Tag Archives: productivity

The downside to Getting Things Done

Photo by nikko macaspac on Unsplash

This morning I had a thought that I found a little sad. In my life pre-entrepreneurship there would be mornings where I would wake up and think, “I’d like to finish that book I’ve been reading.” That would be my goal for the day and it would be a successful day if I spent it lying on the couch and ultimately reading the last page and closing the book for good.

I don’t have those days anymore.

The methodology of Getting Things Done has been great overall for me. In particular:

  1. Putting everything on paper (or in Asana) rather than storing in my brain
  2. Do it, delegate it, or defer it.

I never struggle to remember things anymore because I have a system in place that ensures I never forget anything.

However, omniscience is also a curse. Knowing everything you need to do is a weight unto itself and does not lend itself to spontaneity, creativity, or relaxation. It has put me into a state of feeling that I need to be doing the most productive thing with every minute of my day with no time for recharging.

I dread those morning emails from Asana reminding me of my seemingly never-ending task list.

Asana morning email

An even bigger issue than the fact that I never wake up with a day where I have nothing to do is the fact that it seems as if every day I wake needing to do more than I could possibly do. My list never gets shorter! My morning emails from Asana typically greet me with a subject line of, “You have 37 tasks due…”. Great. Just great. Never does that number drop below 36 and I think they stop counting at 50.

Let’s look at the GTD ethos of doing it, delegating it, or deferring it and revisit my list. I count seven things I can do in less than five minutes each. Let’s get those done and trim the list down to 30.

Some of these tasks are ones that I have been putting off for years and never get around to completing. Here is one I created on 5/20/17 and have since rescheduled 15 times. It is something I would still like to do someday but is not pressing (hence why I’ve put it off so many times) so I’m just going defer it indefinitely by removing the due date completely and marking for later which will keep it off of my “Today” list and off of my morning task reminder emails.

Asana rescheduling tasks

A few of these other tasks are ones that are a bit more urgent but also not ones that I need to address today. Those are getting deferred until next week or later.

What is missing from my bag of productivity tricks is delegation. I’m a one-man band at the moment and don’t have someone sitting next to me to delegate to (thankfully as the room would be a bit cramped). Until I have a (virtual) assistant I need to get better about utilizing online services such as Fiverr for accomplishing some of the simpler tasks that crop up. I had success with it a few years ago but, at some point, I started feeling as if I didn’t even have the time to write up a task and stopped using it. That has to change in order to make my busy life work.

Down to 14 tasks to do today (in Asana–let’s not talk about the lists in Trello, Jira, Evernote, and my notebook). The day is half over so I won’t get to them all but things are looking up.

So, the problem is not with Getting Things Done but with me putting too much on my plate and not being able to get it all done. Secondarily, I need to modify the Getting Things Done methodology just a bit and make a clearer distinction between ideas and tasks. Just because an idea forms in my brain (and thus needs to be jotted down) does not mean it should be added to the task list and assigned a date for completion. Those can easily be cards in Trello or notes in Evernote without a date constraint.

I am feeling more spontaneous already.

10 Productivity Tips From Hacker News

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“Suck it up. Stop reading blogs, stop reading HN, stop making excuses. Start working. There are no tips that will break you out of it – just self discipline.” – krschultz

This is the Nike approach to procrastination and productivity (“Just do it”). I like that the advice pulls no punches but I believe it will falter for most people in that it doesn’t reduce big projects down into small, manageable steps. Productivity is as much, if not more so, about state of mind as it is use of time.

“Work on only one thing.” – edw519

Trying to get many things done at once leads to not getting anything done in the amount of time it should take. Irrefutable logic. Additionally, and I think this is particularly important for entrepreneurs, a finished project creates value for your business while you work on the next project. For example you have two projects. Project A will take three weeks to finish and project B will take two weeks to finish. No matter what you are going to be spending five weeks getting both of the projects finished but if you work on and finish project A then it is going to be delivering value (e.g. content that adds leads to the top of your funnel, a new feature that will reduce churn, etc.) while you work the next two weeks on project B.

