Cafe Witness

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

5 Tips for Streamlining Workflow

Like most human beings, I'm perpetually overwhelmed with hundreds of duties from my dozens of jobs, hobbies and obligations. Between a weekly web video series, freelance videography / audio / writing / consulting, and being a co-organizer of PodCamp Pittsburgh 2, it seems my to-do list is forever expanding.

Meanwhile, I have a wonderful relationship, friends and family to spend time with, plus my own interests, which I'm always trying to find space to squeeze in during the day -- often at the peril of productivity.

How do I juggle it all? Not extremely well, I'm afraid. But I have learned a few ways to save myself the occasional headache and, when I'm lucky, steal some well-earned relaxation time as well.

1. Delegate!

The biggest problem I have with delegation is being able to communicate the basics of a duty clearly and quickly enough that, by doing so, it doesn't actually take longer than it would if I simply did the duty myself. That, and I'm a control freak.

But I realized (fairly recently) that I can't do EVERYTHING, and when I try to, most of it gets done at half-strength because I'm dragging myself across the finish line.

Instead, I've found a few capable assistants whom I can rely on to accomplish the simple or time-consuming tasks that I don't HAVE to 100% do myself. Chief among these: information gathering and sorting, database management, recurring promotions, and test-driving new sites / applications / software.

2. Keep All Your To-Dos in the Same Text File

I admire David Allan's Getting Things Done, but I've decided to simplify my life even more: I now keep everything I need to do in one text file, perpetually open on my desktop. I list all tasks, day by day, as well as "floating" tasks and other miscellanea, "in case I get time"...

If I have a complex, multi-faceted task, I'll list all obvious actionable parts of it, indented, beneath the task's title. This helps me keep track of the steps in the project. If I delegate something to someone else, or I send an advance email about something, I italicize it (to indicate it's in action but out of my hands, for now) and move it to a follow-up date on my text file.

Some might find this approach decidedly luddite, especially when there are so many killer web apps being designed to make the entire process look and feel 1000 times trendier. But by the time I figure out how to use most of them, I could have crossed another 5 tasks off my text file...

3. Turn Routine Maintenance into Playtime

One of the most un-sexy duties in computerdom is backing off completed files. My hard drives are routinely littered with long-finished projects I simply haven't had time to clear off. So I've begun making that maintenance a priority -- because when I'm burning a DVD, I can't do anything else with my machine. This frees me to read, or exercise, or play my timeworn copy of NBA Live 2004. (Yes, I'm old school.)

4. Fridays Are for Loose Ends and Future Plans

After lunch on Fridays, motivation is universally low. Instead of working half-assedly through an existing project, I use that time to:

- plow through any loose end emails I've been putting off
- clean off the crap that's accumulated on my desktop
- revisit some of the dozens of websites I've bookmarked during the week (thanks, Mashable) to see if they require further investigation / integration

I also look ahead to next week and see what my major deadlines / projects are. Is there anything I can do to prep? Advance emails I can send? What's my expected worfklow? Being able to start from "go" on Monday, as opposed to spending precious "action" hours figuring everything out, is invaluable.

5. Insist on Keeping Weekends Free

I've been doing this for over a month now and, with one exception (traveling to Israel for Blogference), I've been able to maintain a stringent refusal to work (much) on weekends. I still check email (sometimes), and I still do emergency fixes to existing projects (when required). But otherwise, I spend a LOT of time hanging out with friends... or family... or running errands... or reading...

I find that knowing I'm enforcing this "time out" with myself makes me actually work harder during the week to get everything done. The last thing I want to do is wake up on Monday and deal with a half-finished project I should have wrapped up on Friday.

These are my tips, forever in flux and always open for debate. What are yours?

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  • GREAT tip about one text file for to-do's. (I have just been compiling that tonight!)

    And yes, weekends are necessary for all.

    Keep up your great site.

    By Blogger paulmerrill, at 9:18 PM  

  • It's ok, I still have a copy of NHL

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:24 PM  

  • Ditto on the text to do list. Giving it a go.

    By Blogger Norm, at 10:37 AM  

  • Justin,
    Thanks for the gentle reminder to keep my weekends open. I often find myself pushing things to the weekend and then missing out on opportunities that get my out of the house and office.

    I'll try to implement this great productivity nugget this week.

    David Finch

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:09 PM  

  • Number five is the most important for me, I need my weekends free.

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