Improve productivity by creating Checklists for repeatable tasks

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I had a smug look on my face, I had added a contractor to our confluence site and it had taken me about 5 minutes to do so. Checked and done!

Two days back, I had taken about 30 minutes to accomplish the same task. This, despite the fact that I had done this earlier and it had taken me the same amount of time. Thus, I had no improvements over the first time. The frustrating bit was that I was looking at the same set of documentations, googling, looking up links within confluence. Terrible!

What changed between 2 days back and today?

One word – checklist.

I had come across the productivity tip that if you think a task is repeatable – create a checklist out of it. I do this occasionally but I have a “magical threshold” where if the task is small – I don’t create a checklist. Obviously, creating a checklist for creating a user was too small for me the first time around. To be clear, adding a user – required me to connect two systems (google, confluence), add people in the right group and in the right order. So it was a bit more involved.

The second time around, I added a checklist as soon as I finished the work.

 

Finding mentors – 6 tips to a younger me

Life as an entrepreneur is exciting because it throws new challenges your way. In the last week, a new challenge popped up on my radar that requires stretching way outside my comfort zone. Handling this challenge requires velvet gloves.

Though, the interwebs have an article for every situation, they fell short in a complicated situations such as the one I was facing. We needed advice to walk through this challenge –  a veritable grizzled Gandalf to guide our journey through middle earth.

The question in front of us was – where do we find this wizard? And on such a short notice.

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Flashback to Harpreet – 20 years ago

Early in my career, I had very few mentors. I was keen about signing some up but with little success. Actually, replace “keen” with “obsessed” – my asian heritage which deeply values experience and “elders” had a big part to play in this obsession.

I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong.

Over the years, I have stumbled and lucked into finding excellent mentors. The set of tips in this blog are what I wish I knew 20 years ago.

1 Formal mentorship programs are a crutch: ignore them

Sun Microsystems (my first company in the US) had a formal mentorship program and paired people up with mentors. I was enamored with the program. I was ecstatic when I signed up my role model but the mentorship never achieved lift-off.

The program was a big dud for me.

In hindsight, the reason that program failed was that a number mentors were “nudged” by their boss’ to mentor people as part of their growth plan. Thus, the relationship was forced to begin with.

Too often, the mentors in bigger companies are looking at these programs to forward their careers. Good mentors are not in it for themselves – they genuinely love helping people.

So get out of the crutch of corporate mentorship programs. If you do have such a program, interview the mentor thoroughly to understand their motivations and sign up with them only if your interests align.

2 A good corpus of work is a necessity: start producing work

If you haven’t put in the work, don’t bother. You need good quality and a reasonable quantity of work to get someone interested in mentoring you. If you don’t have a corpus of work and you are focused on networking –  stop networking and start producing.

3 Be interested in the mentors work: read up on their work

A good overlap of work is not a necessity but helps. It’s like dating someone who has similar interests to you – realizing that the date has put in enough work to understand your likes and dislikes. Understanding the mentors work and common interest creates the foundations for the relationship. Please don’t fake this! (Don’t stalk – this is where the dating analogy falls down here)

4 Imitation is flattery: steal liberally from mentors

You don’t need a formal relationship to learn from someone else.

Pay attention to the mentor: What are they doing well?  What do they read? What are they writing? What exemplary behaviors do they exhibit?

Build a checklist of items that they do well. Build a list of things that they are reading, writing and people they are following.

Once you have these lists, steal the items that make the most sense. Don’t steal or copy their work – make them their own, provide your color. Austin Kleon has written a book called “Steal like an artist” on this core idea – highly recommend reading it.

This realization that I don’t need a formal relationship with my mentor was an aha moment in my career.

I was in the organization of a charismatic leader who was loved by everyone. People stuck around with him through thick and thin. I admired him.

What made him tick?

I observed him in public setting, in meetings, in town-halls and in 1:1 conversations.

I realized that the core principles supporting his leadership were genuine concern for every member in the organization (not just his team), optimism and an unshakeable belief in himself and his team.

