Happy New Year, here’s to an Organised one.
31st January 2020
In this Guest Blog, Steffan Cook, founder of Bia Energy Consulting shares his thoughts on how to get organised for 2020 and what practices you can put into place to help!
About a 10 minute read
Being organised is the key to productivity. You can always be busy, but are you getting things done? Start the New Year by levelling-up your organisational skills, here is some inspiration.
I love it when a plan comes together…
Have a 1,2 and 5-year Business Plan. If you already have a business plan then the New Year is a good time to review those plans. Remember your plans need targets, but targets by themselves are not a plan. Plans give you a sense of direction and an idea of how to spend your time, whilst targets are milestones to judge whether you’re moving quickly enough in that direction. If you can’t reach those milestones you’ve set, then maybe your plans need changing or maybe your targets were just unrealistic. For instance, this is my first year in business and I won’t hit the sales targets that I set for myself at the beginning, however, I have moved in the business direction I wanted throughout this year, so even though if failed my target I’m not unhappy with the direction, just unhappy with how far I have gone. As a result, I have adjusted my targets for break-even and now I plan to live off my savings for that bit longer.
Have you written down your business targets for the year? (and what does it actually mean when you don’t reach them?)
The two ways of planning and how it breaks up your day
Agile and Waterfall planning.
All projects can be broken down to tasks on a to-do-list that you need to complete to finish the project. Agile and Waterfall planning represent two methods of planning on how to handle that task list.
Agile planning concentrates on the ‘value’ of those tasks and making sure your time is allocated to the most valuable task on that list. This is almost an instinctive way of working and most start-ups will be working like this; just doing the most important thing on your list means you are always doing the thing that brings the most immediate payback for your effort. The drawback of Agile planning is that some items and tasks never get done because they are always at the bottom of the to-do list. This can lead to projects never being completed, such as the half-dozen DIY projects in my house still waiting for me to finish them off. Worse still is that Agile planning can take you in weird directions; chasing immediate value means you make something great, but you can’t always be sure what it is.
When you have a clear vision of the final product you want, a Waterfall planning style is often better. Waterfall planning, unlike Agile planning, assigns an order to your tasks but not a value. This ordering means eventually every task will be done in turn. This is immediately useful, as you can put tasks that are dependent on other finished tasks after those in the order (think Gantt Charts) and at the end gives you exactly what you planned to make. While counterintuitive as an individual, working in a team nearly always involves waterfall planning because your collaborators’ output is usually your input (or vice versa) and so you need a fixed result on a deadline. The downside of waterfall planning is that an unclear original vision of the project means by the time of project completion the thing you have been building is worth much less than originally thought. For instance, what’s the worth of that surprise birthday party for your brother after he’s told you he’s going to Zakynthos for that weekend?
In reality, tasks are hardly ever done strictly Waterfall or strictly Agile and the best of both is achieved by blending, but picking the right method from the beginning is a good idea for any task or project. Also, usually the larger the number of people involved in any project the more sense there is in using a dominant Waterfall planning method.
Agile is like boxing – best result when reacting to opportunities
Waterfall is like your car MOT – best result when you go through the checklist one at a time
How planning types break up your day
To break up my day, I tend to have an Agile outlook on tasks in the morning, so that I do the tasks that make the most sense and provide the biggest value, but by the afternoon I settle down to a Waterfall planning mindset and just tackle tasks in order of age so that nothing gets forgotten. This works well for me and helps me get things done both big and small, and my morning’s feel productive and my afternoon’s satisfying.
The two types of To-do lists
Time or place sensitive to-do’s
The first type of to-do list is for ‘actions’ that needs to be done at a particular time or place otherwise they disappear. The fact that they can disappear if you don’t do them makes them different from other traditional to-do’s. “On the way home pick up some milk” for example is a time and location-based to-do item. I sort these actions usually with the ‘Reminders’ app on my iPhone as it has notifications that are time or place activated but if desperate I have been known to just write on my hand. On Windows, I have used Todoist for these types of lists in the past.
The actual to-do’s.
A more traditional to-do list. A (long) list of ‘actions’ that need to get done sometime sooner or later. In the simplest of cases you could leave it like that as just a list, but very likely some of the items on the list are similar or belong to the same project and so there is a big advantage to grouping those items together on an individual list of their own (for instance your DIY list or your Xmas shopping list). This means you often will end up with a group of lists, separated out by category or project. This is the beginning of project management as you are separating tasks into projects and ordering them (to eventually tackle using an Agile or Waterfall method). I tend to use Notes on the Mac and iPhone for these lists because it’s always available but other note-taking apps such as Bear (haven’t tried it), GoodNotes (bought this one) or even Todoist are good for this.
The visual desk.
Are you a tidy desk person or a cluttered desk person? Personally, I am a cluttered desk person as I use my desk as a visual reminder of the things I am doing. In general, I find visual reminders very effective in remembering what I should be focussing on each day. Each item has a unique space in my visual field and usually, the most important things are on my right. If something new comes along that needs a space then something is moved off the desk. I don’t make piles, everything has its own space or not at all. Piles are where to-do things go to be lost. I can understand tidy desks, they look very satisfying, and must be great for your peace of mind. Never had one.
Everything has its proper place on a visual desk. In a way it’s like a prioritised to-do list.
Choice of email and email notifications and the use of the inbox.
