Productivity Hacks: 4 Steps to Killer Project Planning

Last week we talked about the importance of planning the projects and assignments we take on. Today we’re going to dive into what a good plan looks like.

This is fairly broad as there are an infinite number of things for which you may have to plan. You could be planning out a new website design for your business or you could be asked to come up with copy for a marketing email campaign.

Although there is a wide array of what we could potentially have to do, planning for any project can follow similar steps.

The 4 Steps to Killer Project Planning

Step 1: Get Clear on the Objective

Your objective for anything you have to plan out is usually related to a problem you are trying to solve. Taking the website design example from above, the problem may be that you’re not getting as many leads as you think you could because your site looks out of date and/or doesn’t have enough avenues for leads to be captured.

Your objective should be real-world and executable. So if your website exists to generate leads for your business, your objective in the re-design could be to “Capture more leads” or “Capture more qualified leads”, if you really want to be specific.

If you are the owner of a tutoring center, for instance, you goal for this objective isn’t necessarily that your website be an avenue to turn visitors into paying students on the first time visiting your site. That sort of objective-based goal may not be real-world.

What would be an executable goal for this objective is to say you want your website to help drive people to free consultations or to your listserv (on which you send out math problems every day :-)). This way you capture a lead and put them into a process you control through which you are building a relationship. This is a tangible goal toward the bigger objective of allowing your website to capture leads.

Step 2: Think from multiple angles about reaching your objective

The tutoring center owner came to the objective for his web-design that he wanted to “Capture more qualified leads” with the goal of “Getting more people scheduled for free consultations & growing our email list”. With this clearly defined, we now know that we need to lower thresholds for people to schedule those free consultations and to join the listserv.

It is not difficult to think about how to lower thresholds, but it is time consuming. With lowering thresholds it is helpful to peel the onion, as they say, and look at the barrier to reaching your goal from many different angles.

If the owner of the tutoring center wants to get more people scheduled for the consultations he offers, he better have something on his website that makes scheduling easy. Having an online scheduler, however, is just the first layer of the onion.

He also needs to think about the barriers for people thinking about scheduling. What are the questions they might have that would make them hesitate? What can he clarify to increase his level of trust?

If it is the parents that typically sign up for the consultation, they may be wondering if their child is at the right level in whatever subject area to come to the tutoring center. Or, they may be asking how much this would end up costing them over the course of a year. Or, they may be wondering how in the heck they can convince their kid to go to tutoring.

Likely they are wondering all those things, and beneath any of those questions, there are undoubtedly more questions.

Thinking about the objective from these angles, where you’re asking the questions that your clients ask, will help you identify the other information you need to have on your site in order to reach your goal. If these are questions they have, how can you answer these questions to lower the threshold toward scheduling a consultation?

Step 3: Synthesize commonalities in how you’re thinking about your objective-based goal

After thinking about your objective from multiple angles, you’ve really fleshed out your forest. You have avoided the trap many of us fall into where we get too consumed by the details early on that we can’t see the forest for the trees.

Now you get to take a step in toward the forest and start seeing the definition of the trees a bit better.

One group of trees may be about describing how awesome the experience is at your tutoring center to give parents who are thinking about signing up for the consultation some arsenal to convince their child to go to tutoring in the first place.

This may be a section that becomes known as your “Culture” section and you provide descriptions about the environment, pictures detailing the interactivity, and downloads for some activities that you do in group sessions as proof for how fun it is.

Another group of trees may be about “Cost”. Sure, maybe it is a large budget item to join a tutoring center. People would be naturally hesitant to pay thousands of dollars toward anything, but cost is all about perception. Since you know cost is a barrier, you can break the cost of tutoring down in comparison to some of the more frivolous spending we have or you can describe scholarships you offer that give parents some hope of it not being a total financial burden.