“Get enough sleep.” – Mz

Sacrificing sleep to meet a deadline is something that a lot of us have done countless times. For me personally I find that those late hours are at 25%-50% as productive as my morning hours the next day on a full night’s rest. So it often makes sense for me to throw in the towel in the evening and start fresh. Additionally, lack of sleep has a cumulative effect (as any young parent will tell you) so too many sleepless nights in a row will have an outsized negative effect on your productivity.

As a corollary to this, identify where in the day your most productive hours tend to be and block those off on your calendar if you can. Use the other parts for the day for the phone calls, meetings, email, etc.

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“Find a team partner – and you will be cornered to start “get things done”. Otherwise, you can’t keep show up everyday without any progress.” – hwijaya

Having an accountability partner is a great practice for staying on track. Commiting to a deadline and telling someone else about it is a powerful method for driving focus and accomplishing the task in front of you. For entrepreneurs mastermind groups are often recommended and there are numerous ways to accomplish this in a corporation including what the commenter suggested.

“I write things down. I set micro-deadlines. I force myself to move on after the deadline, or if I really need to finish it, set another deadline.” – snikolov

Writing things down is the key to Getting Things Done. Get everything that is not the current task in front of you out of your head and on paper. This helps keep your mind from wandering and holding onto distracting thoughts.

“Once a week, take something you’re doing ad hoc and systematize it, or take something you’ve systemized and measure it, or take something you’ve measured and improve it, or take something you’ve improved and automate it.” – patio11

Creating processes and automating repetitive tasks is a hit on your short-term productivity but an investment towards long-term productivity and ultimately your success. This permanently takes something off your plate (note there is some time required to maintain upkeep as all processes will change over time) and opens up time every week to invest elsewhere.

Photo by Abigail Keenan on Unsplash

“Walk – Any time I am feeling distracted or stressed I take a walk outside. It reboots my mind and I come back refreshed. If something was eluding me before the walk it typically reveals itself quickly after returning from the walk.” – endswapper

This is something that I did daily for five years when I lived in a climate where I could do it year round without putting on a parka. I still try to do it as much as the weather and my schedule allow. When I get back to my desk I am much more prepared to tackle my ONE thing.

For some a mediation break might work as well but getting the fresh air and a bit of exercise really worked for me.

“What helps the most for me is just closing out all other applications, chats, and browser tabs and not reopening anything else until I’m finished with work.” – apolymatth

I’m pretty terrible about opening tabs and then not closing them for sometimes a month or two. The problem with this is that they are a continual reminder of things undone. Those chip away at your focus just like those ideas in the back of your head and things you need to remember day to day.

One thing I try to do (and still need to be better about) is taking each open browser tab at the end of the day and creating a task for it in Asana. That way I can schedule reading those webpages along with all of my other tasks. If they aren’t applicable to what I need to accomplish the next day then I’ll schedule them for next week, next month, or possibly even just close and forget them.

“Shut off social media. Kill the noise. (FB, Twitter, Snapchat, HN, $SOCIAL_MEDIA_NETWORK)” – akulbe

Social media is probably the biggest time sink of our generation. Sure it can lead to interesting new ideas and discussions but the reality is that it doesn’t make any positive material difference in your life. By making communication so simple it has lowered the level of what people share thus creating so much more noise. (If you are old enough you remember writing emails to groups of friends–or even letters–which took more effort to write. That meant you tended to not share the shape of the milk in your cappuccino or what you overheard on the bus in the morning. Still couldn’t avoid the politically motivated chain mails though.)

You would be amazed and how much time in the day is spent looking a social media feeds. Add those hours (yes, hours) up and picture what you could accomplish with that time!

Btw, for me Reddit is the killer that is not on that list.

“Love what you do. Productivity is easy when your heart is in it.” – orky56

When work doesn’t feel like work you are in a good place. This reduces the stress you feel about being productive and stress is a productivity killer. It is a vicious cycle that ensnares many employees and one that is hard to step out of. If you aren’t doing something you love you should be doing something else. (I know that is way easier said than done but you can start by mapping out a plan and taking baby steps. It might take a while–years even–but eventually you hopefully will get to a place where getting up and going to work is something you look forward to.)

