The Importance of Priorities (How To Take Charge of Your Life)

I have noticed my life becoming increasingly busy lately, to the point where I someties feel like throwing my hands up in despair at all the things competing for my attention on a daily basis. The phone keeps ringing (and when I don’t answer, voicemails pile up). Hundreds of emails pour in. Somebody always seems to be waiting on me for something or other.

I know that I am far from alone in this department. In fact, I think that getting “out of control busy” is possibly a normal path of career growth, and is to be expected to happen to all motivated individuals (I’m looking at you, reader of this blog) who take on a lot of responsibilities at some time in their life. And as we get older, personal responsibilities seem to pile up right alongside the burgeoning amount of work demands.

I have been spending plenty of time thinking about this recently, and have come to a few (fairly obvious) conclusions:

  1. Things aren’t going to become less stressful on their own. The moment I move something off my plate, something new will be there to replace it.
  2. Efficient and effective working methods aren’t enough. Productivity hacks and systems like GTD are part of the solution, not the solution themselves.
  3. To remain sane, avoid burnout and continue to make progress, learn to operate calmly and stay cool amid constant chaos.

When multiple things are competing for our attention and pulling us in different directions on a daily basis, we face a choice of either becoming a victim of the chaos, or the master of it. To me, becoming a victim means watching your time evaporate day after day, progress hitting a plateau, and allowing generally negative thought processes to set in. In a busy world, if you aren’t sure what to do or work on next, somebody else will fill the gap and decide for you.

The path to conquering a chaotic schedule is to set clear priorities, and relentlessly stick to them. Begin by asking yourself tough questions like “What is really important here?” and “What am I unwilling to compromise on?”, and a powerful list quickly develops. Next, the list can be focused further by reviewing your upcoming goals and protecting your path to achieving them.

For example, here is a list of personal priorities to consider:

  • Health (diet, exercise, etc)
  • Family
  • Love and relationships
  • Learning new things
  • Saving money
  • Traveling
  • Spending time with friends 
  • …etc

And here is a list of business priorities to consider:

  • Sales
  • Budgeting
  • Recruiting
  • Leading the team
  • Project management
  • Admin
  • Getting help on certain projects
  • …etc

The application of this rule works in different ways for different people. I like to think in terms of monthly and daily priorities, and manage my to-do list accordingly. In any given month, I try to protect top 5 items from my personal and professional list as much as possible. I don’t always succeed at this, but awareness and clear direction is seventy percent of the battle. It’s always a huge temptation to decide to take on 20 different things in one day, but one has to realize that “If everything is critical, nothing is critical”, and plan accordingly. As much as we can logically split personal and business matters in our head, we only have one life and need to find a way to effectively combine the two.

As for all the other things to do, they usually have a way of taking care of themselves eventually. The key thing is that the fundamentals were looked after first, before the fiddling over the stacks of relative minutia could take over. When working at the fundamentals and getting those out of the way first, we can’t afford to let ourselves sweat over the small stuff.

Every day, remind yourself of your priorities, and why they exist. This will help you to control your life, as opposed to letting the circumstances of your life control you. There’s no comfort or salvation in making excuses. Setting sound priorities and sticking to them is a surefire way to create order amid chaos, reduce daily stress, and galvanize your ability to accomplish that which is important to you.

How do you cope with busyness, stress and many things competing for your attention at once? Let me know in the comments or drop me a line.

When Effectiveness Trumps Efficiency

In my last blog post, I discussed a system for eliminating bottlenecks and making startups more efficient (i.e. doing more faster) across every area of the organization. I did not at all delve into the concept of “effectiveness”, as contrasted with that of “efficiency”.

To me, efficiency is all about how you go about getting things done, whereas effectiveness deals with a entirely different subject: what it is that you choose to do.

When I was in high school, I had an exceptional Physics tutor who would constantly tell his students to “work smart, not hard” and “be effective” with our learning methods. He showed us alternative methods of studying and problem solving that were dramatically faster than the popular methods being taught in most schools, as a result his students consistently outperformed others.

