Time is a finite resource, and it’s not something that we should be squandering. On today’s show, Penny Zenker chats with productivity expert Art Gelwicks about being productive and doing more with what already exists. Art is the host of Being Productive Podcast and the author of The Idea Pump blog. Time is the only resource that we cannot scale or move. Don’t miss this podcast to discover what you can do with your time to maximize efficiency.
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Being Productive: Doing More With What Exists With Art Gelwicks
On this show, we are looking for ways for you to work smarter to save time, energy, and money. Our topic is we’re going to talk about how to do more with what already exists. You’ve got all this work to do and we’re going to help you to look within what already exists so that you can manage your time, your energy and your money more effectively and efficiently. I’m super excited to have Art Gelwicks with me. He is a technology consultant for more than 30 years. He does this for big corporations, but the process is the same. He said it works for entrepreneurs, business owners and businesses of all sizes. His specialty is the creative application of the out of the box tools to meet personal and professional productivity and collaboration needs. That’s what we were talking about, doing more with what exists out of the box. Don’t recreate it. Let’s use what already exists.
He’s worked with clients in almost every size from one person to large media companies and investment companies. His approach is concentrated on helping to define the needs and the wants, and then using the tools that are readily available to meet and exceed them. He’s also the host of Being Productive Podcast. He’s a regular guest on the ProductivityCast with Ray Sidney-Smith and Augusto Pinaud, author of The Idea Pump blog and Founder of the OneNote for Professionals community on Facebook. Art, without further ado, welcome.
Penny, thanks for having me on your show. This is great. I love the topic that you’ve gotten this idea of recovering lost time, because we know time is such a finite resource and it’s not something that we should be squandering. Being able to go through and look at ways to do this, it’s valuable for people. Thanks for having me on.
Why do you think that’s important to you to recover lost time?
Time is the only resource that we cannot scale. We can’t add additional time. We can’t move time. The talk clock keeps ticking. What we do with that time to maximize our efficiency and simplify what we’re doing means that we leave extra of that time, time that is unused for work, to do what we want with it. That’s optimally what we all should be getting and striving for.
We create all this complexity.
Nobody wants to work 80 to 90 hours a week, but yet we wind up building systems and solutions that require constant monitoring, babysitting and hoping that they’re actually going to do what they’re supposed to do so that we don’t have to monitor and babysit them. That’s what I do as a specialty. I help people look either at a corporate level, at a business level, or at an individual level at their work management needs and say what’s already out there. What tools do we have available to us that we can put in place as simply and as easily as possible to get you that maximum return without having to find a special tool, or worse yet, build a special tool to accomplish something that may already be out there?
What’s in the way? Why do you think that we do create this unnecessary complexity? What’s in the way to keep us from that simple solution?
There are three things that I commonly see with people. One is people spend time looking for an application that works exactly the way they work. We all know it’s like getting a custom tailor fit outfit. It’s almost impossible to find unless it’s stitched from the ground up.
Also, time-consuming. It is a huge time sink to get to that level of perfection and you never quite get to it. It never quite fits right. You change, but it doesn’t, and that’s a whole different conversation. The second though is the applicant. Spending time looking at an application to figure out if it will tell you how you should be working. This is what happens when you hear a lot of the killer apps out there, “This is the way to work.” There’s nothing that says that that way is going to work for you, yet so many people spend time trying to find that app that’s going to tell them how to work. My position is simple. Know how to work first, then look at the apps.
We do need to know our process and how we work before we select a solution so we can make sure it’s the right fit. There are tools out there like SAP. It’s an accounting system and the whole kitten caboodle, but they do force you into their process. Do you think that’s not a good thing?
Time is the only resource that we cannot scale. Click To Tweet I hate to say it, but I’ll be honest as a consultant. One of the things you want people to do is buy into your process as a consultant because then they’re going to spend money with you. Large companies with defined platforms like this, they have a structure. Yes, they put a lot of thought into that structure and they’ve tried to provide the best thing possible, but it’s never a one size fits all. If you look at all of these platforms, their main revenue streams come from the adaptability of it and tuning it to the needs of that client. For a company that’s a $1 billion company, $5 billion company, they’ve got some cash to spend. I don’t have that deep a pocket. I need to work with the tools that I have available.
Most of the small businesses I work with, the tools that they have available are platforms like Microsoft Office Online or 365. The third one that is probably the most frustrating is people will take a valid tool and then they’ll discount it because it doesn’t have that one magic feature that suddenly they’ve decided that is the linchpin of their entire system. Even though it does 80% to 90% of what they need to accomplish, it doesn’t have one little thing. They’re like, “I can’t use that.” They miss out on it because they have to restart their whole process again.