Photo by Carl Heyerdahl from Unsplash and used under Creative Commons.

Productivity Powerups Course

Today I’m launching Productivity Powerups which is a free email course that will help you make the most of every hour of your day and help you achieve everything you aspire to. When you sign up you will receive one actionable strategy a day for ten days that you can implement to free yourself from the busy work that is holding you back and instead focus on the projects that will propel you forward both personally and professionally.

All this course requires is about three minutes of your day (so 30-minutes total) to read the emails. Some of the tactics laid out can be implemented immediately while others are habits that you will build over time. Time is only thing you cannot make more of so a small investment of it now will grow into personal and financial dividends that you benefit from for the rest of your life.

This course also marks a renewed focus in this blog on productivity. Our software’s goal is to save you time managing your business and our articles going forward aim to do the same.

Sign up today!

Productivity is prioritization

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“If only I had another few hours a day…” is something that every busy person laments occasionally. As a parent of three young boys it is something that I find myself thinking almost daily. I imagine that I can turn more working hours into more productivity, more money, and ultimately more success. If only it were that easy.

The difference between me and Elon Musk is…well too many things to list here. One thing that we definitely have in common is that we both have twenty-four hours in our day. (Unless he has conquered the space-time continuum which I wouldn’t put past him.) He had twenty-four hours when he started his career and twenty-four hours now. Let’s not look at the seemingly superhuman entrepreneur who is simultaneously building rockets (SpaceX), trains (Hyperloop), and cars (Tesla) while powering homes (SolarCity) and, perhaps most impressive, finding a way to beat Los Angeles traffic (the Boring Company). Instead let’s imagine him at day zero of his entrepreneurial journey.

What did he do better than other entrepreneurs?

Work harder? Plenty of entrepreneurs work hard.

Get lucky? That probably played a part of it but definitely is not the whole story.

Prioritize? Definitely.

When all entrepreneurs have the same number of hours in a day what enables some to be more successful than others? Successful entrepreneurs get better returns on their time. They understand that productivity is not a function of time management but a function of priority management.

If you were to write down everything you do in a day you’ll find that (outside of familial and work responsibilities) a lot of it does not advance your progress towards your goals. Take that hour you spend on Reddit, pick up a healthy carryout dinner instead of cooking, skip the Netflix, and you have freed up multiple hours. But the important thing is what you spend those extra hours on.

Put everything except sleep (exercise, cooking, and television watching included) on your to do list (or block out time on your calendar). Organize your to do list by return on investment (ROI) (with your investment being your time) and you will always be working on the tasks that will have the largest impact on your success.

TLDR: Only do what is on your to do list. If you want to watch Netflix then put it on the list. Order your list by return on time invested. Work from the top of the list down. Success.

Your ONE thing for your next flight

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I really love Gary Keller’s book The ONE Thing. It is a little long-winded but the idea it presents is very powerful:

“What is the ONE thing you can do right now that will make everything else easier?”

Putting this idea into practice forces you to consistently work on what is important and what will drive your business forward.

Unfortunately is isn’t always that easy. When you are in the office you’re often interrupted by phone calls, emails, and meetings. (I have yet to encounter a meeting that came anywhere close to qualifying as my one thing for the day.) At home I joke that my one thing is getting my children to bed so that I can accomplish my true one thing.

However there is a magical place where those interruptions don’t exist–an airplane. When flying you are free to put on some headphones and focus. This is an opportunity to pound out a blog post, craft a new feature for your product, brainstorm, or whatever task on your to do list that jumps out at you as something you have been procrastinating on because you aren’t able to put together two or three uninterrupted hours.

To make the most of this precious time I plan ahead. I pick my one thing before I leave for the airport and make sure that I have the files and research I need downloaded on my laptop. I get myself in the headspace that I need to be in to be productive (it can be a challenge to do with with security lines, flight delays, and the general madness of airline travel). What I do not do is get on a plane and hope that inspiration strikes.

(This blog post was something that languished on my to do list and today it is my one thing for my flight from St. Louis to Chicago.)

