Yes, I agree, we don’t have enough time to do all of the things we want to do. Here’s a thought exercise that might unblock you from that way of thinking. You need a map to point you where you want to go today.
First, think of all of the things you need to do (if it helps to have a limit, list 20). Now ask yourself: which of these things would really hurt if they didn’t get done? Your definition could include work, home, or life priorities or could blend the three.
Next, pick the top 5 projects from this list and stack rank them to find your most important projects. If you have challenges with the top 5, pick the top 10.
When you stack rank your projects, you force yourself to make decisions about where to spend time. If certain ideas never make it into your list, make an effort to change the priority or remove them from your list.
This list of projects is not very useful without an overall goal. The BHAG – or Big Hairy Audacious Goal (thanks, Tom Peters for this vivid image) helps to see where you are going. A goal that’s so big it is scary also forces you to think in new terms to solve a new problem.
As you solve these new problems, you will need help. Consider building a personal board of directors made up of amazing people with different strengths. Like the baseball manager who can bring in the superstar reliever, you need to find the people in your network who can give you unique insights when you need them.
Stack ranking your list of projects is clearly not the only way to organize your time. But it forces you to state what you are doing, arrange that list into priorities, and orient the priorities so that they point toward a “North Star”: your big goal.
Why you should bring your interactions to the place where people already spend their time.
Email is the #1 Destination
Ryan Hoover published a great article the other day on the trend of using email as an interface to do other things. You probably already use it in this way by sending commands to other systems: “forward this email to my expense site”, “watch my email for interesting stuff,” and “make a to-do list out of my emails.” In my experience, managing tasks through email (though hopefully not using your inbox) increases productivity and makes you generally better at getting stuff done. And there’s a bit more that we ought to be doing.
The “stuff we ought to be doing” varies, and usually relates to long-running recurrent tasks (remember someone’s birthday, maintain a daily or weekly status), project-based tasks with a deadline (I need to get some stuff done before next Wednesday), and one-time actions (“Can you find this for me, right now?”) Email is really lousy at these things, which is why we use other applications for help.
We need a better way to surface applications and services in email without breaking the way people handle email today.
Remember. All. the. Logins.
Awesome! You remembered all of your passwords (or have a great SaaS app to handle that.)
There are so many great applications that are out there (many are even free) that can get stuff done. Now, which ones should we hire to do the job? And what job are we actually doing? Just managing the logins can be a chore, and getting beyond that to switch contexts every time you want to start something new can waste a lot more of your time.
Getting started isn’t easy.
One of the great challenges of Software as a Service products is that there is a login to remember, a site to visit, and tasks to do in that other system that will help you to better manage the minute details of the things you do. You might use Sprintly for Agile Dev, Desk.com for Customer Service Interactions, Expensify for Expenses, and so on. Yet all of these products depend upon you start an action in email and then resume it in another system.
So which app was I using to do that?
When you make constant decisions that force you to have another login, another app to pay attention to when you’re on the go, and yet another slew of notifications, you dilute your ability to make quick decisions. It’s a mental burden to understand which things really need attention and which notifications arrive as a result of long-forgotten decisions that are no longer important.
Ok, Now What?
When you build an application – and need customers to participate – it’s your job to find the place and interface where they will get the most value out of your idea. I believe you should not only make your service responsive but also your service design responsive.
Towards a Responsive Service Design
Making a basic responsive design is pretty straightforward – making an insanely great one is really hard. I think the same is true when you invent a responsive service design. Making your service design responsive anticipates that customers will use different modalities and interfaces to access your idea, and that some customers will never cross into another way to use your idea. App customers may not behave the same as email customers, and vice-verse. But there are a ton of people using email, so how can you add value to their experience without being overwhelming?
Service Design as a concept implies that there are activities that customers take to get tasks done. Completing the tasks may require external actions and may depend on other tasks or actors. Finally, the activity you are designing may happen in multiple places.
Email to the Rescue: The Lowest Common Denominator
Because people spend lots of time in email and there are already many ways to access it, email is a great candidate to act as an operating system where customers might do these service tasks as part of an overall service design.