Yet another group could be describing the “Collaboration” your tutoring center embodies. To overcome the hesitation of whether or not a child is at the right level for tutoring, you need to have a section describing how your tutoring center meets kids where they are. You’re open to kids no matter where they fall on the spectrum.

Deriving these groups from the angle of barriers toward meeting your objective will keep you from (a) wasting your time solving for a problem that doesn’t existing and (b) falling into potholes for barriers you didn’t take the time to think about.

Step 4: Make super-specific lists for each group

Once you have your groups, think through what needs to be done within each. Don’t aim to do everything for every group all at once, but you can aim to make a quick, specific list for each group that you’ll revisit before beginning work on it.

We've done a post in the past about making sure your lists are actionable, so read that to make sure you’re not just making a brain dump of the things you got to do.

Once you have your super-specific lists made for each group of elements that make up your project, you’ll get to decide which item to tackle first. The benefits of following these steps for project planning are that you get a better understanding of the big picture which helps you foresee what may trip you up down the road.

If the tutoring center owner did not consider implementing online scheduling from multiple angles, he may have quickly gotten an embedded scheduler on his website but continued to wonder why in the heck people weren't signing up for consultations.

Fleshing out the big picture makes it easy to get into the details without being lost among them.

Have you ever executed on a project and not fleshed out the big picture before hand? How did it go? What advice would you give to people trying to get their heads around the big picture? Tell us about it in the comments below!

Productivity Hacks: The benefits of planning

Productivity can be a hidden gem. We’ve talked so far in our productivity hacks series about how productivity can be increased through the methods we’re already using to stay productive. Oftentimes, however, the most productive gains can be found where we weren’t necessarily looking.

I know we’ve all heard our parents or well-meaning mentors tell us to “think before you speak”. And yet, as I experience this world, I wonder if that was the most forgotten piece of advice any of us ever got. It’s as if we categorize thorough planning as a waste of time and believe instead that flying by the seat of our pants is the better way to get things done.

My aim is to dispel the myth that planning is a fool’s game. At first glance, it may seem contradictory that we could be more productive if we spend time planning things out before we execute. Many believe (& thereby behave in such a way) that if they know the end goal, they can go ahead and start executing toward it. They’ll figure out the road bumps along the way and address them as they come.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people argue this. I have to think their headstrong opinion on the subject is left over frustration at their 8th grade teachers who forced them to outline their papers before they could write them. I can hear the squabbling from the rows of pre-teens now.

I’m going to give everyone who holds onto the opinion that planning and outlining are a waste of time a pass. Perhaps the importance of outlining was just never put in proper context for them.

Outlines and planning effectively are the methods that separate the accomplished from the unaccomplished & the successful from the unsuccessful. They keep you from getting so deep in the woods that you can’t see the forest for the trees.

If your boss hands you an assignment or project at work that’s due in a week, you may be tempted to just dive right on in. But without first taking a second to think of scope and requirements, you might end up doing a bunch of work in the wrong direction which ultimate equals wasted time.

I’m not saying that planning will prevent all the change-course moments that occur during projects, but it will provide a lot of foresight which can help us keep those moments from toppling the ship entirely.

For instance, in designing the new interface for our online scheduling application, we spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about how to best layout people’s working hours or availability to take appointments. It’s one of the most important aspects of our application and we knew we had to nail it in our new design.

We thought first about how people think about their availability. Do they think about it more on a location basis or on a date-range basis? Is it easier to see your availability in an organized list or in a more visual way (like on a calendar)?

While the design we landed on ultimately took us a few weeks to develop, we saved a lot of time from unnecessary re-works by effectively planning beforehand. Our planning process involves personas, use cases, and wireframing before we even begin on HTML layouts. Being this detailed takes its own sweet time, but you can’t deny the satisfaction when you’ve really nailed something and foreseen the hiccups that could have reared their heads along the way.