Choice of email
Finding an email client (software) that suits your style of work takes a lot of trial and error. Not all email clients are the same but luckily it is quite easy to switch between them. For me personally, I use ‘Spark’ email for the Mac and this client is relatively simple. Ask others to recommend their email clients and give them a try if they sound interesting.
The use of the inbox
For me, email is not where I organise my day so I don’t use anything complicated, for me my inbox is just a queue of information waiting to be classified. I either read it, act on it immediately and then discard it or flag it for future action (usually because I can’t make that decision immediately). I don’t delete or file my emails (why would you??), I leave them forming a long-trail that spews back in time, like an old man’s beard. Search will generally get you to an old email faster than actually looking for it anyway. This is why I am currently enjoying using Spark, it promotes this way of quick dealing with email.
During your best hours of working, when you can concentrate the most, disable incoming notifications or just turn off your email client altogether. An email is someone coming and tapping you on the shoulder to ask you something whenever they feel like it and can kill your productive ‘in the zone’ time. I try to do this 2-4 pm every day, however, the craving to keep checking my mail sometimes makes me crazy.
A Weekly Review & Daily Journaling
Weekly Reports –
Everybody usually hates weekly reports, but I like them. I find reviewing progress a very useful tool for monitoring my output and direction. Every week I will do a report full of the week’s achievements usually broken down by category under ‘Project Tasks’, ‘Client Contact’, ‘Other Activities’, ‘Next Week’ and ‘Future Projects’. There is a satisfaction to writing down all your results for the week and seeing what you have achieved. It’s also nice that at any time when you feel lost you can look back at last week’s report and see what you thought you would be doing in the ‘Next Week’ section (very useful after holidays). Besides the immediate feeling of satisfaction, you can also look at your direction of travel over a longer period of time, say the last few months, by reading back over those reports. Quite often I will find that unexpectedly I have been working on a project for longer than I thought originally. If you were to ask the question to whom I write my weekly report, then the answer is to my ‘future self’.
Daily Journaling –
Similar to a weekly report, I also like to do Daily Journaling, but this is for my motivation rather than for putting down details. My daily journal is a simple excel sheet where I put a tick (or in my case a green box in a cell) against a category (or theme) if I have put any effort into that category in the day at all. The categories are things that I believe are important to my business success so if I can put a tick in these categories at the end of the day then I must be doing something right. Not really useful, but quite satisfying and reassuring.
My daily journaling for January so far. Not bad.
The idea of ‘Gratitude’ is something relatively new for me, and the idea is to write down one thing someone did to help you today. Your business may be yours, but it’s good to recognise that others helped you along the way, and that you still need some help even when you make it. A gratitude check helps you stay humble and also feel like you’re not trying to lift a heavy stone like a whole business all by yourself.
Yearly Themes –
A yearly theme is an idea I picked up from the Cortex podcast (also famous for the State-of-the apps discussion). The idea is to pick a theme for the year that will be your guiding “North Star” in making all your decisions. For this year my theme is simply ‘survival’ (and with 50% of new businesses failing in Year 1 I think it’s a good one) which means that the basics are the priority; desk, website and phone.
The use of cloud storage for day to day files.
Not having information or the files you need at hand to do what you want is a big pain. Where possible put all your recent files onto cloud storage to make it accessible to you on all devices and wherever you are. Make sure your email clients and other software also have central cloud storage so that actions you take while at the coffee shop are remembered when you get back to your main desk. For me, Apple offers a free 2GB of cloud storage and this is more than enough for me to hold my documents but other services like DropBox are equally well known. The only exception I would add to keeping everything in the cloud would be confidential client data. Some cloud storage providers don’t provide water-tight or even any guarantees that your uploaded data will remain private and this is a problem for your client’s confidentiality. I am no expert in GDPR or data security but for this reason, I keep client’s confidential data on a physical pen-drive or even on printed paper, as this balances convenience with safety. This is a stop-gap and sooner or later I will need to consult an expert especially if I intend to keep that data on file after the job is done (GDPR!).
The data back-up
Absolutely all of your data should be backed-up and preferably twice. This includes all your system files in order to ‘restore’ your computer to the way you previously had it set-up. Your first back-up should be to a physical hard drive attached to your computer which is periodically updated. Luckily for me, my Mac comes with ‘Time-machine’ that will do just that, and my phone and iPads are backed up also in iTunes (just backed up on my main Mac). The second back-up should be to an online cloud back-up storage site. Be careful of the terms of confidentiality with the company you are using to store-back ups as again there are concerns about confidentiality but in my case I use Backblaze as they seem to have a strong policy, encrypt my data on my machine before sending it over the web, and even allow me to have the only key (that is not really recommended though). Why two backups? If a fire breaks out and destroys your computer and physical back-up then you’ve lost everything; why not just a cloud back-up, because it’s more hassle to recover files.
How useful these tips on productivity are will vary from person to person. Some things will work and some things won’t. Have a business plan and review it, be deliberate on your choice of style in tackling projects either Agile or Waterfall, separate tasks into two types of to-do-list (time and place or traditional list). Get e-mail that is simple and won’t distract you with notifications during your best working hours, and look back at your progress, weekly reports for putting down details and journaling and gratitude to keep up your motivation. Use cloud storage so you can always get your files on the go, but be mindful about putting up client’s data, and always back-up everything twice.