From “Unit Productivity” to Process

From “Unit Productivity” to Process

For the past few months I’ve been feeling a peculiar mixture of elation and disquiet.

  • My elation stems from an increase in social networking; I’ve been meeting, emailing, and chatting with fascinating new people on a nearly daily basis. As a result, I’m starting to get some inquiries about project work from people who I’d really love to work for. And I’m also finding that whereas this used to drain me, it now energizes me. Out of curiosity I retook the MBTI (actually, it was the very similar OkCupid version) to see if my personality had shifted…not surprisingly, I am scoring more E than I for the first time ever. WEIRD.

  • My disquiet is due to the fallout from my increased networking: more projects, commitments, and work than I am used to handling. Thanks to the vestiges of the GTD system I put in place, I can at least track everything I need to do, but what’s missing is the ability to accurately predict my time availability for projects. Compounding the problem is my weird schedule and continuing insomnia; I feel I’m wasting a lot of time trying to stay in sync, and my energy levels vary in ways that are not predictable.

I have thought that my problem was focus and discipline. Another possibility, which came to me by the way of thinking about what it means to really start a business, is that it’s the lack of organization-level process.

What’s Gone Well

The good news is that I am busier than I have been in quite some time, both from new projects and from ongoing personal projects. I can attribute this to the increase in social networking, and I can also say with confidence that this is a result of following the weighted goals from the original Printable CEO’s concrete goals tracker form. Rather than list all 10 goals, I’ll summarize the two key principles:
  • Make tangible stuff that people will see, and make your stuff easy for people to find.

  • Talk to people about what you’re doing, what they’re doing, and what you can do together.

The philosophy behind this is pretty simple: people respond to things they can see and touch. It’s immediate, real, and much more trustworthy than just words and handwaving. It applies to more than just freelancing too. Actions speak louder than words, but it’s the delivery of tangible results that really closes the deal. The bad news is that I’m having trouble handling the additional load gracefully, which is a common problem in small business. This is the first time it’s happened to my own life, though, so it took me a while to recognize it. Let’s look at how this happened.

Learning How to Be Productive, One Unit at a Time

The past year of activity has, in a nutshell, been about making it easier for people to find and see what it is that I do. People can, for the first time, assess me based on my actual work, not what I claim to do under the umbrella of some other company. I’ve also learned how to make things for myself:
  • I’ve learned how to squirt out a blog post.

  • I’ve learned how to convert ideas of a certain kind (information graphics design) into tangible goods (downloadable printable forms).

Each one represents a unit of productivity, a tangible result that I can show to people. Here’s how I think they’re important to people from a “marketing” perspective:

  • Blog posts, almost 1000 of them, each one containing some nugget of an idea. This adds credibility to my claims of being a designer and a thinker.

  • Working bits of graphic design in the form of The Printable CEO that people can download. The forms demonstrate my approach to graphic design in a working context, and this helps people visualize how I might do the same thing for them.

Because these units are online 24-7 and are working for me, I think of them as the basis of my “intellectual property”. While they might not be directly convertable into cash, they are the basis for potential new lines of business:

  • Why not write articles for magazines, research new ideas, or brainstorm with other companies?

  • Why not do information design for clients, in print and interactive form, that draw from the same inspirational source that The Printable CEO demonstrates?

  • Why not develop software, taking information design one step further toward actual workflow support?


p>I’ll tell you why not: I am missing process. My workflow methodologies at home are capable of handling one, maybe two projects simultaneously without a loss in concentration. However, I haven’t figured out how to gracefully handle more than that.

Toward Process Productivity

Let’s take a step back and look at the current 1-2 project workflow.

This past year, I basically learned how to make, with a fair degree of consistency, two kinds of products that people like; I can write, and I can design a nice-looking and usable form.

It doesn’t sound like much, but to me that’s a huge accomplishment. In the past, I only had SKILLS. Important, yes! Satisfying, yes! However, if you only have skills, the only way you exercise them is to work for other people’s interests, creating value for them. In exchange you get money, which you can convert into tangible goods, but I would rather create the product as an extension of my own interests. It’s also important for me to own the means of production. This is, I think, more profitable in the long run, as well as easier to control. I could be wrong about that, chime in if you have an opinion.