What about you? Are you a planner or do you jump right in? How do you feel about taking time to think through things before acting? As a person who use to hate planning and just wanted to get into the action, I can tell you that it is a hard transition to make. For those of you who have made the transition, what kind of changes have you seen in your work? Let us know in the comments below.

Keep your eyes peeled for next week’s post as we really go into a deep dive of the planning process for the experience design of our upcoming application.

Productivity Hacks: Unavoidable Daily Responsibilities

The tasks that give me the most anxiety aren’t the tasks that are new or I don’t know how to do or are really big. The responsibilities I have that give me that anxious feeling are the things I have to do on a daily basis, and if I forget or can’t get to them I have a sense of guilt that swells up inside me. Such is the case with support tickets.

checkAppointments modus operandi is to make sure everyone gets a response to their support request within 24 hours. Thus as soon as a ticket is submitted the clock starts on getting it answered.

Jumping on support tickets right away will give the impression that they should always expect that immediate of a response. Since I can’t always be immediately available to respond, I should know better than to give off that impression. Realistically, I have too many items I’m responsible for to also actively monitor our ticket feed or my inbox all day.

In the past I have handled doing support tickets by checking my email in between tasks, reading the support tickets, deciding how urgent they were, and then deciding whether to answer them.

This method has an inherent flaw that we’ve discussed in a previous productivity hack post. The more I checked my email for support tickets, the more I had to reprioritize my current tasks, which involved making decisions about priorities multiple times per day. The more you have to make decisions (even be them so little as whether to answer a support ticket), the more difficult keeping a grasp on your priorities is, and thus the worse your decision making ends up being.

Such is the case for all people as decision making taxes our working memories. Making a decision tires our brains out, so it is best to figure out a way to reduce the number of decisions you have to make if you want to stay more productive.

I circumnavigate my anxiety and stress of the daily requirement to get all support tickets answered by reducing the number of times per day I have to make decisions about answering them. Just to give you an idea, tickets vary in number from 5-15 per day, and each takes between 5-10 minutes to complete.

To reduce the number of times I have to make a decision, I have scheduled in 2 (roughly) 30 minute periods Monday through Friday from 8:00-8:30 in the morning and 4:30-5:00 in the afternoon where I will check our support tickets, respond if I’m able or report a bug if need be and make the notes I need to to report bug fixes back to the user.

Scheduling in timeslots for answering support tickets

Scheduling in timeslots for answering support tickets

When I’m outside of those 2 time frames, I may be tempted to look at the emails hanging out in my inbox, but I must resist under the orders of my more rational self who has formerly made the decision to restrict the number of decisions I make per day.

Here comes the part about figuring out ways to make the decisions your more rational self makes non-negotiable when it comes to dealing with your irrational self.

You first must understand that you will be tempted to disagree with yourself when push comes to shove. You’ll fall back into old habits and routines. If you can accept this, then you can begin looking for measures you can put into place to help make things non-negotiable.

From our post on getting weekly recurring tasks completed, you’ll remember one good tactic (that we’ve already addressed in this post, as well) is to put it on your schedule.

Another good idea is to pair it with something you really enjoy and wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to do. For instance, I really, really enjoy my morning coffee and afternoon tea. One thing I can do for myself to help me adhere to this schedule is to only permit myself to have either of those if I’m doing it alongside getting the support tickets answered.

A third measure I can take is to filter my inbox messages. If I realize the reason I’m presented with more decisions than I want is actually seeing the support tickets wind up in my email, then that’s something I can change. I can use Gmail’s email filtering to parse out support tickets from my main inbox view. I’m sure I’ll still check my inbox throughout the day, but with many of the support tickets being routed to a different folder, I won’t tempt myself to decide their priority outside of my scheduled times.

Creating a filter for support tickets

Creating a filter for support tickets

So there you have it. We essentially just took the principles we applied when making the recurring weekly task less stressful to making the recurring daily priorities less anxiety ridden. First, I scheduled it in, then I looked to pair it with something I love, and finally I lowered the temptation that I’ll feel to decide if it is something I need to do right now.

