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How Org Mode helps me deal with an ever-growing backlog

If you’re like me, you probably have a to-do list several miles long. I like thinking of this as the backlog from agile programming. It’s a list of tasks that I could choose to work on, but I haven’t committed to doing everything on the list. This means I don’t have to waste energy feeling guilty about not getting everything done. Instead, I can treat it like a buffet of projects to choose from depending on what I feel like working on.

2014-04-28 Dealing with an ever-growing backlog

2014-04-28 Dealing with an ever-growing backlog

I think I add tasks faster than I cross tasks out. (Hmm, I should track this!) It never ends. Most tasks suggest next steps I could take after I finish the first ones. You might think that an ever-growing to-do list is a bad thing. This is okay. In fact, this is good. It means that I’ll always have a variety of tasks to choose from.

People manage tasks in different ways. For my personal tasks, I use several large text files in Org Mode for Emacs. Org Mode is an outline-based tool which makes it easy for me to organize my tasks into projects and projects into themes. It also supports tagging, links, agendas, dynamic views, and all sorts of other great ways to slice-and-dice my task list. Here’s how I deal with some of the common challenges people face with a large task backlog:

  • Making sure important, urgent tasks don’t fall through the cracks
  • Making sure you don’t neglect important but not urgent tasks
  • Keeping track of what you’re waiting for
  • Catching procrastination

Making sure important, urgent tasks don’t fall through the cracks

If something has a deadline, I add the deadline in Org using C-c C-d (org-deadline). This means that reminders will appear on my daily agenda for the 14 days before the deadline, counting down to the deadline itself. (The number of days is controlled by org-deadline-warning-days.) In addition, I usually schedule the task for a day that I want to work on it, so that I can get the task out of the way.

I’m careful about what I commit to, erring on the side of under-committing rather than over-committing. I’m selective about my client work and my volunteering. I keep my schedule as open as I can, and I’m not afraid to reschedule if I need to. Hardly anything I work on could be considered urgent. If an urgent request does come in, I ask questions to determine its true urgency, including potential alternatives and consequences of failure.

You might not have as much choice about what to work on, but you might also be surprised by how much you can push back. Be careful about what you allow to be urgent in your life.

Making sure you don’t neglect important but not urgent tasks

I have plenty of space to work on things that are important but not urgent because I manage my commitments carefully. This means that I can usually finish a few important-but-not-urgent tasks every day.

Which tasks do I consider important? I like thinking in terms of projects. Important tasks tend to be associated with projects instead of standing in isolation. Important tasks move me toward a specific goal. I have many goals and projects, but because they’re fewer than the number of tasks I have, I can prioritize them more easily. I can decide that some projects are in the background and some are in focus. Important tasks are the tasks that help me make more progress on the projects I consider important.

Because I like having two or three projects on the go, it helps to make sure that I make regular progress on those projects instead of getting carried away on just one. Tracking my time helps me stay aware of that balance. I also review my projects every week and schedule specific tasks for each of them, so I can make a little progress at least. Once I switch context and start thinking about a project, it’s easy to pick another couple of tasks in that area and get even more done.

If you’re struggling with creating enough space to work on important but not urgent tasks, you might be able to partner up with someone so that you can block off time to work on non-urgent things. Many teams have a rotating schedule for dealing with customer requests or urgent issues. One person covers the requests for a day, allowing the rest of the team to focus. Then the next person takes on that duty, and so on.

Keeping track of what you’re waiting for

One of the useful tips I picked up from David Allen’s Getting Things Done book was the idea of marking a task as WAITING. I usually add a description of what I’m waiting for, who’s responsible, and when I want to follow up. This makes it easier to follow up. When I’m waiting for a specific date (ex: the library makes a DVD hold-able after a certain date), I schedule the task for then.

I use the Boomerang for Gmail extension when I’m waiting for an e-mail reply. Boomerang lets me pop the message back into my inbox if I haven’t received a reply by a specific date, so I don’t have to keep track of that myself.

Handling less-important but still useful things

There are tasks on my to-do list that have been on that list for years. This is okay.
I’m getting better at noting names and contact information in my tasks so that I can follow up with people even after some time. This is particularly useful for book recommendations. I get a lot of book recommendations and I get most of my books from the library, so there’s usually a delay of a few weeks. Because Org Mode lets me add notes and links to the body of a task, I can look up information easily.