There are three basic ways you can push email towards being an operating system of sorts:
Create a browser extension – force your way into the experience, either passively (Klout in adding scores to your Twitter pages) or actively (Rapportive, adding persistent information to the existing real estate)
Invisibly solve a problem – have a background service that listens to email and makes decisions or surfaces information based on your preferences (Sanebox, for example, which automatically files your messages)
Take explicit email commands – “add note”, “send tweet”, etc and make them easier to use for “normal” people and abstract them to other media
Time to fight the blank page
All of these methods have advantages and challenges – let’s take a look.
Make a Plug-In
You could make a browser extension that will either take over the real estate or silently monitor or insert information in the places you’ll most likely interact with other services. Plug-ins are awesome for absolute control and transfer very poorly to other interfaces.
As an example, I love Rapportive because it does a great job of using the mostly empty screen real estate I used to see in Gmail and fills it with valuable information about the person who is contacting me. It even shows me the latest view that other people using the same service have of me. Rapportive is a great experience because it exposes some methods to other application services I use (send invitation, start tweet, read Facebook post) without cluttering my view. Some drawbacks of this method are that I don’t have any more mental space for more plug-ins. I’m sure that was one of the reasons LinkedIn purchased this scrappy team.
Create an Invisible Service That Does Your Work
Another way of approaching this problem is to work behind the scenes and make the changes necessary to increase productivity or other goals. This method is cool because it’s client-independent. And it still requires developers to create different interfaces in different client. (There’s less to customize, though.)
Sanebox just works – it filters the email I receive into Gmail labels and then gives me a single digest a day to take actions. From my daily email digest I can delete unwanted messages, set reminders, and see how I’m doing relative to prior days or weeks. When I want to ignore Sanebox, it’s still doing work for me and allows me to close email for long periods of time and then solve for a burst of emails all at once. I don’t have to worry about filing any more – I just search.
Another version of this implementation is the inverse of a service that is implemented everywhere – Mailbox lives only in an iPhone app and allows you to connect to many email clients and apply the same simple management effort to each one. Mailbox takes the best metaphors from the mobile interface and applies them to email: swipe to promote an email to a task or to archive or delete it.
Make external tasks possible in Email
The traditional, geeky way to make external tasks possible in email is to require the customer to send an explicit email command in a subject line or in an interaction body so that the server on the other end of the “conversation” knows exactly what task to execute. In practice, this works well for “send my stuff to you and have you process it” and is harder to execute for “do only the thing I want you to do and not that other thing based on the thing I type.” Normal people – that is, people who don’t talk to computers all day – have a hard time doing this.
Yet the potential exists – many of us use Siri, Google Voice Commands, or interfaces like Google Glass to create a graph search-like call and response with our services. So let’s do that with email – and that’s where Google is going.
Google’s version of this is borrowed from another company, however. Their previous versions of “do stuff in your email” were possible only for geeks to do. You needed to install a “Labs Feature,” or use keyboard shortcuts, or do other things late adopters don’t tend to do. And what’s the solution? Apps that magically show you what to do and offer fewer choices and fewer configuration steps.
We should thank Facebook and Apple for priming customers to act this way – the app economy makes customers expect one-click actions to solve their problems. So now it will be possible for publishers like Google to create structured, in-context actions for customers to complete and interact with other systems. Some will call this backsliding and the new “Death of Email.” I call this the birth of “Email, the Operating System for Life.”
You’ve seen it, probably several times today. It’s the opportunity to take in more information and wait before deciding. It could be simple, like “what should I have for lunch?” Or it could be more complicated, like “Where should I live, given all the factors that I know.” Research suggests that decision fatigue is real, and that if you limit the choices for a decision, you’ll be happier. Many retailers disagree, suggesting that more choice is always better. I believe that consciously limiting your choices will help you to make decisions faster and ultimately, will help you to make better decisions.
Can I prove that limiting choices help you make better decisions? Not immediately, but consider the following. If you take the hypothesis that many decisions are equal in value (no, I’m not suggesting all decisions are equal), making these decisions faster gives you information about the result faster. And if you use an evaluation model to allow you to assess, decide, and react (what should I be doing, what are the choices, and what was the result), you’ll know pretty quickly where or not your decision was good. If the decision is higher in value (risk of making a bad decision is higher), then try to break down the big decision into a series of small decisions that will help you avoid not deciding.