Let’s talk about that. Let’s say that there’s a company like that, there’s the one thing that they think is a showstopper. How do you work with them for them to see that it probably isn’t worth the cost and the effort to get to that level of perfection? They have their process and they don’t want to change it
One of the biggest challenges is what you said. They have their process and they don’t want to change it. They don’t want to put the effort into looking at their process. I’ll give you two examples. One at a corporate level and one at an individual level. At a corporate level, I was working on a project where they had designed a complex intake form for a process. They had all the different kinds of security layers that they wanted within the form. They wanted this field to appear if this other item was selected. We started going through it and I’m like, “You’re looking about three weeks to build out this one part of the form with all these parameters. Why do you have so much logic in here?” Their answer was, “We don’t want people to fill out the form incorrectly.”
I get that. “You have that as a recurring problem, correct?” “No.” “Is it that people are going in here and making mistakes?” “No. We don’t want the wrong people to fill it out.” I’m like, “Your form goes on for four pages. No one is going to voluntarily go in and complete this form unless they absolutely have to. Let’s look at the simplest way to get to this end result rather than the most complex.” That’s one of the challenges. They never stop and step back and think, “Have we over-engineered this?” From a personal perspective, I’ll use the example of recurring tasks. I did an episode on recurring tasks. One of the funny things is if you think about a payday for a lot of companies, they’ll have a payday on the 15th and the 30th of the month. It’s not that big of a deal. It’s hard to find an application that can schedule a recurring task, one task to happen on the 15th and the 30th of every month. It’s a weird time period. It trips over things, like February. It doesn’t know what to do with it.
Do you spend your time looking at all these different applications and say, “I’ve got to find one that can handle this,” or do you say, “I’m going to create two tasks. One for the 15th and the second one for the end of the month?” Now you’ve met your requirement, but you’ve also used the simplest way to get to that requirement. It’s not the “perfect” case, but if you follow the principle, it works and you can move on to the next thing and you’ve recovered that time.
Do you find that people get hung up on that? That it’s got to be in one task?
Absolutely. For some reason, they have been brainwashed by the productivity community that it must be a singular mechanism to get something done. I’m like, “No. It doesn’t have to be. It’s going to be a simple solution and get the same result.”
What I’m hearing you say is maybe they’re thinking simple is having it in one task. Maybe there are different forms of simple.
Often what simple gets translated to is incomplete. They look at something that’s simple and goes, “That’s too easy. There’s something missing.” They look at it from the flip side and they go back to that magic feature. Recurring tasks is the drum I’m beating. They have to have a tool that’s going to remind them when a recurring task is going to happen. No matter how far it is in the future, that reminder has to pop up and tell them. That’s fine, but here’s where I’m going to counter. Now you have to put 100% faith into this tool that it is going to remind you. Is it not as easy to check every day? Check one time. See what’s on the calendar. Merlin Mann years ago did a thing called 43 Folders, which was his method of organization. Literally, it was based on this premise of using 43 manila folders. It’s old school. If you look up his website, it hasn’t been updated since 2011, but the concept is massively sound because you have 31 days and each day you check the content of the folder. You are your own reminder system.
You’re not assuming that at 4:00 it’s going to come and tell you. The one thing we all know is that technology, when we count on it, will fail us. We have to back up and plan. Think about all the times you’ve truly counted on it. At some point, it will hiccup. It may not be that tool’s fault, but remember, all of our systems are complex systems. The alarm that’s supposed to be set off by your task manager may have been set off, but it may not come through as a text message or it may not show up as a notification. Maybe the window may have been sitting behind another window on your screen. Somehow that thing falls apart. We have that in our minds to say, “If I can’t trust it 100%, how can I trust it at all? What can I do to make me able to trust things?” This is the counterpoint that I give to everybody. If you can’t do this stuff on paper, you’re going to have a hard time trying to figure out how to do it digitally.
I believe in technology and I believe it works better than leaving it up to me to remember to check the folders, especially depending on how many tasks you have. I do believe in backup systems within the system. You can have a backup system, which might be manual or something.