I work on less-important tasks when I don’t feel like working on my major tasks, or when I’m looking for small tasks so I can fill in the gaps of my day. Org Mode gives me plenty of ways to look up tasks. I usually look for tasks by projects, navigating through my outline. I can also look for tasks by effort estimate, so I can see everything that will probably take me less than 15 minutes. Context is useful too – I can search for various tags to find tasks I can do while I’m on the phone, or out on errands, or when I feel like writing or drawing.

I like thinking in terms of low-hanging fruit, so I often choose tasks that require little time or effort and have good impact. It can be overwhelming to look at a long list of tasks and decide which ones have good return. It’s easier to tag these tasks when you create the task, or to think in terms of projects instead.

Some tasks grow in importance or urgency over time. If I want to make sure that I revisit a task on a certain date, I schedule it for then.

Catching procrastination

I still end up rescheduling tasks multiple times. (I’ve been putting off redoing my business cards for a few months now!) I’ve noticed that there are different kinds of procrastination, including:

  • Procrastinating because you don’t have time today: It’s easy to reschedule things a few weeks or a month in advance. In fact, Org has a built-in command for bulk-scattering tasks. From the agenda view, you can type m to mark multiple tasks, then type B and then S to scatter tasks randomly over the next N days. (Call it with a prefix argument as C-u B S to limit it to weekdays.) If I catch myself procrastinating because I don’t have enough time, that’s usually a sign to be more cautious about my estimates and commitments, so I adjust those too.
  • Procrastinating because it’s less important than other tasks: This is related to the time reason. I have no qualms about pushing less-important tasks forward.
  • Procrastinating because you don’t feel like working on it: Is the task actually important? If it’s not, I usually get rid of it without feeling guilty. If it’s still useful, I might unschedule it so that I see it only if I’m looking for tasks in that project or in that context. Alternatively, I can just mark the task as CANCELLED or SOMEDAY. If the task is important, I think about whether I’m likely to feel like working on it at some point in the future. If I’m likely to not feel any different about it, I might delegate it, or I might just sit down and do it since procrastination doesn’t add value. On the other hand, if I’m likely to feel like working on it at some point, then I tag it with that context and push it out to some other date.
  • Procrastinating because you forgot about it: I usually check my agenda every day and Org shows forgotten things in a different colour, so I catch these quickly. If the tasks are more important than the tasks I’ve already scheduled, I might work on those first. Alternatively, I might schedule it for sometime later.

I procrastinate based on my to-do list, not based on my inbox. The inbox is a terribly unstructured way to manage your tasks. I use Boomerang for Gmail to defer some mail to a later date, but that’s usually so that I can pop it back into my inbox the day that I meet someone so that I have context and so that I don’t have to copy the link into the calendar entry or my TO-DO list.

Wrapping up

So that’s how I deal with having a large backlog. I focus first on the stuff that I need to do, and I make sure that shows up on my agenda. Then I make it easy to look for stuff that I want to do using Org’s support for projects, tags, time estimates, and so on. I don’t feel guilty about having lots of tasks to choose from. I view my backlog positively. It lets me do good stuff without worrying too much about how I spend my time.

How do you deal with your backlog? =)

Sneak peek! Writing this post prompted me to start tracking whether my backlog grew or shrank each day. Check out my preliminary results and the code I used to analyze my TODOs.
2014-04-27: Fixed typo in keybinding – thanks, Sujith Abraham!

How I use Google Chrome custom search engines for quick access

I move as much as I can of what I know to the Web so that other people can use what I share. Added benefit: I can find things quickly! I use custom search engine shortcuts to help me quickly look up stuff. For example, I frequently refer to blog posts. I can type “b search terms” into my Chrome address bar to search my blog. Neat, huh? Here are the search engines I’ve defined.

