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|The Substance of Style|
Maintaining a Backburner
Set up your Backburner.
Create a Backburner ritual.
References Are Worth Storing, Not Revering
References obstruct your bias toward action.
Use a chronological pile (or file).
Feel the flow of References.
Practicing the Action Method
Actions Steps should be managed separate from e-mail.
When it comes to taking action, work and personal life collide (and that’s okay).
Actions are truly “delegated” only when they are accepted.
Foster an action-oriented culture. Your team needs an action-oriented culture to capitalize on creativity. It may feel burdensome or even a bit aggressive to ask people to capture an Action Step on paper, but fostering a culture in which such reminders are welcome helps ensure that Action Steps are not lost. Some of the most productive teams I have observed are comfortable making sure that others are capturing Action Steps. Aside from friendly questioning along the lines of “Did you capture that?” some teams take a few minutes at the end of every meeting to go around the table and allow each person to recite the Action Steps that he or she captured. Doing so will almost always reveal a missed Action Step or a duplication on two people’s lists. This simple practice can save time and prevent situations in which, weeks later, people are wondering who was doing what or how something got lost in the shuffle.
Attraction breeds loyalty. When it comes to the mechanics of capturing Action Steps, you should find the solution that fits you best. Keep in mind that the design of your productivity tools will affect how eager you are to use them. Attraction often breeds commitment: if you enjoy your method for staying organized, you are more likely to use it consistently over time. For this reason, little details like the colors of folders you use or the quality of the paper can actually help boost your productivity.
In her book ^ , journalist Virginia Postrel shares an anecdote about usability guru Donald Norman’s assertion that “attractive things work better.” When the first color computer monitors became available commercially, Norman wanted to justify the value of buying the expensive monitors instead of the standard black-and-white displays. Nowadays, this decision might seem obvious, but back in the day before the World Wide Web and color printers, the value of a color monitor for functions like word processing was unproven. “I got myself a color display and took it home for a week,” Norman recalled. “When the week was over, I had two findings. The first finding was that I was right, there was absolutely no advantage to color. The second was that I was not going to give it up.” In her analysis of Norman’s findings, Postrel explains, “The difference lay not in ‘information processing’ but in ‘affect,’ in how full-color monitors made people feel about their work.”
In other words, the aesthetics of the tools you use to make ideas happen matter.
During brainstorming, in the midst of working on a project, or during a long night’s drive, you’re likely to conceive ideas that may not be actionable yet. For instance, you might think of some things you would do in a current project if only you had more time or a bigger budget. Or you might come up with vague ideas for new projects to consider in the future. Either way, you are liable to forget these ideas if you fail to capture them and develop a ritual for returning to them over time.
You won’t want to record these thoughts as Action Steps because they are not yet actionable. And writing them down among your other Reference notes is not sufficient because you are unlikely to read old project References in the future. We call these ideas “Backburner Items”—stuff that isn’t actionable yet but may be someday (and is worthy of revisiting periodically).
Sometimes these fledgling ideas are the best ones. Rumor has it that the melody of the hit song “Sweet Baby James” popped into songwriter James Taylor’s head during a long drive from New England to the Carolinas. For just such occasions, Taylor carried around a microrecorder that he used to capture little melodies or ideas he wanted to revisit. While driving, he reached for the recorder and quickly recited to himself the concept and melody—along with a note to toy with the song idea. It was apparently not until much later, when he listened to his recorded thoughts, that he wrote the song.
We are humans, not machines. With our creativity comes the tendency to think of random ideas and actions we might want to take but not right at that time. Idea generation is often tangential to the active projects in our lives. But the fact that the timing is off does not mean that the thought isn’t worthy of future consideration.
The Backburner keeps your ideas—and the possible future actions you might take to make the ideas happen—alive. It is critical to making an impact with your creativity because, most often, great ideas that are not yet actionable are quickly forgotten.