Have you ever had to make something that you had to do every day non-negotiable for yourself? What measures did you put in place to make it non-negotiable and what struggles did you have keeping that promise to yourself? Let us know in the comments below.


Productivity Hacks: Scheduling Repeating Activities

In our last post in the productivity hacks blog series we worked a to-do list (which was more of a brain dump) into an actionable list of items with narrower scopes. While our final list was a good deal longer than our first list, it gave us a lot better idea of how many tasks we had in our day and allowed us to see the separate items that go into getting an overarching task done.

On that final list, there were a few items that happen regularly and instead of being just something I put on my to-do list, I should really think about carving out time to do those items specifically.

Those two broader items were a blog post and support tickets. I should get a blog post together to publish every week and support tickets are something that I need to do on a daily basis. And yet, week to week getting my blog post written seems like the trickiest thing to squeeze in, and day to day getting support tickets answered actively gives me some anxiety. It’s definitely two things I need to figure out.

Time management gurus always advise to “schedule it”. If a task doesn’t get scheduled, it doesn’t get done. For many entrepreneurs or business people in charge of their own schedule, however, this advice is ill-received and potentially unhelpful as it doesn’t fit in with their general modus operandi.

Entrepreneurs and business people in charge of their own schedule will frequently just “know”, in the back of their mind or through the messages in their inbox, what they need to get done and will simply tackle one problem at a time. I’m not saying this is the best way to handle things, but it ends up being the way many people do. How do you get people who don’t schedule things (besides, maybe, what they do with other people) to schedule time in for tasks?

That’s a tricky situation to deconstruct, but I think the answer is to make the time you do set non-negotiable. If I’ve set Tuesday morning aside for writing that blog post, then I must shut down all other applications when it’s time to write and cannot accept my friend’s invitation to get coffee right in the middle of my scheduled writing session.

Even for the most un-flakey of us, it’s pretty easy to flake on ourselves because we’re the only ones who flaking will end up affecting. Sure, it will affect our business, too, because we decided to forgo the task in lieu of something else that (at least in the moment) seemed more important, but we justify the decision, assuring ourselves we’ll be able to catch up.

And maybe you, dear reader, will catch up. I, however, know for sure that if I don’t start just writing a single blog post every single week, I will never catch up to my goal of publishing a blog post every week. I know that I will never find a day where I will have time to write 10 blog posts that I can then space out for the next 10 weeks and not have to worry about it anymore. It isn’t happening.

So, I have made the decision to carve out an hour and a half every Tuesday morning and dedicate it to writing a blog post. I decided this was the best time because I usually work from home in the mornings, Tuesdays aren’t Mondays, and it will keep me well-occupied as the traffic clears for me to have a quick drive into the office after I finish writing:

Scheduling in blog writing on Tuesday morning

Scheduling in blog writing on Tuesday morning

Now for the process of making that Tuesday morning timeslot I’ve set aside non-negotiable. Part of how I’m doing that is posting that I’ve made it non-negotiable right here on this blog. This way, if I fail to live up to my own advice everyone will know when a blog post doesn’t get posted on Wednesday.

I’ve also set aside 15 minutes on Monday afternoon to do blog post brainstorming. I’ll take just 15 minutes of pen to paper time to quickly outline a rough draft of my post. This will make getting started the next morning a bit less tedious and also lower my chances of backing out on myself or feeling overwhelmed. Also, I really love brainstorming and I love getting away from my computer with just a pen and paper in my hand, so I know that this will personally be a really easy thing for me to do:

Scheduling in my 15 minute brainstorming session

Scheduling in my 15 minute brainstorming session

That is a good thing to look for in making things non-negotiable. Have at least one aspect of the non-negotiable item that is something you thoroughly enjoy. For me, that is brainstorming on a piece of paper instead of being on a computer (which is what I feel like I’m doing all the time). Depending on what aspect of your schedule you’re trying to make non-negotiable, this piece of enjoyment may be different for you. Getting a blog post done will be easier for me because I get to spend some time doing what I love in the first place: scribbling out notes, literally.