Blog b https://www.google.ca/search?q=site%3Asachachua.com+%s
Blog category bc http://sachachua.com/blog/category/%s
Blog tag bt http://sachachua.com/blog/tag/%s
Flickr – mine f http://www.flickr.com/search/?w=65214961@N00&q=%s
Flickr tag ft ~http://flickr.com/photos/sachac/tags/%25s
Google Drive d https://drive.google.com/a/sachachua.com/#search/%s
Google Calendar c https://www.google.com/calendar/render?q=TERM
GMail m https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?pli=1#search/%s
Google Contacts p https://www.google.com/contacts/?q=%s
Trello t https://trello.com/search?q=%s

Here’s how you can define your own search engines:

  1. Click on the menu button.
  2. Choose Settings > Manage Search Engines.
  3. Scroll to the bottom of the Other search engines list.
  4. Add your own, one at a time.

%s will be replaced by the search terms from the command line.

Super handy!

Try setting up search engines for yourself. It takes a few minutes to set up one, and it makes searching so much easier.

Rethinking my time categories: the blurring of business and discretionary activities

I track my time with medium-level categories (not detailed enough that I’m tracking individual tasks, but not so high level that it’s hard to make sense of the data). From time to time, I notice categories drift, or they stop fitting. Consulting is definitely business, but does working on Emacs really belong there? Why is coding classified under business but writing is classified as discretionary time? Most of my categories still make sense a year or two later, but some of them could use more thinking about.

What is business, anyway? I suppose it can include anything related to the earning of money, including support such as paperwork or delegation. Packaging (by which I mean creating e-books and other resources) is part of business, since I earn a small income from that (and pay taxes on it, too!). So is responding to e-mail. Technically, Emacs is related to money, because people have actually booked and paid me for help sessions online (http://sachachua.com/help). I consider programming-related activities to be part of maintaining my technical skills and network. In that sense, coding, web development, system administration, and other geek things are business-related. I distinguish between sketchnoting for client engagements and drawing on my own. Many of my drawings are more along the lines of personal or business planning. Perhaps I should track more under those categories now that I’ve established drawing as a way of thinking, and shift to using “Business – Drawing” when I’m specifically working on illustrations or improving skills.

Discretionary time includes the stuff I do just for fun and the things I learn about just because (Latin and Morse, for example). Probably the only weird thing in here is that I classify writing as discretionary time. It’s fun. Coding is fun too. Coding is more obviously valued, though, so I guess that’s why I consider it business time. And also, if I classify writing as coding time, I’ll tip over way too often into the “working too many hours a week” zone, when I’m not really doing so.

Maybe a better approach is to classify coding, drawing, and other fun things as discretionary time instead, even if they occasionally result in money. Benefit: I get to celebrate having more discretionary time and a lighter workload. (Yeah, it’s all mental anyway…)

Or maybe I need to take a step back and ask myself what kinds of questions I want to be able to answer with my categorical data.

In general, I want to make sure I don’t spend too much time working, because I want to force myself to work on my own projects. That’s why I track the time spent consulting, doing paperwork, and connecting with people (including responding to e-mail). I usually keep a close eye on my Business – Earn subcategory, since that’s the one that can creep up on me unawares. That’s fine with my current categories.

I also want to look for patterns in time use. How does spending more time on one activity (and less time on other activities) influence what I do and how I feel? How bursty am I when it comes to different discretionary projects? As long as I’m tracking at the subcategory level, it doesn’t really matter what the root category is.

Hmm. Since I’m not actually using the distinction between discretionary and business for reports or visualizations that nudge my behaviour, I can probably leave my categories alone if I remind myself that those ones have fuzzy boundaries. It would matter more if I wanted to set goals for investing X hours a week on business things (or, conversely, spending Y hours on discretionary non-business related things, which is oddly harder). Since I don’t care about that at the moment, I’m fine. Also, it’s easy enough to reassign the parent categories, so I still leave the door open for analyses at a later date.

As long as I can keep things clear enough in my head so that I feel confident that I can explain to any auditors that yes, my  business expenses make sense, I should be fine. I feel a little weird about not having a proper business plan for lots of things I’m working on. I mean, I can write them (or draw business model canvasses, more likely), but I prefer this pay-what-you-want model. Oh, hey, there’s an assumption there that I can dig into. People can (and do!) build metrics around freemium or pay-what-you-want models. Maybe I can figure out how to approach this in a business-like-but-still-generous way.

