and you just hit a mental wall. You can’t think at all, and there is nothing you can do to make the situation better. On top of that, you have your co-workers dragging you into a game of darts (yes, we have a dartboard at our office, and yes, it has severely affected my ability to be productive on Wednesday afternoons) or whatever distraction you might have at your office.

Fear not, I have some tips that might rescue your afternoon and make that 2 pm slow a little less of an obstacle. Here are five ways that you can ramp up your productivity in the most distracting environments and with the most demanding of schedules!

The productivity methods below are a combination of methods that we use at my office, or are some I have read about extensively. Each tip takes different approaches to solving different sides of the issue at hand. Without further ado, let’s begin!

1. Scrum

Scrum is a project management strategy widely used in software development, but it can without a doubt be implemented successfully in the architecture and engineering industry. I say without a doubt because I know from experience. At my office, we use scrum in both the architecture and structural engineering departments, and have seen outstanding results.

Scrum is an agile process approach to project management, meaning that it utilizes incremental work periods called sprints. In scrum, complex projects are broken down into their most basic tasks, called stories. Those stories are then organized into a series of sprints by the Scrum Master, who delegates each story to a member of a small team in a divide and conquer approach. Once a sprint is completed and all of the stories (tasks) are up to snuff with the Scrum Master, the next sprint is rolled out until the overall larger project is finished.

The idea behind scrum is that it breaks down complex projects and processes into much smaller steps that are easier to organize and manage. Think of it as a marathon. When 26.2 miles seems too daunting to complete, breaking it down in one-mile chunks doesn’t seem so bad. Once you have broken a complex problem down into its basic steps, there is much less thinking involved and the actual process of completing the tasks can be done without hesitation.

At my company, we have taken the scrum process a step further and added our own twist to become even more efficient.  We get together before a complex project begins, and each member of the team gives an estimate as to how many hours we think each task will take. We take the average of those hours and attach it to each story. When each team member goes to complete a story, their goal is to beat the number that has been placed on the story. Our estimates for contract amounts are based on those numbers, so beating them means that we not only become more efficient but are more profitable in the process.

2. Pomodoro Technique

While scrum is a tool used to overcome complicated problems, the Pomodoro Technique is best used to overcome the daily distractions that are hitting us from every angle. The Pomodoro Technique was developed by author Francesco Cirillo in the early 90’s. The name “Pomodoro” comes from the tomato-shaped timers that you’ve probably seen at some point in your life.

The Pomodoro Technique breaks down all the time that you have in a work day into small intervals. Here’s how it works:

  1. Begin working on a task, and set the timer

  2. After 25 minutes, stop working

  3. Take a 5 minute break

  4. After the 5 minutes is over, set the timer for 25 minutes and repeat!

Repeat the Pomodoro cycle three more times, and take a longer break after your 4th one. (I recommend 15 minutes as it gives me enough time to knock out a game of darts!). Use the breaks to answer emails, take a bathroom break, or get a snack.

The Pomodoro technique is designed to work with the actual attention span of your brain, which for most of us is about 25-30 minutes. By stopping to rest after an intense period of focus, you allow your brain to reset and change lanes for a bit to something less strenuous. After you have mastered the 25 minute work time, and you can easily stay laser focused for the whole period, try increasing the cycle time from 25 to 30 minutes. The beauty of the Pomodoro technique, or tomato time as it’s called at my office, is that you can personalize it however you want to find what’s most effective for you.

One last important aspect of the Pomodoro technique is your communication with others. As an architect or engineer, you are always communicating with your co-workers on jobs, and having to constantly answer questions will distract you from the task at hand quickly. To avoid these distractions tell your coworkers to wait until your pomodoro break to ask questions or discuss problems. If it takes longer than 5 minutes, that is okay too. Just make sure you keep your 25 minute focus periods intact.

3. The Action Method

The Action Method is similar to scrum in that it breaks down large projects into smaller tasks. In the Action Method, everything that you need to accomplish in your day is considered a project, and you should assign each of these projects a name, no matter how menial the task may be. Each project has Action Steps, which are the things that need to be done to complete the project; References, which are the things you need to complete your Action Steps; and Backburner Items, which are the things that you want to complete in the future but are not in the position to do now. 

The process takes some organization up front, but the added setup time will help you in the long run. The key to the Action Method is recognizing every Action Step that needs to be taken to complete a specific project and to keep your references organized. For every project, keep a log of your Action Steps and write down every Reference that will be needed to complete each Action Step. Backburner Items are there to serve as your long term goals for any project.

Action steps should always start with a verb that tells you exactly what to do. Making your Action Steps clear and concise is important because you want to create as little friction as possible when it comes time to start them. By starting each action step with a verb, the reader will automatically be able to jump into action and start getting things done.

It’s alright to have a project that is full of mostly References and Backburner Items. These types are projects are going to serve as more long term goals, and as you move through the initial Action Items, your Backburner Items will become Action Items, and the project will start to move forward at a faster pace.

There are many great articles at that cover the action method in greater detail. Check them out to get started on all of the projects in your life.

4. Ergonomics

Ergonomics may seem like just a fancy word that desk chair manufacturers like to tag onto their latest models, but there is actually a lot of science behind it that can help you and your company work more efficiently. Ergonomics, by definition, is the study of people's efficiency in their working environment, so it obviously has to be mentioned in an article about improving efficiency!

If you’ve ever had an ache or pain in your wrists after typing all day, then you know how hard it is to get something accomplished while experiencing even the slightest amount of discomfort.  Ergonomic standards are there to reduce those aches and pains and keep you comfortable all day. An ergonomically correct environment reduces stress on the body and mind, and allows our energy to be used in a more efficient manner.

Creating an ergonomically correct work environment can be expensive up front, but those expenses will more than pay for themselves in the long run with the increased efficiency and productivity that follows. Check out the ergonomic standards at OSHA’s website and then make sure your office is following them. If possible, host an ergonomics seminar with a professional for even greater insight.

Remember: comfortable employees are efficient employees.

5. Take care of yourself/your employees!

Although this one may seem like a no brainer, it is probably neglected by a large percentage of this article’s readers. I will be the first to admit that I myself fall into extended periods where I neglect my body’s basic needs, and I can definitely see my efficiency suffer because of it. Taking care of yourself means eating healthily, staying physically fit, and getting the right amount of sleep. It’s simple: your body is not going to perform at its highest level if these three things are not met.

If you’re an employer, take some time to think about how you can help to improve these aspects of life for your employees. Supply the office with healthy snacks so that they can stay full and nourished during those long work days.  Provide them with a monthly stipend for a gym membership or start a company sports team. Do not make them stay until midnight and show up at 6:00 am the next morning. Your employees are a big investment for you both financially and personally, so put their health and well-being at the top of your priority list.

The key to turning out more products or services is not working harder, but working smarter. Try these 5 tips to become more efficient and get the most out of your 40 hours every week. If you have your own efficiency technique that works for you, let us know in the comments section so we can all give it a try.

Thanks for reading, and I will catch you next time on The Five.

John Baucco, EI

Comments | 2
  • John Baucco | 4/27/2016 1:20:45 PM William, let me know what you think of tomato time after you try it for a few days. I'd like to see what others think of these methods. Thanks for reading!
  • William Drake | 4/26/2016 10:19:41 PM Just downloaded an app for the pomodoro timer! Thanks for the tips!
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