Decisions will give you results. Because evaluating whether a decision is “good” is subjective, it helps to make sure that you’re not just picking blindly, or by having a model uninformed by events. Nate Silver’s new book examines both political pundits (they are not accurate very much of the time, it turns out) and groups that offer precise but inaccurate results (ratings agencies managing collateralized securities). Silver points out that the best way to make correct and precise decisions is to test your assumptions, to continue making decisions over time, and to get more data points. Also, if your decisions about big events are very different from the crowd, you might be wrong. Or you might be right only once in a while.
In my experience, lining up the available decisions and knocking them down (adopting the practices popularized by David Allen in his GTD or Getting Things Done method) helps me to make these decisions faster. By spending less time making decisions on small choices, I have more mental energy available to approach bigger questions. What do you think?
This is the 11th in a series of posts on Agile Marketing – the working definition of which is to “Create, communicate and deliver unique value to an always-changing consumer (or business) in an always-changing market with an always-changing product.” (See the the original post here.) One of the main tenets of the Agile philosophy is the idea of knocking down barriers that exist around the project – and that the knocking down of barriers alone can often be the difference between an unsuccessful project and a successful one. You can get better at identfying and removing barriers by adopting a mindset affectionately nicknamed “spot it, got it.”
“Spot it, got it” – begin with the Answer in Mind
Quick – what’s the difference between a successful team and one that flounders when faced with a challenge? It’s likely that the successful team contains people with a “spot it, got it” mentality who are willing to identify the tasks that need to get done, determine what needs to be done to solve them, and then just knocks those tasks out. Notice that I didn’t say “the best team” but “a successful team.” It’s hard to know what the best team is going to be before they become the best team, but a successful team has a good shot at being “the best team”
What does it mean to “spot it, got it”? Let’s start by thinking about what it doesn’t mean. “Spot it, got it” doesn’t mean pointing out all of the problems that the team has and never will have time to solve. It also doesn’t mean dumping the laundry list on your boss’s doorstep without a solution. And “spot it, got it” doesn’t mean pointing out a problem and then stepping away.
“Spot it, got it” means making yourself a valuable member of the successful team by identifying an issue, clarifying what it means and how important it is to solve, and then proposing a solution for the issue. If nobody responds, then Just Do It and let people know what you did and why. You might get yelled at but – as my ex-military friends often say – it’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission. Identify some barrier, explain to the team why you’re knocking them down, and then go and do it and you’ve created a blueprint for everyone on the team to be the CEO of their own job.
“Spot it, got it” also means clearing the decks for the rest of your team by clearly communicating ownership and resolution of an issue. If you reassure your teammate that you are going to solve her problem, it’s also your responsibility to go do it and to tell her at the appointed time that you are ready to deliver what you promised. And there’s an important corollary here: sometimes you can’t just do it. So when you hit roadblocks you’ll do much better if you inform your co-workers and your boss that you need help. The daily scrum (if you run one of these) is a great place to say what you’re doing, what you’ve done, and where you need help. And a phone call or IM to your team can also uncover the help you need.
What’s the takeaway for the “Spot it, got it” idea? You can make life better for your team by suggesting a solution, not just pointing out a problem. Your guess is as good as anyone’e on the team, and provides a “straw answer” for everyone else to test. So get cracking – find the things that bug you about your workflow and the work you’re doing, propose and broadcast a solution, JFDI, and then tell people you did it. You’ll be happy you did.
I’m writing this post on a timer. I am doing this as part of a practice suggested by Jason Womack in “Your Best Just got Better” – the basic idea is to measure what you do so that you can improve your ability to use the time that you have effectively. The other, overarching idea is to really focus on what you are doing so that even under duress you can get your most important things done and not get distracted by “what just happens.”
I think this idea has really good applicability to our “everyday work lives.” Think about it for a moment – how many times during the day do you stop what you’re doing – just to check email – and then return to what you were doing (answering a question, talking to a customer, or just not “doing” anything). Yes, I know – you say – I’ve read all of the studies (or at least skimmed the RSS feeds or tweets about them ) that demonstrate that breaking your flow of conversation can rob you of at least 15 minutes and perhaps up to 3 hours (three hours!) of productive work. So how do you actually do it?
My personal commitment is to try Jason’s method of using a timer to measure 15 minute blocks – you only have about 96 of them in a day, not including sleep – and to time 4 of me a day to start, to really measure what I am doing (the how I am doing it will naturally follow, I think.) This is really easy with a finite task (answering all of the customer questions in my Desk.com queue) and much harder with a less well-defined problem.