What would a more business-y way look like? I would float an idea to see if it’s useful. Then I would make stuff (and sometimes I’d make it anyway, just because). I might actually track conversions, and try things out, and reach out to people and communities. I’d publish little guides and videos, and maybe add a tip jar for smaller pieces of content so that people can “vote” for things they like more.

All things to do in due course. In the meantime, knowing that the path is there means I can leave all of this stuff still filed under the Business category, because it is. Even if it’s fun. Writing still feels more discretionary than business-y (even posts like this, for example), so I’ll leave that where it is. So no change, but I understand things better.

Do you track your time and have fuzzy boundaries between categories? How do you deal with it?

 

 

Reflecting on goal factoring and akrasia

Following up on sketching my goals: I’ve been thinking a bit more about goal factoring. What do I want to be able to do with an overview of my projects and goals?

  • I want to make regular progress towards important goals, especially since I tend to move from topic to topic.
  • I want to translate abstract goals into measurable projects, and I want to translate those projects into actions.
  • I want to brainstorm alternative approaches that may get me to my goals faster, cheaper, or more effectively.
  • I want to see which actions or projects can support multiple goals.
  • I want to prioritize my projects and goals, putting things on the backburner as needed.
2014-03-24 How do I want to keep track of my goals #goal-factoring #planning #org

2014-03-24 How do I want to keep track of my goals #goal-factoring #planning #org

One of the benefits of writing down my goals is that I can look at the gap between plans and reality. An e-mail conversation with Daniel Reeves (Beeminder and the awesomely geeky Messy Matters) pointed me to the concept of akrasia, which is when you act against your better judgment (Wikipedia: akrasia; LessWrong: akrasia). In general, this happens because we value the present much more than the future. Short-term gains are more compelling than future ones. Immediate pains matter more than far-off sacrifices.

I haven’t thought a lot about akrasia yet. If I can understand the concept and identify my akratic actions, then I can change my systems or try other tactics to live better.

2014-03-26 Reflections on akrasia - acting against my better judgment #rationality

2014-03-26 Reflections on akrasia – acting against my better judgment #rationality

  • Sleeping: I could probably get away with sleeping less. That said, it’s good (and uncommon) to get plenty of sleep, so this might not be too bad. I averaged about 8.9 hours a night over the past year. If I manage to tweak this to get, say, 0.5 hours more core time per day, that would be amazing. On the other hand, I could be the sort of person who really does need that much time, and it’s still within the normal range. We’ll see how sleep works out with my changing routines.
  • Reading fanfiction during my commute when I could be reading nonfiction, learning Morse code, writing, or listening to podcasts… Actually, I’ve been doing more Morse code lately, so maybe this is not an issue. And I should probably have more mental downtime anyway.
  • Being glued to my phone: On a related note, W- has teased me about my being occasionally glued to my phone. (It’s funny when I’m trying to tidy up or make the bed one-handed.) This is more of an awareness issue.
  • Not doing enough strength/flexibility/endurance: Biking helps me with lower-body strength, but my arms are weak. If I don’t exercise to maintain my flexibility, I’ll lose it over time. I have plenty of energy throughout the day, although I suppose it’s good to build that up so that I have even more energy for bigger tasks. If I determine that mornings are the best time to exercise, then my lack of exercise is a combination of my desire to spend that time reading or writing (even though I already do this to the point of possible diminishing returns) and my dislike of how it initially feels to exercise.
  • Socializing: I often don’t feel like going out, although I conceptually know that connecting with people is a good thing. I suspect it’s because I feel more connected with people around ideas instead of history or circumstance, and connecting to people over the Internet tends to more reliably result in good conversations like that compared to going to events or get-togethers in person.
  • Crossing my legs: This is an awareness thing. I just have to notice it, and then I can gradually untrain myself. If I’m seated correctly, I’m fine. I tend to cross when I need a higher, slanted surface to draw on. More observations – maybe stochastic?

There are lots of other possibly akratic actions in my life. These came to mind first when I thought about things that I often do and that I can change when I pay attention to them. Still, looking at this set… I don’t have a strong desire to eliminate akrasia while the suboptimal results aren’t major hindrances. I’m fine with having a little slack in my life. Even when my actions diverge from my stated goals, I still learn a lot.