^ Functionally, the Backburner is easy to employ. Set aside an area at the bottom or side of your notes—or perhaps a separate page—to capture Backburner Items that come up. As you aggregate Backburner Items over the course of a day, you will want to use a central repository for storage. They can be assigned to a current project name (a particular client, for example), or to a more general Backburner folder reserved for distant ideas like a book you may want to write or a business you’d like to start.
I’ve seen a number of people draw a box on the bottom of every note page. They fill it with Backburner Items over the course of a meeting, and then, at the end of the day, place the Backburner Items into some sort of folder or running text document on their computer.
^ Of course, putting stuff in your Backburner is not enough. You need to periodically revisit and curate the Backburner as time goes on.
Make it a habit. One agency creative director I interviewed keeps his Backburner as a running Microsoft Word document on his computer. On the last Sunday of every month, he prints out this ten- or fifteen-page document and, pen in one hand and beer in the other, spends half an hour editing the list. As he reviews each entry, he either cuts it, keeps it, or—in some cases—turns the Backburner Item into a series of Action Steps.
Consider making a recurring monthly “Backburner Review” appointment in your calendar. Ritualize the time you spend revisiting the half-baked ideas that may someday transform your work or life. It is easy to forget your Backburner (and, most of the time, you should!), but you need to stoke it from time to time. When you review your Backburner, you will find that some of the items have suddenly become realistic, actionable goals, while others have gradually become irrelevant. Sometimes a long-held Backburner Item is actually the solution to a new problem you face.
The third and final component of every project is “References.” The tendency to take notes, make sketches, and compulsively save various types of handouts and reference materials is ingrained from our early days in elementary school. We were trained to write down everything we learned, relevant or not, and we often memorized everything we’d written for the big exam day.
For many of us, this habit of recording and organizing everything has become a time and space-consuming behavior with no real payoff. We take notes in meetings, we watch these notes accumulate in a pile on our desks along with other handouts and articles for reference, and then we eventually take the time to “file” them in some sort of elaborate system. To what end?
Two of the greatest benefits of storing References with some sense of organization are simply the reduction of clutter and the peace of mind—even if we seldom refer back to them. Microsoft Research scientist Gordon Bell famously took Reference management to the extreme when he decided to log his entire life’s personal data —every e-mail, every phone conversation, every day’s face-to-face conversations (using a head-mounted video camera), and even his health-related data (via a heart-rate monitor).
The recording of this data happened automatically, allowing Bell to proceed with his life knowing that everything was being documented. His experiment concluded with a massive archive of the Reference items of his life. His struggle, which he shares in his book Total Recall, was making sense of it all. One of the greatest benefits discovered by Bell was the liberation of his “meat-based memory,” allowing him to engage in more creativity and actionable stuff. By letting go of the static stuff that typically burdened his mind—and piled up around him—he became more productive. But the question remains for those of us who don’t have head-mounted video cameras and therefore must record and organize information manually: How much energy should we invest in capturing and organizing References?
It turns out that most of us seldom refer back to all of this static documentation that clutters our lives. While we might cherish the opportunity to refer back to the thoughts or main points gathered in meetings and brainstorms of the past, we rarely have the luxury to do so. Truth be told, we can barely complete our Action Steps amidst the chaos of the everyday, let alone refer back to References.
You must find ways, using modern technology if possible, to manage the References of your projects without compromising the precious energy you have for what is actionable.
^ It is common that Action Steps get lost in the shuffle of nonactionable stuff. The more energy you spend on scribbling down notes, the more liable you are to miss the opportunity to capture valuable Action Steps.
Even if you do manage to write the Action Steps down, they often become obscured amidst sketches, thoughts, and other notes. The notebook closes and—hours later—the Action Steps disappear from your mind along with the potential they hold.
Even with a well-organized system for managing References, you might consider reducing your scribe-like tendencies.
