Last week at work I spent negative two hours building a thing that caught sheets of print jobs as they come off our big 54” Roland plotter. The way it works is very effective, and will definitely be the topic of another post soon. Right now, though, I want to talk about optimizing your workflows by systematically attacking their parts.

First off: that was not a typo. I really did spend negative hours building this thing. I say that because it saved me a full two hours more than the time it took to build.

I spent a little over half an hour building it and testing it. When it was done, though, it kept sheets coming off the printer from curling up as they cool down. That let me drop their on-the-heater dry time by 15 seconds each.

15 seconds may not sound like much, but when you have 700 clings left to make by the end of the week…that’s nearly 3 hours that you won’t spend in the office late on Friday minding the printer. Over a full job of 1,500 pieces, like what we usually do at my work, it’s over 6 hours.

So, even though I got some funny looks for “wasting time” by building a crazy-looking thing when I should have been printing stuff…I persevered. That willingness to spend time to save time is the reason I went home at my usual time on Friday. It’s also the reason that everyone who works with me will now save 6 hours on every print job…forever. When you put it that way it sounds less like I was messing around to avoid my job watching the printer, and more like I’m a time-saving mastermind who should get a raise (and possibly a medal).

So what’s the strategy?

The basic strategy by which you find these ways to optimize high-volume work is simple:

  • Achieve basic numeracy, so that you can intuitively assess whether something is a worthwhile avenue to pursue via elementary-school arithmetic.
  • In your mind, break what you’re doing into its component steps, as finely as you can manage.
  • Dig into each step systematically – can you make it faster, even by a few seconds, or even eliminate it entirely?

If you start thinking about it systematically, and actually doing the arithmetic, you will be astonished by how much time you can save with tiny simple changes.

If you’re stuffing 1,000 envelopes, try rearranging the piles on the table a few different ways. If you can do something like grabbing two things that go in the envelope in a single motion, and spend two seconds less moving your arm? You just saved a half an hour. Orient the piles so that you don’t have to spend a half second turning each piece fold-first to insert it in the envelope? You just save 8 minutes.

We live in the 21st century. The world is a high-volume place. Mailing lists are big, websites are bigger. Saving just a fraction of a second is worth it, if you do it enough times. These things add up.

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