That’s an interesting meta-thing to explore, though. Am I too comfortable? I’ve experimenting with moving away from carrot-and-stick approaches to personal productivity (or taskmaster and slave) and more towards appreciative inquiry (let’s observe what’s working well, and do more of that). Most people want to become more machine-like in their productivity, reliably following their plans. The contrarian in me is curious about alternatives. I don’t know that life would be better if I worked with more focus or commitment. I know that it would be different, and there’s a possibility that following the butterflies of my curiosity also creates value.

So let’s say that akrasia (or at least how I understand it so far) tends to be effectively addressed with self-imposed deadlines, commitment devices, constrained environments, and so on. Writers sign up for NaNoWriMo. Entrepreneurs bet each other that they’ll complete their tasks. Dieters remove junk food from their cupboards. These constraints support progress (by adding enough incentive to get people started or to convert downtime into productive time) or prevent backsliding (by removing temptations and distractions).

What are the trade-offs I make for not using these tools against akrasia? Are there ways I can turn weaknesses into strengths for those approaches?

Commitment devices are good for keeping you focused. If I let myself follow my interests, then I don’t get to take advantage of momentum or compounding results. However, my habit of sharing along the way means that people can get value even from intermediate steps. Cross-pollination is valuable, too. On my personal blog, it’s probably a good idea to have variety instead of focus, so that people can find what they’re interested in.

Commitment devices are good for preventing backsliding. When you make undesired actions more costly (ex: eating junk food), you make desired actions cheaper in comparison (ex: nibbling on carrots). If I don’t tinker with incentives that way, then I’ll be more influenced by short-term effects rather than long-term effects. I am generally future-oriented anyway (ex: retirement savings, batch cooking) and I have fun connecting actions with long-term plans, so the disadvantages may be somewhat mitigated. I don’t have a sense of urgency around this, either. Perhaps I need to exaggerate long-term costs in order to make this more compelling.

Things to think about…

Have you reflected on akrasia? Can you share your insights?

Figuring out a fair price for outsourcing work

How can you figure out a fair budget for delegating work? If you set your budget too low, you might get frustrated by lack of response or by the kinds of results you get. If you set your budget too high, you might waste effort and talent. I can’t give you a price sheet. Besides, your needs will evolve over time. However, I can share some of the things I’ve been learning about budgeting for outsourcing or checking if people’s times are reasonable.

If you’re working with hourly assistance, you can ask people to track their times for specific tasks so that you can get a sense of how much something costs. You can also give a time limit and ask them to send you what they have at the end of that time. This will help you get a sense of their speed and the cost of the task. If you’re working with fixed-cost services, you can translate things back into hourly estimates and compare that with your own experience. Pick one system of measurement so that you can compare your chioces.

2014-03-24 Determining a fair price for outsourced work #delegation #outsourcing

2014-03-24 Determining a fair price for outsourced work #delegation #outsourcing

Instead of trying to nail down a single price, try to figure out a range that you’re comfortable with. You can start by looking for flat-rate fees from companies or people who post fixed prices online. For example, Transcript Diva lists transcript rates and timelines for some of their competitors as well. For general tasks, services like Fiverr and Fancy Hands help establish a range of $5-15 for common tasks.

Another way to establish a limit for what you’re willing to spend is to consider how long it takes you to do things yourself, and what else you would do with that time. Adjust based on people’s experience. Beginners will take longer to do things than you will, while experienced people may do this just as fast as you can. Specialists who have invested in tools or training may do things even faster. Sometimes it makes sense to delegate a task to someone who isn’t the optimal choice in terms of speed or cost, if they’re more integrated with the way you work or if you want to help them grow. (Sketch: delegation and task efficiency; blog post)

Then experiment. Try delegating a small task to a lower-cost service to see if that will meet your needs. Try delegating a similar task to a premium service to see if it’s worth the price. Try a mid-range service.

Think about the value you can get from the different types of results you have. If a service is expensive but it leads to a lot more income, it may be worth it.

Think of when you’d prefer to do things yourself, too. For example, even though it’s easy to find inexpensive data entry assistance, I prefer to automate straightforward tasks because I get to learn more about automation along the way.