This simple truth applies to just about any endeavour- from learning a language, to losing weight, to running a startup. 

With resources usually being scarce in a fast growing startup company, one of the greatest risks that they face is doing the wrong things very well, without knowing that those activities are adding little value to the company.

Becoming effective requires a combination of trial and error, learning from others’ experiences, and most of all critical, often stomach wrenching thinking on the part of the individual or team involved.

Once a month, it would be useful for the founders and team to go through this Q&A exercise aimed at seeking greater effectiveness:

A. Elimination

  1. What activities can we stop doing immediately that will have little impact on our company goals?
  2. Do we need to change expectations of any customers, or fire any customers that are taking advantage of us?
  3. Is everybody working on something critical? If not, why not?
  4. Are we paying for any services that we don’t need?

B. Initiation

  1. Do we need to invest in any new software to help our business?
  2. Should we hire a new team member to fulfill a specific role?
  3. Are we missing a value-adding activity that our peers are doing? What?
  4. Does anybody need to go for training to learn a new skill that will be beneficial?

Every time, try to table a set of action items, starting with at least one, with a definitive deadline to implementation. Performing this exercise would be like taking a consultant’s view of your own organization. And who better to improve a company than those most familiar with it?

Often, improvement stems from reexamining our basic assumptions and turning them inside out to see what we end up with. It’s a well known fact that effective people (and teams) are highly capable of achieving greater results with fewer resources.

As I mentioned earlier on, this way of thinking applies as much to one’s personal life as it does to business. Periodically, we all need to stop and ask ourselves, “Why am I doing this?”.

Martial arts legend Bruce Lee epitomized a person seeking to be effective in everything he did. (His entire martial arts philosophy of Jeet Kun Do was premised on a fluid style that borrowed whatever worked from other disciplines and discarded the rest). Here are two of my favourite quote of his to drive the point home:

"It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential."

And:

"Defeat is a state of mind. No one is ever defeated until defeat has been accepted as reality. To me, defeat in anything is merely temporary, and its punishment is but an urge for me to greater effort to achieve my goal. Defeat simply tells me that something is wrong in my doing; it is a path leading to success and truth."

How To Manage Projects with More Than One Person

My last post on side projects turned out to be very popular, so I thought I’d continue the series with this follow up post.

We have all had our fair share of projects to deal with in every aspect of our working lives. In many projects, we are not working alone (nor should we be). The addition of a partner can be an excellent force due to enhanced motivation and sharing of work load, but it can also bring communication, accountability and planning difficulties which at worst can destroy a project.

After plenty of trial and error, I have begun following a system that keeps things simple and moving forward all the time. This approach will work for professional “on the job” projects as well as side projects of any sort. I use it to manage all of my small and large projects at work and at home, and this system easily scales to support more team members (within reason).

What I am about to describe is not a project management methodology (there are plenty of good ones), but rather an effective, step by step “how to” system of actions, dependables, and available tools. Best of all, this system works just as well when working with people remotely.

When beginning a new project with someone, here are some of the key questions commonly wondered about:

- What are we trying to achieve?
- What is the scope of work?
- How can we easily prioritize the work as we go?
- How do I know what the other person is working on?
- How will we stay accountable?
- How do we make all this easy to track? I am busy enough as it is.

Let’s begin.

Phase 1: Starting and defining the project

Every project should begin with a brief, 1-2 page “scope” document agreed upon by all parties. As it may change over time, I recommend using Google Docs.

In a new Google Document, give the project a name, title the document “<project name> Scope Document”, list the partners and when it was last edited and by whom (this is useful to be able to see in the document).

Next, add and number the major headings to the document that describe what the project is about, what the goals are, and the high level plan to succeed. Here are my typical headings:

1. Project Overview (2 sentences on what this is all about.)
2. Problem (What is the problem? Why does this project need to exist?)
3. Solution Description (How will this project solve the problem? Describe it in a few sentences.)
4. Goals and Time Frame (What are the specific goals? By when must they be achieved?)
5. Resources Required (What may be needed in terms of people, tools, time and money.)
6. Roles (What is the responsibility and role of each partner? Note that projects can differ greatly in terms of effort required and nature of role of the different partners.)

