Shortlist your tasks

There is a strong tendency by humans seeking to gain control over their lives to use time and dates as a planning mechanism.

Everyone is preoccupied with “When”.

When will I do this thing and when will it be finished?

But the only “when” is right now because you only have one “now” and “now” is the only time that you can take action.

The other primary method of prioritising tasks is the ordered or numbered list. In this case, you organise your tasks in order of priority from most to least important.

This is also an ineffective prioritisation method, though, because it involves unnecessary administrative overhead and thus will feel like it takes too much time we are REALLY REALLY BUSY.

The only question your prioritisation system should answer is “What will I work on now?” and it needs to do it quickly and effortlessly enough that you always have time to do it even when you’re REALLY REALLY BUSY.

Due date blindness

When you add due dates to tasks (or put them in your calendar) you’re mostly just using them as a clumsy ranking system and diluting their effectiveness in the process.

In her article on why using due dates is effective, Maura Thomas argues that using “ABC” or “123” to indicate levels of priority doesn’t work, and I agree with her.

Her suggested substitute tactic is to use due dates … but what are these if not just a form of ranking or hierarchy?

Time is, after all, linear. Saying I will work on one task tomorrow and another task the day after that is identical to assigning them a number in a hierarchical list…

Except when you’re not.

Because some things have REAL due dates. So when you’re adding due dates to things as a means of prioritisation, and also sometimes adding due dates to indicate actual genuine real life deadlines, you have 2 meanings for things being due, one of them you kind of know you can ignore, the other you know you can’t ignore.

The danger is that you might develop a “blind spot” for the important due dates because you become so used to ignoring the “fake” due dates.

You could pretty easily fix that of course by having critical due dates in one system such as using a calendar app like Google Calendar for events and meetings and using a task system with due dates for the “fake” due dates that are actually a clumsy system of hierarchically organising your tasks, or if you prefer a calendar interface for managing these you could have 2 calendars: tasks and meetings.

But however you do it, you’re going to run up against a classic interface problem.

Managing due dates is slow, it’s demoralising, and takes too long to answer the right question

Most task management systems have some sort of due date mechanism and/or calendar view, and in all cases adding a due date to a task is a means of increasing it’s priority.

In Asana, tasks with no due date don’t show up in the calendar or “My Tasks”, and in Trello the only way to prioritise the Cards view across all boards (without using a 3rd party integration) is to sort by due date. The new Home view in Trello will also show cards with upcoming due dates which means due dates are once again a proxy for priority/ranking.

When working with a calendar, things that you planned to do yesterday but didn’t get done are now in the past (when nothing can possibly get done) and as Maura Thomas correctly points out in her article above:

there will come a time when you forget to move something that you didn’t do. And then it won’t get done. This is called “slipping through the cracks,” and you want to minimize the potential for that to happen

Most task systems emulate this “calendar-like” behaviour in that they will automatically de-prioritise overdue tasks or at least allow them to aggregate in the past (although some have a “due date rollover” feature”). The reasoning behind this seems logical: after all if you allow incomplete tasks from the past to distract your future tasks then those tasks, too will be late and so on.

The reality, though, is that you can’t just leave overdue tasks overdue assuming that whatever is scheduled to happen now is more important. There are many times when a task planned for, but not finished, yesterday needs to be completed today.

So in any due date based system what ends up happening is that you need to spend time moving tasks that you haven’t completed into the future.

But time is a finite box. You can’t just move them to tomorrow because you already had stuff planned for tomorrow, what will happen to tomorrow’s stuff? All that will happen is that you’ll not get everything done and end up moving all that stuff to the next day and so on, so you spend time shifting what you had on tomorrow to later on and so forth.

Due date and schedule based planning has a chronic problem of overestimation of your own capacity and the administrative overhead of moving these things around accumulates so that it takes longer and longer to do the longer you have been running the system, until the administration of the system takes up too much time.

Scheduled review of your schedule is just as cumbersome

I find the same thing to be true with the “scheduled review system” advocated by David Allen in Getting Things Done. You can schedule the review time all you like, but if it’s not a priority, it won’t get done and when that system starts to crumble, and your trust falters, you’re back to reacting to whatever interruption yells at you the loudest.

Blocking time off in your calendar is good for avoiding automatically scheduled meetings or telling your team when you’re busy doing something else, but lousy for scheduling your work because sometimes you just don’t feel like doing whatever it was you planned to do at the time you planned to do it.

When your alarm goes off because you have to get to the airport I guarantee you have absolutely no problems getting up, no matter what time it is and no matter what time you went to bed.

When your alarm goes off because that’s when you made a New Year’s Resolution that you will do Yoga every morning (having never done Yoga ever before in your life), the snooze button is the only thing that’s going to get a work out.

Not only that but because you’re dealing with a “finite scheduling space” bound by time, you have to try and predict things like what you want to do next Friday, which has nothing to do with answering the only question of importance when prioritising:

What should I work on now?

The problem with all of these things is that they’re just different interfaces to achieve the same outcome.

They are all using due dates as a ranking/hierarchy system, but the act of moving tasks around or updating due dates on tasks is increasingly slow and you end up spending so much of your time focusing on what you’re not getting done that it can be super depressing as well as increasingly inefficient.

What you really want to do most of the time is pick the 3 things that are most critical and sweep everything else (digitally) off your desk onto the floor so you can pick through it later.

You don’t need due dates, but it just so happens that in most todo list, task or project management systems using due dates is the most convenient way to create a series of todo lists of decreasing priority.

This avoids the problem of having to “prioritise” a seemingly infinite list of 100s or 1000s of tasks in a big, single list.

Organising a list of 100s or 1000s of things by priority is just as slow and demoralising as managing due dates

The appeal of using due dates is that, if you put things off until 3 weeks from now, you won’t see them again until then.

If you instead imagine a single, vertical todo list, the task of prioritising this list is just as time consuming and depressing as moving overdue tasks around in a calendar or due date based scheduling system.

What usually ensues after all this tangled mess of due dates and priorities and ordering and tagging as high priority or low priority or next actions or whatever system you care to implement is that the overhead of managing that system builds up so much that you end up having to declare “task bankruptcy” (a paraphrase of Sherry Turkle’s “email bankruptcy”), or worse still that you leave the system in its broken, messy state and just start operating in some parallel way working around it.

That due dates suck is not particularly controversial, but if having a long task list is just as bad, what should we replace them with?

Michael Leninberger uses the concept of “Start Dates” instead (also referenced in the article above), but as far as I can see this still just has the same interface problem with having to manage lots of dates on various items and using date as a prioritisation mechanism.

One interesting thing that Michael says however, is that:

the start date you enter for a new task should either be the date you want to first start doing the task, or the date you first want to start considering the task

This notion of “consideration date” is key.

You can only have one priority

The problem with both a monolithic, prioritisable list of tasks and due dates is that they force us to figure things out that are not relevant to the question “What should I work on now?”.

You can only work on one thing, so the order in which subsequent tasks are prioritised is irrelevant, just as the task on which you will work next Friday is irrelevant.

If I only gave you 2 options of what you could work on, you would be able to decide which task should take priority immediately.

Even with 4 or 5 tasks, picking the priority at a glance is easy.

Maybe even with 10!

But organising 10 tasks in order of priority? That’s a mentally taxing and time consuming and above all inconsistent task.

If I asked you to re-prioritise the same list of tasks at different times throughout the day I bet you’d come up with different answers depending on your energy levels, depending on conversations you’d had, depending on problems that have arisen for you on that day, etc.

And in reality most of us aren’t dealing with 10 tasks, we’re dealing with 100s of tasks, maybe even 1000s if you take into account all those things we’d just love to do if we had the time.

So really we don’t want a way to “prioritise” a list of 1000 things. We don’t care which task ranks 680th out of 1000, we just want a way to pick the one thing out of those 1000 tasks that we should work on now.

The mechanism for selecting one option out of a list of many is called a “shortlist”.

Everyone is familiar with the concept of a shortlist. If you were asked to pick 1 person to hire from a list of 500 applicants, or 1 person to marry out of 400 potential partners, or which movie you would like to watch on family movie night, you would follow the process of assembling a shortlist of your favourites and excluding everything you didn’t want until you ended up with your decision.

What we need is a system that allows us to reliably answer the question “What should I work on now?” with the minimum of administrative overhead whilst ensuring we never let anything slip through the cracks.

What we need is an effective system for creating a shortlist of tasks we might work on from the gigantic cacophony of all tasks in the world that we might work on, so we can quickly choose the one thing we’ll work on now.

Frequency of consideration

Just as Leninberger’s start dates can be seen as a date on which you would like to “start considering” a task, the system that allows us to create a shortlist of potential tasks with the minimum amount of administrative overhead is one that allows us to manage the frequency with which each task might be considered for the shortlist.

If you imagine a list of 1000 potential tasks, it might take you 30 minutes to go through and pick out a shortlist of 100 that you might like to work on, then it might take you another 5 minutes to pick the top 10 out of that 100.

Once you have that 10, it will only take you a couple of seconds to choose your priority from those 10.