I started by copying his optimism, gradually building the muscle for the other items. These principles have really helped me over the years.

His principles became the core principles for my leadership style.

5 Your next mentor is around the corner: pay attention to everyone around you

If you don’t need a formal relation then you can learn from anyone and everyone has something to teach you.

X imbibes new knowledge at lightning speed – how does he do that? Y’s team is always happy – seems like deep 1:1s are a key to her success – steal it.

Pay attention, there is a lot to learn from your colleagues, your family and friends.

6 Pay it forward: You are a Gandalf to someone

For every mentor that you need help from, there is an individual that you can help out.

Be always open – return the phone call and listen. If you cannot help this person, find someone who can help them. 

So that’s it those are the tips that have really helped me.

Back to present day: did I find my Gandalf?

In the span of 48 hours, I had called 4 stalwarts in my industry. Each jumped on a call, we ended up with a framework for a solution to the problem and we are executing on the approach.

I didn’t find one Gandalf but have multiple wizards from multiple realms that I can lean on.

Truly blessed.

More calendars to simplify life

An unintended consequence of scheduling tasks on my calendar was that my calendar turned blue (the color of my calendar) – almost every hour of my day was blocked because I had scheduled a result in which included break time.

There was an additional cognitive load of determining what drops off when a new task comes in. It was hard to separate actual work meetings, personal work items, recurring tasks like “end of day wrap up”.

Not to mention that this should have been unfortunate for my colleague who now sees my entire calendar is blue.

I experimented with running a personal calendar on google calendar and separate from my work calendar. This was inefficient because I had to shift between two logins.

The solution was to simple create additional calendars on my work calendar, give them different colors. It was extremely easy to visually separate them – I can toggle them on and off to see which blocks are tradeable. My work colleague only sees my regular calendar and isn’t exposed to personal or recurring tasks that I don’t want to share.

I created 4 calendars

    • Harpreet – Meetings (blue) – track meetings with folks – shared with others
    • Harpreet- Recurring Work (magenta) – to track daily/weekly recurring work without messing up my meetings calendar
    • Harpreet – Work blocks (red) – block time for working. The picture below is from next week and I haven’t slotted the times yet.
    • Harpreet – personal (green) – block time for personal project

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Tasks in calendar to get them done

I have always struggled with my calendar. It’s a monster that I have wrestled and lost.

The challenge was always too many meetings – not enough time. At my last job, I had an admin who managed my calendar but I still drowned in meetings.

I always thought that I will steal some minutes in the day to go do these tasks. You know that meeting from your CEO, your team member – you got to take it! If I didn’t get it done, I will throw a weekend to catch up and catch up I did.

To hell with work life balance!

The real issue is that things just don’t get done with a full calendar and you miss out on  the “Aha” of satisfaction at the end of the day. No job well done for you – back to work peasant!

To that point, I recently had an epiphany that my task list was not married to my calendar. Thus, I needed to go fix that egregious habit and actually schedule the results I want into my calendar. I believe it is a best practice!

I now pick the top 3 results for the day/week and explicitly block the hours to go do it. Its working wonders – less stress, more done and I get weekends back.

The peasant is now getting weekends back. Yay!

Startup life – bite size working

Working in an early stage startup is invigorating because of the diversity of challenges that one tackles through the day. The number of challenges and never ending task list that come along can be potentially overwhelming and unlike a bigger company there aren’t enough hands on the deck to throw the work to.

I now force myself to take smaller bites than what I was accustomed to. Putting less on my plate than I normally did enables me to have those smaller bites.

I think of work as a buffet wherein I can go back for seconds at any point in time or skip through to the desserts. However, if I fill my plate up to begin with, it is likely that I am going to miss the dessert.

I adopted this method in the last month or so. Work became so much more fun – once I got past the mental block of “I am not doing nearly enough”. The main reason of greater enjoyment is that I got results faster and each of the results comes along with a dopamine hit of accomplishment (huffington post on dopamine).

