By now we are half-way through the Cumulative Effects Challenge. You probably feel like you’re behind, even. So it’s likely a bit overwhelming that these emails keep landing in your inbox. And if you’re reading this, that means you opened it and clicked through anyway, so you are way ahead of the game.
But let’s address this sense of being behind.
The thing about time is that it’s weirdly elastic. I’m sure you had weeks where you unexpectedly had to attend to an emergency – and it’s wonderful how much you got accomplished in a very short period of time.
Some of my most productive years were the ones where I was trying to build a business alongside a full-time job. Why? Because it forced me to be thoughtful about what I spent my time on.
A lot of people seem to think that it’s the time constraint that makes people productive, but I think it’s the thoughtfulness. When I’m at the job, counting down the hours until I can sit down and my computer and work at my side business, my brain is grinding away, behind the scenes, refining, organizing, streamlining.
By the time I sit down to my two-hours-after-supper-and-before-bedtime window, I have a great many details already settled in my brain. All that remains is to march them out onto the screen.
So that’s two potential avenues of leverage – time constraints, and thoughtfulness. Let’s look at a couple more.
I (Still) Love Checklists
You may remember some posts them a few years back where I became obsessed with checklists. Diving into the science and best practices behind checklists, two things came to light that are somewhat counterintuitive.
- Checklists improve performance and creativity with no associated costs.
- Not everything goes on a checklist.
As an adult and a business owner, you’re accustomed to making trade-offs.
- You use Amazon as a platform rather than your own site because it offers more traffic – but you also lose a lot of control.
- You do your own tech support even though for sure someone else can do it faster, because it’s cheaper and you don’t have to wait for support tickets to rise through the queue.
- You do hourly services rather than packages because it’s an easier sell and you don’t have to educate your clients as much – even though it’s chancier income.
Checklists have no such trade-offs. They are a universal good. The only cost is the time spent writing it down, and refining it a few times. After that, your main problem is finding it when you need it.
If you don’t think it’s counterintuitive, then consider: how many routine processes do you not have checklists for? “Oh, but I have those memorized.” Maybe you do. (So do airline pilots.) But the stress and strain on working memory, executive function (making decisions,) and plain old fatigue means that if you just wrote down a checklist to refer to, you can save yourself all that energy, for now and for the foreseeable future. Checklists do need to be updated, but every six months or a year is lots.
But Not Everything Goes On A Checklist
What about that second counterintuitive thing – not everything goes on a checklist? This one is really interesting, and the data for it comes directly from the aviation industry – the gold standard in checklist creation.
It turns out that there are some things, some parts of the process that no one ever forgets to do. And so those can be dropped from the checklist so as to keep things uncluttered.
So to give a simple example: say you wanted to create a checklist for getting ready to go in the morning. So you would definitely add – take a lunch out of the fridge. You might add “get dressed” just for scheduling purposes, but you probably don’t have to add “put on shoes.” Because you will definitely notice if you walk out of the house in sock feet.
In practical terms, this means your checklist doesn’t have to include exhaustive subtasks. It can just be a prompt on your phone the night before to pack your lunch, work bag, and pick up your clothes, and a sticky note next to the door that says, “Lunch? Workout bag? Laptop?” That’s a checklist. Two checklists, technically. And together they create a working system called “Successful Mornings.”
So that’s another avenue of leverage — reducing mental overhead with no trade-offs.
Designing Systems That Take Advantage of Checklists, Time-boxing, and Thoughtfulness
Those three items are trivia. Without a practical application they are useless. However, these three tools – checklist, thoughtfulness, and time boxing — are going to be the building blocks of truly integrating cumulative improvements into your life.
When a client comes to me to help them design systems, it is usually because they are drowning. Too much work, no time to build systems.
So the first thing we do is figure out where the most time can be won back with the least amount of effort. If I were on a call with you, I would ask you a bunch of questions and we’d figure it out together, but you’re a smart cookie, and I know you can do it without me.
Here’s what we’re looking for:
- things you do relatively frequently or are very time-consuming
- things that seem disorganized and splintered, especially things that require a lot of tabs and windows open
- tasks that seem like they should be able to be done a lot faster than they are
So to give an example, let’s say a major time sink is setting up for social media shares for the week. The strategies can be applied in any order.
Thoughtfulness: What am I going to share? Say I need twenty items to put in Buffer. I decide I’m going to share two posts I saw this week that I liked, one post that I just wrote (but I’m going to share three times) and one from my archives. That six. I’m going to share five inspirational quotes or images and three retweets. That’s fourteen. And the rest will be observations or exhortations so that I’m displaying my personality and brand. I’ll bet that already feels manageable before you even sit down.
Checklists: well, since I already decided what I’m going to share, I might as well write it down and use it every week. But what about those tabs?
Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, HootSuite, Buffer. Maybe I should create a checklist of those so I know exactly what to open? And maybe I could hyperlink them? Why don’t I take it one step further and make a bookmark folder and title it “Weekly Social Scheduling.” Then I can right click + “launch all.” I’m a genius!
Timeboxing: okay, everything is set up to launch and they know exactly what types of sharing I need to find and organize. Let’s see if I can knock this out in thirty minutes!
This leads to my final suggestion for implementing systems such as these – and it incorporates all three of the tools we’ve covered so far.
When looking for a time in your schedule to create a 1% improvement:
- look for a time when you’re able to give it some concentrated thought
- give yourself thirty minutes to an hour to create as many improvements to your system as you can (so using the example from above, you might create the checklist one week and the bookmark folder next week)
- remember that stuff that needs to get done will get done, and that “losing” 30 to 60 minutes setting up the system is not likely to have much impact. You’ll just be more focused. And probably more upbeat because you know that you made tangible progress on creating effective systems for your business.
With that in mind; you know your own workflow and habits best. I like to build systems first thing in the morning, when I’m fresh, or in the evening after supper, after the ideas have been stewing all day. I’ve seen people who schedule it during the afternoon slump as a way of feeling ‘productive’ even when they’re not up to their usual creative work.
By looking for the right types of time blocks to apply the right tools, you will find it much easier to fit the habit of cumulative improvement into your week. Perhaps you could even make it a recurring calendar item, to give your brain time to stew on the next improvement.
Figure out where the most time can be won back with the least amount of effort.
Next week: we are looking at adaptation, to ensure that the processes you install are ideally suited for you and your way of doing things.