Once you’ve finished working on that one thing, though, your question is “What should I work on now?”

The obvious choice would be to pick from the 10 you already shortlisted UNLESS that task took you all day. What if your priorities have changed? What if there is new context, new communication, or your emotional or mental state has changed?

If you were only going to choose one task out of 1000 to work on for the entire year, it would be acceptable to go through the entire list of 1000 again next year. The 30 minutes of time it takes to go through the list is a negligible component of the total task time.

Some tasks on our lists, though, only take minutes to complete. If you were to go through the entire list of 1000 after each and every task you completed every day, the process of creating your shortlist would dominate your work time.

This indicates that our shortlists have a shelf life.

There must, therefore, be a time component to your shortlists. This isn’t the same as “due dates” or “start dates”, but rather a notion that everything on a given shortlist will be reviewed again at some time in the future, with an equal opportunity to take priority.

If you went through a list of 1000 tasks that you might work on, and chose 100 for a shortlist, you might want to put the remaining 900 into a list that will be considered again in 2 months’ time.

This means that the overhead of sifting through those 900 tasks won’t take up an appreciable amount of your total operational time because the number of hours/minutes/days in 2 months is much more than the 30 minutes it takes you to run through a list this size and create a new shortlist.

Now you have your shortlist of 100 tasks. You might pick out a shortlist of 10 that you might work on and leave the remaining 90 in a list to be considered again next week.

Then you pick your most important and leave the remaining 9 in a list for immediate consideration after you have finished the current task.

But you don’t need to place those 9 tasks in order. It doesn’t matter which task is 6th most important, because once you finish your current task things may have changed anyway and picking your priority out of a list of 9 things just isn’t that difficult. If you really found it difficult you could create another shortlist of 3 things and stick the remaining 6 into a list to be considered again tomorrow.

As new tasks arrive, they need to either take priority or be put into the list for consideration at some point in the future.

In this system you really have only 2 lists:

  • Priority: ideally only has 1 thing in it, but new things may take priority and “stack” on top of that thing
  • Consideration: things you will choose from after you finish your current task to answer the question “What should I work on now?”

Everything else is in a series of lists that will be put into consideration at some point in the future.

If you finish everything in Priority and Consideration then you can always move to your next shortlist and pick some stuff out to work on.

The Hooked on Zero process

The system of shortlisting tasks I’ve just described is what I call “Hooked on Zero”, an evolution of GTD/Inbox Zero.

But what might an implementation of this look like?

Trello is, hands down, the best tool for sorting out a massive list of competing priorities into a series of shortlists.

You can see an example of a board that would allow you to run this process here:

And I have done a screencast showing how to use this board here:

The most important thing to remember is that your “shortlisting” process should result in a list that is so short you can easily pick the thing you should work on now.

The second most important thing to remember is that, when you’re sorting a list, just go one spot to the left or right. Don’t try and make a decision about whether something is “really low priority” or just “kind of low priority”, just swipe left or right, then “shunt” everything to the right until you have created a shortlist that is so short you can pick one thing to work on right away.

This is a “manual” version of Hooked on Zero that you can implement on your own, and you can use additional Trello power ups and plugins to streamline things like creating cards from email, however we also have a professional version of this as a coaching program for people using our Benko Board product that integrates Gmail with Trello.

Conclusion: figure out how to quickly and easily shortlist in your task manager of choice

Quite often, people will write about how wonderful something like time boxing or scheduling tasks is, but in reality they haven’t battle tested it.

Sometimes you have to stress test and refine a particular system for many months or years before you can declare it a success. More often than not, you need to have tried several things over a period of many months or years.

Unless the system can withstand operation under your most stressful and busiest conditions it’s not really working.

And how many people are going to bother doing a follow up article informing you of how wrong they were in their previous article?

My thesis is that these myths of time and task management persist for these reasons and that, in reality, the only thing that really works is shortlisting.

Whatever interface you put on top of it, the reality is that what you actually work on at any given moment is a result of a shortlisting operation and the only way to make that more efficient is to reduce the number of things you can choose from at any given moment, confident that you’re not letting anything slip through the cracks.

Armed with that information, you can figure out how to shortlist effectively in the task manager of your choice.

If you’d like to see how I do shortlisting you can book your Benko Board installation and go through the Hooked on Zero programme.

There’s nothing magical about making your bed

I’ve never really been satisfied with the explanation of why so-called “keystone habits” have positive flow-on effects to other areas of our lives.

Even Charles Duhigg, the author who made the notion of keystone habits so popular in his book “The Power of Habit”, describes it like this:

“Making your bed every morning is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget. It’s not that… a tidy bed causes better grades or less frivolous spending. But somehow those initial shifts start chain reactions that help other good habits take hold” (bold formatting is mine)

There’s lots of material online written about keystone habits these days and the common refrain is that these keystone habits change your self image, make you feel better about yourself and/or be a better person and thereby you start to improve in other areas.

I have always found the notion that bed making in the military makes everyone feel so good about themselves that they become better soldiers, or that having a well made bed before you leave the house means you’re so motivated to succeed that you spend less and make better business decisions that ultimately lead to a more successful life, pretty questionable.

I have no doubt that keystone habits are effective, but I would like to advance an alternative theory about what defines a keystone habit and why they’re effective.

How long does it take you to get from one end of your house to the other?

I’m a huge fan of Marie Kondo’s book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

The part that really struck a chord for me is the concept of ignoring “flow planning” and “frequency of use” when deciding where to put your things.

The start of the chapter is a complete walk through of how Marie enters her house, where she puts her keys, her wallet, how she empties her bag and so on.

She says that the entire process takes about 5 minutes or so, and she goes on to say that, unless you live in a gigantic mansion, the total time it will take you to walk from one end of your house to the other will be measured in seconds, not minutes.

She makes the observation that clutter is caused by a failure to put things away; that is, the root cause of a problem finding an item is how you last put that item away.

So why do so many people lose so many items that are absolutely critical to their lives, such as their phones, keys, wallets and glasses?

Dumping your wallet and keys on your desk

When you walk into the house, have you ever dumped your wallet and keys on the table where you sit down? Or on the kitchen bench as you put down the shopping?

I used to do this all the time. When I read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up the first time, I lived in a house where my office was downstairs right next to the front door. The kitchen was on the middle level and my bedroom was the level above that, so to get from the front door to my bedroom I had to go up like 20 stairs.

Naturally, if I left the house on a work day I would dump my wallet and keys on my desk whenever I came home, along with anything else that happened to be in my pockets, and get back to work.

But when your office is at home, the lines between when you’ve really “left” work can be a little blurred, so sometimes my kids would come home, and I’d start playing with them and then I might not get back to work that day.

Later, I might want to buy something online using my credit card, but my wallet was downstairs in my office, so I had to go down and grab it.

Then other times I would have left my wallet upstairs and I wanted to use my credit card from my desk and I would have to go back upstairs to get my wallet.

Other times I would go downstairs to leave the house thinking I would have my keys on my desk only to discover they weren’t there, and would have to return upstairs and look for them. Usually I had dumped them on the kitchen bench or on the shelf next to my bed.

As trivial as this seems to me now (and probably sounds to you) this was actually something I thought quite a bit about: where was the optimal place to put my wallet and keys so that I would be able to both put them away and get them reliably from the same place with the minimal amount of travel time regardless of whether I was spending my time in the office, bedroom, living room or the kitchen?

The message from Marie Kondo was (and I’m paraphrasing here) “who gives a shit you idiot, it only takes you 10 seconds to get from one end of the house to the other”.

After I read that, and in conjunction with the advice about how to become “kondofied” in a house full of non-Kondoites, I determined that the shelf next to my bed was where everything I owned would be located, including my wallet and keys.

So then, regardless of where I happened to be in the house at the time, if I wanted to use my credit card to purchase something online, I would walk to my room, get my wallet, return to my laptop, use the credit card, then put my wallet back.

When I returned home on a work day, I would walk to my nook where everything I owned was located, put my keys and my wallet there, and then go back downstairs to the office.

This sounds like such a minor detail but it is deceptively powerful. Right now, I can list all of my personal possessions and where they are located. If you were to ask me what’s in my bag I would be able to tell you not only what’s in my bag, but where in my bag it is located and where I’m going to put each of those items when I get home.

I can always find everything I own whenever I need it. The amount of time I save by never having to look for something I need far exceeds the amount of time I spend walking around the house to put things away whenever I return home (and not only that but when you need to grab something you are usually in a much more time critical situation than you are when you need to put something away!)

But something else happened when I started practising this habit with my possessions: I realised there were all sorts of other applications for the same principle.

Impatience disorder

Humans almost universally overestimate the amount of time it will take to perform mundane maintenance tasks and underestimate the amount of time it will take to perform more complicated and interesting tasks.

My kids will spend an hour drawing pictures and cutting them out and sticking them on other bits of paper and making up stories that go along with those pictures, but the task of putting away their pens and paper at the end of playtime, which takes less than 3 minutes (especially if they don’t whine about it) seems like an insurmountable, herculean task.