I’m a deep technologist. I have made my living off of this for 30-plus years. I am not going to say don’t use tech. Please, I’m an old guy, but I’m not that old. The thing is to think about it. How you would do it without tech. What it does is it forces you to not fall back on the crutch of the application doing things for you. It gives you a good, solid understanding. There’s an analogy I use all the time to get people to think about their system when we start conversations. I say, “Use CPR. Capture, Process, and Report. That should define your system. How are you going to capture the information coming in, how are you going to process it once you have it, and how are you going to report it?” Sometimes that reporting is to other people. Sometimes that reporting is to yourself. If you can follow that basic model, you should be able to create a system for yourself or for your team or for your company that is technology agnostic. That’s where one of the other biggest hang-ups happens with people. They build solutions around a specific technology rather than building the solution and then finding the tech for it.
That’s a trap too. You’re putting all your eggs in one basket. If that software goes away or doesn’t get updated or does get updated and then it screws up your entire thing, the work is the same.
One of the things we mention all the time on ProductivityCast is when you look at a tool, one of the features you should look for is what is its export capability. What’s the exit strategy for the tool? There are few that have been around a long time. There’s a lot that has come and gone. We have to plan and account for that. You should always be looking for simplistic ways to improve the solutions that you have, minimum to maximum turnaround. I’ll give you another example. Everybody knows Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journal. If you haven’t, you will at some point. If you go on Pinterest, guaranteed you’ll see it. It’s a fantastic approach. It’s a simplified paper journal. He has a book now of it. I ran into a snag with it and I love my paper journals.
Trust me, I have a footlocker of paper journals. Fountain pens and paper journals, that’s me. I had a problem. I couldn’t use the Bullet Journal approach to track a task that had multiple steps. It had multiple phases that had to occur each time. What was the change? I moved from a circle to a square and that’s literally the process. What I did is I created what I call Planner X, which is the exact same structure. Instead of using a circle to indicate a status, I created a square, put an X in the center of it. Now I had four different spots within that square to indicate the status. Fill in one triangle as one status, the second triangle is the next step and so on and so forth. The simplest step I could take to solve that particular need set within my existing system without having to go and hunt down another system to meet that specific magic feature.
That’s what people need to be spending time doing, especially at their individual level. I do this for companies. That’s great, but we should all be doing it with our own systems. Looking at it and say, “Can I simplify this? Can I streamline it? Can I make it more efficient for myself?” A lot of times we’ll get hung up on, “I need to do it. There’s no rework. I enter it one time and never touch it again.” If I remember correctly, David Allen’s GTD system is around that. You touch it once. You don’t have any open loops and you move on. If you can get to that, great. I have a tendency to rewrite things. I’ll write things down. I’ll sit down with my pad and I’ll rewrite it again. I’ll type it into something. Why? It’s because I’m mentally processing in that. I’m refining the content. It’s not truly reworked because it’s thought work. We have to give ourselves that capability in that criteria to say, “I’m going to regain this time by not wasting it on things to do not move me closer to the completion and the success criteria that I’ve defined on these tasks.”
Along that line, you’re talking about criteria and keeping focused on the end result. How do you fit prioritization? When you’re talking about criteria, how does that fit into this process of yours and understanding what’s a priority? What’s not a priority?
Prioritization is probably one of the hardest things to do for yourself and for others without making a basic assumption. That is there’s a huge difference between importance and urgency. That’s probably the biggest trip I see people make.
There’s a huge difference, but there’s not. Is that what you’re saying?
They don’t know. There is a massive difference between the two. They just don’t see it that way. There’s an approach in productivity circles called the Eisenhower Matrix which uses a quadrant design. You actually take a piece of paper or whatever, layout a quadrant. The quadrants on the page break out to four states of being for a task. That structure, people confuse the urgency with importance or urgency is a time derived measure. If something comes in and it’s urgent, it doesn’t mean that it’s important. It means it has to be done in a hurry. The closer it gets to its deadline, the greater its level of urgency, but it could be an extremely low importance task to you. To somebody else, they’ve decided it’s highly important so they’re going to disrupt your schedule with a now urgent task.
Setting priority for yourself. It’s the same as setting it with someone else. You have to ask some basic questions. You have to ask, one, what happens if this doesn’t get done? That’s the biggest thing. What is the price of failure? Second, what can I do to make sure that it is done on time? Third and probably the most important one is, do I have all the information I need to complete this successfully? That’s probably the biggest hang-up I see consistently. People wind up getting an urgent task on their radar, but they don’t have all the facts and they don’t have the details. They wind up in this compressed timetable, unavailable to get the information they need to complete it successfully.
What do they do? They don’t have any information. Somebody fills in the form incorrectly and it’s urgent. What are you suggesting there?
What I suggest is, and this is the hard part for a lot of people. You’ve got to go back and say, “No, I can’t do it.”