Do I know what will happen with this practice? Nope. At first (and while writing this post) it seems a little strange, like using muscles I haven’t tried to use in a while. Over time, I’m hoping that it will better able me to use the blocks of time that I have (wherever I have them) to get more done in the time when I am working’ and remind me to use more blocks of time on the key things I want to get done (which also include sleep, exercise, and family time.)
What I do know so far is that using the timer as the boundary is sort of great. It frees me up to write without worrying about writing the perfect sentence and instead focusing upon the heartfelt one. It gives me the idea that a finite task is that – just finite – and that trying to focus until the end of the task before checking email may seem hard (I am addicted to email, after all) but that a bit of focus strung together will deliver a lot more focus over time. And how am I doing? In the 15:00 of the timer, I’ve had the time to read over this piece twice, write what was on my mind, and to feel quite mindful about doing it. Thanks Jason. (Cue alarm.)
I signed up this week for the TinyHabits program from BJ Fogg at Stanford. The program – a way of training yourself to take small steps that will build into specific behaviors – intrigues me because it mirrors a few practices I’ve done over the past two years that have made a huge difference in my life. Keeping a daily and weekly log, trying to answer all of my email promptly, and always asking people how I can help them are three small habits I’ve followed that have delivered big benefits.
What did I do? (Keeping a daily log)
I can’t take too much credit for this one – it’s T.A. McCann who introduced me to it – but simply keeping a list of the major things that you do each day and who you did it for can give you great insight into how you’re spending your time. I don’t get much value from logging every tiny thing that I do – but I try to capture any activity that takes more than 30 minutes of time. Keeping this log (in Evernote) gives me access to what I’m doing today, what I did last week, and keeps that list with me wherever I go. It’s also a great place to plan – just ask yourself 3 things: “what did I do?”, “what am I doing next?”, and “where do I need help?”
How can I answer all of my email as fastly and efficiently as I can?
There are plenty of ways to manage email and to be productive, and I don’t claim to have reinvented the wheel on dealing with email. The key thing is to spend less time finding the emails that need action, and then to act on them with deliberate speed. I use a modified GTD approach to manage my email load, identifying each piece of mail to file, forget/delete, or to act upon it immediately. And if there is a quick item that I can send as the action and it will take less than a minute or two, I do it now. Added to this is a quick sweep in the morning and evening of any emails that are lingering in my inbox (yes, I know this is ferboten for some, but I use my inbox (and Gmail’s priority inbox) to let me know how I’m doing.) I never make it inbox zero, but on most good days I’ve maintained the email equilibrium and don’t have more than I had at the beginning of the day. Also, consider using the excellent email filtering tool Sanebox to make it easier to go through all of the bacn that would otherwise clog your inbox.
How can I help you?
This habit has produced the most divergent and interesting answers and opportunities. Simply asking “how can I help you” yields nothing … and everything. It’s really cool to just ask people a question and to see how they respond – it opens up opportunities to really help people. So just make a habit of the question that works for you, ask it to the people in your life, and see how it changes things. Good luck!
My best thinking time is in airports or on planes. Even with the advent of airport and onboard wi-fi, I find my best ideas come from reading (from a book) and writing (longhand, in a notebook.) When I spend time away and disconnect from the “always-on” world that we live in, I come back feeling refreshed.
Taking stock of what needs to be done.
When traveling, I try to accomplish a few different things:
Review the most important things that need to get done – I keep several lists (in evernote and elsewhere) and I use my travel time to recap those lists by hand and write out the important ones. Anything else can wait.
Build crazy ideas I haven’t thought of yet – when you’re in-between places physically, it’s great to think about the mental and physical travel path you need to take to accomplish some ideas that aren’t yet done (or started.)
Do some drawing – sketching random things opens up new ideas, refreshes old ones, and generally leaves me feeling creative.
A successful trip leaves me with four or five things that I can do when I have down time, and reminds me of the critical path items I need to do before then.
And executing the next set of goals.
It’s not enough to think of the goals that I’ll be doing – it’s also necessary to detail the steps to take to get to those goals. And that’s what I’ll be doing on my next trip. What do you do on yours?