Once they’re done with the game, they dramatically overestimate how long it will take them to tidy up because their mind has moved onto the next thing they want to do already. There’s no dopamine hit associated with putting the thing they were just playing with away so it just seems like it will take FOREVER.

When you arrive home with your kids and it’s a little late, and there are a bunch of dishes in the sink and crap all over the bench and everyone has school bags and you have your bag and some shopping and wet towels from the beach and the kids are whining or crying because they’re hungry and everyone is a bit frayed and tired, the first instinct is to start cooking.

You’re feeling guilty and emotionally stressed because your kids are crying and you shouldn’t have stayed so long playing with the other families, you just want to make the pain go away. You want to get food on the table so the kids are quiet. But it would only take 10 – 15 minutes to put away all the bags, rinse and stack the dishes, throw out any rubbish, clear the bench and chop some carrots for the kids to snack on while you make the dinner. Doing this before you start cooking not only makes the task of preparing the food more efficient but also makes the task of tidying up after dinner much easier and ensures the kitchen is in a nice tidy state when it’s time to get breakfast the next morning.

But when the kids are screaming at you it’s HARD to follow those processes.

When you know there’s something nagging at you that you just want to get done that day, it’s HARD to run through and delete, defer, delegate, do or respond to everything in your Inbox.

When you rush into the house with an email in your head that you want to write to someone, or knowing that a client has just called you with an urgent problem it’s HARD to walk up 3 flights of steps to put your keys and your wallet on the shelf next to your bed, because we, as humans ALWAYS overestimate the amount of time these things take, and minimise the benefits of doing so.

Chronic versus acute

Modern medicine is pretty amazing. If you arrive in a hospital with your guts hanging out, losing blood and comatose, a team of doctors and surgeons and nurses and anaesthesiologists and administrative staff all fly into action and execute a series of exceedingly complicated steps to keep you alive, and in a staggeringly high number of cases (given the level of complication involved) they manage to actually do so.

It’s astonishing!

But try going into a doctor and saying you’re always feeling tired and you haven’t had a decent bowel movement in 3 days and there’s a weird rash on the back of your knees and your hair is falling out.

If they can’t find a diagnosis, if there’s not some test they can do to identify a set of symptoms for which they have a treatment, they have nothing to tell you.

It’s then up to you to take your confirmation bias shopping for a complementary medicine practitioner or spend hundreds of hours trawling through web forums astroturfed by Dr Oz and Alex Jones to try and figure out what the hell is wrong.

So this chronic condition may persist for many years until finally your health deteriorates to the point that you actually experience heart failure. That’s when the medical profession really shines. Now they have something they can really sink their teeth into. It’s a known problem. They’re on solid ground.

In general, this is a repeating pattern and it’s the same issue as not tidying up before you start cooking or not brushing your teeth when you’re tired or dumping your keys on the kitchen bench or not emptying your inbox so you can instead call back the client who is freaking out or spending too long replying to emails that aren’t important right now instead of deferring them to deal with the ones that are actually important or allowing the climate to warm incrementally until it threatens the entire ecosystem.

It’s much easier to deal with acute problems than chronic problems. Maintenance is BORING, and when things are BORING they take FOREVER. A watched pot NEVER boils. This is ingrained into our psyche, it’s a mass cultural delusion that mundane things take up huge amounts of time.

The key to victory is discipline

There’s a funny scene in Futurama when Fry (and the rest of humanity) gets drafted to fight for Earth under the command of Zapp Brannigan:

Zapp Brannigan: The key to victory is discipline, and that means a well made bed. You will practice until you can make your bed in your sleep.
Fry: You mean while I’m sleeping in it?
Zapp Brannigan: You won’t have time for sleeping, soldier, not with all the bed making you’ll be doing.

This is of course poking fun at the emphasis that the armed forces, who are principally interested in fighting wars and stuff, place on bed making.

So back to my original question: why does it work? How does bed making improve the fighting qualities of our armed forces?

I think that the reason keystone habits are so powerful is because they remind us that maintenance tasks, that taking care of chronic problems, take very little time (especially when you get used to them).

When I started walking up the stairs to put my keys and wallet back in the same spot every single time I used them, it opened my eyes to all the other areas in my life that I was dramatically overestimating the time it would take to perform mundane tasks that, if chronically ignored, would turn into acute catastrophes.

Every day we deal with exciting, acute problems like dealing with an unhappy customer or fixing a big problem, and ignore mundane chronic problems like our health, our taxes and our messy houses.

That’s the real reason that making your bed is an effective keystone habit: you start each day by reminding yourself that most of these maintenance tasks just don’t take that much time to complete.

A new definition of keystone habits

With all that in mind I would like to offer what I think is a more accurate definition of what a keystone habit is:

A keystone habit is a maintenance task that is kind of boring at first but turns out to not take all that long and even becomes fun once you’re good at it.

Bonus points if it actually has some other useful by-product (like reducing the risk of heart disease or increasing operational efficiency) but this isn’t a requirement. Bed making doesn’t improve anything, it just puts you in a maintenance mindset.

You start the day by putting something back how it was when you got there, and that’s the real secret to success.

“Hire People Smarter Than You” is Bad Advice for Small Business Owners

Whether it’s Steve Jobs saying “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do” or Richard Branson telling us to “Surround [ourselves] with great people and delegate well”, people love the idea that business success is as simple as making good hiring decisions.

For almost all business owners, however, this alone is not a strategy for success.

Once a business gets to a certain size it is undoubtedly true that the CEO’s job is to “get the right people on the bus” and hiring the best people becomes the sole source of competitive advantage, and it is precisely for that reason that a small business cannot hope to succeed purely by “hiring the best people”, because the people with the most experience and skill are either starting their own businesses or working for the big companies that can afford them.

In this article I want to discuss how you can build a high performance culture of accountability and initiative even if you can’t afford the most skilled and experienced people.

Management by Abdication

In his legendary book the E-Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber called the “hire people smarter than you” approach to staffing “management through abdication rather than delegation”.

For almost everyone reading this article, you can’t expect someone you hire to have a better idea of what to do and how to do it than you do, and even if that happens by some phenomenal stroke of luck (the law of large numbers dictates that it must happen sometimes), then eventually that person becomes the bottleneck.

Even if you do succeed in finding someone who will not only run your business better than you, but who also doesn’t want to leave and start their own business or go and work for a bigger company that can afford to pay them more, the chances that you’ll be able to replicate that hiring success become increasingly remote the more you do it.

You’re simply transferring key personnel risk from yourself onto someone else. There is no longevity in this plan.

A strategy for success that hinges on “investing in people” and “hiring the best talent” is as expensive as it is naive.

The simple fact is that the bulk of the work done in any business doesn’t require the most skilled or experienced or “best” people (for some definition of “best”).

What REALLY makes no sense is hiring the “best” people and then paying them lots of money to do work that could be done by someone less experienced (and therefore less expensive).

A Culture of Cost Effective Delegation

In his book “High Output Management”, co-founder and former CEO of Intel Andy Grove states:

“Decisions should be made at the lowest competent level by someone with both detailed technical understanding and past experiences”

The most interesting part of this quote from a delegation perspective is “lowest competent level”. This is the key to removing approval and bottlenecks from your business and ensuring that, while you may continue to do the highest value work in your business, you aren’t overpaying when you delegate less critical functions.

Even if you already have a sizeable staff, you will quite often find these people are doing tasks that are well below their pay grade simply because the task of subdividing their roles is too complicated.

When delegating work in a small business environment the key to employee happiness to give clear instructions, but that’s not always easy or possible.

It can be very easy to write down something you know how to do, and even easier to record a video of how to do something, but that is only sufficient for a minority of the total tasks you or your team might like to delegate.

When someone actually goes to follow those instructions you may find that there are nuances around how to make decisions or “hand off and hand back” points where a process needs to move between two different people.

Depending on the size of the task, it can be very easy to feel as though the complexity of these decisions and the inter-operation between multiple people (some of whom are increasingly likely not to be collocated) means it’s all too hard and you might as well just do it yourself.

It is an unwillingness to engage in the task of unravelling this complexity that results in so many businesses failing to grow beyond the number of people than can easily fit in given office space or beyond the scope of work that can easily fit inside the business owner’s head.

The solution is to create a culture of accountability and initiative, where instructions can be honed and refined over time without people becoming stressed or anxious about making the wrong decision.

This requires commitment from key personnel as well as acceptance that some things will go wrong as you go through this process.

When looking to hire people into this kind of culture it is less critical that they be “the best” at whatever role you’re hiring them for, and more critical that they be effective communicators.

In fact, the ability to digest a set of instructions autonomously, ask good questions and update documentation with the response to those questions is a skill that you should be universally hiring for and cultivating at all levels of technical and non-technical staff.

I find the manual on How to Ask Questions the Smart Way by Eric Steven Raymond and Rick Moen to be an excellent primer on clearly written communication. It’s skewed towards technical projects but as more of us move to knowledge work that document is gaining more relevance by the day (one of these days I’ll create a “non-technical” version of it and post it to this blog!)