The body of each description should be kept as brief and succinct as possible. Use of bullet points and tables is recommended. Remember, this is not a pitch to impress anybody- it is a functional explanatory document for and your partner(s) to refer back to.

The next step is to better define the short-term milestones and resources required. I recommend using a new Google Spreadsheet for this.

In the first tab (name it “Milestones”), write out the major objectives that the project needs to accomplish over the next few weeks or months. Then group them according to expected completion. Depending on the size of the project, this can be split into weeks or months. For small projects I recommend doing this for the next 4 weeks ahead, and for larger ones 3 months ahead.

Next, create a new tab called “Resources”. For projects that require capital, create a basic monthly budget and add both a “Forecast” and “Actual” column to each month. (The actual column will only be updated when money actually changes hands). If no money is required, look back to the scope document and assess whether any other resources (e.g. help of a friend) will be needed and by when.

Once you’re all set up, on the same page as your partner and know what to go after, you are ready for Phase 2.

Phase 2: Managing work and making progress

This is the part when using a good tool makes all the difference. After trying plenty of project management tools over the years, I have to recommend one that beats the lot hands down: Trello. Trello has a killer combination of simplicity, visual understanding and functionality that other tools simply don’t match. And there is no learning curve either.

Register a new board for your project on Trello.com and invite your partner. This is essentially a virtual whiteboard (a kanban board to be precise) where you can add lists (columns) and tasks (cells) that can be easily moved around. Names and number of lists vary from project to project depending on complexity, but here are the lists that I usually create right in the beginning, from left to right on the board:

General Backlog (all upcoming tasks not to be addressed immediately)
To-do: Sheraan (tasks I need to complete immediately/short term)
To-do: <Partner> (same as above for your partner)
Doing (tasks that are being worked on right now)
Done (completed tasks, awaiting team review)

Each task added to a list on the board should be succinctly described and always start with a verb, e.g. Research A, Prepare B, Start C, Write D, Contact E, Register F, Test G, etc. Try to avoid using the word “do” is it is often too vague and does not inspire specific action. Each task can have comments or files added to it if necessary. Once all of the tasks are on the board, take some time to prioritize them- highest at the top of the list and lowest at the bottom.

The Trello board is a work space that will constantly change and be updated. When you are working on a task, move it to the Doing list, then to Done when complete. As new ideas or issues pop up in the project, add new tasks to the board and reprioritize them all.

Note that I am specifically not mentioning email as a way to get things done. We are all snowed under with enough email as it is, and trying to use email to manage tasks in a side project is a sure fire way to cause confusion and lack of follow up.

Trello gives the team a fantastic way to immediately know what order to do things in, as well as full visibility on what each other are working on. As ground zero for management of the project, this workspace will be used and viewed on an ongoing basis.

Phase 3: Maintaining momentum and accountability

This is the most important Phase of managing a project successfully. The first step is to engender a sense of personal accountability by checking your project status often (I recommend at least once in 3 days). This involves a quick viewing of the Trello board to see what has changed and what hasn’t. If tasks are not moving across the board, your project is stalling and rapidly losing momentum. All parties need to be realistic about the need to achieve a certain rate of progress in order to succeed.

In order to foster strong communication and joint accountability, schedule a weekly one hour meeting with your partner that you can both stick to. Try not to move this meeting around as it can undermine commitment to the project. During this meeting, start by going over the tasks on the Done list in the Trello board and if satisfied, archive them so that they are removed from the board. Next, evaluate the priorities for the week ahead and adjust the board as necessary. This type of review session will make it very clear if the work is getting done.

At the last meeting in a month, perform an additional review of the monthly milestones Google spreadsheet to see how you have fared. Learn and adjust these as necessary. Then update the Trello board once more.