 

Manage focus with Pomodoro Technique

I have long believed and now I know that is backed by research that multi-tasking doesn’t quite work. When you switch context to check that beep from your phone, it takes your brain about 15–20 minutes to come back into the flow state. A surprising research in the last month showed that a phone kept upside down on your desk has a detrimental impact on your productivity.

That said, it is extremely hard to manage your focus when you are sitting in an open office space, with the web right in front of you, emails shouting for attention and time and again I find that I am lost.

I use the Pomodoro technique to manage my focus when I find that I am off the beaten track. I was surprised to hear that a colleague hadn’t heard about the technique. So here goes…

The name Pomodoro, is based on kitchen timers in Italy. The timers looked like tomatos and you twist them to start a 25 minute block.

The technique itself is very easy. Whenever, you want to focus, you start the timer and focus on 1 task for 25 minutes. Once you reach the 25 minutes time frame, take a 5 minute break and start again. Run through four pomodoro’s and take a 10 minute break.

To be candid, I have never been able to run through 4 pomodoro’s back-to-back but getting to 2–3 improves productivity significantly.

Another iteration on the technique is that your daily plan should include a certain number of pomodoro’s that work for you. For example an 8–10 pomodoro day would be an extremely productive day. In this case, you drop your checklists, find slots to make progress and get through items in those focus blocks.

From a tooling perspective, timer on your phone works easily. There are a number of Chrome extensions that keep track of your pomodoro on the web.

Harpreet’s Newsletter #6 – Wonderful Santorini

Hello,
So I was on a 2 week vacation — my first in 15 years! Thoroughly enjoyed visiting new places and reading a lot — book notes to come in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, I decided to take it easy on the blog writing for those weeks and I will get back to it starting this week. Meanwhile, here is what is worth sharing this week.

  1. [Travel] Day 1 in Santorini Fira, Day 2 in Santorini — Walk to Three Bells of Fira
  2. [Productivity] An article that recommends you to split your day into a makers and a managers schedule

Thanks for reading this newsletter, if you liked it forward it to a friend or tweet me some love. If you like to read more, past issues here.
– Harpreet

Show me the money framework for improving decision making skills

PC: Michel Curi

2017 was the year I agonised over buying a Tesla Model X. I ran through all the reasons I needed it — beautiful, gorgeous, drives fantastic, best technology and green. I just couldn’t come to a conclusion, because the price was a serious consideration. The problem at hand was that the reasons I wanted to buy it were intangibles.

That brings us to a key component in decision making — what do you do when you are facing a decision and there are numerous intangibles at hand? Paraphrasing Lord Kelvin, the famous British physicist, “The challenge of intangibles — when you can measure something and express something in numbers, you know what you are speaking about. If you cannot speak about it in numbers, then the knowledge is meager and you have scarcely advanced the state of science.”

As I looked around in other areas of my life, I saw that there were a number of other decisions that I couldn’t make progress on. They were also stuck because of intangibles. Some good examples that come to mind in the life of a product manager are: the value of open source software, when your product is driven by OSS; the value of adoption of open source software; what does virality mean for success of a product — how much should we be investing in virality; how to choose between competing features to make the most impact for the organization. I could talk to these decisions very well, had anecdotal evidence and experts backing those decisions…but they fundamentally were intangibles.

I have always been fascinated by literature on decision making and find that most recommendations range from “Just do it” to mind-numbing, if-then-else analysis. Douglas Hubbard presents a scientific, probability-based framework to reduce uncertainty through your decision making progress.

Paraphrasing Hubbard, “Decisions fundamentally are about a choice in the path ahead where decision makers have imperfect information. This lack of information causes uncertainty. Measurement is a type of choice among others to reduce this uncertainty. For any decision, you can typically measure a large combination of things, but you can never achieve perfect certainty.”

Thus, the right way to think about decisions is that a decision is a decision because one cannot articulate the right value of each of the choices ahead. The way to reduce the uncertainty, then, is to measure the things that reduce that uncertainty, knowing fully well that you cannot — and should not — measure everything that informs the decision, because too much information causes information overload. The key part of measurement is to assign an economic value to the measurement. Let’s say, you as a decision maker are looking to improve delivery of value from the organization. Measuring productivity of employees could be a type of measurement, and instead of measuring how much time an employee spends on each of the activities, quantify the business value of each of the areas she spends most of her hours on. Thus, if you get the employee to spend more time on activities that drive more business value, you can get more productivity from the system.