If you have a strong culture of accountability and initiative, you will find it less critical to hire “the best” people (ie. most skilled and experienced) and will instead have an environment where people can grow together and develop a robust, systemised business rather than a collection of rock stars upon whom your ongoing success depends.

Clear Instructions Versus Micro-Management

When creating a systemised business, you need to make a decision about what boundaries you put around the technical competencies of each employee and then give them complete autonomy to make decisions within those boundaries.

A classic example of the difference between instruction and micro-management is the business owner looking over a graphic designer’s shoulder giving them specific instructions about how to change colours and reposition elements. That’s micro-management.

If, however, you asked them to provide some work and then gave them feedback on how it did or didn’t meet your business objectives, along with clear instructions about how to deliver the work (as a layered PSD or as a flat PNG file? Via Dropbox or Google Drive?) that would be an example of giving clear instructions without micro-managing.

This is true of any work someone might do whether it is technical or non-technical work. Some work may have tighter boundaries than others, some work may have more room for discretion and in some cases the instructions themselves will be a work in progress.

In all cases, the person doing the work should have a clear idea of where those boundaries are and feel complete confidence to act with autonomy within those boundaries, without fear or reprisals should they make the wrong decision.

Tell, Don’t Ask

It can be frustrating as a business owner or manager if your every request is subject to analysis and push back from your staff, so at times you just want people to carry out the tasks without asking any questions.

At the same time it is important that people apply common sense so that they have a good chance of getting a task right without further input.

To this end I always ask my staff to take action and tell me what they did, rather than ask what the correct action to take is.

Especially when hiring people who work in remote environments or different time zones, the most time-consuming (and therefore costly) thing a staff member can do when they come across incomplete or ambiguous instructions is stop and wait until they can talk with you in realtime or until you can reply to their request, without taking any further action.

Rather, it’s much better for people to proceed according to their “best guess” as to what might be the appropriate action based on the information they do have, and record that decision for later review.

If someone takes action and there is a huge problem as a result, then that’s my fault for not creating the right boundaries for that task. The staff should never feel hesitant about taking action, but where they are taking initiative in the case of some unforeseen circumstance or ambiguous instruction, should always make a note of what decision they made and why.

That provides a clear feedback mechanism we can use to improve our documentation and processes over time.

People and Process are Equally Important

You don’t have to look very far to find advice that your people are your most important asset; that a business IS its people.

If that’s the case then your business has a very short life span. In most cases for small businesses, the business is, in fact, the owner!

What you should be aiming for instead is a business where culture takes the lead. Company culture is nothing more than a system; a process for interaction between people as they work. Company culture, contrary to popular opinion, is not about birthday cakes and team building workshops. The most important aspect of your culture is how people interact when they ARE working, but the focus of many companies when building or improving their culture is on how people interact when they’re NOT working.

Exactly the wrong approach.

A culture of accountability and initiative, where people feel comfortable to make decisions within clear boundaries and have clear lines of communication is the secret to sustainable growth and robust longevity.

This culture not only allows you to attract and retain staff, but also widens your hiring pool because you are less dependent on finding “the best” and can instead focus on hiring people who are good communicators, who are willing to learn and who can be located virtually anywhere in the world (with some constraints for roles such as sales and customer service based on language and time zone barriers).

BONUS ROUND: The Role of Consultants

The missing piece of the puzzle so far is the role of consultants.

When a small business needs expert advice, they can almost always get what they need by hiring expert consultants. Consultants can provide strategic and tactical advice, skills and experience that would normally be out of the league of a small to medium sized business if they were trying to hire someone with that level of skill and experience as a permanent employee (either full time or part time).

For Apple (or an equally large company such as Virgin), Steve Jobs’ advice might be spot on, but for the rest of us you could rephrase this advice as:

“It makes no sense to hire a smart consultant and then tell them what to do. We hire smart consultants so they can tell us what to do.”

With the right set of experts giving you advice, you can build a high performance culture without worrying about having to hire the most skilled or experienced employees.

You’ll save money and create a robust, scalable business with a clear exit strategy and reduced key personnel risk.

How to Achieve Product Market Fit in 4 Agonising Years

“Never give up!” they say… but we know that’s not true.

So when should you give up?

In this post I’ll tell you the story of how 4 years of trial and error resulted in the discovery of our current product architecture and why we start every engagement with a focus on email productivity habits.

But this story is also about a deeper business question: when should you give up on something that isn’t working? I’d like to hear your thoughts on when you think you would have thrown in the towel if you were having the same experiences over a 4 year period.

Also by the end of this post you might find you’re as obsessed with email productivity as we are 🙂

Round 1: The “Do It Yourself” Info Product

In May 2014 I was primarily running Working Software and building custom web-based and mobile applications. I was also doing a bit of AdWords and online marketing stuff.

I went to a business information session one evening held by a couple of fantastic coaches by the name of Sean Collins and Jo-Anne Bowyer.

The next day I was inspired to do a brainstorming session based on some of their advice and I realised my best software clients were already-profitable small businesses seeking to streamline and automate business processes, even though most of the enquiries I got were from startup founders looking to build the Next Big Thing™ (most of whom wouldn’t exist in 18 months).

So I started The Procedure People.

Based on my experience of systemising and automating my own software company I created an information product called The Stressed Out Business Owner’s Policies & Procedures toolkit: a wiki template and a handbook with videos on how to document their business.

Of course it didn’t work.

The main problem was that no stressed-out business owners had the time to learn how to document their business and although there was some interest from the market the idea basically went nowhere.

Round 2: The “Done With You” Consulting Product

In 2015 I started working with another great coach named Dan Liszka and he helped me turn this into a consulting product.

I went out to market with a product called the Three Month Capacity Kickstart. The content was basically the same. It was all based on the toolkit, but it was a “done with you” model rather than a “do it yourself” model.

The idea was that I get the first couple of procedures done and then the client will be able to outsource those processes to remote workers either in Australia or overseas.

This would achieve an incremental capacity increase without the need to hire additional full time staff. With the increase in capacity they would then be able to go back and continue the work by themselves and they would be off to the races!

Of course it didn’t work.

Even though it sold well and there was definitely demand for the product, we never quite achieved the capacity increases we set out to achieve.

One of the biggest challenges was getting the information we needed to create procedures in a timely manner, but over and above that my impression at the time was that the root cause was a psychological barrier around hiring remote workers. Even in cases where we had a solid coverage of a range of different procedures, the roadblock always seemed to come at the point of hiring people to work remotely.

Back to the drawing board!

Round 3: The “Done for You” Full Service Product

In 2016 I came up with what I thought was the solution to 2015’s problem: it was called Part Time on Demand.

Because I had assumed that the problem was a mental roadblock around hiring and collaborating with remote workers, I set about hiring a team of four people (two onshore, and two offshore) who would then execute the procedures that we created for that company.

Again this sold pretty well but once again the delivery fell short.

After a couple of months people would taper off either declaring that it didn’t work at all or that it just didn’t work for them.

A couple of companies managed to get some success with it but it was a really tough ride.

I was pretty perplexed, not least because I was using the same systems, procedures AND staff as my clients and getting really good results. I just couldn’t seem to generate the same results for my clients.

When I was talking to one of my clients in November 2016 he sounded so stressed I asked him to jump on a video call and take me through what was going on for him.

Within about 3 seconds of looking at his screen I could see the problem.

We had put in place a helpdesk system to simplify the process of collaborating on emails with workers remotely and this changed the way his inbox looked as well as changing the types of emails he received.

I had never experienced the same problem, but the way I managed my email was completely different.

The Epiphany

When I read the book Getting Things Done by David Allen in 2007 it clicked immediately.

I have been at inbox zero ever since.

I internalised it so strongly that I forgot that I had even learned it. I just assumed everyone else had a system for managing their email that was similar.

The way this client (and, as I would soon discover, many others like him) managed email was to scan through the inbox and build up a quick mental model of what his priorities were.

This required that he have an intimate knowledge of what his inbox typically looked look like and that the patterns of what he saw were relatively constant from day-to-day. It also meant he held lots of stuff in his head because of the inflexibility of the email interface.

I realised immediately that if I could help my clients and their teams develop the same habits I had learned from reading David Allen, all systemisation and change management would come much more easily.

Building the Product

The only problem was that my system for doing so was so technical and complicated that no one else could ever be expected to learn how to do it.

I quickly built an integration between Gmail and Trello using Zapier for that client and trained him on how to keep his inbox empty.

To my delight he loved it so much he stayed committed to being at Inbox Zero every day and we started achieving some really great results for his business.

Initially I didn’t even really think about this as a product, but as more clients began using the system we had to replace Zapier with a Google Apps Script due to limitations in Zapier. As it grew more sophisticated it started to feel like a Real Software Product™  which I named Benko Board.

Epilogue: The Changing Face of Software

Not only did I discover during this time that people had challenges with productivity and communication that prevented them from implementing effective systems, but also that the landscape of possibilities for creating automated systems had changed.

Google Apps Script matured immensely from 2014 – 2017 and, coupled with my experiences in building Benko Board, allowed me to create Trellinator, which obviates the need for writing 90% of the custom web based applications that would have been required to systemise and streamline businesses previously.

