How To Become An Effective Operator

THE BUSINESS OWNERS MATRIX

Whether you own a business, work for yourself or work for someone else, you’ll have aspirations and ideas you aspire to achieve that can’t be by ‘working’ like everyone else.

Ask any successful person you know about how they achieved success, and somewhere mixed up in that conversation will be the idea of hard work.

Working hard is useful advice but, from my perspective, misinterpreted.

I imagine the first thing that comes to mind when you think about hard work is putting in the time’.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book on ‘putting in the time’ called Outliers of Success. Malcolm discussed the idea of investing 10,000 hours of dedicated time into an area of your life to become great at it. Thus, ‘The 10,000-hour rule’.

In sports (think Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan) In business (think Gary Vaynerchuk, Steve Jobs ), almost all high performing individuals talk about putting in the time.

Your social media feeds now have a ‘category’ for this type of talk called ‘struggle porn’. Which Nat Eliason humorously covers here.

I think putting in the time’ is lazy advice and lacks self-awareness from people who’ve ‘made it’.

For example, if you’re already working 70 hours per week, grinding week in, week out for the same mediocre results. Will putting in another 10 hours of work change that? And I’d follow that up with how many more 70 hour weeks can you ‘work’ before you burn out?

If you have a family to support and a job to hold down and you’re not satisfied with where your life sits. Putting in more time in most cases, isn’t the answer.

I used to be the person working 70+ hours a week, going nowhere fast. I was earning less than minimum wage, I wasn’t enjoying myself, and I’d stopped appreciating life.

Somewhere in that ‘struggle’, I went back to an old book, written by a guy who was once in a similar position to me. ‘the four hour work week’. Tim talks about a different way to approach life. 

Re-reading that book kicked off a three-year journey to re-discover what ‘hard work’ really means.

I’m not a millionaire – far from it, I still rent a place to live, I still have shitty days; I live a very normal life from the outside looking in. But I work differently, and working this way, I know I can achieve anything I want to, with enough patience.

THEORY OF CONSTRAINTS

‘Any manageable system limited in achieving more of its goals by a minimal number of constraints.’

Let me start by introducing you to the theory of constraints.

As we discussed, if you’re ‘maxed out’ and not making noticeable progress in the direction you want to go, your operating system has reached a limit.

Your output machine, i.e. the work you produce, has reached peak value and isn’t increasing. Therefore the rewards you receive for this work have also peaked.

This limit is commonly known as a ‘bottleneck’. “A bottleneck is a point of congestion in a production system (such as an assembly line or a computer network) that occurs when workloads arrive too quickly for the production process to handle” – Investopedia.

To bring more value to your life, you’ll need to figure out how to remove this bottleneck to increase your operating system’s output value.

I’ve found that we have several core systems that make up our operating system just like a business.

I’ve boiled these down into three core ‘systems’.

1. Flow – My workflow system
2. Energy – My energy management system
3. Knowledge – My information management system

These three systems combine to make up my total operating system and determine how much value I can produce. When I increase the output of any individual system, my total output (value) also increases, and subsequently, my life improves.

It looks like this.

 •  In this example, the ‘bottleneck’ is ‘Flow’. The total output of this person’s operating system can’t increase until the flow system is improved. When Flow is improved, another system will become the bottleneck.

 •  After improving the output of the flow system, knowledge has become the new bottleneck. Notice total output has now increased from 100 to 120 units.

As you can see, your total output always has a constraint.

Flow is my way of describing workflow. In the first diagram, the person’s ability to manage their workflow restricted their system’s output to 100 units.

In the second diagram, the person has made some workflow improvements, so their system’s total output is now 120 units, and ‘knowledge’ is this person’s new constraint.

A sports analogy for this idea is you’re only as good as your weakest link’.

So what are these units of output?

When I brought my first business, I was obsessed with how ‘fast’ I could work. I had a limited understanding of ‘being productive’ or ‘being an effective operator’. So I believed that the faster I could operate my computer, the more work I would get done and, therefore, the more I would be contributing to my business.