It is crucial that you physically review every work item completed during the week together as a team, and mark off completed items. It is woefully inadequate to simply discuss things without reviewing the written to-do items and milestones, as talk is often a cheap excuse for lack of effort and progress. This trap is especially easy to fall into when both parties have slacked off on their responsibilities. Remember, a light discussion about work not done may make both feel better, but it will kill a project. If you fall off the wagon so to speak, it’s much better to stare at that truth in the mirror, admit it, and get back on with it as soon as possible.

Make these meetings sacred. If one party can’t make it, reschedule it during a time that works for all. If one party misses a meeting twice in a row or doesn’t seem that interested, they need to restructure their role or be cut from the team.

If you keep repeating the process described in Phase 2 and Phase 3 over and over, it is guaranteed to produce real, ongoing results!

To recap, here is a summary of my project management process:

1. Write project scope document with specific overall goals. (Tool: Google Doc).
2. Define short term milestones; weekly or monthly depending on scope. (Tool: Google Spreadsheet).
3. Prepare project budget/resources needed, forecast and actual. (Tool: Google Spreadsheet).
4. Set up Trello board and add upcoming tasks. (Tool: Trello).
5. Use Trello board on an ongoing basis as work is done.
6. Attend weekly meetings to review and update Trello board, as well as project milestones and budget once a month. (Tool: Skype, phone, coffee shop, apartment).

Final thought

The greatest risk to any project usually is not a poor outcome, but instead a lack of any outcome at all due to abandonment. Most people don’t finish the projects (especially side projects) that they start. Before committing to a project with a partner be sure that both parties are motivated, dependable, and taking things seriously.

While it is no replacement for committed hard work, I do hope that the system I have described makes the process of executing your next project simpler, faster and more rewarding.

Making a Hobby out of Work: The Benefits of Small Side Projects

Most of us- entrepreneurs included- have a full-time job. This is the focus of our professional career for a particular point in time, and it demands our utmost dedicated application. For entrepreneurs, it’s the company that they have founded and need to lead. All of those customers, staff and shareholders are depending on them to deliver at the end of the day.

Motivated people have a penchant for choosing all manner of high intensity jobs for themselves. They thrive under pressure and work hours well beyond the regular cubicle dweller. Moreover, these types of people often love to work as well, or to be more specific, they love cramming productive things into their time. I suppose I fit into this category (at least on good days).

I find that the downside of this attitude toward work is that my main working objectives (the most important and urgent ones) have a tendency to swallow up all of my attention. Sometimes these projects are delightfully interesting, and other times they are tedious and complex- or worse- boring. The type of tasks on the to-do list for that week need to be done however, regardless of how one feels about them.

This brings me to the key question underpinning this post: what is the best way to deal with free time if we want to spend it doing something productive? Or to relax, let off some steam and exercise our brain without making it feel like work?

I often ask myself this type of question on the odd late evening after a long day at work (and usually with a nice red wine to accompany me), or weekend morning (fresh from a full night’s sleep), or on an airplane (where I am writing this post). I enjoy vegging out in front of the TV as much as the next guy, but sometimes there are just too many neurons firing at once to make that an enjoyable experience, so a sense of mental restlessness takes over.

At this point, the thought of responding to more incoming emails, or finishing that presentation, or finalizing that budget, or reviewing that contract (or a dozen other possibilities) present a mild headache that can wait until the next morning at the office when I’m in full swing “company mode” and all fired up. But the feeling of wanting to do something little and yet productive still lingers, much like a craving for a late night snack or an itch that you won’t feel satisfied until you scratch.

At these moments, I personally feel that reviewing the to-do list or inbox is a total mind killer and waste of time. It causes undue stress about things that need to be done soon, in moments when I don’t feel like I have the time (or energy or intensity) for doing them. So, how to flex your mind and have some fun at the same time? I have found that the magic solution lies in side projects.

