Decades ago when I was working as a retail clerk, I had a boss named Billy. Billy was a pragmatic guy who had worked in retail most of his adult life, and was full of practical tidbits of advice. He also had no tolerance for inefficiency, and was quick to point out when there was a more effective way to get something done.
I recall working on a project with Billy in which we were retagging some of our merchandise shelving. He walked me through the steps required to retag each section, and then set me loose on one of our most cluttered aisles of merchandise. To retag the shelves, I’d have to write down the existing SKU for each item, then go print out a new label from the printer connected to the register. To do this required a bit of walking, pacing between the register and the shelf I was working on. As I finished each shelf, I’d move on to the next one, each of which was a bit further from the register. The more progress I made, the longer it took since each 8-foot section I completed added another 8 feet to each walking trip I made to print a new label.
Billy watched me for a while as I engaged in this ever-increasing walking exercise to go back and forth to print each label. He stopped me and asked, “Are you tired of walking yet?” He then took hold of a small table near the register, told me to grab the other end, and as he led we carried this table over to the shelf where I had been working. He then grabbed the label printer and unwound its lengthy cable (I hadn’t realized before then that there was extra cable on this device) and dragged the printer over to the table we had just moved. By spending 90 seconds to relocate the label printer, Billy helped me to eliminate almost all of the back-and-forth walking required for this project.
Before, each round trip to the printer had taken me no more than a minute, but when multiplying that minute by the number of labels on each 8-foot section, one can calculate the hours saved just from eliminating the back-and-forth walking to the printer. Billy’s shortcut helped save the company both time and money, and made my job much easier. Although dragging the hard-wired printer down the retail aisle took a bit of effort and was a little unorthodox, this small amount of work paid off significantly.
Over the years, I thought a lot about that small lesson that Billy taught me. I’ve heard the phrase “work smarter, not harder” hundreds if not thousands of times over the years, but the fact is that finding small ways to work more efficiently can save minutes, hours, or days of effort. Finding shortcuts isn’t about avoiding work; it’s more about removing unnecessary steps that make the work less efficient. Especially when a task will be performed many times, shaving off even a few seconds from that task can add up to significant time savings and less wear-and-tear on the person performing the task.
I’m a big fan of creating reusable processes, and for using code to automate tasks that would otherwise require manual development. Sometimes, these shortcuts involve doing things in the right order, such as asking questions ahead of time to avoid lots of back-and-forth coding inefficiencies. None of these shortcuts changes the amount of output produced, nor do they diminish the quality of the product. Effective shortcuts are all about eliminating unnecessary repetition and replacing manual work with automation.
In my training classes, I usually joke about being “creatively lazy”. Using shortcuts isn’t really being lazy; it’s just purposefully spending time on more valuable tasks. When you find ways to use shortcuts to eliminate unnecessary steps, you’ll have more time to focus on more challenging and less mundane work.