So what did I do? I brought a desktop computer; I brought two screens. I bought a gaming mouse. I purchased all the componentry I could think of to help me operate my computer faster and get more done.

Then I made sure my touch typing was as good as it could be. I brought a keyboard that allowed me to type faster with fewer errors. Then I got a calculator to sit on my desk because it was faster to use than the computer calculator.

The problem here is. I was becoming more efficient. But it doesn’t matter how much work I could do if I weren’t doing the right work.

I was sprinting on the ferret wheel, but my business was going nowhere fast because I wasn’t doing high-value work. My output units were low as I did low-value work—tasks like admin, website tinkering, reconciling accounts, responding to emails etc.

Instead, I should have focused on producing value.

There’s no exact way to measure this ‘value’ output. But there are a couple of methods I’ve used that strongly correlate with progress or output growth over-time.

VALUE OF TIME

Even though time is a made-up concept, it’s a useful tool to help us organise our lives and a very effective way to track how we contribute to our businesses. We’ve all heard those statements such as ‘Barack Obama has the same amount of time each day as you’.

So what’s the difference between Barack and you or me. It’s the value he generates with his time.

We can do specific jobs each day that will contribute significantly towards our aspirations, and there are other tasks that will contribute very little or may even detract from them.

Sam Ovens (Founder of Consulting.com) realised this when he built his business and created a method to assess these tasks’ value. He calls this the 80/20 power grid.

Here’s how it works.

Record what you do with every hour of your day for four weeks. The longer period you can do this for, the less skewed your data will be.

Then open up Sams Power Grid, which you can access here and add up your time’s value’.

Match the work you have done to the task descriptions at the top of the sheet – you may need to adjust these slightly to fit, but the sheet should provide you with a good starting point.

Use the hourly rates given to value your time and add this up to work out the total value you have produced for a day, week, month or whatever period you’ve decided to use.

Now you roughly know how much value you are producing.

As you can see from the grid, not all work produces the same value.

World-renowned investor Warren Buffet spends all his time completing two activities – can you guess from the power grid what these are? ‘Capital Allocation’ & ‘Compensation’.

You’ll need a reliable and consistent system to follow if you want to keep yourself locked into those high-value buckets, which I’ll expand on shortly.

VALUE OF BUSINESS

Another way to calculate your value production is by comparing the number of hours you invested into your business, your employment – whatever is relevant to you in the previous 52 weeks and compare that to the revenue or income you’ve generated.

If you’re paying yourself a wage, then you’ll already have a reasonably good idea of what your contribution is worth. A lot of small business owners simply withdraw what’s left over after paying expenses.

You can either take that figure and divide it by the number of hours you have worked, which is your hourly wage. Or calculate the change in revenue and or profit (whichever makes the most sense) and divide that by the number of hours you’ve worked.

If your business has gone through many changes and your revenue hasn’t changed, but profit has dramatically changed, then use profit. If your business is chugging along relatively similar to the previous year and you’ve seen steady growth in revenue and profit, then I would use revenue as your gauge for value contribution. The same goes for employment or self-employment.

You might be surprised to learn how low your contribution is per hour worked. Given I know several business owners who consistently put in 60-70 hour weeks. Your contribution could easily be less than the minimum wage. If it is, it’s time to make some changes.

PERSONAL OPERATING SYSTEM

Whether you own a business, are self-employed or working for someone else, and you’re not happy with your life, then the best place to start is you, your operating system, as that’s where you have the most control.

If you’ve read this far, you might be ready to make some improvements to your life. If you’ve been taking a happy go lucky approach, doing whatever you feel on the day, and it’s led you here. Then it’s probably not working very well.

You can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results, so here’s a different approach for you to try.

YOUR GUIDE TO DOING MORE WITH LESS

FLOW (WORKFLOW MANAGEMENT)

1. Capture Everything
2. Manage Communications
3. Manage Task Lists
4. Get Things Done

Workflow Management is your ability to capture all the work you need to do. Smartly manage all your communications and get things done.

99% of the people I work with or talk to about working are stuck here at capturing. So their flow system sucks, their output is low, and they don’t improve.