Even as I preach this I must acknowledge that this doesn’t work for all of my flights. Frequently with late afternoon or evening return flights I make my one thing small and quickly accomplished so that I can spend the remainder of the flight letting my brain unwind with a novel.

So I propose that you make the most of you next flight and do one thing that will push your business forward.

Safe travels.

Creating processes to become a great entrepreneur

creating processes

“Great entrepreneurs don’t have better ideas, they have better processes.” – Eric Ries

This quote is not suggesting that great entrepreneurs are building successful businesses out of terrible ideas. What it is saying is that what makes businesses successful, and the entrepreneurs that found them great, is execution. Developing processes and executing them is what allows a business to scale and become more than a sum of its parts.

The first step to developing processes is to start documenting everything you do. Anything you find yourself repeating is an opportunity to create a process. This can involve anything from onboarding customers to handling bug reports to processing expense reports. (StartOpz can help you with that last one.)

The next step is to write down each thing you do to complete the task. You have now documented the process and can find ways to streamline it, outsource it, or eliminate parts of it, All will help you be able to work more on your business rather than in your business. That is what ultimately will make you a great entrepreneur.

documenting processes

Documenting processes

There is no one way to document processes. You just have to find a system that works for you. At a previous employer the office manager kept dozens (it felt like hundreds) of spreadsheets to document different processes. It was an example of the process breaking down. Nobody knew about a new process unless they were told about it and, with no built in notification on completed tasks, if a process involved multiple people you had to rely on others to notify you they had completed their step and it was now time for you to work on yours.

I like creating project templates in Asana for each process as that handles the discovery and notification problem automatically. I duplicate the template each time we need to go through a process. For simple recurring processes (e.g. daily or weekly tasks) I create recurring tasks inside Asana and sub-lists inside of them if necessary.

Identify inefficiencies

When you are in the middle of a process you rarely stop to question it. You are concentrating on the task at hand. However, because you have them documented you are able to periodically review them and identify any inefficiencies they might have.

Frequently inefficiencies are there because “that is how it has always been done” or because something changed and nobody revisited the process when it did. Examples might be recording information that is no longer needed due to a change in your customer onboarding process or rolling out a new software solution and trying to create your old workflow when the software has a different, and better, workflow built in.

Bottom line is that if you make an annual effort to review all documented processes you will likely find steps you can eliminate and steps that can be done more efficiently.

Automation

In addition to identifying inefficiencies when you review your processes you can also look for steps that you can automate with technology. Techies might do that with shell scripts and cron jobs but there are plenty of tools that all of us can use.

A few ideas on easy automation wins:

  • Inbox rules to automatically file or forward emails or to create tasks from emails.
  • Zapier/IFTTT to pass data between different software systems that you use.
  • Excel macros for automating any repetitive tasks in spreadsheets.

Easier to hire

Documented process make hiring easier and training go a lot more smoothly. Hiring is easier as you can more readily identify the skills required for a position based on what processes and steps the position you are hiring is responsible for.

Training is easier as there is no question as to what needs to be taught in order to get the hire up to speed. You can just follow the process step by step.

blank notebook full of possibilities

Clarity

Part on the premise of the book Getting Things Done is getting all to do items out of your head and into your to do list. Doing so keeps you from having to remember the dozens of little things that crop up and instead work your list based on priority.

Perhaps the biggest reason to implement processes is so that you can maintain clarity and focus on the big initiatives that push your business forward rather than getting distracted by the day-to-day operations of your company.

Three places clutter kills concentration

I’m pretty sure that people universally despise clutter yet almost all of us let it invade most parts of our life. (My brother-in-law is one exception as he keeps the cleanest house you have ever seen which is quite a feat with two children.) There is always something more urgent to do than cleaning. But it must be done eventually and why put off until tomorrow that which can be done today?

These are three things that get always get cluttered for me and have a perceivable effect on my concentration and productivity.

Your desktop

I don’t mean your computer desktop though your file organization there could likely use work and reflects your overall state of organization.

I’m talking about your actual desk. This advice might not apply those that work in cafes all day but most of us work at desks. And unless there is a company policy about it those desks are likely covered in papers and post-its. Not everybody is wired the same way but for me a creative mind does not thrive in the clutter.