So how does one proceed, so that one isn’t stuck at the end of a spectrum that has “just do it” as the starting point and “analysis paralysis” as the ending point?

The ladder of better decision making starts by stepping back and questioning the decision. Check if you are asking the right question. Most hard problems in life and business can be solved by asking the right questions. If you are indeed asking the right question, then do the following (Hubbard calls it Applied Information Economics; with some color from my past readings on this topic).

  1. Define the decision. If the decision isn’t informing a significant bet, don’t measure anything. If the decision is easily reversible, just make a decision and move on.
  2. Determine what you know about the decision. Identify the key informational vectors that inform you more about the decision (hours working, vs hours spent on the most impactful activity).
  3. Compute the value of additional information (if none, go to step 5). Additional information is the information that you need to drill down into and measure.
  4. Measure where information value is high (return to steps 2 and 3). High information value implies tying some sort of economic benefit to it (improving productivity implied measuring and identifying most impactful hours). This really is the key to better decision making — tying some sort of economic value to your intangibles.
  5. Make a decision and act on it (return to step 1 and repeat as each action creates new decisions).

Typically, as you do steps 3, 4 and 5, you will find that each decision opens a cascade of micro-decisions that may have their own measurements to help build the case for the overarching decisions that you will rinse and repeat on.

So how did this framework help me?

  • I made the call on the Tesla before I read the book and was pleasantly surprised that my mental model roughly followed the framework. I put an economic value on each of the subjective axis, compared with the cost of the vehicle and came up short. I passed over the Tesla for a Lexus RX 350, knowing full well that I will evaluate my decision in the year ahead and these values may change — c’est la vie.
  • On the “business value” delivered by my team, I have instituted a “business value pointing” system offered by a tool called Aha. The vectors that constitute the business point are subjective. That is okay, because the scores on the vectors are informed by the expertise that my team has built up so far. We are drilling down on step 3 right now.
  • On understanding the “value of adoption of OSS” or “virality of a product” — I am on a journey and am hoping to find the right measurements to taking the decisions from “expert-led” to a state of science.

What decision frameworks work for you? Let me know in the comments section, below.

– Article heavily influenced by How to Measure Everything, by Douglas Hubbard.

Optimal behaviour before big decisions

If you ever held a job that requires you to drive long distances or hop into trains switch to a cab etc etc, you surely have noticed that you arrive tired at work. But that’s not all, there is something more insidious that is going below the surface – you maybe making bad decisions that grow progressively worse before the day ends.

The reason for bad decisions is decision fatigue . Decision fatigue states that there is a finite amount of decisions that humans have a capacity to make in a day. It’s like going to the refrigerator to pour a glass of water without replenishing the container and doing that over and over again. A long commute is a sum total of minor decisions taken repeatedly – get in the car, find the optimal route to the train station, be constantly mindful that you don’t bump into the neighbouring traffic and so on. Thus, it makes sense that a long commute would eat into your capacity to make good decisions.

How do we counteract decision fatigue? What’s the antidote?

Decision fatigue was popularised in the last couple of years and I find that most people are aware of it but they aren’t aware of the antidote. In the last 30 years, new research called Attention Restorative Theory (ART) has indicated that spending time in nature has a restorative effect on humans (surprise!).

The nub is that human attention is classified into two components – involuntary and voluntary attention. Voluntary attention is used in making decisions. When you are in nature, walking through the woods there is an aspect of the environment called fascination which generates awe in people which gives the voluntary attention a rest. Spend enough time in nature and the lesser your voluntary attention is used and the better you will get making decisions that require this voluntary attention.

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Thus, the optimal behaviour before you need to make big decisions is to go out and take a walk in the nature, look at something that generates fascination in you and give your voluntary attention a break!