Finally, I’ve also posted a 3rd item on my calendar in regards to writing blog posts every week. With writing, it’s typically a 3 stage process: brainstorming, composing, and editing. I have also put an item on my calendar every Wednesday at 9:00am to edit and actually publish the blog. This should also only really take between 15-20 minutes to complete, but it means that after my hour and a half on Tuesday morning I can stop writing without worrying about grammar and such because I’ve scheduled time to look at that on Wednesday:

Making sure I have time to edit will keep me from getting overwhelmed while writing

Making sure I have time to edit will keep me from getting overwhelmed while writing

The thing that I’ve learned from having tasks that will seemingly go on forever is that the task is easier if I can break it down into parts. Instead of just having a one time item on my calendar called “Blog Post” having 3 separate items on my calendar spaced out to where no single component of it is taking me too much time helps me to feel less overwhelmed and dread the task less:

Full blog posting schedule

Full blog posting schedule

While this clears things up for something that is within my control and repeats week to week, I can’t handle the repeating task of support tickets in the same manner. Our next blog post in the productivity hacks series will be addressing repeating activities where components of the repeating activity are outside of your control.

I hope this post has helped give you ideas about how you can break down and space out tasks that repeat week to week. Let me know in the comments below if you have some tasks you dread doing week to week and what ways you’ve found to actually get them done.


Productivity Hacks: Making To-Do lists

Growing up, one of my favorite movies was the 1950’s version of Cheaper by the Dozen. I remember being fascinated by Frank Gilbreth’s profession as an efficiency engineer.

There’s a scene as the movie is starting off where he buttons up his vest twice: in one trial he uses his left hand to snap the buttons and in the other trial he uses his right. I've not seen the movie in years and can’t remember which ended up being more efficient, but I do know that the film had a large impact on how I viewed the world growing up.

It’s one of those lessons of not knowing how non-universally good habits apply. I thought if the Gilbreth’s worked as a family to make things more logical and efficient, wasn't that what everyone was working toward?

That made sense to my young mind for trying to compartmentalize how people developed and matured (although to be fair, I also thought adults aged out of lying which, as it turns out, isn't true. Sorry, kids).

Of the programs I’ve looked at, I’ve not seen one course offered in K-12 schools or higher education on forming habits and developing personal efficiency. To be frank, I’ve not looked beyond what I’ve had at hand, so this blanket statement need not offend, but its intention still applies.

We don’t put a whole lot of emphasis, as a culture, at systematically bettering personal practices (and I’d argue that, while there’s more emphasis, on the majority we do a poor job at systematically bettering institutional practices as well).

While there are self-help books on the subject as well as people with huge amounts of willpower for change and improvement, no one really ever sits down to teach us how to examine our habits. This entails everything from why we've fallen into them, how they’re benefiting/hurting us, and the argument of whether to try and break the habit or form a new one.

That’s why we’re starting a productivity blog series. It’s at its infancy stage right now, but hopefully it evolves into some really useful tactics to help you check in on yourself and examine your own habits.

Each week, we’ll introduce something we all do but to different degrees and examine the different ways we do them. There are way more things that we all have in common behaviorally than we have differences over, but we all have our own quirks. Whether it’s taking notes, making lists, setting appointments, checking emails, getting grocery shopping done, or finding time to relax, we all have tips and tricks from which others can benefit.

I believe that we can continually improve in all aspects of our life; it’s just a matter of how willingly aware we are of our areas with room for improvement.

To start things off in this series, I want to talk about list making. I’m not speaking about making a shopping list or an invite list for a party; rather, I’m talking about the all-important to-do list making which can make or break our day-to-day schedules.