This one had the easiest fix. Really it is more of a hack. If your desk has drawers then open one and sweep everything inside of it. If not then get a manilla folder (I don’t know of anywhere that sells a single one so you can steal one from somebody else or your spouse when you meet up with then for lunch) and put everything in there. You will immediately feel better.

Now block out a half hour on your calendar at some time in the next week to organize everything in your drawer or folder.

Your browser

How many tabs do you have open right now?

Each tab represents a half-finished project. Yes, even your Gmail tab is a project. You’ll be much more productive if you only check it at set, scheduled, times of the day.

(Nobody’s job is to answer email. Nobody has that job title. Rather, responding to email is a means to an end. It is a tool, and only a tool, that you use for communications with people integral to what your real job is.)

If you’re like me then it isn’t that uncommon to have tabs open for two months or more. I have one particular tab that has been open for more than four. I am not proud of that.

What I should be doing is at the end of each day creating an Asana task for each open tab. (That would be a nice Chrome plugin. And as I finished up writing this Google Inbox prompts me to install a plugin that is the exact opposite which saves links to your Inbox. I find that to be a terrible idea.)

Your inbox

Just like you spend much of your day physically at your desk, you spend much of your day digitally inside of your inbox. Each email sitting there represents something you need to do. There are a couple ways to tackle this. The first is to handle it like you did your desk and create an email folder titled “Pending” and move all your emails into it.

The second is to start tackling it right here and now. My post on Inbox Zero provides some tips on that but you can start now by identifying any email that will take you less than five minutes and then responding to it. Create filters for any mailing lists you receive so that those are automatically moved to a sub folder. And finally create tasks for any emails that will take you longer than five minutes to respond to. (For software such as Asana, Trello, or Evernote you can forward the email. For Outlook you can drag the email to the Task button and a task will be created.)

Remember that you should always use the best tool for the job. Email is a communication tool–not a to do list.

All of this clutter compounds on each other and occupies just a bit of your brain as you are trying to work on the projects that move your business forward–the projects that deserve your complete creative brain.

The ONE Thing

(This is one of a series of posts about productivity books and the lessons I took from them. The series is: Getting Things Done, A Sense of Urgency, and The ONE Thing.)

The ONE ThingExtraordinary.

If there is one word to use to describe The ONE Thing it is that. The book’s premise is to figure out the one thing you can do that will make everything else easier or unnecessary and focus on that. The premise is simple enough but learning how to apply it, and then actually doing so, is a powerful change in the way you use your time.

(The other reason “extraordinary” is the one word is that the author uses it 115 times in the book. You can tell he is a true believer in what he preaches.)

I am in the middle of trying to start a business. It seems as if there is a never ending lists of things that need to be done. Often it feels like I am treading water and not making any progress. For a while now I have asked myself the question, “What is one thing I can do today to push the business forward?” After reading the book I realized the better question is, “What is the best thing I can do today to push the business forward?”

While I had expected the book’s message of concentrating on one, important thing, I was surprised at the emphasis on thinking big. In retrospect they should go hand in hand but often the big things are not achieved because they have not been broken down into smaller, actionable steps.

At the largest scale the steps are:

One passion -> one skill -> one person -> one life

And they all come back to the book’s central question:

“What’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary?”

Productivity in all situations

Everybody has the same number of hours in a day but some people seem to get so much more done than others. Obviously circumstances play a big part of that. A childless man in his 20s (the stereotypical startup guy or digital nomad) obviously has more hours to work with than a single mother of two.

I have heard many people say that when they have children they actually achieve more because they learned to focus on the really, really important things in their limited hours.

“When you want the absolute best chance to succeed at anything you want, your approach should always be the same. Go Small.”

Defer the busy work. Find the thing that matters most and concentrate your efforts on that.

When you let your inbox dictate your day, your calendar dictate your week, and have a to do list that would not be finished in months then likely you feel overwhelmed and that the success you strive for it out of reach.

That describe the demands on many of us but success does not come from busy work nor is success correlated with time or effort. Keller does a great job laying out that the results you are striving to achieve can be traced back to smaller, specific actions.

