Our FIRST MONDAY back as a team this year was January 7, 2019. We always allow our team some extra time off at the Holidays so that everyone gets some downtime before the new year begins. When we come back together, everyone is pumped and I set aside some time to discuss the vision for the year. This year was a little bit different. Toward the end of 2018 I realized that we had grown to a point where many of our communication systems and workflow routines were not working as well as they used to. We added three new members to the team and had our best year of growth, but I began to sense that what worked for five people isn’t going to work with 15. 2019 was going to be a year to recalibrate.
So I spent some time over break thinking about how we communicate and how we manage workflow - basically, How We Use Time. Here’s five of the principles I discussed with my team (you can listen to the audio version of the meeting here).
For me, integrity is the number one time management principle. Here’s what I mean by that: When you work with people with great character, everything moves faster. When you don’t have to second-guess someone because you trust them, you don’t waste time. When you don’t have to follow up over and over again, you reduce the friction in your entire organization. For me, How We Use Time starts with integrity.
When we start the hiring process for a new team member, we are very intentional about discussing our values from the first interview. I make it very clear that even though we allow remote, independent work, we do not employ babysitters. No one will be checking in on you to make sure you are working. We assume you are “working” and your deadlines will get met. If you hire people without integrity, this can all break down very quickly.
I also encourage my team to “Think the best, believe the best and speak the best” about each other. It’s been a relational mantra of mine for many years. Find the best possible explanation for that person’s behavior and believe that. Negativity about other team members is just not part of our culture. If you want a quick exit from our company, create drama by talking about other team members.
We are a creative company. We do creative work. Creative work requires focused, uninterrupted, drama-free time. That’s why we allow our team to work remotely and independently. This trade-off equals more creativity and better quality work. To do that, you have to discover where, when and how you do you best work.
When I sit down to write an article, the first thing I ask myself is, “Do I have a chunk of uninterrupted time right now?” I need at least a Quality 60. That’s a full sixty minutes where I turn my phone upside down on the desk, close email and shut the doors to my office. In all fairness, I usually require a Quality 120 or 180 to get an article done, but I allow myself a mental break at 60 to reset before I jump back in. This is why so many of my articles get written on airplanes. I used to think there was something special about air travel that caused me to be more creative. Now I know it’s just because I have a block of interrupted time. It’s amazing what I can get through on a three hour flight to Denver.
So aim for Quality 60s. Not three chunks of 20 minutes or five blocks of 12 minutes or even worse, twelve blocks of five minutes. That might work for answering email, but it doesn’t for deep, meaningful work.
Responsiveness has always been a core value of ours. It’s a posture, really. A posture of service to our clients and respect for our fellow team members. For example, we have a 24 hour rule when it comes to responding to clients or team members. People are depending on you for communication and it’s respectful to answer them in a timely manner so time is not wasted. But what I began to notice is that I wasn’t responding within 24 hours. My average response time was under two hours. And if I couldn’t reply to an email, text, voicemail, Slack or Basecamp message within that time, it was causing me anxiety. It was becoming a never-ending race keeping up with communication.
What I realized is that we cannot do Quality 60 with a two hour response rate. It will never allow us to have focused, uninterrupted time. So we decided that 24 hours is okay. It’s enough and completely appropriate. While two hours is awesome when it happens, we can’t let it take the place of our Quality 60s.
As a team, we decided that everyone’s responsibility is to clear communication twice a day. Once in the morning. Once in the afternoon. Take some time to respond to all messages and then put it to the side until the next checkpoint. Turn your phone upside down and resist the urge to jump back in and check every message that comes through.
I have personally decided that my phone is a tool for how I conduct business. It is not part of my rest. It is not part of my entertainment. It is not part of my rejuvenation. However, all phones are programed by default to be needy, co-dependent relationships. They exist to never be put down.
In order to accomplish this, I have some hacks that truly turn my phone into a tool. Here’s a few:
- Turn off (almost) ALL notifications. The only notifications I get are for voice calls and texts. That’s it. No other screen is allowed to pop up to tell me something that I have not asked for.