This looks different for all of us in each of our respective jobs and roles. There are some similar patterns between each, however. With to-do list items, you can consider:

  1. The task’s scope: is the item on your list a broad or narrow task to accomplish?

  2. Your comfort level: is it an easy item for you to do or are there things you have to learn or put in place before you can do it?

  3. Deadlines that need to be met: is it something that someone else is depending on by a certain date or is when you have to get it done pretty flexible?

  4. Time the task takes: is it something that progresses at a slow pace or is it something you can knock out in 5 minutes? Even easy tasks can take a long time to complete and some difficult tasks, while mentally draining, don’t take too much time once you get started.

  5. Your motivation for it: is this something that, once complete, will be really beneficial to you and move you toward a goal or is this something that will hardly make a dent in your current day to day?

  6. The task’s consistency: is this something that you have to do every single day (like checking email) or is this a one-time or infrequent item that you’re trying to get checked off?

That’s a lot of things to keep swimming around in your head, especially when you’ve made a habit of list making and you have to think about these items daily or weekly. On top of that, these considerations do not even mention goal setting alongside to-do lists (oy-vey!).

To compound the problem further, humans tend to have issues when we have lots of things to decide on. The more decisions we have to make in a given period of time, the worse our decision making skills are.

So, how do you decide the answers to all these questions while not spending too much time making lists?

Without talking too much about goal setting, this is pretty tricky, but it can be done. And once you’ve answered these questions I think you’ll find you have a lot better understanding of your priorities. Let’s examine this in context by perfecting the to-do list I set myself for today:

  • Blog post

  • Support tickets

  • Phone call at 2

  • CC course video

  • Plan development

From the looks of it, this should be a breeze to get done in one day. Yet, this is much more of a brain dump than a list I could work off of. With each item on it, I can consider each point listed above and find out that:

  1. These are all pretty broad tasks with several tasks under them I could define more narrowly

  2. I’m comfortable doing each of them at least to a point where it would be time to hand off

  3. They each have varying “deadlines” - some hard, some soft, some self-inflicted

  4. The time each takes ranges from 45 minutes to 2 hours

  5. My motivation for the last 2 I wrote down is a lot higher than the first 3

  6. The first 2 are consistently repeating tasks either weekly or daily

Other things to note: each item on the list is very noun-y. Nothing about the list encourages me to take action. I can easily change this just by putting a verb in front:

  • Write blog post

  • Answer support tickets

  • Call Fred at 2

  • Watch course video

  • Make decision on new working hours time display

This is a bit more motivating, but still, this isn't a very attractive list because by the end of it, I’ll have done a lot yet not feel all that accomplished. So I can try to narrow the scope of each task:

  • Brainstorm topics for blog post

  • Answer question: “What do you want reader to gain from reading this blog post?”

  • Write blog post with that answer in mind

  • Publish post on blog

  • Share blog post on social outlets (Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus)

  • Answer support tickets

  • Report any issues from support tickets to development

  • Add reminders in calendar for when to follow up with both parties on any reported issues

  • Write down 5 questions you want to ask Fred at 2

  • Call Fred to discuss questions and get answers

  • Send email to Fred thanking him for his time

  • Read over notes from last course video to freshen up

  • Watch newest course video and take notes

  • Add reminder in calendar for when I need to have course homework done

  • Speak with development team for working hours use cases

  • Lay out solutions for each use case

  • Consider variations in each use cases application

  • Decide which working hours display is most versatile

Ahhh, now we’re getting there. That feels a lot better. I know I have a ton more things on my list, but each item is easier to do than the bigger items up top and gets me moving into my day a lot faster.

There is still a lot more we can do with this list as far as prioritizing and helping to schedule tasks that happen on a consistent basis, but we’ve made a lot of improvement for one day.

Next week in our productivity blog series, we’ll discuss how to take those recurring tasks (like blog posts and support tickets for me) and manage them better.

Stay tuned and stay productive!