Passion

Throughout many conversations I have found that defining what you are passionate about is easier for some people than others. When I ask people I often get a response of “uhh…” followed by the generic responses of “my family” or “my job”. I then try to rephrase the question to, “if you had no other responsibilities what would you spend your day doing?”

Not every passion is something that you can build a business or career around. Nor do they have to be. Simply being able to indulge them is often enough to bring happiness into your life. If a business or career is your goal then Keller lays out a path to which to achieve it.

When you are passionate about something you spend more time on it which leads to developing skills. It is those skills that are what you will be able to build a business or career around.

Lies

This might be my favorite chapter of the book as it covers some of my biggest criticisms about the business world as it is practiced (by companies more than five years old). I will not go into those in depth here (you can find some of my rants elsewhere on the site).

One big lie that he covers, and perhaps the one most relevant to the topic, is that everything is equal. Most workers feel that all tasks need to be done and rank them by importance. Not all tasks need to be done. Importance cannot be defined by arbitrary things such as oldest item in inbox or even by anybody but you.

Breaking free from that lie allows you to truly focus on moving forward.

Big Ideas

While thinking big is an amazing exercise, and he encourages you to take your goal and make it larger so if you fall short you still achieve a lot, it can be hard to figure out how to get from where you stand today to where you want to be.

Keller presents a series of four practices you should explore:

  1. Go Small.
  2. Go Extreme.
  3. Say no.
  4. Don’t get trapped in the “check off” game.

Reading the book will provide you more color on those but all are powerful concepts to utilize on your quest to achieve big things.

Multitasking

Keller makes a case that multitasking, instead of getting two things done, results in getting nothing done.

“People can actually do two or more things at once, such as walk and talk, or chew gum and read a map; but, like computers, what we can’t do is focus on two things at once.”

When you are switching back and forth from task to task or project to project you are not finishing anything that is a priority (which I define as things that generate value to you or your business).

Indeed, if you finish one project prior to starting the next, the first project will be creating value while you work on the second. If you are multitasking then you are getting no value from either.

Keller also makes an interesting point in the book that the word priority has been sapped of its meaning be people talking about “priorities”. It is a word that should not be pluralized. The definition of priority means that it should be the ONE Thing and that everything else takes a back seat.

Willpower

“Willpower is so important that using it effectively should be a high priority.”

The insight that I took from this section of the book is that willpower is a finite resource that must be recharged. One simply cannot ALWAYS be in control of their willpower. A long day of meetings, fires, and difficult decisions wears you and your willpower down thus making it easier for you to decide to skip the gym that night.

He goes into how your blood sugar level and the foods you eat contribute to your willpower.

“If you want to get the most out of your day, do your most important work–your ONE Thing–early, before your willpower is drawn down.”

Work-life balance

When you are focusing on doing one thing other things you view as priorities are going to suffer. It will be a constant balancing act. It is important to realize and accept that if have any hope of achieving the success you strive for.

“Time waits for no one.”

In order to make sure that you are doing your One Thing as well as not letting your family, job, or anything else important to you fall through the cracks Keller recommends time blocking which involves blocking out time on your calendar in advance. Switch tasks when your calendar tells you it is time. This way you will be constantly focused on whatever your one thing for that block of time is.

Other insights

There are many more insights in the book on topics such as happiness, responsibility, goals, fear, and success. All of them end up tying back to the book’s suggestion to focus on doing One Thing in order to get extraordinary results.

Reduce busy work. Increase luck surface area.

There is a concept known as luck surface area that suggests that the more you do, and the more you tell people about it, the greater your chance for success. Spend your time creating and communicating with your peers and you will be recognized for it.

The idea that being busy lowers your chances for success seems counterintuitive to that. After all if you are busy then you are by default having more interactions than someone who is not.

Busy work such as emails, Twitter, phone calls, etc. only increase your luck surface area if they are a part of a concentrated effort to network and move your efforts forward.

Being busy does not create the body of work that others will take notice of. Serendipity will not occur from paper pushing but, rather, will occur by setting goals and continually working to achieve them.

