Life hack: Reclaim your time using continuous improvement

  • Continuous improvement is a quality technique that makes products and processes better over time
  • Personal life can benefit from continuous improvement and give back precious time to your day
  • You can adopt a continuous improvement mindset today and start seeing results as early as tomorrow.

Where did the time go?

Have you ever looked around at your full life at the end of the day and thought – where did the time go? You probably got your most important tasks met for the day – cheers! You may have had a few more items you wanted to get knocked off your list that you didn’t quite get to. Often those items are what you want to do – hit the gym, work on a passion project, catch up with a friend. But now you’ve got 5% energy left and that next episode of the new Netflix show is beckoning – maybe it can wait and with luck you’ll have more time tomorrow.

Sound familiar? I know I do this. The cycle is sneaky and works against us – we work as hard as we can to take care of our professional lives and home through the day, use our leftover energy to push *one more task!* through or relax for a bit, and hope for the best with tomorrow’s task list. Blah.

Removing the bottleneck

This cycle isn’t inevitable, and it can be broken if you’re diligent. How? By removing the bottleneck. Let me explain –

In project management there are three factors we account for to get to successful outcomes – time, work that needs to be accomplished (scope), and the resources available to get that work done. It’s no different in our personal lives – we all have tasks we want to get wrapped up, a finite number of hours in the day to do them, and resources (at least yourself, perhaps a partner or others) to do them.

Take stock of the resources available to you to reach your first small goal.

The ideal state in both project management and personal life is that there’s a match between all three of these factors. That means the most important work gets done – on time – by the people completing the tasks. In theory this is great! In practice we know it doesn’t always work out so easily. When there is a mis-match between time, scope, and resources causing delays this is called a bottleneck.

Bottleneck: a mis-match between time, scope, and resources that causes the tasks you’ve planned to get delayed

Like a traffic jam, there is work waiting and all bunched up together sitting on idle because we haven’t been able to get to it. (Looking at you, pile of unread books in my bedroom corner.)

The key to getting your most important tasks done (and even some want-to’s) for the day? Remove the bottleneck. The key to removing the bottleneck? Continuous improvement.

Continuous improvement

In the project management industry we learn ways to put time, scope, and resources in harmony to achieve quality results. The industry term for this is “The Triple Constraint Theory of Project Management.” If these three factors work in project management, why couldn’t we apply the same to our personal lives? The answer is we can – and do most of the time without realizing it. Except now we are going to be purposeful about it and allow these factors to work for us instead of against us.

‘Continuous improvement’ is the key to taking control of your time, work to be done, and available resources to make it happen. I have found it does wonders to keep me focused on my most important tasks and helps me avoid getting overwhelmed by the busy. The added bonus in my personal life is that the changes are small and manageable over time so it disrupts any sort of “all or nothing” thinking that could otherwise prevent me from moving forward.

Continuous improvement is defined by the American Society of Quality (ASQ) as “the ongoing improvement of products, services or processes through incremental and breakthrough improvements.” At its core, continuous improvement adds small improvements to an existing process or product over time that add up to big results.

Continuous Improvement: Add small improvements to an existing process or product over time and measure results to get to a specific quality goal.

Coined by quality pioneer W. Edwards Deming (more on him here if you’re interested) this method was famously used by car manufacturers to improve their systems and is still in heavy use across industries and agile software development today. With such a proven ability to make things better – why not check it out?

Continuous improvement make small changes over time and watch your changes add up to big results

Daily life, improved over time

To get started with continuous improvement it’s important to take stock of what you have available to you and what you want to get done. Here’s an example –

Jane Doitall, 35, married entrepreneur with 1 child.

Initial goal – Add 1 hour per day to work on her passion project – learning functional French before her vacation in 6 months.

Daily hours

  • 7 hours, sleep
  • 10 hours, work + commute
  • 6 hours, essential activities
  • 1 hour non-essential time (‘free time’)

Resources available

  • Jane, every day
  • Partner, willing to occasionally help with Jane’s essential activities to help support her goal

Continuous improvement technique suggests that Jane should first consider what else she is doing in her free time and assess priority. Is she willing to give up her existing activities (that Netflix show!) for a new activity? If that is not an option, then the true goal is to create more free time to add a new non-essential activity to Jane’s daily routine. Simply by assessing your resources and defining what you want to accomplish you can often bring clarity to the problem and possible solutions.

Next Jane can ask herself – is there a quick and easy way to get to her goal? Would Jane’s partner be able to pick up an hour of additional chores per day so she could study? Sometimes the obvious answer is also the best answer. This is known in quality circles as a ‘breakthrough improvement’ that solves a large problem all at once.

Finally, if there is not an easy solve available it is time for Jane to look for small improvements that add up to the goal she is working to achieve. Perhaps she can arrange with her co-founder to work from home every Friday, giving her an hour of time back on that day that she can dedicate to free time and her passion project. Jane can implement that continuous improvement change first and measure its success – does avoiding her commute on Fridays really give me an hour back in my schedule like she planned? Is an hour enough per day to get the results I want from my language study? Once that task is confirmed she can look for other opportunities to free up incremental time during another day in the week. Over the period of a few short weeks, Jane will have met her initial goal to devote seven hours per week studying French – just in time for her Parisian vacation in six months! – without sacrificing high priority tasks like sleep or down time with her loved ones.

Want to add weights into your fitness routine? Continuous improvement. Increase your financial security? Continuous improvement works here too. Spend less time on menial tasks? I’ve used continuous improvement here over and over. You get the idea.

Get Started Today

  1. Set a specific, small goal you want to achieve.
  2. Take stock of your available resources including the time in your day and the people around you who may be able to help you achieve your goal.
  3. Make one small change in your routine (an improvement) that gets you closer to your goal.
  4. Measure results once the improvement is in place – are you closer to what you want to achieve?
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 with another small change. Repeat (continuously!) until you have achieved your goal.
  6. Set a new small goal. Repeat the process. Watch your life change.

Wrapping Up

Continuous improvement is a technique used traditionally in professional settings to improve the quality of a complex process or product over time. This concept easily translates to our personal lives where making multiple small improvements over time can add up to big outcomes that give you more control over your time and how it’s spent. Getting started takes a few minutes to plan and then a few more to measure results later. Just ask Jane – she is likely to tell you ‘oui, essayez!’ (Yes, try it!)

About the author: Hi! My name is Jess Anderson, I am a technologist based in Louisville, Ky. I lead technology product and project management teams and am mom to two school aged kids.

Check out this article and related author content on Medium

4 thoughts on “Life hack: Reclaim your time using continuous improvement”

  1. This touches on so many of the day-to-day challenges we all face. Everyone wants to be the super hero/heroine and do it all, then end up feeling down because they couldn’t. Find your small joys that make every day better for you and follow this advice! Personally I learned to put my small passions formally into my schedule and treat them as important as a scheduled meeting. Too easy to drop something that you will “get to when you have free time”. Let free time be free but if you have a specific goal, schedule it!


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