People spend time looking for apps that work exactly the way they work. It's almost impossible unless it's stitched from the ground up. Click To Tweet “The boss told me that I needed to do it.”
You say, “Great, Mr. Boss man, Miss Boss lady, if you want me to do this, this is what I need to know.” If you look at Agile software development methodology, there’s a role in Agile software development called the Scrum Master. The Scrum Master’s job is in a nutshell to remove obstacles, to make sure the people who are doing the work are able to do that work. That is their role. You have to act as the scrum master for yourself for your own work. You have to look at everything that you’re being handed and say, “Am I being put in a situation where I can successfully accomplish this item?” I can give it as a tactical example. If somebody wants you to take their car to be inspected, great. If they don’t give you the keys, it’s going to be hard. The question is, do you accept that task and say, “I’ll take care of it,” knowing you don’t have the keys, or do you turn around to them and say, “I can’t do it unless you give me the keys?” It’s a relationship that you have to build.
I’m working on a series on a different approach to task management that I’m calling Compassionate Task Management, which focuses not so much on the ones and zeros of task execution, but the relationship dynamics that have to occur for tasks to be completed successfully. It’s more than an assignment. It’s a commitment. That commitment has to be met by both parties for something to be able to complete successfully. This is the type of thing that I’m talking about. You have to get yourself to a point where you’re saying, “You’ve given me something I can’t do for you and here’s why. If you get me that stuff, I can do it.” You have to be willing to say, “Once I have that stuff, I will do it right.” The commitment.
It’s an interesting way to say it, compassionate task management. I talk about when you have a delegation process, you can’t go and dump it on someone and they don’t know why they’re doing it. That can add value that they know what the end result is going to be and why it’s important. They might choose a different path knowing that information and so forth. It’s almost like that conversation that certain pieces need to have a checklist and to say, “Did we talk about and agree on this and this? Do you have everything that you need?” Understand that it’s a two-way communication.
Part of the understanding of that, when I talk about defining success criteria for tasks, you have to know what those success criteria are. You have to know if they’ve been met or haven’t been met and what’s preventing that if they haven’t. Probably the most important part of that is, are there communication unwritten rules that come along with that task? We talk about tasks often. We’ll think about little things. I need to do this report to that report. If it’s something like you’re doing the annual report, is there an assumption that a task that takes several days will have multiple points of communication? That’s not stated as a line item in the task. There’s no tick box to say, “I did this. I sent them in this email to say what my status is.” You can plan that but most often that doesn’t get planned, so we glaze over it.
There are implications. I might give you something and I have these expectations that are uncommunicated that you should check in every day. Get it done and you’ll check in with me when it’s done.
Years ago, one of the best conversations I had with the CEO, we were sitting there talking about different things. I asked him, “When you assign tasks to people and you assign work to them, what’s the guideline you give them on your expectation around completing?” She looked at me and she’s like, “No surprises.” That was her entire methodology. As long as there were no surprises and if something was going to go bad, yes, things go bad. She didn’t want to get caught off guard. That’s a major step. That doesn’t work for everybody. Some people like to have daily TPR reports and things like that, fine. As long as that is understood by both parties, then there is a level of compassion that happens because now you’re not going to put somebody in an artificially stressful situation to say, “I need you to do this, but I’m not going to tell you when you’re doing it wrong.” That doesn’t help anybody.
That’s a failure waiting to happen.
You wind up burning time on things that may not be necessary.
One of the biggest areas we do burn and waste time is on a failure in communication.
There’s no question that communications are such a key part of it. I talk about it with teams and I talk about it at a corporate level and people communicating with each other has always been a struggle. We see that every day. We see that now. Especially now, but communicating with yourself is as important. Being honest with yourself as to what your criteria are, how you’re going to fit things into your process and admitting when things aren’t working. Commonly, I will see people say, “This tool is not working.” Are you sure it’s the tool? I’ll admit whenever I have a problem with my system and I guarantee about once a week, something goes off the rails. It happens. My first place to look is in my chair.
What did I do to break the system? It’s the same way with software development. If you write a piece of software and you release it and all of a sudden it stops working wrong, the first question you ask is what changed? What is different from its previous state? Same thing here. If I have a system that’s working great all the way through Thursday and all of a sudden it falls apart on Thursday, what changed? What went differently? Sometimes it is the software. Sometimes there’s an update, but a lot of times, I just didn’t follow my own rules. I have to be honest with myself. Did I not follow my own rules because it was more convenient, it was easier to skip over my rules? Have I made them too complicated? Maybe I didn’t create a rule set that was worth following? I can adapt it. We always have to be willing to adapt and modify and change and grow. Our systems have to be reflective of that. That’s the best use of that time we talked about all the way back to the beginning. How do you recover that time? By spending a little bit of time to save and focus. It’s huge.