- Turn off Raise to Wake. I realized that whenever I was picking up my phone the screen would turn on and I would see whatever notification was there. This is an instant distraction. Now my phone only turns on when I turn it on.
- Install Google’s keyboard. This is a time management hack, but Gboard allows you to write by swiping your finger to spell words. Not tapping individual letters. While it takes a bit to get used to, it’s not an exaggeration to say I’m typing 10x faster on my phone now.
- Create a minimal home screen. Here’s a screenshot of mine. There is one folder called “Everyday” which contains the stuff I do daily. Other than that, nothing is allowed to live on the home screen. If I want to check social media, I have to swipe left twice to get to that screen. It makes it an intentional decision. Not an accident.
- Schedule Night Shift. My night shift kicks on at 8:00 p.m. at night and I have it turned up to the warmest (orange-est - okay that’s not a word) setting. If I open my phone after 8:00 p.m. it’s an immediate visual reminder that I probably shouldn’t be on it. It’s a quiet cue to “put the phone down.” It’s probably also worth mentioning that I dock my phone in our mudroom every night. It’s not in my bedroom. I use a traditional alarm clock. They’re less than $10.
For a great list of phone hacks, check out this article from Better Humans.
I spent a good part of last year working with practices across the country on developing checklists. It’s a separate article I hope to write this year. The premise of the presentation is that checklists aren’t for idiots, they’re for experts. Think: airline pilots and surgeons. What really smart people have learned throughout their careers is that they need checklists. There’s simply too much to remember.
We have lots of things in our company that happen over and over again - starting a new client, building a website, setting up a digital ad campaign. If we rely on our memory alone, steps will get missed. For instance, if there are 25 steps to starting a new client (I’m making that up, but it’s probably not too far off) and we started 25 new clients last year (again, making that up). That’s 625 steps that we have to get right. If we don’t have a checklist, I can guarantee you that not even two of those new clients will have the same start experience. It’s just not possible to remember that many steps in that same order every time. And yet, our new client process is massively important to us. We want it to be welcoming and exceed expectations. That only happens if it’s predictable.
When I can create reliable and predictable processes that I don’t have to memorize, it creates cognitive space in my brain and allows me to “breathe.” It was Henry Ford who said,
“If I should really want to answer the foolish question you have just asked, or any of the other questions you have been asking me, let me remind you that I have a row of electric push-buttons on my desk, and by pushing the right button, I can summon to my aid men who can answer any question I desire to ask concerning the business to which I am devoting most of my efforts. Now, will you kindly tell me, why I should clutter up my mind with general knowledge, for the purpose of being able to answer questions, when I have men around me who can supply any knowledge I require?"
Checklists create cognitive space. I don’t have a row of electric buttons and I don’t have men ready to supply all the answer, but we do have checklists that are a click away.
During break I read a great book by Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft called “Hit Refresh.” In it, he talks about creating a culture of trust at Microsoft and wonders if there could possibly be a formula to creating trust.
“As a computer engineer, I find it helpful to express complex ideas and concepts according to the algorithms we would use if we were writing a computer program. What are the instructions to write or produce trust? Of course, there is no mathematical equation for such a humanistic outcome. But if there were, it might look something like this:
E + SV + SR = T/t”
E = Empathy - We make decisions about How We Use Time because of empathy for each other and our clients.
SV = Shared Values - Our values connect us by creating a shared operating system.
SR = Safe & Reliable - A safe and reliable professional environment creates predictable outcomes.
T/t = Trust Over Time - Trust can only be established over time.
I closed our meeting by telling our team that How We Use Time is really about trust. It’s about creating trust with our clients and with each other so that we can accomplish great work. At the end of the day, it’s the most important part of what we do. In fact, if we can’t get trust right, people won’t be willing or able to see all the other great work that we are capable of.
*these are five of the principles I discussed with the team, but you can listen to the audio version of our meeting here.