Tag Archives: productivity

Productivity is prioritization

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

“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

Photo by Ross Parmly on Unsplash

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, The ONE Thing, and Principles.)

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?”

[Tweet “Your #passion is what you would spend your day doing if you had no other responsibilities.”]

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.