This might seem like a no brainer revelation, but it’s taken me some time to really take this concept to heart. Side projects are wonderful. They are intended to provide meaningful, productive, self actualizing output while being fun, non-stressful, engaging and personally rewarding. Side projects are also an incredible way to utilize excess cognition and creative capacity while learning new things that make one a better person.

The key criteria for a good side project is the following:

  1. Has a defined, valuable outcome.
  2. Has a flexible due date or is ongoing.
  3. Is not critical to short term job performance.

While all criteria are fundamental, I think that number three is the most important, as this factor will determine if a project is net personal contributor of bad “distress" or good "eustress (what we are after). 

In my opinion there are 3 types of side projects that one can engage in:

  1. Professional, job related: e.g. a pet project for a department that you are not responsible for but want to help; a way to automate some of your repetitive tasks that you never get time to do during the day; a new filing system; a new email system; test driving the latest software app to help you in your job, etc.
  2. Professional, not job related: e.g. writing for an industry publication; advising a different company; joining a professional organization; working on a new invention; taking an online course; starting a pet project with some friends, etc.
  3. Personal: learning a new language; losing weight/getting fit; learning how to cook properly; writing a blog; building a model plane (or lego Death Star); doing community theatre; joining the local Toastmasters or Rotary Club; studying a liberal art for interest’s sake, etc. 

During a tough patch or plateau at work (i.e. your all consuming job), side projects can be a great tool for reminding yourself that being productive can be fun, and that you are capable of achieving wins when you put your mind to it. During the good times at work, side projects provide a stimulating outlet to let off steam while indulging your creative faculties.

The best part about side projects is that you determine what they ought to be. Over a period of months and years, these “little wins” will rack up alongside one’s main career focus and leave a nostalgic trail of rewarding outcomes for mere bits of spare time well spent.

Why International Flights Are Good for Mental Health

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In recent months, I’ve been taking more and more trips between Cape Town and San Francisco. Now, this a long flight. It generally consists of two legs, one to the Middle East or Europe then the second to the USA. Total time in the air: around 24 hours.

When it hasn’t been done in a while, long distance travel is exciting, but it quickly becomes a chore. Crossing 12 time zones, sleeping in airports and sitting on planes forever certainly exact a wicked toll on the body. Lately however, I’ve grown to appreciate what all that lonely time in the air does for my mind.

Let me explain. If you’re reading this blog, you are probably a technophile who spends a ridiculous amount of time in front of their laptop and generally enjoys working more than the average person (just like me). In my case, I fell that The problem with this behaviour is that I rarely give myself the chance to unplug- I thrive on being hyper connected all the time- so constant email, task management, Twitter and RSS are what I thrive on. Even if you can live like this without experiencing fatigue or productivity losses, I find that a key element of mental balance can easily be crowded out and forgotten: introspection.

Introspection occurs when we spend long periods alone, and delve into our mind to remember what’s important to us, what kind of people we want to be, and ask ourselves how things are going. It’s a surprisingly elusive state if you have constant access to Wifi or an iPhone with 3G in your hand. I love it. It’s a form of meditation. A session of proper introspection leaves me feeling more centered, relaxed, motivated and in control. It is highly recommended.

Of course, I could do this at home (or in a hotel) once in a while, and I should. But somehow, I always manage to get busy and stay that way. I’ll work on improving. For now though, I’ll keep appreciating the silver linings of these long distance travel clouds. And why doesn’t this apply to domestic travel, you may ask? Because one can usually get onboard Wifi on local flights of course!

—This post written 11,500m somewhere above the Atlantic. Image credit: Shutterstock.

New Read: Rework by 37 Signals

I’ve been reading a lot of great things about the new book “Rework” from the guys behind 37 Signals (makers of popular project management software, Basecamp). 

After perusing Michael Hyatt’s glowing post on the book, I couldn’t resist buying a copy for myself.

Billionaire Mark Cuban even wrote this blurb for Rework:
 
"If given a choice between investing in someone who has read REWORK or has an MBA, I’m investing in REWORK every time. This is a must read for every entrepreneur."
 
I look forward to tucking into this one soon!
 
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