The #3 Pencil Principle

An office where people were filling out forms all day hired an efficiency consultant to review their business. The consultants found that the workers were using #2 pencils to fill out their forms. The soft graphite of the #2 pencils was easier to erase, but worn down faster. This meant the workers needed to sharpen their pencils more often and that the pencils didn’t last as long as they could.

The consultants figured the amount of money the company was spending on pencils and the amount of time the workers spent sharpening their pencils instead of working. The recommendation came back:  get harder #3 pencils for the workers instead. The harder graphite wouldn’t wear down as fast meaning that the workers wouldn’t use as many pencils and spend as much time sharpening them. There would be more money in the budget from buying less pencils and more time to fill out more forms. The consultants anticipated a 10% decrease in the pencil budget and a 10% increase in productivity.

After a year of #3 pencils, the efficiency consultants came back to check the actual results. They found an almost 100% decrease in the pencil budget and no increase in productivity. When they went to investigate, they found stock rooms full of unopened boxes of #3 pencils.

They asked the workers what was happening. This is when they found that workers hated the #3 pencils because the harder graphite meant they had to press hard to make a darker mark and it was very hard to erase mistakes. Instead of using the #3 pencils provided, the workers were buying and using their own #2 pencils.

This life and leadership strategy teaches us that making things harder on people rarely increases productivity. If you make something too hard, people won’t do it.

This strategy can be used two ways.

First, if you want something to happen you need to make it easy. Get rid of the bureaucracy that keeps your team from accomplishing their goals. Be easily accessible to your family and your community. Don’t spend the same amount of time to set up a meeting that it would take to just have the needed conversation on the spot. Don’t send an attachment that needs opened in an email if you can just type it in the body. 

Second, if you don’t want something to happen but you don’t want to look like a dictator by forbidding it you can make it a little harder. A little bit of bureaucracy can discourage people from wasting their time on things they haven’t realized aren’t needed or productive. This can apply to our work, our community, and our families. Add a form that needs filled out before money can be spent or some optional chores that need done before your teenager can borrow your car.

Take the time to evaluate if you’ve added #3 pencil-obstacles for your team or family without realizing it. You could have undermined your productivity without even realizing it.

The Mind-Bucket

Picture your mind as a bucket. It’s open and ready to receive and hold whatever the world offers you. Some of what the world gives you is cold and negative, and some of what the world gives you is warm and positive.

The warm things can be words of encouragement, accomplishments, and the results of well used gifts. The cold things can be unwarranted criticism, insults, and failures. At the earliest age, we start having our mind-buckets filled. Maybe you were encouraged and told all the things you’d be and accomplish one day, and the temperature of your mind-bucket was high, or maybe you weren’t and were put down and started with a pretty cool mind-bucket.

The temperature of our mind-bucket has a lot to do with our perspective, confidence, and behaviors. This life and leadership strategy is all about one simple truth; you can change the temperature of your mind-bucket. It is not fixed.

The temperature of your mind-bucket, and self-image, is an accumulation of all the inputs over your lifetime. It comes from what others put in and from what you put in. The way you talk to yourself and think about yourself is just as important as how other people treat and talk to you.

If your temperature is low, change it. Start by stopping to cool yourself down. When you fail, learn that failure is an event and not a character trait. Learn and grow. When you aren’t being the person you want to be or need to be, use your energy changing to be better instead of beating yourself up. Most of us would never talk to other people with the harshness and heartlessness we talk to ourselves. Stop it.

Start putting warm water in your mind-bucket and find other people who will too. It is okay to celebrate your successes, no matter how small they might seem. Practice gratitude to allow yourself to start to see the positive around you and in you more clearly. Find people that are not tearing other people down all the time, that don’t complain for recreation.

There is one caveat; you must be honest. If you really are failing, not living up to your potential or working as hard as you should, own it. You can’t take a bag full of ice, pretend it is hot, and dump it into your mind-bucket and expect it to make you warmer. Your temperature will not change and your self-image will not improve by being dishonest with yourself and others. You cannot take shortcuts to being a warmer and better self.

Our friends, family, coworkers, and community need more warm and uplifting people. We can be those people for them. We just have to become them first.