As you delegate, think about what was worth it, and adjust accordingly. Make your experiments a little bit bigger as you get used to the idea. Find your sweet spot, and then keep experimenting. Good luck!

Visual book review: Conscious Millionaire: Grow your business by making a difference (JV Crum III)

I don’t sketchnote every book I read or receive, but sometimes it’s good to take some time to think about a book even if I don’t agree with everything in it.

2014-03-26 Book - Conscious Millionaire - JV Crum III

2014-03-26 Book – Conscious Millionaire – JV Crum III

This sketch (like practically everything else on my blog) is available under the Creative Commons Attribution License, so feel free to download, share, remix or reuse it. =)

From the title (“Conscious” and “Millionaire,” oh dear), to the name-dropping of quantum physics as a way of justifying a “Law of Attraction,” to the membership site that will be $97/month ($9.97/month if you sign up early), this book clearly belongs to a genre of books I tend to avoid. Those kinds of books are great for a lot of people who need inspiration and push. I’m happy for them. Me, I prefer my business advice delivered with a different approach. But I agree with many things in this book, and I’m looking forward to going through the reflection exercises in depth.

I like how Conscious Millionaire focuses on building a business for profit and purpose. I’ve been thinking about this because of my experiment with semi-retirement. People want to pay me for things like sketchnotes, book notes, visual coaching, consulting, programming, writing, sharing, illustration… It would be easy to say yes, but that often distracts me from the things I want to explore. One way I compromise is through buying back all the time that I spend earning. My experiments with delegation are paying off. In many cases, these systems let me do more than I could do on my own. And in the rest of my discretionary time, I really like this casual, minimal-commitment, flow-based life. I work on whatever I want to whenever I want to, and I still get stuff done.

My expenses are covered by savings and investments, and I live generally unambitious sort of life. Or a differently-ambitious one, at least–I wanted freedom, so I got it. I actively avoid the hedonic treadmill of consumption. I’m not particularly interested in business for the sake of earning more. I am, however, interested in building systems for leverage so that I can make the world a little better. I think of building businesses as taking the kinds of results that people want from me and packaging the processes so that other people can benefit: customers, team members, other stakeholders, and so on. That would be worth spending time on.

So that’s what I’m getting out of this book: thinking about building businesses like those would be like, visualizing larger scales, and moving towards those visions with conscious, focused actions.

Before I dig into those reflections, there’s a section in here about people who don’t charge enough for their services. I want to explore that a little further.

Unfortunately, some amazingly talented and good-hearted people erroneously think they should not charge when they use their passion, purpose, and strengths to help others. … It results from thinking or believing that it is wrong to charge money whenever your actions express your purpose.

I have no qualms about charging high rates for my consulting. For everything else–especially things that can scale up over years, like books–I like using a free/pay-what-you-want strategy. It always pleasantly boggles me when people happily pay $15 for something they could get for free. Don’t worry, it’s all part of my evil plan. Mwahahaha. It means ideas spread and tribes grow. I figure that if people like all the free awesomeness, we can harness that good karma for something. In the meantime, I’m learning a lot from people in the process of sharing, and I love the feeling of interacting based on abundance instead of transactions.

Besides, the bottleneck for my scaling up isn’t time, or even money. If I earned a hundred times as much from online publishing, or scaled up my consulting to have a higher rate or more hours, what would change? I would probably delegate more so that I could help more people create opportunities for themselves. I can already do that with what I have. So I think the real bottleneck is understanding: learning more about what people need, learning more about what I want to share. You can’t throw money at that bottleneck. You can only get through by paying attention.

And that, I guess, is why Conscious Millionare might be worth reading. It’s peppered with lots of reflection topics and practical advice. If the community and the coaching takes off, that might be worthwhile as a way to compare notes with other people. Like all self-help books, you gotta get out and push. The one-page summary I put together (see the top of this post) might be handy for remembering key points, but you’ll get even further if you do the work. I’m looking forward to starting with those three-year visualizations, and then we’ll see where this goes from there. If you pick this up, tell me what you think too.

Disclaimer: I received a review copy from the author, who is an actual millionaire from things that are not books about how to become a millionaire. He started with a trucking company, so that’s a point in his favour.