Everyone is approaching productivity wrong. Tactics such as Pomodoros and blocking distractions only scratch the surface. A more effective approach is to improve your workflows.
My career exploded starting in 2009.
The money was great, but my soul was taking a beating. I couldn’t keep up with the countless emails. I thought employees were the answer, but managing them took time away from me actually making money.
I’d work seven days a week for several months. Inevitably, I’d burn out and head to the Caribbean for a week to recover.
This wasn’t sustainable, but I didn’t know what else to do.
One day, I was walking my dog and overhead my neighbors chatting about weeds in their yards.
Neighbor #1: I’m tired of these weeds. I just ordered a weed whacker to help me kill them faster.
Neighbor #2: A weed whacker? They’re just going to grow back no matter how fast you kill them. Buy yourself some Roundup, and you’ll kill the weeds forever. Do you wanna spend every Saturday cutting weeds?
Something clicked in my brain.
I had an efficiency approach to conquering the endless amount of work. That meant I kept trying to find new techniques to do the work faster and faster.
I’d keep trying out new productivity apps trying to find that “magic bullet.” But I never took the time to zoom out and analyze my systems for accomplishing work.
My research led me to discover a far more effective approach called Workflows. (Credit goes to Cal Newport for this phrase)
Workflows ask WHAT you should be working on, and HOW you decide to do them. It’s about analyzing problems and creating systems that get rid of certain work permanently.
I’m going to share some examples of optimizing workflows and some ideas on how to approach your problems.
These upfront investments in workflows will pay dividends.
Optimizing Customer Service Emails Through Workflows
A pain point for e-commerce stores is dealing with customer emails.
Let’s say you’re getting 100 customer service emails a day.
If you’re using the efficiency approach, you’ll be asking, “How can I answer those 100 emails a day faster?”
Some solutions are:
- Every day at 2 p.m., you’re going to block out one hour to answer C.S. emails.
- You hire a new customer service representative to help out.
- You create different templates to respond faster.
You’re able to cut down the customer service response time from three days down to two.
This is a win for most people, but is it the best solution?
Let’s tackle the same problem from a workflow perspective.
Remember, workflows tackle the WHAT and the HOW.
The first WHAT is… “What do the customers want?”
Do the customers want faster responses to their emails? Sure. But they’d be happier if they never had problems in the first place, or never had to contact you.
Next, get clarity on where you are right now. Categorize all the emails you get over the span of a week. Create some graphs to help you visually analyze the most common problems.
Remember, you want to take an 80 / 20 approach and focus on the most common problems.
Most Common Email #1: People Keep Asking Where Their Order Is
This is one of those problems that can be automated with the right software.
You do some research and install the AfterShip Order Tracking system into your store.
People automatically get updates through email or text on where their order is. There’s now a huge tracking link on your navigation bar.
Most Common Email #2: Instructions for Using the Product Aren’t Clear
People receive your widget, but they have no idea how to use it.
You can create an instructional booklet and put it in the packaging.
Your team creates a detailed video on how to use the widget. The video is emailed a few days after the person makes a purchase.
For other common questions, you build a Frequently Asked Questions page. People have to scroll through the FAQ before they reach the Contact Us form on your website.
I remember one example from The 4 Hour Work Week. Tim Ferris was frustrated with the number of questions his customer service reps would ask him on what to do.
He created a rule. The customer service reps could spend up $100 to make the customers happy. This one rule eliminated so many back and forth questions from his staff.
Taking an Efficiency approach means you’re still going to have 100 emails a day. You’ll be able to answer them within two days instead of three.
Taking a Workflow approach means you’ve put an infrastructure in place to cut down on the work. Instead of getting 100 emails a day, now you’re getting 25 emails. The customers are happier, and you free up resources to focus on bigger issues.
Other Workflow Examples
Here are some other examples of workflows I’ve implemented in my life.
Dealing with Co-Workers: You get your best work done when you’re not being interrupted. I have a 15-minute meeting every day at 12 p.m. called the Daily Huddle.