You might think that it doesn’t matter if you’re late.

 •  “that person works for me; they’re still getting paid.”
 •  “I’m buying from them; they’re making money off me anyway.”

or when you forget to do something for one of your customers, you might think

 •  “it’s just this one time; they’ll be fine.”

Over time all those small misses and small letdowns add up to significant losses. People will lose respect for you. They’ll stop trusting you, and your word won’t mean what it used to. Every relationship we have is based on our word when it loses its meaning; that’s a problem both personally and professionally.

If you continuously forget to do things, missing meetings, or forgetting information – you are not capturing. Humans minds are excellent at many things, but todo list management isn’t one of them. Start here; start capturing.

There are 100’s of different methods around that you can follow. What’s worked best for me is an adaption of David Allen’s Getting things done.

CAPTURE EVERYTHING

When I say capture everything, I mean everything.

Every time you get a new idea, someone on your team or a customer asks you to do something or remember something that needs completing. Capture it.

Capturing everything doesn’t just save you from letting people down. It also frees up vital ‘RAM’ so you can operate with a clearer head, be more present and focus on the task at hand.

Trying to remember 10+ things you need to do while also getting through your day is like trying to juggle dinner plates.

The best way I’ve found to capture everything and easily access it to organise later, David Allen calls an ‘Inbox for everything’.

At the moment, you’ve likely got multiple inboxes—your email inbox, a diary, some random notes somewhere, a todo list and so on.

The first step here is to condense all those inboxes into one. Given that we spend a lot of our time on our phones and are almost always available, I suggest finding a tool (app) you can use that works on your phone and your computer.

That way, anytime anything pops up during your day, you can ‘capture’ it using your phone and anything that pops up while working at your desk, you can capture on your computer.

If you’re old school and prefer a dairy, the only way that works is to carry that diary everywhere you go. I’ve noticed most people only actually use their diaries when they are already sitting at their computer, making the dairy redundant.

There are some great tools out there that can help you manage this process. Omnifocus is a popular one for Mac users, or Todoist is great for Windows users. Trello and Asana are other options worth considering. I’m simple and use google tasks.

MANAGE YOUR INBOXES

There’s one other component of your workflow you’ll need to get under control before truly capturing everything. Your inboxes. Not to be confused with your ‘capture’ inbox. I’m talking about your email inbox, your slack inbox, your messenger inbox.

Unfortunately, the list of these inboxes keeps growing, which makes it harder to keep up.

This is a technique called ‘inbox zero’. As you might have guessed, the goal here is to bring your inbox to 0.

The purpose of ‘Inbox zero’ is to manage your inbox as effectively as possible and capture all the stuff you need to do.

Here’s how it works.

Set aside specific times to process your inboxes

While some emails or messages need responded to immediately, for the most part, you’ll be able to get away with processing your inbox daily or, in my case, twice weekly.

The process is as follows.

1. Goto your inbox
2. Open each email
 •  Action it now if it takes less than 2 minutes to complete
3. Delegate it to someone else when possible
4. Or add it to your tasks list if it’s something you need to do later.
5. Then archive or delete that email – don’t leave it sitting in your inbox.

Do this with every message, email etc., until your inbox is at zero.

The key point is to ‘action’ each email, rather than opening them, not doing anything with them and leaving them sitting in your inbox.

How many times have you re-opened the same emails without doing anything about them? That’s a waste of time.

ORGANISE YOUR TASK INBOX

So now you’ve got everything captured in one central location.

The next step is to organise all these inputs.

Again just like processing your inbox at regular intervals, you’ll want to organise your captured work regularly.

I complete a quick review each morning before I start work to make sure I’m not missing anything urgent, and I’ll conduct a thorough review of everything once a week. Either on a Friday arvo or a Monday morning.

As mentioned, I use Google tasks as my capture tool. All I need to do to ‘organise’ my work is to create a couple of different lists to categorise your work.