Even if you have tried Trello in the past and found that you didn’t like it, I urge you to try Benko Board because it fixes a couple of Trello features that are inadequate out of the box.

I would love to hear from you in the comments whether or not you think that better email management could form the basis of better systemisation and automation in your business, but I’d also like to hear from you about what you think of the journey. Have you ever taken this long to find product/market fit? When would you have given up?

7 Shitty Pieces of Email Management Advice (and My Better Alternatives)

Here is a list of all the shittiest email management advice I see repeated ALL the time, why the advice is shitty and my improved version.

One caveat to all the following advice is that you should use Gmail.

It’s far and away the best option for both personal and business users to get the most out of their day.

If you can’t use Gmail due to some rigid corporate IT policy some of this advice might still be valuable but a lot of it is predicated on having access to features that Gmail users take for granted.

Shitty advice #1: Disable notifications and check email at certain times of the day

The standard advice: You should set aside 1 or 2 times per day to read and respond to emails so that you’re not distracted from your real work the rest of the time.

Why this advice is shitty: It makes the assumption that email isn’t “real work”. That’s true for very few people. It also assumes that all days are the same and that all email is non-critical.

The truth is that lots of “real work” happens via email, and if people don’t feel as though they can get a timely response from you on important matters via email, they’re more likely to interrupt you (in-person, over the phone, via TXT, instant message etc.)

Whatever channel you’re responsive on, people will go to that channel in order to get a response from you when they need it.

If no forms of electronic message are sufficient to get a timely response, then you’ll find that people abandon it altogether and rely on meetings to make any decisions or communicate.

Meetings are, almost always, the least efficient way to discuss things and make decisions, but unfortunately due to the overwhelming pervasiveness of this shitty piece of email management advice (and its extension to other forms of digital communication) many organisations have been unable to free themselves from the tyranny of in-person meetings and have thus also been unable to take advantage of the revolution in remote work currently underway for the rest of us.

A better alternative: Disable notifications using Do Not Disturb or Blocking mode on your mobile device, laptop or desktop computer when you need to focus or when you’re in a meeting, talking with your spouse or playing with your kids.

When you take a break or finish the conversation, turn off Do Not Disturb and review any messages that came in while you were busy.

Triage messages and reply to anything that will take less than a couple of minutes right away, then snooze or archive everything else (see later items for better ways of dealing with things you can reply to straight away).

Shitty advice #2: Get to Inbox Zero at least once per day/week/month

The standard advice: At some point every day/week/month your email inbox should be completely empty. When it starts to fill back up again, you’re no longer at Inbox Zero, until you empty it.

Why this advice is shitty: It incorrectly identifies “Inbox Zero” as an event rather than a habit, and implies that you’re using your email as a todo list.

That is, you’re leaving things in your email in some conspicuous place that you’ll be able to see them later and then you’ll do them when you have the time.

It also implies that if there are emails sitting in your Inbox, you’re somehow failing to get everything done or be productive, so when you get your Inbox empty and something new arrives it puts a dent in the feeling of success you had when it was empty.

A better alternative: Empty your Inbox every time you look at it.

This goes for any kind of Inbox. If we look at an Inbox as being any mechanism by which a piece of information first arrives in your sphere of accountability (SMS, an idea popping into your head, someone coming over and talking to you, a piece of mail, a Slack message) then this advice is broadly applicable but especially applies to email since it is the dominant business messaging platform.

Is that possible? What if your inbox has 1,000 emails? What if you had back to back meetings and the first time you checked your email you had 100 messages but there’s only 30 minutes left until home time?

All this comes down to a core misunderstanding of what Inbox Zero actually means. Inbox Zero doesn’t mean doing everything that was in your Inbox, or getting all your tasks finished, it means you’ve put the right things off until later and feel confident that you’re addressing your highest value work while not letting anything important slip through the cracks.

What you need, then, is a good strategy for being able to put things where you will see them at the appropriate time (this is the core of the GTD methodology — you have to have a system that you trust where you can put things and know you’ll see them at the right time).

The simplest and most available version of this right now is the “snooze” feature in Gmail, but you might also use an integrated ToDo list or task system to stick things into where you will see them later. Another common method is to have a folder structure where you sort things and then review them (see below for more comments on files and folders).

These methods all have their own intricacies and pitfalls that could fill a whole other blog post, but they’re all better than leaving things in your Inbox.

Above all start experimenting with different ways to put things into a system that you trust will show them to you at the right time and stop leaving things in your Inbox.

Shitty advice #3: Sort Material into Folders and Files

The standard advice: Create a filing system in your email based on category, urgency, sender, priority, or whatever else you think will help you organise and manage your email.

Why this advice is shitty: I call this approach “structure on the way in”. The problem is that priorities, categories, urgency, classifications, timeframes, they’re all fluid. Creating these things initially entails administrative overhead and maintaining them over time also entails administrative overhead.

Since maintaining these folders and systems isn’t actually critical work, over time you’ll ignore them and they will fall into disrepair.

Your “Today” folder will just look like your Inbox looked last week, so you won’t actually put things in there because you won’t actually look at them today, so you’ll leave things that are REALLY important in your Inbox anyway.

Your “Important Project Emails” folder will contain emails from 8 months ago that aren’t important.

Your “Personal Emails” folder will put things out of sight, out of mind and you’ll just never reply to anyone outside of work.

Any system that has some optional and low priority “review” process attached to it has a very limited shelf life. By and large you know what’s critical and what’s really “keeping you up at night” so those are the things you’ll want to cling to.

What happens then is all these things that might be critical to other people, decisions that require your input, things that require your approval, work that would make a big difference to other people but isn’t the towering inferno of the day, gets put off and overlooked.

When people learn that you can’t be relied upon to get the things done that they need you to do, they will find other ways to interrupt you, and the chaos of your Inbox seeps into the rest of your life.

The act of sorting things into files and folders for later review, when seen as a once off activity that you can do and then get on with your “real work”, is nothing more than a false sense of achievement.

As soon as things get busy, the wheels will fall off and you’ll never look at those folders again.

A better alternative: Use automation and filters to reduce the total amount of stuff in your Inbox and use search to get the information you need, when you need it.

Gmail has the ability to filter based on a range of search operators that can be combined in interesting ways to remove vast amounts of cruft from your Inbox without you ever having to see it.

Even if you’re super popular and have TONNES of email flowing into your inbox, you can use the combination of Gmail’s “Important” feature and their Inbox Category feature to automatically put a bunch of stuff you probably don’t need to see in a different category by using the search “-is:important category:primary” to recategorise anything that isn’t “important” that made it into your “Primary” category.

You can drag things between categories and flag emails as important or unflag them as not important to train your Gmail better to see what you consider to be important or not.

Use filters to skip the inbox for messages you need for future reference but don’t need to take action on.

When you are done with messages, archive them and then you can search for whatever you need in future.

The search operators in Gmail are so powerful that you’ll always be able to find what you need, and they work equally well on the mobile app as well as the desktop app.

As for using folders to manage your priorities, you might have some success with it, but I guarantee you that if your system assumes that you will categorise things once (for example putting them into “Today”) and that these will then not be moved into another category until they’re done, then any success has a time limit, because eventually that “Today” folder will just look like your Inbox did at the start.

The tools available for automatically sorting out what are unnecessary or unimportant messages that allow you to focus on what’s actually critical are really good now (at least in Gmail, I’m sure they suck in Office365 but you can correct me on that if you know better 🙂

You can unsubscribe from stuff in your updates/social/promotions categories, you can add new filters to automatically delete stuff.

The only problem you’ll have after you do all this is feeling lonely because you realise how little important email you actually receive 🙂

Shitty advice #4: Only read each email once

The standard advice: Reading emails takes time, and so you should only read each email once. When you read it, you should digest all the information you need from that email into whatever format you need it and then not have to read the email in its entirety ever again.

Why this advice is shitty: The task of digesting an email is actual work, and that work might not be that important at the time you read that email, so once you’ve read an email and don’t have time to deal with all the information in it right away, you’re screwed.

So inevitably, since if you’re following this advice you can’t open an email without dealing with it, in its entirety, you will leave emails sitting in your Inbox that you know you can’t deal with right now, and your Inbox will become very large.

This advice is an extension of the obsession with not “double handling” things. Double handling is a term people throw around all the time without actually thinking about what constitutes double handling.

Looking at the same thing twice doesn’t constitute double handling unless you don’t have any new information or context within which to make a decision (that’s a topic for another day).

A better alternative: Read an email with sufficient depth to make a decision or take the action that you need to at the time you’re looking at it.

The first time you look at an email in your Inbox, you are making a decision about whether or not you can deal with it right away, whether or not it’s something you even should have seen at all, if it’s more important than the other thing you were planning on doing etc.

What would certainly constitute double handling is leaving it in your Inbox, and then reading it again to make the same decision in the same context. You will have to scan over that same email and drag it out of your memory 50 times that day as you build a mental model of your Inbox to determine what you should be working on.