It asks what we’re working on and what bottlenecks we’re facing. If anyone has any questions for me, they can ask me then. Any other issues can be left as a comment in our Project Management software.
This gives me several hours a day to do “deep work” instead of getting interrupted with Slack messages.
Booking a Flight: I started working with Executive Assistants several years ago. One of the most common tasks was booking flights. The biggest issue was that they’d keep asking me for different information.
That’s when we worked on creating a Standard Operating Procedure just for travel.
There was an upfront time investment in creating this document, but it has saved us endless hours of back and forth.
Three Ideas to Help You Create Workflows
1. Ask the 5 Whys
Most people focus on the symptoms, but it’s far more effective to figure out the root cause.
Let’s say that you’re experiencing headaches every day. You could take an Advil every day, but that’s not great for your long-term health.
You do some research on the potential causes, and you see that poor posture is one. You realize that you’re hunched over your desk to use your laptop.
You decide to invest in a proper ergonomic work setup. Your headaches magically go away!
It’s not easy to figure out what the root causes are. I use a tool called the 5 Whys:
- Because I keep oversleeping. Why?
- Because I keep hitting snooze on the alarm clock. Why?
- Because I’m not getting enough sleep. Why?
- Because I’m staying up late watching Netflix. Why?
- Because I hate my life and watching Netflix at night is the only thing that makes me happy. Why?
The root cause of oversleeping for this person is depression. That’s the lead domino that will fix all other issues.
2. What would things look like if they were easy?
People tend to overcomplicate success.
I like to ask myself, “What would this look like if it were easy?”
In 2016, I wanted to gain muscle. It was a pain in the ass for me to keep up with my macros and workout programs. So, I asked myself what would it look like if it were easy?
1. I’d have a personal trainer. He’d monitor my metrics and design workouts for me every day.
2. I’d used a meal planning service. Every day, I’d get my daily meals delivered in the morning. Those 3 meals + 2 Scoops of protein would hit my macros easily.
Think about how much mental space I freed up by not thinking about this anymore. It wasn’t cheap to create this setup.
Good health is a force multiplier, and I’m sure I made back my money through better focus and energy.
3. Touch it as Few Times as Possible
It’s mentally draining to keep revisiting the same tasks.
The less you revisit a task, the better.
If you delegate work and there’s a ton of back and forth, often it’s because you didn’t explain it well enough.
Let’s go back to the example of booking a flight.
In the early days, I would delegate it, such as:
“Can you book me a flight?
Depart: from ATL to SLC October 10th Morning
Return: SLC to ATL October 14th Afternoon”
Slack: Is this a business or personal trip? Which credit card should I use?
WhatsApp: Hey, I found the flight on Delta. Do you have a SkyMiles number?
Email: The flights are typically $300, but I see right now it’s $500’ish. Did you still want to book it?
Do you see how much time is wasted?
Let’s use the touch it once mentality. How can I delegate this as best as possible, so I don’t have to keep dealing with it?
I use a framework called Vision / Resources / Definition of Done.
I’m going on a business trip with my friend. I need you to book a flight.
Depart: from ATL to SLC October 10th Morning
Return: SLC to ATL October 14th Afternoon
You can find all the information you need in the Travel SOP.
Definition of Done:
I want the flight booked as soon as possible.
We’ll figure out the accommodations and research things to do later.
Once booked, please make sure it’s in both TripIt and my Google Calendar.
If you have any questions, please ping me in the comments section of this task.
By investing all this upfront time in delegating, there are fewer questions. Fewer questions mean that I’m not interrupted when I’m trying to do more valuable work.
Where to Go From Here
It’s not easy to create these Workflows. There’s an upfront investment in both time and thinking capacity.
Yet, focusing on building these workflows can increase your outputs.
I want you to develop a workflow approach to any problems that you encounter. Having a workflow approach will lead to you working on bigger problems