At the moment, I use

 •  General Tasks – My initial capture point where everything goes
 •  Weekly Tasks – Stuff that is more time-sensitive that I need to complete within a week
 •  Networking Tasks – This is anything related to organizing meetups, dinners, responding to conversational emails etc.
 •  Writing Ideas – Anything that pops up that piques my writing interest.
 •  Idea’s – Any ideas that pop up from myself or my team that I want to explore
 •  Content List – This is where I leave anything I want to read at some point. Like a blog post someone sends me. A youtube video that looks interesting etc.

A few tips:

 •  Always try to delegate, automate or eliminate tasks that are on your list. Only do the work that is necessary and time-sensitive.
 •  Many of my tasks don’t age well. Things that seemed important or worth doing at the time are redundant a week later. I always cross these off as soon as possible.
 •  Don’t create too many lists – keep your lists as simple as possible.
 •  Add context to your tasks when you create them, so they still make sense to you a week or two from now. There’s nothing worse than having to reduce back through old emails or follow up conversations to recall what you needed to do.

Here’s what this looks like in a flowchart

 •  Thanks to Asian Efficiency for this diagram

Start following this system going, and you’ll be amazed at the results. You’ll be more relaxed, Your mind will have the freedom to explore ideas, you’ll stop letting people or yourself down, and you’ll get more of the right work done.

ENERGY (TIME MANAGEMENT)

Like I mentioned earlier, time is a helpful tool to organise ourselves, but time alone is not a good indicator of future progress. We all know how easy it is to be busy instead of productive.

A lot of content covering productivity focuses on time management, while I understand the reasoning behind this. I look at personal productivity a little differently. I focus on managing my energy rather than my time. I look at time as a medium for exchange, like currency and energy, as the price/cost that I need to pay to acquire something.

I can spend an hour looking at Pinterest images or writing an article for my blog. Scrolling Pinterest is fun and easy but has a low ROI, whereas writing a blog post can be fun but challenging. However, the blog post could have a high ROI.

I use energy management to generate good outcomes with my time predictably.

Here’s the process

1. Set your goals – What you’re working towards

2. Set your priorities – Work on most important

3. Plan Ahead – Daily, Weekly and Quarterly

4. Measure what you do

5. Review and re-prioritise

KNOW YOUR GOALS

Using your energy effectively starts with knowing your goals.

Keeping things meta here, your goal right now might be to create and implement a better operating system. The more energy you invest in setting up and following your new system, the more likely you will achieve that goal.

There are many goal-setting methods you can employ. One that I’ve found easy to understand and use is called SMART goals.

I’ve adjusted this slightly to SMRT goals—specific, Measurable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.

For example, your goal might be to implement a new productivity system within the next 90 days that double your weekly output value.

That’s specific (goal description), it’s measurable (value output), it’s relevant (you want to improve your life) and time-bound (within 90 days).

SETTING PRIORITIES

Setting a goal gives you something to aim at. Otherwise, you are just producing for the sake of it, without purpose.

To achieve your desired outcomes (goals), you can use reverse engineering to determine the inputs your system needs to produce your desired output.

I use a method I call ‘bare minimums’ here’s how it works.

My goal is to generate 10,000 unique monthly visits for my blog by the end of 2021. I’ll take that goal and unpack it. I’ll look for what I think are the necessary actions I need to take to make that happen.

1. I need to produce content.
2. I need to draw attention to that content.

I’ve learned that most blog traffic (80%+) is driven by the top 5 – 10% of the articles they publish from online research. I’ve also learnt none of these bloggers knew what posts would be the top-performing ones before they wrote them. So with that in mind, my best bet is to produce regular content and try to repeat the success of the blogs that get traction.

I also discovered that 90% of blog traffic is SEO driven. So I know that it’s important I employ SEO on my blog.

Therefore at a ‘bare minimum’, I have determined I need to:

1. Produce a new blog every two weeks
2. Learn and implement SEO skills.

Now I need to work out how much time I should dedicate to these ‘bare minimums’. That will give me my ‘bare minimum’ input necessary to achieve my goal.