However if, at the point of reading the email and making those decisions, you put it into a system that you trust will show it to you again at the right time, that’s not double handling.

The next time you read that email, the situation will be different. You will be reviewing the urgency and required action in a new context, and with a different set of competing priorities. This is not double handling, so reading the same information twice is not inherently bad, it’s only bad if you read the same information without any other substantial change in context or priority.

Shitty advice #5: Use Auto Responders

The standard advice: Set an auto responder to let people know when you will reply to them. You can use these when you go on holidays, but you can also use them to let people know you’ll be away from your desk for an extended period of time in order to set expectations about when you will reply. This will reduce the propensity for people to send follow up emails that will further clog your Inbox up. Better still, set an auto responder telling people how you only check email once a day and how and when they can expect you to reply.

Why this advice is shitty: All Auto Responders are attempting to achieve the same thing: change other people’s behaviour to make your life easier. The trouble of course is that your auto responder, from the perspective of the person who sent you the email, is just another email in their Inbox, that they probably won’t read. If you’re hoping that people will stop calling you, stop faxing you, stop sending another email to follow up their first email, will change their behaviour in any way, then prepare to be disappointed. Nothing you can do will change the way people behave. They just have a set of priorities they need to deal with and they’re going about their day the same way you are.

I just want to say there are a couple of standard areas where an auto responder is a good idea.

The first is if you’re on an extended period of leave (parental leave, long service leave) and there is someone else filling in for you, OR if you have left the company and there is someone else this person needs to contact (although just forwarding or aliasing an old address to that new person is also a viable alternative).

The second is if you go on holiday and create a filter to archive EVERY email message you receive during that period. This is pretty simple, just filter from “*” and choose “skip the inbox”. This means you’ll come back to an empty inbox. If you do this, then you can set an auto responder telling people their message has been deleted and that if it’s important they should send it to you later, or not at all (in the case that you will never respond to the email, like if you’re Ringo Starr … “PEACE AND LOVE! Your email has been deleted”).

Other than that, these things are a fool’s errand, clogging up the internet and other people’s Inboxes in a vain attempt to make your life easier.

A better alternative: Don’t use auto responders (except for those specific examples). The way you manage your inbox should be a black box to the external world. The way you prioritise things, and how you manage your flow of emails is personal to you and no-one else needs to know about it.

If people send a bunch of follow up emails asking about their original email, chances are that any decent email client will group them as a conversation anyway, and if they don’t you can just delete/archive the follow ups without too much hassle.

Most people won’t do this, however. For most people, when they send you an email, it’s gone from their sphere of accountability and the ball is squarely in your court to reply.

If you’re away from your desk til next Tuesday and someone sends you an email, and they really need the answer, they’ll try to contact you some other way if they don’t hear back.

Shitty advice #6: Use stars/flags/unread to remind you of what you still need to get to

The standard advice: Use standard email features to indicate which messages you need to still deal with. These are things like stars, unread status or flags.

Why this advice is shitty: Flagged, starred and unread email can’t be reprioritised very easily. You still have to scan through your email to build a mental model of what you need to get done, and as a result you’re going to wind up holding information in your head. This habit means you can never truly relax, knowing that everything is in a place where you trust you will see it at the right time, especially as the size of your Inbox grows.

Sooner or later, your capacity to hold this mental model in your head is exceeded by the volume of information you need to manage and things start slipping through the cracks. When that happens, your stress levels increase and you start losing sleep, which further diminishes your ability to deal with information efficiently, creating a negative feedback loop.

It all just amounts to using your email Inbox as a todo list, which it’s not very useful for.

A better alternative: Use a proper task system. There are several options that operate within the Gmail interface as extensions, Gmail’s own tasks feature, and tasks within Outlook.

I don’t think any of those are particularly good (mostly because they translate so poorly to mobile devices) but they’re better than nothing.

A better option is to use a proper task or project management system (there are hundreds, but far and away the best one is Trello). These allow you to collaborate and prioritise properly, and reduce email to a tool for sending and receiving emails, with all of your actual priorities being managed in a system that’s up to the task.

There are lots of task systems that integrate with lots of email systems, but none do it better than our own product Benko Board which actually allows you to use Trello as a Gmail client.

Shitty advice #7: Don’t check email on your phone

The standard advice: Phones are distracting! Email is distracting! Live in the moment! Don’t check email on your phone!

Why this advice is shitty: The revolution of smartphones and emergence of knowledge work industries means that we can work far more flexibly than at any other time in human history. Phones allow you to maintain good priority hygiene in almost any location, so once you have a system for managing your Inbox you want to make sure it works on your mobile device and then use it regularly to ensure that when you sit down at a desk your time isn’t dominated by all the stuff that happened while you were ignoring your phone.

A better alternative: Take control of your notifications, make use of the Gmail inbox categories and filters to reduce the number of notifications you will actually receive and use your phone to deal with emails whenever you have some downtime and you feel like it.

You can still live in the moment and be present with your family and friends by simply enabling do not disturb or blocking mode on your phone when you don’t want to be notified (like on weekends, in the evening, during meetings or when driving) but to deny yourself the extraordinary productivity benefit of being able to reply to emails and conduct business from a device that fits in your pocket as a blanket rule is sheer lunacy.

BONUS ROUND: The best option of all!

Not that I’m biased or anything but the best way to manage your email is to use which allows you to use Trello as a Gmail client.

Introducing The Procedure People Boring Business Show

I can’t listen to any more interviews!!


Since Andrew Warner’s has been so successful, many people have created their own business interview shows using a very similar format …

… they’re all 1 hour long …

… they’re all video based …

… and they’re all unedited.

How can I possibly find the time to listen to all this content?

I can’t, is the answer. I don’t have the time.

Do you?

Didn’t think so.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that there’s a very limited cross section of businesses that will get airplay on these types of interview shows, namely those with high profile consultants or VC funded companies, or companies with big exits or millions of users or hockey stick growth … aren’t there more businesses than this?

Well, that’s what this show is all about. I want to find guests, who run businesses that aren’t hyped up, over the top, don’t have BIG EXITS, don’t have BREAKOUT REVENUES or HOCKEY STICK GROWTH or lots of VC FUNDING.

I want to interview solo founders and consultants, people running factories that import aluminium piping, businesses that sell umbrellas in pharmacies, people that own dog cleaning franchises, that run businesses you would never normally hear about because they’re TOO BORING…

… except that they’re not really boring.

They’re just too REAL to publish on tech crunch or mashable.

In fact, these businesses, and the women and men that run them, are the lifeblood of society in many ways. They’re the businesses that make sure we have all the stuff we need to go about our every day lives. They toil away largely in obscurity so that you and I have chairs to sit on, cars to drive, petrol to put in the cars, food to eat, clean puppy dogs and well written text ads on Google …

… and I find them fascinating!

So it is with great pleasure that I introduce you to the very first episode of The Procedure People Boring Business Show: a monthly (hopefully) audio podcast which will:

  1. Interview businesses and entrepreneurs you would never normally hear about and;
  2. Deliver a full hour long interview in a 10 – 12 minute EDITED AUDIO podcast so you can get your fix and get on with your day

Sound good?


Here it is: our first guest is Kai Davis, an outreach and online marketing consultant from Portland, Oregon in the USA.

NB: You can also download the audio file from here

If you’d like to hear more then you can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Soundcloud and sign up via email (a little popup will appear in the bottom right of the screen when you scroll down to leave a comment about HOW MUCH YOU LOVED OR LOATHED the show — added bonus: if you sign up for the email list you’ll also get 18 free business systemisation tips over the next 18 weeks absolutely free).

So, what did you think? Be brutal. Be honest. Be vocal. It’s indifference I can’t handle 😉

How we do checklists in Google Docs

Checklists are very important tools for controlling quality and reducing human error in highly manual processes. They are especially handy when managing lots of processes across different team members.

There are loads of software options out there aimed at helping you create and manage checklists, but there is a fundamental problem with using them. On the one hand, if it’s non-cloud based it’s not a good option for a distributed team, on the other hand if it is cloud-based, you become reliant on this external resource and don’t have total control over your own documents.

Your checklists form a vital part of your business’s policies and procedures.They represent knowledge that has built up over time and a huge investment in debugging and optimisation. Putting all that in some other business’s hands is a very risky proposition!

After playing around with a few different options, I found that the simple spreadsheet is an excellent tool for creating checklists, and that Google Sheets is a user friendly way to do that.

When you use Google Drive you can sync all of your spreadsheets to your hard drive. They convert to Excel format. This allows you to easily back them up, ensuring the safety of your documents. If Google ever disappeared (or locked you out of your account) you could still retrieve and work with all of your content.

Google Sheets are also accessible everywhere, work on any device and your spreadsheet can be easily edited by anyone on the team.

So how do you set up a functional check-list?

Today I’ll share with you my checklist template and take you through how you can use it in your own business.


Firstly, for the impatient, here is a link to our blank checklist template. It attempts to be self-describing. The first field has a link to a set of instructions on using the template.