It comes back. We came full circle also to simplifying it. Taking a look at what changed and simplifying it. We talked about the communication and the questions that you might ask someone to get clarity. I like to find out from people what’s the question that you consistently ask yourself that helps you to be more focused and more productive?
It goes back to that question I mentioned. What is the success criteria for this thing I’m doing? I ask that to clients all the time. At the end of the day or the end of the project, what is going to put a smile on your face? Is it going to be that it’s well-received? Is it going to be that it has improved your efficiency by 20%? For me, is it that I have not misplaced something yet again? Whatever the criteria is as long as I have that question answered, I know what to build towards, I know what to design towards, and I know what to exclude. I don’t have to worry about generating big TPR reports if the biggest criteria is that everybody’s happy with the way it looks. I know I can hit that. Anything beyond that is gravy.
It may relate to something that we already discussed as well, but what’s one shortcut that you typically use and it’s something that it’s your go-to shortcut?
My go-to shortcut is the simplest thing in the world. It’s Post-it notes. I talked about CPR and the biggest challenge is capture. One of the biggest delays to capture is getting to the right spot to capture things. Write it down. I have a stack of Post-it notes on my desk. I have index cards. If I have a thought, it goes on a paper and gets stuck in a pile. David Allen talks about his inbox. He writes it down, sticks in his inbox. It’s the same principle. I’ll then go back through and process them. The key is, get it captured. That’s the biggest shortcut I can tell anybody. There is no right or wrong way to do it. Find one that works for you.
I had a friend of mine that does a neat process. What she does is she has a whiteboard on the wall and she sticks her Post-it notes on there. As she goes and works through the Post-it notes, instead of taking them off the wall and throwing them after capturing them, she transfers them into a journal book. She takes it and sticks it in the book. The reason being is because that way she never loses anything. She goes through that stuff and she said, “What was that?” She can flip the book open, find the original Post-it notes. At some point, she throws all that stuff out. It’s a singular motion, but it’s a highly efficient time-saver for her.
She’s got her back-up process as we talked about before. She has it so that she can go back to that if she needs to.
For me, I’d lose everything. I wouldn’t bother with it. It’s got to go digital for me at that point. Everybody has their own shortcuts. Don’t be afraid to use them and don’t be afraid to share them either.
That’s why I’m asking the question. Everybody has different, great shortcuts. We can expand the number of shortcuts that we use and share them and be able to benefit from what other people have figured out already.
It’s a great way to do it.
Is there anything else that you wanted to share with the audience, Art?
Aside from the normal things, if you’re interested in listening to me blather more about this particular topic or any other topics, I do have the Being Productive podcast. Also, I can’t stress it enough, the ProductivityCast is probably one of my favorite shows to do. The four of us who go through there, we beat on every topic we can find. Guaranteed, all four of us do totally different. If you want an example of how four different people can do the same thing in four different ways, that’s a great place to start. I have to encourage people, study other systems, not the tools. Study other methodologies. Beg, borrow, and steal the ideas out of them. Try them and refine your own. Keep it simple.
Thank you, Art. Thanks for being here.
It’s my pleasure. Anytime, Penny.
Thank you all for being here because you’re the heart of this show. Without you and your questions and your areas and ways that you’re looking to improve, then we wouldn’t be here to serve you. Thank you. Do go back and take notes if you didn’t do so because there were a lot of great nuggets in here. From each and every show, I want you to be able to take away at least one action that’s going to make a difference for you, not 10 or 20 actions. We said, keep it simple. One thing, one distinction that’s going to make a difference. We’ll see you in the next episode.
- Art Gelwicks
- Being Productive podcast
- OneNote for Professionals – Facebook group
- 43 Folders
- Bullet Journal
- Eisenhower Matrix
About Art Gelwicks
A technology consultant for more that 30 years, my specialty is the creative application of out of the box tools to meet personal and professional productivity and collaboration needs. I’ve worked with clients in almost every vertical, of sizes from one person shops to investment and media giants. My approach is concentrated on helping define the needs and wants and then using the tools that are readily available to meet and exceed them. I’m the host of the Being Productive podcast, regular guest on ProductivityCast with Ray Sidney-Smith and Augusto Pinaud, author for The Idea Pump blog, and founder of the OneNote for Professionals community on Facebook.
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