Of course, there are other things I could do, like build an audience to drive traffic to the blog, test PPC advertising, guest post on other blogs and so on, and perhaps I will do that. But those are extras I can work on once I set my minimum habits.

I like to keep all these bare minimum inputs outlined in a document that I can quickly access or review when I feel the need. Sometimes after a few months, I’ll realise that I’ve got my inputs wrong and I need to adjust course. At that point, I’ll review my goal and make the necessary changes.

 •  Bare minimums outlined November 2020

PLANNING YOUR BARE MINIMUMS

Now that I know my ‘bare minimum’ priorities, I can take this a step further and plan to do them.

I’ve found that if I don’t purposely devote (plan) my energy to these priorities each day, week, month, year, I tend to drift.

As much as I’m talking about developing a machine here, we aren’t computers. We’re easily distracted, especially when the course ahead looks difficult. I’m sure you’ve had those days where you feel like you’ve done a lot but achieved nothing. I used to have them all the time. That’s when I realised priorities alone weren’t enough; I needed to plan.

First, I plan out my weeks. I allow myself a lot of flexibility, but I make sure there are a few key things I do each week – my bare minimums.

Following on from my blog building goal, I know I need to publish a blog post every two weeks. At a guess, I think it will take me 12 hours to produce each blog or 6 hours per week.

So I’ve now blocked out ~6 hours a week in my calendar to work on producing blogs.

Until now, I’ve only been talking about ‘time’. What happened to ‘energy management’?

The most important part of my energy system is making sure I do the most challenging work when I have the most energy.

Because the bare minimum tasks should be contributing the most value towards your goals, they’re likely to be the most challenging work you do each week.

I find writing blog posts hard, so they use up a lot of energy. If I try to work on these at night (I’m a morning person), I might be able to write 400 words in an hour, and the words will be complete garbage (I know I’ve tried this many times). However, if I attack this work in the morning with a good coffee, I can produce 800 decent words in an hour.

After editing, the total output for an hour of writing in the evening could produce 150 words, while an hour in the morning could produce 600 words. The same amount of time invested, but 4x the output.

This is why energy management is more important than time management. You spend time, but the price you pay is energy. 

According to Carl Newport, author of Deep Work, we have about 4 hours of high energy output each day. I’ve noticed this myself and purposely don’t plan more than 4 – 5 hours of difficult work a day.

I’m a mid-morning person (not one of those 5 am peeps), so I know if I do anything in the morning, I’ll have more energy to invest in the job later in the day. If you’re a night person, you’ll want to work on your priorities when you have more energy in the evenings.

For the rest of my day, if I have some energy left, I’ll spend some time on less intensive work and tick off tasks from my todo list or process my inboxes. If I can’t be bothered, I’ll enjoy non-work related things like exercise, reading or learning guitar.

Here’s what this looks like in my calendar.

I follow this schedule from 8 am till 3.30 pm religiously. After that, it all depends on how I am feeling that day.

Have you heard the rocks, stones and sand analogy?

It goes like this

‘A philosophy professor once stood up before his class with a large empty mayonnaise jar. He filled the jar to the top with large rocks and asked his students if the jar was full.

The students said that yes, the jar was indeed full.

He then added small pebbles to the jar and gave the jar a bit of a shake so the pebbles could disperse themselves among the larger rocks. Then he asked again, “Is the jar full now?”

The students agreed that the jar was still full.

The professor then poured sand into the jar to fill up any remaining space. The students then agreed that the jar was full.

The professor went on to explain that the jar represents everything that is in one’s life.’

The rocks are the important things that have real value – your family, your partner, your health, your children – things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full.

 •  For my calendar, these are the bare minimum, high energy tasks I want todo (Maker & Managing – in blue)

The pebbles are the other things that matter – like your job, house, car, clothes and so forth.

 •  These are my essential/value-adding personal habits (Reading, Training and Outdoors – in pink, green and red)

The sand is everything else – the small stuff.’

 •  These are the unimportant things I can do if I am bothered (Maintenance & Admin – yellow on my calendar)

PLANNING THE REST

Depending on what I am focusing on at the current time, my bare minimum workload fluctuates. Sometimes I have 25 hours of stuff I need to get done each week. Sometimes I only have 5 hours.