The template is modelled on the type of checklist you often see in restaurant bathrooms where staff have to write their name and the time as they check off required tasks. This makes sure everyone on the team can see what tasks (or procedures) need doing and they can sign off on each one as it is completed.

You can even use the Google Sheets revision history to ensure that the time the document was modified matches the times team members are noting down as having completed tasks.


The template is VIEW ONLY. Start off by making a copy of the template so you can edit the checklist to your own needs.

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I have used the freeze columns/rows feature to ensure the instructions and procedures to run are always visible.

When adding a new run date insert a column to the left of the last run, this ensures the most recent run appears on the furthest left.

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Put the date and your name in the header of the new column.

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In order to create a checklist using this format, just add your “requirement” and “detailed procedure” first by filling in the two columns on the far left of the spreadsheet.

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For each of the procedures, you can write the *time* at which you checked it off.

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You can add comments that can be emailed to the person who created the checklist by just right-clicking on the cell under your name and next to the appropriate procedure.

When the menu comes up select “insert comment”.

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If your procedure descriptions or comments are too long to work in the spreadsheet format, that’s when SHORTLY comes in.


Spreadsheets are really great for making lists of things, but terrible for storing big chunks of text. Fortunately, there is a pretty easy solution to this problem and it’s a little web application called Shortly, created by Luca Spiller

You can use the link in the template to “create a new note”. Here is a shot of the screen you will see.


The empty box is where you can type as much information as you like about the procedure on hand. Once the detail has been filled out simply hit the blue “SAVE AS URL” button.

This encodes everything you wrote in the box and stores that information in the URL itself. When you hit SAVE AS URL the address or (URL) updates as well.

You now need to copy the new URL and paste it in the cell that related to your project.

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Not only does this app allow you to put long detailed descriptions in the spreadsheet, it also ensures the information is stored safely within the spreadsheet without relying on an external service.

If the URL on which you were using shortly were to become unavailable, you could simply set it up again somewhere else and change the domain in the URL to see your data.

Note that because all the content in here is saved in the URL, if you update the content you not only have to click “Save as URL” below, but you also have to copy the URL and paste it back into the document again.


One of the challenges in creating checklists is in ensuring that they are being followed.

All Google Drive apps (Docs, Sheets,  etc.) store a permanent revision history so you can see not only what old versions looked like but when each change was made.

Since we ask people to fill in the time they ran each process, we can check 2 things:

  • Does Google’s revision history match with what the person wrote?
  • Did they take long enough to complete the list?

For each item I will often record an acceptable time frame within which the checklist item should be completed. If someone is taking too long, or going through the list too quickly we can tell something is wrong.

I have someone in my business whose job it is to randomly check recent checklist runs to determine if they are being followed correctly.

If something goes wrong (for example a software bug makes it into production) our checklists provide us with valuable insight into why it happened, who was responsible and how we can avoid it in future.

Staff get one warning for not correctly filling out their checklists, which I think is reasonable given the importance and simplicity of the task.


I realise that this may seem pretty complex at first but go through the steps a few times and you will see it doesn’t take much work to get used to.

From my experience, this template is a great alternative to using a software product that locks you in and makes your business documentation completely dependent on an external service.

Productising a service business part four: the bit you can sell

This is the 4th article in a series on productising service businesses. If you haven’t already, check out Part One, Part Two and Part Three.

The big payoff that comes as a result of creating a fully productised business is the ability to sell it for more money.

When I have this conversation with business owners they say things like, “Oh I’m not thinking of selling my business”, but until you can sell your business, it’s not truly an asset.

The reality is that things change and life can throw unexpected curve balls. Wouldn’t you like to know that you could sell your business if you had to?

When you sell your business, you typically negotiate a price based on some multiple of revenues. Each industry has “standard multiples” that provide a starting point for negotiations, but you can dramatically increase the multiple you’re able to sell for by reducing the risks presented to potential buyers.


One of the least discussed but frequently problematic risks when selling a business is the merging of different work cultures. These issues arise when one established work culture meets another and the two are forced to work together – there is bound to be friction, just as there is bound to be some level of friction between existing and new staff members.

Potential buyers need to evaluate their position from both a financial and non-financial perspective. Financial risks are generally on the forefront of people’s minds – how much am I personally investing? What if I overpay? What fees are involved? And while these are all risks to consider, one can never underestimate the non-financial risks involved in buying a business – how much time will this new venture take up? Will it negatively affect my personal relationships? How much stress could it potentially cause? (Keep in mind the number one reason people sell a business is because of personal exhaustion.)

Perhaps the biggest risk of all is the one that a buyer can never prepare for – unexpected problems. Equipment in urgent need of repair, a manager suddenly walking out. To guard against these types of risks, potential buyers will reserve working capital and discount the purchase price accordingly.


The reason I’m using the term “productisation” here rather than “systemisation” is to make a distinction between businesses that simply have operational procedures written down, and those that have documented processes for finding leads, closing sales and delivering services.

Imagine how difficult it would be to sell a car if there were no petrol stations. That’s what it’s like when you try to sell a business without a clear strategy for finding new clients and growing the business.

Additionally, when you sell a business you need to be able to provide clear instructions on how the person buying it will run the business without you. This is sometimes solved by requiring that the founder of the business stay on for an “earn out” period – that is, you sell the business and work for the acquiring company as an employee for some period of time to smooth the transition.

Can you imagine anything worse?

Not only is this widely reported as being a totally horrible experience, but it also doesn’t help if you’re selling the business because you can no longer work (for example, due to injury or change in circumstances).

This doesn’t just stop with the business owner: quite often there are “key employees” without whom the business would be essentially valueless.

If you’re going to sell your business, will your staff stick around? Will the new owner be able to cope with the impact of negative cultural clash by hiring new people or training existing staff to run the processes of the new business? A thoroughly productised and documented business doesn’t necessarily protect a potential buyer from cultural mismatches occurring, but goes a long way to insulating them from the negative consequences by having clear hiring and training procedures that don’t rely on keeping the same “superstars” employed.

If you can show clearly how much time running your business takes, how and why it will grow as well as providing clear documentation about what you sell and who does the work (and how to hire them!) you’re dramatically reducing the “unknowns” – the risks – and the amount of money that must be held “in reserve” to guard against them. This money then ends up in your pocket.

If we consider the analogy of selling a car again, you want to sell a car that most people will know how to drive without any special training, and which will be easily serviceable by a wide range of local mechanics.

If we put these factors together we need to have a business that can be sold so that:

  • Anyone reasonably competent can find out how to run it with the minimum of training
  • There is a clearly defined and scalable growth strategy and;
  • It can be staffed by people who are readily available in the job market rather than relying on a couple of “superstar” employees and complex earn-out contracts


So how do we do this?

I’d like to share with you my simple strategy for creating documentation that satisfies all these conditions.

First, your documentation needs two entry points:

  1. The first is for the new business owner. This page should quickly answer two questions: what do we sell, and who does the work?
  2. The second is for new employees. When the business owner hires someone, they should be able to send them a single page which describes in detail everything they need to know in order to do their job

This is where the “structure” of your documentation becomes really important.

It’s quite easy to write out a bunch of operating procedures and put them in word documents on a shared network drive, but that’s not enough to create a sellable asset.

What we do is separate our documentation into two main areas:

  • Products: these are things that produce an outcome; they can be “internal” (meaning that our own business is the “client”) or they can be “external” (meaning they’re things that get sold to other people)
  • Roles: these are things that people do. More than one person can perform the same role, and the same person may fulfill multiple roles.

Since we discussed roles in detail in the previous article in the series, the rest of this article will focus on the concept of “products”.

So the “front page” of our documentation lists our products and our roles:

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As the business owner, I can quickly see which parts of my business are systemised (and which ones aren’t!) Each “external” product includes information on how we find leads, close sales, set up clients and deliver the services.

Each product page also lists the roles that are responsible for work in that area, as well as roles which have recurring processes. In general, products are a good way of “grouping” processes and connecting them to Roles from a “top down” view (as opposed to each individual role’s induction page, which tells one person everything they need to know about doing their job).

Here’s an example of our “Web Application Development” product page:

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So when it comes time for us to sell our business, we’ll be able to supply a new business owner with a single, self-documenting page that gives them all the information they need in one place on how to connect to customers and deliver services.

When they hire people they simply send them a link to their “team member page”, as outlined in our previous article on how to define roles in the business.

How does your business documentation measure up to this standard? Do you have a single page that you could provide to a new business owner that would tell them everything they need to know to run the business?

Our Procedure for Hiring on oDesk

I’ve been posting some pretty strategic content about business policies and procedures, and recently received a message from VideoFruit’s Bryan Harris on Twitter wanting to see something a bit more “tactical”:

So here it is. This post details our procedure for hiring on oDesk.


At a high level, this is how we hire people:

  1. We have a generic hiring procedure for any given channel (eg. oDesk,, Domestika,,
  2. Each general hiring procedure requests specific “parameters” which will differ depending on which role we’re hiring for
  3. Once the hiring process is complete, we induct each team member by sending them a link to our online documentation

We hire everyone remotely and minimise real time communication. In some cases we restrict the hiring to a given time zone, but for the most part our systems are set up to cope with asynchronous collaboration between team members.