^ I have observed some people who abandon project files and intricate Reference management systems in favor of keeping a single chronological pile of all notes or handouts from all meetings—across all projects. In the age of online scheduling applications and software, it is easier than ever before to match meetings in the past with exact dates. Simply place your notes from every meeting (regardless of project) at the top of a Reference pile immediately after each meeting. Every month, place this pile into a date-labeled file folder. With the help of your datebook, you should be able to easily jump back to the notes and other References related to any meeting you attended in the past. This is an efficient and simple way to find notes for particular projects. It requires no time to file and sort, and keeps the rest of your space clear of dusty archival materials.
^ You have an article, Web site, or note that might be valuable later on. Taking the following steps will make the Reference easily accessible when you need it.
Question it. “What is the relevance? For what purpose would I refer back to this at some point?” If you can’t answer this question, throw the Reference out! Some people claim they must write things down to learn and understand concepts. This is fine, but consider discarding the notes and saving only the Action Steps. However, what if the item is important and must be saved for later on?
^ Ask yourself, “How should I identify this Reference so I can intuitively find it later?” If you keep a chronological file, the label need only be the date. Otherwise, consider what project name is most appropriate.
File it. If you’re using a paper-based system, place the Reference in the appropriate folder (or pile, if you are taking a chronological approach paired with your calendar). There are many great software and online applications that we have seen used across industries. For example, Evernote (evernote.com) is a Web-based application that allows users to take snapshots or record quick text or voice messages and then store them by label (project name). Behance’s Action Method Online application also has a Reference manager that stores text and URLs by project. Other online document applications from Google, Apple, and others can also be used to store References organized by project.
The Action Method reduces project management to its most basic elements so that you can focus your energy on the important stuff, like actually completing tasks and making progress. The best way to get started is to look at a few of your current projects through the Action Method lens. Try to see each project as a collection of the three elements: Action Steps, Backburner Items, and References.
Take a moment to consider two “projects” in your life right now: a personal project related to your family or home, and a work project. Think about the current Action Steps for each of these projects—the stuff that you need to do. Are these Action Steps dispersed throughout messages sitting in your e-mail in-box? A notebook or journal?
Sketched on a napkin?
Do you have any Backburner Items for these projects? What about References? Are they stacked around your office, or tucked away in files where you’ll never find them?
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
^ Have you ever found yourself rereading e-mails repeatedly, trying to distill the Action Steps when the time comes to actually do them? E-mail can kill productivity because the actionable information you receive is always clouded by Reference material. Your Action Steps become hidden within the e-mails and then gradually buried by other e-mails. For this reason, Action Steps should have a space (or system) of their own. We will discuss how to pair e-mail with a system for managing Action Steps in the section ahead.
^ People tend to separate the actions they must take in their personal lives from those in their professional lives. While formal “to-do” lists and applications empower you at work, Post-it notes on your refrigerator keep you on task at home. But observing the most productive people reveals that Action Steps are Action Steps, regardless of their context. Priorities may change, but managing everything actionable in one system is your best bet. New online task management tools with mobile versions help make your life’s Action Steps accessible to you wherever you are. By using the same system, you are able to prioritize (and complete) Action Steps whenever (and wherever) you want.
You will also find that you and your team are more likely to complete work-related Action Steps when they are intermingled with personal Action Steps.
^ While many project management methods support “to-do” lists that multiple people can share, true accountability is never achieved unless your team members choose to accept their delegated Action Steps. Not only should outstanding work tasks be transparent to all members of the team (or at least one or two other colleagues), but your colleagues should actively accept or reject Action Steps that you assign them. This conceptual “handshake” creates accountability and eliminates the ambiguous Action Steps that notoriously clog the progress in any project.
Teams that exchange Action Steps via e-mail can agree that some form of acceptance or confirmation is required. When a colleague sends you an Action Step that is unclear or incorrect, you should reject it and seek more clarification. Doing so will prevent the Action Step from lingering in the realm of ambiguity. For teams that use paper lists or wall charts, a best practice is to have all members write up their own Action Steps (in their own handwriting)—even those that are delegated to them. Doing so implies understanding and acceptance. Regardless of your method for managing Action Steps, it is vital that you (and your project partners) never accept an Action Step unless it is clear and able to be executed.
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