How to Improve Productivity: 6 Lessons from Great Software

Well-written software applications are fast, powerful and flexible: They are remarkably disciplined, following a rigid set of self-imposed rules. Their meticulous organization allows them to keep track of millions of bits of information, and their multitasking ability is unmatched. As air breathing, flesh-and-blood work processors, we could learn quite a bit from our binary-based brethren.

Make yourself accessible

These days, software applications of all shapes and sizes are spawning peripheral programs to enable use on a smartphone, browser or home computer. It seems that every software publisher is scrambling to create iPhone, Blackberry and Droid apps that allow their users to connect from just about anywhere.

You should make yourself similarly accessible. This doesn’t entail staying in the office 24 hours a day, but it does mean leaving an avenue for contact when you’re away. Have faith that your coworkers will respect your working (and nonworking) hours. You might also want to think twice about shutting your office door for hours at a time; that would make you quite inaccessible.

Recover gracefully from a crash

Even the best computer programs (and the best workers) have a meltdown once in a while. Once an irreversible breakdown or a grave mistake happens, the best thing to do is recover gracefully. For a computer program, this would involve resetting, running diagnostics, and checking settings. For you, it might mean taking a step back from the current catastrophe, salvaging what you can, ensuring it doesn’t happen a second time, and proceeding mindful of the cause. If your software is learning from its mistakes, you should certainly be learning from yours.

Don’t hog resources

Poorly-written programs take up unnecessary amounts of memory and processing power. Selfishly, they assume that there are no other operations running and no better use for those resources.

The same can be said for a worker who needs large budgets, multiple meetings, and a lot of coworker’s time to complete some basic, straightforward projects. They ignore the bigger picture, “tunnel-visioning” on the task at hand and sacrificing efficiency in the process. The successful (and inefficient) completion of a project feels very satisfying to the resource hog. You can’t blame them; it always feels good to finish an enormous, multifaceted project. But, not all projects have to be huge, and some can get unnecessarily bloated with milestones, meetings, approval stages and benchmarks.

Swatting a fly with a sledgehammer can certainly feel satisfying, but it’s not good work. Don’t be a resource hog; instead, be a lean, lightweight, high-performance machine.

Update frequently

A good piece of software is continually updated with new fixes and features to keep customers happy. New software is always coming out, and if it’s conceived carefully, it will target the weaknesses of currently available programs and try to trump them.

Just like the steady stream of software coming from Silicon Valley, there are annual floods of fresh graduates coming out of local colleges and training programs, armed with the latest and greatest capabilities. You may have the edge of experience, but you’ll need some “updates” to stay competitive.

If you’re have a weakness at work due to a missing skill set or an unfamiliarity with a nascent part of your industry, don’t just shrug it off. Find a book, website or podcast that covers the missing information, and integrate it into your workflow. Then, next time your group is looking for “updates” (the kind announced at group meetings), make it known that you’ve addressed a weakness or acquired a new feature within your own programming. Your “users” will certainly appreciate the added value in your “bug fixes” and “new features.”

Be “User-Friendly”

Users will always encounter errors with their software; the handling of such errors is what dictates the program’s “user-friendliness.” Even widely-used programs have indecipherable, frustrating unfriendly errors:

“An unexpected error has occurred while processing this request.”

This kind of nondescript, vague message borders on useless, and makes the software look bad. Friendlier programs will be as helpful as possible in getting you on the right track:

“Oops. It looks like you don’t have room on your computer to install this. You may need to remove some files and/or programs to free up disk space.”

Similarly helpful (and similarly unhelpful) messages can come from humans: If you’re unable to do what’s asked, would you send your users a vague, frustrating response? If you’re truly “user-friendly,” you’ll be as clear as possible in explaining what’s stopping you from running your usual routine. People occasionally accept malformed, incomprehensible errors from computers, but they’ll rarely take the same from a human being, as we’ve discussed in these communication tips.

Work well with others

Compatibility used to be a “nice to have” feature, but now it’s essential for any application. Nearly every software program released today comes with an “Application Programming Interface” (API) that allows it to deliver it’s results to other applications. Programs that lack an effective means to deliver their work to other mediums usually get phased out by a program that “works well with others.”

To avoid getting phased out yourself, take care to interface well with your fellow carbon-based co-workers. Some have their own organizational systems that involve file names, email subject lines, and carefully-planned schedules. Accommodate their self-made systems; if you deliver the work exactly the way they’d do it themselves, they’ll love the new You 2.0.

Follow through on these 6 lessons, and unlike a computer program, you may find yourself avoiding obscolesence.

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Peter is Vice President of Digital Marketing at an investment holdings company in Washington DC and Co-Founder at True North.


  1. some good tips.

  2. I never thought there would be a time where we would compare ourselves with programs! lol

    But, good tips and good comparison you make there. Although some tips may be difficult to implement, they are useful for improving productivity.


  3. Daniel Groves on the 22nd June

    Well put, I love the way you related that to a computer program!

  4. Ricardo Patrocínio on the 22nd June

    Excellent post. I loved the analogy.

  5. Ken Kurosawa on the 22nd June

    As Ricardo said, I like how productivity and computer software was paralleled

  6. Rob on the 22nd June

    Heh, great idea for an article. There’s a few applications that will go along with each lesson too! Like Adium for availability or the newly open to everyone Google Voice….update frequently! heh and Hootsuite!…Good easy reading post.

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