But first you must free yourself from the chains of bureaucracy and inefficiency that plague most organizations.

Paper pile - April 2011 - 2 by Sebastien Wiertz used under CC License

Combatting Busy Work

The best way to combat busy work is to implement systems that decrease the amount of time the work takes and, just as importantly, the amount of brain power devoted to it. For most people the place to start is in the inbox.

To start with do not spend all day inside your inbox. Check your email no more than a handful of times a day. You might be under the impression that your customers and coworkers would think the world is ending if you do not quickly respond to their emails but you would be wrong. If people needed immediate responses they would not use asynchronous communication and would instead pick up the phone to call you.

(I am aware that some people inexplicably expect email responses to be no more delayed than the speed of light allows. They often do funny things such as using words such as urgent or ASAP in the body of the email instead of using the high importance flags (and often on things that are not urgent at all). Those people need to be coached and it is up to you to do it or else you will never be able to fully focus on the things that really make a business successful.)

The second step is to turn off email notifications. Disable the new email pop-ups in Outlook and turn off the beeping on your phone. Those take you out of your train of thought and, as a knowledge worker, nothing is more important.

Now you are ready to tackle your emails at your own schedule rather than somebody else’s. Getting Things Done presents a very effective system that can be applied to your inbox. The system is:

“Do It, Delegate It, or Defer It.”

The premise is that if an email only takes a couple of minutes to act on or respond to then do it right then. If it can be delegated then forward it on. If neither of those can happen (it needs more than two minutes of your attention) then you defer it by putting it on your to do list or your calendar and then filing the email away out of your inbox.

(A pro-tip on your to do lists: You can drag an email to your tasks in Outlook or you can forward emails to services such as Asana, Evernote, or Trello to automatically add them. Just like with your emails address your to do list in your own time frame.)

By applying that system to each item in your inbox a few times a day you will arrive at the fantasy state know as Inbox Zero. It is much easier to achieve focus when diving into a project with no emails to address.

To lessen the number of emails you have to address each day setup filters so that certain emails are automatically filed away or added to your to do list.

Once you have tamed your inbox and created a single proper to do list (rather than writing tasks on whatever scraps of paper you have on your desk at the time) you are ready to tackle the busy work.

Start by documenting step-by-step each thing you do for one day. The next day spend some time going over that list (might help to include the boss on this) and identify anything that no longer needs to be done due to changes in the business. You would be surprised at the number of things that people do because they have always been done and nobody has bothered to stop and question it. Stop doing the things that do not need to be done.

Continue looking at the list and figure out where steps can be automated with a little technology. Investing a little bit of time and money automating processes will pay off in spades later.

Now you should have some systems in place to serve as defenses against busy work so that you can work on building the kingdom.

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Capitalizing on Real Work

Begin by taking the time to identify things that are truly urgent which are the activities that are central to your business’ success or survival. That is where you want to concentrate your efforts.

Prioritize the activities and then set goals with actionable steps and timelines for each activity that you are going to create a project out of.

Those projects vary from business to business but could be a product launch, developing a new feature, a marketing campaign, or hiring. The bottom line is that you are trading busy work for the work that pushes your business forward.

That is the type of work that will increase your luck surface area and make others take notice of you both inside and outside of the company.

Four areas you can improve your workflows

Recently at work I’ve been pushing us to do something that none of us do often enough. That is to take a step back and examine the workflows that we go through every day without really thinking about them.

As your business changes, and the technology you use changes, there might be many things that you do currently that do not need to be done anymore, can be done differently and more efficiently, or can be automated.

Documenting workflows is the first step here and, as an added bonus, also the first step for establishing the standard operating procedures that your business should be creating anyway. So this exercise is one that should hopefully pay for itself many times over in the long run as your company grows.

These are four common places where your current workflows might need some work. It is in no way an exhaustive list as every business, and every individual that makes it up, has its own unique characteristics.

Death to the Stock Photo

You find yourself doing repetitive things in spreadsheets

When I first started my job at a financial services firm I spent the first week being shown the ropes. One of my jobs was to track all trades and make sure we got paid on them. This all happened in one big spreadsheet. Every day trade files were copied in followed by lots of sorting and copying and pasting data across many columns. Once a week commission files were received and were manually cross referenced to the spreadsheet.