So what do I do with the rest of my time?

When my bare minimum workload is light, I’ll have a lot of extra energy each day that I want to invest in more than just admin tasks.

This is where I use a common productivity concept called MIT’s (Most Important Tasks)

My interpretation and use of MIT’s is as follows: I identify the most important things I want to complete each day and make sure I work on them first (After my bare minimum tasks).

I spend 5 minutes or so at the beginning of each day reviewing my todo lists and Trello boards (project work for business entities), and I jot down 1 – 3 tasks that I’d like to complete that day. I pick these tasks based on my personal or business goals (outlined earlier in this article).

For example, I own a gym, and my primary responsibility for that business is marketing. Currently, I am working on a new website to increase our conversion rates and set up a new marketing campaign to generate more leads.

This morning I opened up a notepad doc and wrote down a couple of tasks I want to complete today to add value to those business goals.

 •  MIT’s for the day

MEASURE YOUR PROGRESS

As I mentioned earlier, sometimes the bare minimums that you think will take you towards your goals are, for whatever reason, not useful.

Because I know this is the case, and I know it will often happen, I like to track what I am doing and use that data to course-correct monthly.

I use a tool called Toggl.com to track how I spend my time when I start and finish work each day.

As well as tracking my time, I use simple KPI’s (key performance indicators) to measure my performance. What I do that is different to most people is I use lead indicators rather than lag indicators.

Lag indicators are measures like revenue and profit or website traffic. These can tell you what has already happened, i.e. outcomes-based.

I want to know how my inputs are contributing to my outputs. So I monitor different activities that I think will contribute to those lag indicators.

I want to reach 10,000 blog visits this year, which is a lag indicator from my earlier example. Working backwards, I have estimated I’ll need to produce 26 blog posts this year to achieve that traffic goal.

A lead indicator KPI that I’ll be using is time spent on that goal, i.e. my ~6 hours per week. Secondary to that, I’ll also track how many blog posts I’ve produced.

REVIEW AND RE-PRIORITISE

At the end of each month, I take a few hours to review my time logs.

There are two outcomes I try to achieve with my review.

1. Course correct if I feel my actions are not taking me towards my goals
2. Simplify what I’m doing if possible.

I start with my KPI’s then dig deeper. For my blog visits goal. First, I’d check to see how much time I’ve been putting into producing the blog posts and how many I’ve produced.

I know that building a blog audience takes time, so that I won’t be too concerned with my goal of 10,000 visits from month to month. Instead, I’ll be looking at the quality of work I’ve produced, consider whether I’m enjoying it and if that is a good use of my energy.

The questions I ask myself could look like this:

 •  Did I under or overestimate the time required to produce them?
 •  Am I working on them during high energy times? Or have I been lazy and tried working on them at night time when I am useless?
 •  What has the quality of my work been – am I proud of what I’m producing, or is the quality low?
 •  What posts are receiving the most views or interactions?
 •  Am I enjoying this work? Is it something I can sustain for an extended period?
 •  I might realise the blogs are easier to write than first thought. So I can spend high energy time elsewhere – perhaps on a physical fitness goal or something like that.

Perhaps I’ll realise I can only produce two good writing hours a day, so instead of trying to do it all on a Tuesday, I’ll adjust my plan and spread my writing hours across three days.

Finally, if I’m not enjoying it and dread doing it, I might decide it’s not for me and stop.

I don’t have any hard and fast rules to follow here. The primary value add is the act of doing a review and course-correcting where necessary. So you don’t wake up six months from now, and you’ve just wasted a lot of time and energy.

However, your review is up to you.

Something I noticed from a recent review is, going for regular walks gives me a lot of energy. Now I break up my afternoon with some time outside, which has helped me produce better work in the evenings than previously possible.

SUMMARY

Like always, this is just what works for me. I don’t believe there is a ‘best’ system, only a ‘best for me’ system. I hope this in some way helps you move forward in your journey towards becoming a better operator and human being.

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