Here is is our doc for hiring through oDesk in step-by-step screenshots.

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Once a person has logged in, the first thing step is looking at job postings and searching for potential candidates.

So the first few steps are to login to oDesk and setup the job posting. Note that the process refers to the job title and description provided in the specific parameters attached to the role you’re hiring for.

We then use the “search parameters” required for the given role to get a shortlist of potential candidates, then send an initial hiring message to each of them.

A follow up “hiring message” is sent out to potential candidates, their emails are forwarded, and further instructions are provided.
A follow up “hiring message” is sent out to potential candidates, their emails are forwarded, and further instructions are provided.

Anyone who replies to the initial hiring message, receives a follow up hiring message. The text of the message is provided in the “parameters” documentation for this specific role. All replies to this follow up hiring message are forwarded onto a hiring manager.


This document provides the “parameters” for the backend web developer role. So where the “generic hiring procedure” requests, for example, the job title, description and follow up hiring message for the role that’s being hired, the hiring assistant will refer to this document to get the specific text to be used.

The first page lists the job title and description in full, plus specific details on search parameters.
The first page lists the job title and description in full, plus specific details on search parameters.

Again, note the step-by-step instructions. These are integral to our hiring strategy as they ensure everything is laid out plainly.

Step one explains the manual process for sending out the initial hiring message.
Step one explains the manual process for sending out the initial hiring message.

This step includes the message itself as well as notes to ensure it is sent out correctly (like inserting your own name and the job post link).

Steps 2 and 3 again look at follow up messages and forwarding.
Steps 2 and 3 again look at follow up messages and forwarding.

The most important thing to notice above is that I’m asking for an opinion, and it’s on a reasonably esoteric topic.

When you ask for someone’s opinion you get to see a lot about them by how they respond. 95% of the responses are complete garbage, and it’s therefore a very quick and efficient way to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Here we also show how using “the personal touch” is integral to how we work. We obviously can’t send out dozens of personal emails to potential candidates, but we can ensure our communication with them feels personal even when using generic emails.

Steps 4 and 5 outline the basic hiring procedure, again in step-by-step format.
Steps 4 and 5 outline the basic hiring procedure, again in step-by-step format.

As you can see we provide a trial task, but the most important fact about our trial task is not shown here because you can’t see the full trial task instructions: we don’t ask them to COMPLETE the task, we ask them to spend UP TO 6 HOURS on the task.

By time-boxing how long people spend on the task, we firstly pay people fairly for their time, and secondly we get to see their relative efficiency.

If you give the same trial task to 3 people, and 2 of them return stellar work in 3 hours, and one of them doesn’t get it finished in 6, then you know there’s a problem with that 3rd candidate.


This is completely specific to our own internal systems. We use Basecamp, we use MediaWiki, we use Google Docs etc. so I’m not sure how useful this will be specifically to anyone else, but for completeness I want to include this here so everyone can see how our hiring process works.

The process details give step-by-step instructions on inducting new staff members.
The process details give step-by-step instructions on inducting new staff members.

The information here shows how to move into induction, and all the information needed to give applicants. The process outlined forms a major part of how we function – hiring people to hire themselves, as seen in the next steps:

Continued process details
Continued process details

Note that in the email new employees are responsible for updating their information and creating accounts. Everything is outlined clearly so they can complete the induction process unassisted.


The most important thing about this process is that the new person we’re hiring gets everything they need to know in order to do their job from their “team member page”.

This means that our policies and procedures are woven into the fabric of everything we do. There is virtually no communication within the organisation outside of the procedures as specified.

It’s also a good litmus test of new hires: if they can’t make it through the induction process they’re probably not the right person for the job. As the business owner, I’ve gotten to the point now where I can just request that my executive assistant hire a new role, optionally in a given time zone and with virtually no input from me, and that person will show up in Basecamp ready to work.

It feels truly incredible!

Productising a service business part three: the secret ingredient is Roles

In the first 2 installments in this series (Separating Products from Capabilities and Systemising the Sales Process), we have looked at some strategies that will help you turn your services into products.

From this post onwards, we’re going to be looking at some specific tactics around documenting business processes that will help you execute those strategies.

When people want to start documenting their business processes, they typically start by… *drum roll* … documenting their business processes!

Seems sensible, right? In fact it is sensible and is how I recommend people begin.

But it quickly gets hairy. Having a bunch of stuff written down is not enough to systemise your business because it ignores the most important factor: all these tasks need to be done by people.

And not just any people: these need to be people that:

  • Are not yourself
  • Can be hired and trained quickly and;
  • Can be hired at a rate that keeps your business profitable

Roles are your secret weapon when it comes to systemisation (and ultimately productisation)

There’s a management theory called Holocracy that got a lot of exposure when Zappos declared they were going to “eschew hierarchy” and implement a holocratic organisational structure by the end of 2014.

Although I think Holocracy reeks of bullshit management speak and is way too inaccessible to be used with any degree of practicality by small businesses, there is one aspect of holocratic organisational theory that I have unwittingly embraced in my own business, and that’s the importance of Roles.

The most important thing about roles is that they are not necessarily job descriptions (although they can be); the same role can be fulfilled by more than one person, and one person can fulfill more than one role.

The second most important thing about roles is that, even if you haven’t acknowledged them, they already exist.

In fact, if we take the simplest business in the world (ie. the “solopreneur”) and analyse it in terms of roles, this is what it looks like:

The Solopreneur Roles Diagram

In other words, solo founders/business owners do everything. Usually this activity is “reactive”, meaning that they get a call from a client wanting to buy something and in that instant they turn into the sales assistant; or they get a call from a client saying the website is down and in that instant they turn into the systems administrator, etc.

In reality, what you find is that in many cases these roles can be broken down even further so that, for example, rather than hiring one person as a “project manager” you might have several components of the project management process separated out into distinct roles.

To give you an indication of what this looks like in a real world scenario, here is a screenshot of the list of roles I’ve defined in my own organisation (across my three brands):

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There are 21 roles, currently fulfilled by 18 different people. I fulfill 4 of those roles currently and about 17% of the total hours worked in the business are my own (out of about 7,000 total man hours per year).

What does a Role consist of?

The first step to creating roles in your business is to give the stuff you do a name. It helps to have written that stuff down before you try and name it (which is why I recommend you start by just getting something written down and hiring someone else to do it for you).

Each role contains 3 things:

  1. A process for hiring someone to fulfill that role and;
  2. An induction page that tells your new hire everything they need to know in order to do the job
  3. A list of people who currently fulfill that role

Because a role’s induction page contains everything that a new hire will need to know in order to do their job, a Role can act as a “collection of related procedures”.

So for example, I have a role called “Bookkeeping Assistant” which links through to several documents that give a new hire general info about how to do their job (accessing various tools etc.) as well as links to specific procedures that need to be done according to a fixed schedule:

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In a later post, we’ll cover how to organise your procedures into “Products & Roles” but for now you can just use each Role as a way of grouping related procedures together.

How Roles will help you productise

As I stated above, Roles are not necessarily job descriptions, although they can be.

The fundamental problem that systemisation solves is that for some of the day, the business owner is working on tasks that are only worth, say, $5/hour because they could potentially hire someone on oDesk to do that job for $5/hour.

Some of the day they’re working on tasks that are only worth $30/hour, and then some of the day they’re working on tasks that are worth $200/hour.

The challenge is that each of these little tasks might only take 10 – 15 minutes, and so it can seem utterly impossible to separate them out and hire someone to do each one.

The process for productising your business (especially if you’re currently a solo founder) will consist of gradually defining Roles and hiring people to do them.

As such, it helps to define roles that constitute each component of overall service delivery even for roles you currently fulfill. This allows you to price each of those components appropriately.

By defining Roles that group together related procedures, you can start by hiring one person that might fulfill several of these Roles (other than yourself), hence allowing you to give them an appreciable amount of work each week (rather than, say, only giving them 15 minutes of work per day which means you’re probably not going to be much of a priority for them).

As your business grows, you can hire individuals who *only* fulfill one of those roles that were previously covered by a single person.

Gradually, more and more of your time is spent doing only the highest value tasks.

Even though, when you first start out, the business will not have a high enough volume to justify hiring someone who is worth $200/hour to replace yourself, by the time your business is big enough to do that, those roles which are worth $200/hour will be so clearly defined that you will be able to hire someone to replace yourself.

You will also be able to see clearly whether or not your service delivery model is truly profitable. There is a stupid term coined by Paul Graham “Ramen Profitable”, which isn’t actually profitable at all. It’s perfectly acceptable for you, as the founder, to take a hit on your salary in order to allow you to get a business started, but when the time comes to replace yourself in the process you want to be sure that you will be able to hire someone to do what you do, at a price that will not cause the business to lose money.

Roles help you do this by identifying exactly which bits of a given product’s delivery are performed by people who cost different amounts, and then determine whether or not the price you’re charging for the service is sufficient.

In the next article we’ll talk about how to create an “entry strategy” for your business.

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