I made the comment that a database would streamline this process and received the response, “Why don’t you wait until after your first week to make suggestions on how we do things?” (Lesson is that people rarely want to be told they are doing something inefficiently.)

As soon as I was done training and let loose I immediately built a database in Access that trimmed eight hours of work a week down to about eighty minutes. A couple of years later I developed a PHP/MySQL app that trimmed that eighty minutes a week down to about eight.

I love Excel and spend a lot of time in it but if you find yourself revisiting the same spreadsheet a lot, or do a lot of copying and pasting, then there might be better software for that task or a better system you can put in place to manage it.

You find yourself sharing documents via email

Email is great for communications but terrible for collaboration.I find email to be great for communication but terrible for collaboration. It is poor for collaboration for these reasons:

  • Two parties cannot work on a document simultaneously.
    • Once sent you have to wait for another party to send you their revisions before you can continue work on it.
  • Comments live separately from the document.
    • While most office software has the capability to include comments in practice nobody uses that. Instead they include their comments in the body of the email and reference the attachment.
  • Projects lose priority in an inbox
    • For better or worse many people still live their business lives in their inbox. While the project you are collaborating with somebody on might have priority over anything else subconsciously it is losing priority every time your collaborator receives an email that diverts their attention, (One of my big pet peeves is talking to somebody who gets distracted by the new email popup message.) They always read it to see if it is an emergency, maybe respond, but always take at least a few minutes to get their mind back into project mode.

We have just started sharing documents and gathering comments in Slack so it is a little too early to tell if it is a greatly better solution but I suspect it is for collaboration. Dropbox also just implemented comments on documents (I believe last week).

Personally I have found that I greatly prefer collaborating with people on files in Google Drive over files on a shared drive. Even then sometimes people make changes themselves or send comments back via email (less than optimal). Google Docs does has commenting built in that I just need to convince people to start using.

Whatever you are doing currently you should make sure that the software you are using to collaborate is something the compliments your workflow rather than trying to fit your workflow to software. (When all you have is a hammer you treat every problem as a nail.)

Great collaboration unleashes people and creates something that is more than the sum of its parts.

You find the data or documents you need exist in many different places

Most organizations have official ways of storing things. Many organizations also have unofficial ways of storing things as employees have found creative ways around bad software, decades old policies, and bureaucracy. That coupled with the explosion of SaaS in the workplace has companies having their data spread across many applications and servers.

  • Some documents for a project existing as attachments in emails, files on a shared drive, attachments to cards in Trello.
  • Feature requests and/or bug reports being put in both Trello and Github.
  • You have tasks in Outlook, in Asana, and on post-its on your monitor.
  • Multiple databases or web apps house your client data.

I have found that often Enterprise level software does a lot of jobs but it rarely is the best tool for each job. One great thing about the current generation of web apps is that you can often find and use the best tool for a job and it can communicate with your other tools via an API thus pulling all of your data into one place no matter where it is stored.

Tools such as Zapier or IFTTT can help you automatically get the data into the systems you need.

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You need a system to keep track of all of your systems

If you are documenting all of your workflows and creating systems based on those then eventually you might reach what I’m referring to as protocol overload. At our company that is evidenced by having more tracking spreadsheets than you can count. Unless you are intimately involved with a process you might not know that a process already exists or where to find it documented.

Putting all of your systems in one, searchable, place is a great place to start. Excel documents that exist throughout a shared drive (and where you cannot search the contents across multiple files) is a terrible way to store protocols. Instead you could put them inside a company wiki, put them as different worksheets in the same Excel document, or, my favorite, create them all as templates in Asana so you can store the processes as well as implement them in the same place.

Every protocol or standard operation procedure should be periodically reviewed for steps that can be automated or are no longer needed.

Conclusion

Examining and optimizing workflows is a task that takes time but one that will be ultimately worth it. Eliminating busy work and increasing efficiencies will allow your organization to spend more resources on the projects that will continue to fuel your growth.