Probably the most difficult challenge I’ve had to deal with since last autumn until now is learning how to do everything that needs doing in a day as demands on my time and my roles have changed. It’s been difficult, and along the way, I let down a few people, friends who wanted my best effort, and who got a really pale rendition of what I can do and offer instead. That was hard to swallow, as no one ever likes to overpromise and underdeliver. Since that time (probably starting this last September), I’ve been working towards learning how to scale my skillsets up to this next level, trying to rapidly prototype what I have to know how to do to get everything on my plate done. I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned with you, because at some levels, I think this is useful “how to” information for anyone working in the Creative class. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Gandhi was fond of saying that we all have the same 24 hours in our day; it’s all in how we use them. All of these things that I’ve cut are my choice. If YOU do them, that’s great. This is where I found some time.
- I don’t watch commercial TV (haven’t for years).
- I don’t play casual games online more than once in a blue moon. (Last night, I played Line Runner to test out MySpace’s recently launched games portal.)
- I cut several projects that I was doing that were fun, but weren’t meaningful to my larger goals.
- I cut participation in several online groups where I was only going through the motion.
- I cut how much time I spend on any particular social network. I spend time with people, but I don’t consume every scrap of content.
- I’ve chopped out real time social events that felt more like obligations, and limit my social media ones to 2x/week.
Through these efforts, I find back some of the time I need to work on projects that matter more to me, and to spend with my family, who are my supporters and the people I want to please most after myself.
Say No With Kindness MUCH More Often
This one is hard for me. I love participating. I love being part of things. But I have found that I have to say no to things a lot more often, so that I don’t accidentally set myself up to let others down. This still happens, because sometimes, I misjudge the project’s impact. But more often than not, I’m sending people polite no’s, and redirecting them to people who might be just as good at fulfilling a request. The more I can say no to projects that I can’t possibly keep up with, the more likely I am to do well at the ones I’ve already taken on.
Learn Triage and Loop Closing
Triage is the art of quickly looking at everything that needs doing and knowing what will either make the most impact or relieve the most stress. Often times, in business, we’re faced with relieving the stress (pressure of deadlines, complaints, squeaky wheels, low hanging fruit) before we can actually take on the parts that have the most impact. I try hard to balance those two targets, even though I often find myself more on the tactical side of the stick than I’d like.
Loop closing becomes important in communication. When it comes to the back and forth of business communication, I strive for closing the loop as fast as I can. Let me explain with an example:
- You email me asking me for a phone call to run something by me.
- I respond with my cell number, the days I’m best able to take a call, times that are best, and ask for some sense of the agenda of the call. (Note that I’ve given as much to close the back and forth as I can on that first pass.)
- You email back with a few dates and times. I pick whichever is first that matches my needs (no thinking, just doing), and if you’ve given me a summary, I try to offer my advice in email (which works faster than phone calls, and permits asynchronous conversation).
- I close the entire thread with no more than 1 or 2 more emails TOPS, and only then if I think I can resolve this without that meeting.
I do the same with all communication, as best as I can. When the boss points out a problem, I give him recommended next actions to take, and/or describe which ones I can handle without any input. Even if I have to have follow-up and re-positioning conversations, I’ve given my best shot at settling this on the first pass.
I had a great conversation the other day where the key point that seemed to be missing from someone else’s action was decisiveness. I recognized at once that there are points in my day when I’m not just deciding on a path and taking action, that I’m shopping my idea around for advice before execution, even when it’s my task to solve. I’ve learned through this that however much I can fold into a decision, that’s more that won’t be a loose thread blowing in the wind for me later.
Templating and Shortcuts
Perhaps the most important thing I learned from Thomas L. Friedman’s THE WORLD IS FLAT is the notion of “value chain disaggregation.” Big words, but what they mostly mean is that if you look at some work process, there is almost always some way to break it down into a chain of processes, and that SOME of the processes need real thought and consideration, while other processes are more repetitive and/or simpler to replicate. Your goal (the goal of Creatives) is to focus on the part that adds value, and find ways to automate or outsource the parts that take the least creative effort.
I’m doing this with work, insofar as I’m working to build processes that others can execute, where my ideas are most useful up front and in the final execution, but not in the operational details. I call this templating.
On the side of shortcuts, I’m doing lots of things. On my computer, I’ve started using TextExpander and iClip extensively to speed up my use of repetitive text. Whenever I find a word or phrase or piece of information I use all the time, it goes into either of those applications (both Mac applications) for use.
I’ve also learned keyboard shortcuts for Firefox, Gmail, and Google Reader, such that my primary tool for communication and my tool for information processing is all keyboard-level fast for me. This cuts down the amount of time it takes to process things.
Finally, people ask how I’m always posting stuff daily and without much break in consistency of quality. WordPress has a simple, DIVINE tool that I use quite frequently: Edit Time Stamp. I can set a post to launch whenever I wish, so for the possibility of me having too much to do and not enough time to manage my blogging (which I consider to be an important part of my life’s work right now), I schedule a few posts to launch on days or times when I’m worried I might miss getting something out to you. This has proven very valuable on days when I’m too busy with other projects to get a post out, but when I know I’d rather you have something new to consider.
- I make use of two tools for my task and project management right now: Things (a project software for Macs loosely based on Getting Things Done), and Google Calendar. Between these two, I’ve found a flow that helps me move through my processes faster and with fewer drops.
- I don’t use instant messenger much because I find that the majority of people who contact me there are “bored” or “hanging out” and I am almost always neither bored nor hanging out. Though I do use Jabber IM to see Twitter.
- I think in multiple threads. Instead of fighting this habit of doing more than one thing at a time, I have a few things I try to do to keep focus: I open a notepad file with huge font and put the top most important things to do in a given day. I keep a ‘scratch pad’ or two running with strange sidebar thoughts or tasks.
- I allow lots of things to fall right out of my head after their impact has lessened. #1 on this list: directions. I have no idea where I’m going most of the time. I’ve surrendered to wanting to know. I use Google Maps. Some day, Garmin will take pity on me and just send me a GPS, but then, I haven’t launched that project.
- I have a little gate in my head that separates: “this would be cool” from “this relates to things I’m doing,” and I pass lots of things through it. Often, they fall into the “cool, but I can’t do it right now” category.
Where I Scale the Least
My biggest challenge continues to be in person, and/or in real time. This is where I fear being considered a snob or rude the most, too. They relate.
At events, it’s really difficult to give everyone the time they deserve. In some cases, someone I don’t know will vacuum up a lot of time telling me a vast biography when they’ve approached me to ask me a “quick question.” In other cases, I find that there are lots of great people and not enough time. For example, at any dinner, it’s almost immediately tricky to see everyone at a table without some level of shifting around. It gets tricky, and people feel left out. (I’m sensitive to that).
Further, I find that events are where I go to meet up with old friends and reconnect, but also where I go to meet new people with new challenges and inspirations. So I’m always trying to balance both, because I love my friends, and some of these folks I don’t see in person more than once a year. And yet, that makes it tough to meet new folks.
The phone is tricky that way. It’s a 1:1 relationship between my attention and my ability to do things, because I focus on the back and forth of the experience. It’s great when I want to reach out to people, but it’s tricky when I’ve got too much to do and people want to have long, drawn out meetings. (I’m learning some tricks from my boss on this one).
What About You?
Where are you learning how to scale? What areas do you need to improve? How much of this resonates with your busy life, and have you found ways over the hump where you might notice I’m still struggling? We can share, right? : )
Photo credit, Kevin Dooley