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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Want to Improve at Anything? It's Way More Simple Than You Think

When it comes to improvement—whether that’s boosting your productivity or churning out higher quality work—it’s all too easy to overcomplicate things. If you’re anything like me, you think you need to introduce some ingenious hack or completely transform the way you do your work in order to start seeing any real results.

But, what if things didn’t need to be quite so complex? In fact, what if you already had everything you need to be successful—and you just weren’t quite adequately using it?

If you’re rolling your eyes and thinking, “Yeah, right,” take a minute and hear me out. I recently read this article by James Clear about simply doing more of what already works for you.

He segues into his piece by talking about nine Michigan hospitals that saw dramatic improvements because of just one process change. In fact, this tweak cut the infection rate of I.C.U. patients by 66%. And, after 18 months, the hospitals had saved $75 million in healthcare expenses—and, more importantly, 1,500 lives.

At first glance, you might assume that the hospitals introduced a state-of-the-art new piece of equipment or had completely revamped their patient care strategy. But, no—the change that led to all of these astounding results was almost laughably simple: A checklist.

It seems ridiculous doesn’t it? After all, this checklist didn’t detail anything new or groundbreaking—it just listed all of the things that doctors and nurses already knew they should be doing. However, when Peter Provonost—the physician leading the checklist project—asked nurses to observe doctors putting central lines into patients and mark down those times when they skipped a step, the findings revealed that at least one step was eliminated in almost one third of patients.

The steps on the checklist were no-brainers, but that didn’t mean that doctors always completed them on a consistent basis. Having the checklist in hand for each patient instilled a sense of accountability, and introduced some structure that ensured those boxes were checked time and time again.

Yes, the whole thing seems too elementary to be effective. But, as Clear explains, we commonly underestimate the simple. “We have a tendency to undervalue answers that we have already discovered,” he explains in his piece, “We underutilize old solutions—even if they are best practices—because they seem like something we have already considered.”

Here’s the problem,” he adds, “'Everybody already knows that' is very different from ‘Everybody already does that.’ Just because a solution is known doesn’t mean it is utilized.”

Naturally, I began to think of ways that I could apply this concept to my own life—both personally and professionally. At first, I found myself thinking of only areas of my life and career that could benefit from having a checklist attached to them. But, I quickly reminded myself that the checklist wasn’t the point—instead, it’s about identifying those things that you already know you should do, yet still often fail to implement.

“There are many examples of behaviors, big and small, that have the opportunity to drive progress in our lives if we just did them with more consistency,” explains Clear. I can instantly think of a few for myself—including sticking with a more regular sleep schedule and making time for physical activity every single day.

These are two things that I already know benefit me both mentally and physically (anytime I’ve pulled them off in the past, I’ve felt great!). But, they still find themselves pushed to the back burner all too frequently—and they certainly don’t pop into my mind when I’m wondering why I didn’t have enough hours in my day, or why I’m feeling unbearably sluggish at 3 PM. They’re the obvious answers, yet I neglect to recognize them.

Clear’s artice, and the study of those nine Michigan hospitals, has inspired me to zone in on those things that help me be a better version of myself (hello, early rise time and afternoon workouts!), and simply do them more.

After all, improvement doesn’t need to be tied to some major, life-altering shift or earth-shattering change. “Progress often hides behind boring solutions and underused insights,” Clear concludes, “You don’t need more information. You don’t need a better strategy. You just need to do more of what already works.”

Interested in trying this for yourself? What works for you that you’re going to do more of? Let me know on Twitter!

Photo of person thinking courtesy of Astronaut Images/Getty Images.