Series: Basic Workflows
Workflow is a word that I see in the personal productivity lexicon. I recognize it as what we call a procedure in the professional productivity lexicon. But instead of learning about what business procedures might offer that is useful for personal workflows the gurus seem to have simply ignored the whole issue. I am going to rectify that.
Why do we need a workflow?
Every day we face multiple situations where we need to make decisions or to take action. Thinking through such situations usually takes time. However, since many of these situations are repetitive it makes sense for you to think through the issues once and make your decisions once. That way whenever you are faced with the same or a similar problem again you can more efficiently resolve the issue.
To understand what a workflow is I like to start with the definition of a procedure:
Procedure: a pre-agreed series of step-by-step instructions to execute complex tasks to achieve a goal.
Happily, this is also my definition of a workflow. This is not complex and you probably do it quite often. A simple example is checklists. If you have a checklist for what to pack when you go on vacation then that is a workflow. If you add to that checklist other issues, such as checking lights, water and electricity before you leave the house, then you have a comprehensive workflow.
You can see why workflows are important for personal productivity systems. They make you more efficient by cutting out the need to rethink about situations that you have already faced. If you add up all the times in you life when you save time managing a situation because you have a workflow the savings in time are enormous. More importantly, the decrease in stress is also of great benefit.
Workflows are not a universal solution to personal productivity. There are areas in which they do not help and more importantly there are areas where they can harm.
Cost / Benefit analysis
Developing workflows is not easy, it takes a lot of time and energy. Then there is the energy expended in incorporating a new workflow into your overall productivity system. This means that before you decide to develop a workflow, you need to evaluate the cost of development and weigh it against the savings of repetitive situations. Developing a workflow for a situation that arises one a year might not make sense.
The cost / benefit analysis does not stop with the weighing the savings in time. The complexity of the workflow grows exponentially. No situation is exactly alike and so you have to decide how many variations you want to incorporate in your workflow. One example is managing customer complaints. There will always be certain major types of complaints but there will also be an infinite number of variations. Trying to anticipate each variation would make the cost prohibitive.
The human touch
Workflows can be quite dangerous when dealing with humans. It is difficult for a human to always capture the emotional context of an email. Trying to manage it via a workflow can be disastrous. The same can be said of certain situations that seem similar but that need quite different resolutions. Continuing the example of complaining customers, who the customer is can make a great difference. A restaurant in high demand will always have to deal with customers who want a “better” table. They can all be usually dealt with in the same way. Until a famous food critic walks in. Then what do you do? Perhaps you put in your workflow how to deal with a food critic. But what happens when two show up and they each want the best table in the house?
Actually building a workflow is not intellectually challenging. It, however, can be resource intensive. So why is workflow not intellectually challenging? Because it simply captures what you normally would do so that you can avoid having to think through the process every time. As an example look at your workflow when you travel. You might do so several times a year on business, to visit family on the holidays and for vacation. All of these have the same set of repeatable decisions and actions that you have to make. Agree dates with everyone involved. Book flights. Book hotel rooms. Arrange for transportation to and from the airport. Pack. Arrange for a pet sitter. Etc.
Trying to remember all of these issues and making decisions about them anew every time can become exhausting. But what if you simply recorded each decision you made. The next time that you had to travel you can go on autopilot with these decisions. Sure, it won’t always be perfect. But it will probably make your life a lot easier. When you consider more complex projects, such as those at work, the savings are even greater.
Integrating workflows into a productivity system
In business, new procedures are notoriously hard to incorporate into the company. People naturally resist change. The same is true for workflows and it is meaningless to develop a workflow if you don’t use it regularly. The biggest failure that I have seen in personal productivity systems is not flaws in their workflows but non-compliance with their workflows. It can be hard to remember that you have a workflow already prepared for a situation. Even if you do remember that a workflow exists, do you know where to find it?
This is where the Pareto Principle comes in. Start slowly but with the workflows that have the greatest effect on your life. Then as you reap the benefits of that first workflow begin to add other workflows. Integrating workflows into your life is a marathon, not a sprint. In the end, however, you will find that the cumulative savings has a huge effect on the quality of your life.
The next step is to work on some concrete examples of personal productivity workflows. I will be posting using situations or issues that have not be covered well by others.