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Are You Effective or Just Busy? Calculate Your Churn Rate to Find Out

The Difference Between Effective and BusyBusy

A few months back, I published an essay titled: Productivity is Overrated. The message was simple. Being organized reduces stress, but it does not, by itself, guarantee that you’ll accomplish the important projects in your life. It’s easy to spin your wheels on a never-ending flow of small to-dos without making progress toward completion of the big things. This same idea has popped again and again (and again) around the blogging community recently. People, it seems, are increasingly interested to ensure that their productivity system is helping them be effective, not just busy.

In this post I will describe how to calculate a simple metric, your churn rate, that helps you determine where you fall on the spectrum from effective to busy.

The Origin of the Churn Rate

Last November, I wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal’s College Journal about three students who had big successes in their first years after college. While researching this article, I kept asking myself the same question:

What makes these three graduates successful when so many others with similar backgrounds and aspirations are not?

After conducting in-depth interviews with all three, I devised a hypothesis. It focused on a new numerical metric called the churn rate. The idea: list out the major projects on your short-term horizon. Then return, 3 -6 weeks later, to find out how many projects were completed. Divide the complicated projects by the days elapsed, multiply by 100, and you have a handy score capturing how effectively you complete things. My hunch: the students profiled for my article would all have abnormally high churn rates.

How to Calculate Your Churn Rate

By calculating your own churn rate, you can determine, precisely, how effective you are and how this effectiveness changes over time and different types of projects. The details of this calculation are as follows:

  1. Make a list of active projects that are important to you to complete. These should not be projects that have deadlines. Instead, make them the optional work that would really help you get ahead if completed. Each should require around 1 – 2 weeks of fairly regular attention to complete. If it requires more, break it up into smaller chunks. If it requires less, don’t include it — it’s a task, not a project. Overall, you should have between 4 – 8 projects on this list.
  2. Over the next 3 -6 weeks, try to work only on the active projects on your list. You’ll still have to complete deadline-driven work, of course, but don’t get seduced by a new idea and add it to your list until you’ve completed what is already there.
  3. After around 3 weeks you can start calculating your churn rate as often as you like. The formula is as follows:
  • CR = [(number of completed projects from list)/(days elapsed since start of list)] * 100

Example: My Current Churn Rate

Here is an active projects list I started on October 12th:

Sample Project Page

Here is how it looks today, on November 8th:

Completed Project Page

As you can see, I’ve completed 6 projects over a span of 28 days. This gives me a churn rate of [(6)/(28)]*100 = 21

How does that stack up? Read on…

Evaluating Your Churn Rate

What’s a good churn rate? The answer here is, of course, subjective. But here are some general rules that might prove useful in evaluating your churn:

  1. If your primary responsibility is to work on non-deadline driven projects then your churn rate should be around 30 to 40. This captures, roughly, 2 to 3 projects per week.
  2. If your primary responsibility is deadline-driven projects and small tasks then your churn rate should be around 15 to 25. This captures, roughly 1 to 1.5 projects per week.

If your churn rate falls significantly below the appropriate range from above, it’s likely that you are being busy, but not effective. Start integrating more opportunities into your schedule to make serious progress on serious projects. If you hit or surpass the desired range, you’re doing fine.

For example, my churn rate of 21 is okay. But my responsibilities this semester (no classes) push me closer to the first category above, so I need to step it up to get my churn rate into the 30 range. Interestingly, until recently, I had it around 33. What’s bringing me down is trying to shut down the final projects on my list. They are the last ones to remain because they were the hardest. As I procrastinate, my rate falls. This general syndrome is common, but the churn rate helps me capture it exactly — and thus combat it aggressively. And here in lies its value.

Are you effective? Or just busy? Let me know what you find out…

20 thoughts on “Are You Effective or Just Busy? Calculate Your Churn Rate to Find Out”

  1. Someone should make a Yahoo or Google Widget that calculates your churn rate for you. You could click the “Finished Project” button when you finish a project, and the widget would count it for 30 days, before discarding it.

    It would be nice to see it on your desktop or Google homepage.

  2. Great article Cal,

    One problem with your formula. It doesn’t really distinguish with project size and importance.

    If I have one extremely important project that takes six months of complete focus to finish, then my churn rate will be almost nothing but my effectiveness might be very high.

    I would recommend factoring two more values for an enhanced (if unfortunately more complicated) formula:

    -Project size (used to compare a simple 4 hour project with 100+ hour projects)
    -Long-term impact. (estimated)

    This might give you a better rating of your effectiveness than simply project turnover. I’m curious as to how you resolve the situation? Or do you automatically chunk and label “project” anything that has equivalent value and time required?

  3. Scott, great points. There might be a way to work in a simple version of project size. In the perfect world, you could break projects into roughly equivalent chunks. But let’s be honest, that’s not always going to be possible. Maybe a “small,” “medium,” and “large” designation, worth 1, 2, and 3 points, respectively in the the numerator of the calculation?

  4. Great post!

    Scott and Cal, I find it interesting that this system is similar to a feature of Pivotal Tracker (a project management software) that automatically calculates how effective each individual contributor is being.

    They use a easy, medium and hard rating scale of 1, 2 or 3 points respectively and it works well — this could very well be a good answer to the problem of rewarding harder/larger projects.

    Also has the benefit of helping you tackle the harder stuff first (feels more satisfying to earn 3 points instead of 1).

  5. If you include a coolness measure, like ‘important, intriguing, COOL!’ for projects I think it might be a good indicator of how satisfied you are with what you’re doing.

    Project size and churn rates for completion are good for preventing slacking, but interest in your work is just as important. Having a high churn rate doesn’t mean you’re doing well;

    You could have weeks and weeks of never working on your saturday morning project, and if you got everything you hate done you’d still have good churn.

  6. Wow. This just opened my eyes. Thanks for this great article! I’m definitely going to work on figuring out my churn rate now. This should help me get accepted into taking Scholarship exams and acing them too. Thanks!


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