It starts to fall apart when I have to handle more than 1-2 major things at once. Though I know how to make things now, I don’t know how to scale it up. I’m thrashing around, spending more time trying to figure out if I have the time than I do actually making things. I also have a zillion ideas, any one of which is a fun-or revenue-generating project possibility, but I lack the means of managing this tidal wave of potential energy. This is all about logistics, consistent execution, and reusable patterns.

In other words, While I have the process of creating product, I now need the process of scaling up and smoothing out.

Establishing some Metrics

In the original Concrete Goals Tracker, I had tailored the weighted values to create tangible goods that people could see. There was one little nod to process, concrete planning or accounting. In retrospect, this was far too ambiguous a statement, and it really needs to be broken out into its own set of concrete “did I do it?” metrics.

I’m thinking stuff like this, which I’ll call Operational Process Development Metrics for lack of a better term. They are unordered and un-weighted for now.

  • It’s creating a new step-by-step process plan.
  • You’ve saved time by following an existing process plan, instead of making up something new.
  • You’ve followed an existing process plan.
  • You’ve made an improvement in the process plan that makes it easier, with equal or greater quality than before.
  • You’ve adapted a process plan into a new one, creating a new kind of product with minimal R&D.
  • You’ve attributed an improvement in productivity or quality because of a process change.
  • You’ve sold a process plan as part of your IP.
  • You’ve landed new business because of an existing process plan.
  • You’ve documented a process plan for public consumption.
  • You’ve used a process plan to answer a question.
  • You’ve used a process plan for training.
  • You record the results and other pertinent metrics from a process plan as you do it.
  • You make an improvement made to an existing process plan based on working experience.
  • You use the results of a process to give you greater decision-making clarity.

The general idea is that by creating processes, you are encapsulating know-how into a set of repeatable, easy-to-follow, high-yield actions. This reminds me of the notion of Sumerian me combined with David Allen’s “process, don’t think” approach to getting things done in stages.

I know this is nothing new to anyone who’s started or run a company, but it’s pretty new to me. While I am a pretty process-oriented person, it has always been (I’m now realizing) at the unit level. It has not been at the company level. Although I’m a company of one, I need to start formalizing processes so I can effectively leverage what resources I have. Right now, I am constantly re-inventing the wheel, and as a result I am very reactive. It is time to draw a line in the sand and face up to this reality.

Note also that I’m not talking about multitasking, which I recognize for me is not an effective strategy for various reasons. It’s more like anxiety that I’m not doing enough, or prioritizing correctly. There’s a subtle difference.

Broader Applications

Part of this will be formalizing best practices that go beyond general principles like go to sleep early, wake up at the same time every morning. I need a regimen, a program of conditioning, a set of katas. Most importantly, I need an objective system of measurement to record my activities as easily as possible, to incentivize the behavior that will build good habits. This will be, I think, another version of the Concrete Goals Tracker.

This seems to be a general trend, too. Recently, we’ve had a go at adapting the CGT concepts to music and IT departments; a couple of people have also corresponded with me about their efforts to adapt it for law school and medical school. It would be very cool to formalize the process of creating a weighted-value goal list of the type I’m talking about. I think it takes some insight into what it is that is really important, and having the ability to see what you do from the perspective of your immediate peers and supervisors. In other words, you need to be able to see the bigger context in which you work, and understand how the “value chain” works in that context.

Pattern Building

I’d like to start a collection of CGT lists on this site, as a resource for others. If you’d like to submit one, anonymously or not, just email me via the contact form and I’ll take it down. If you choose to not be anonymous, please provide your website and name so I can properly credit you. I sense that there is a universal principle behind this, but I can’t quite put my finger on it yet…need more data! :-) Not sure how I’ll present them…maybe a Wiki?

Also I love to talking to people about what they do, and what’s important to them. If you’d like to chat about your particular application with respect to creating a CGT goals list, drop me a line! I think most people have found that I’m pretty easy to talk to, though I can’t really prove it until you contact me.

More to come!


  1. Chris Ritke 14 years ago

    Wow – what a post – totally inspiring. I’ve actually started working together with other people at this place called the Hat Factory ( where we are able to do exactly what you are talking about – sit together, work together, eat together, and chat with fascinating new people about stuff that matters (well, not always).

    Your energy level will always vary – but if you’re doing stuff you love to do then your energy level sure will be way above average. Do what you love and love what you do. That’s the recipe for process and workflow. In my opinion. It has always worked for me.


  2. Mark 14 years ago

    I have thought that my problem was focus and discipline.

    I’m a pretty disciplined guy in my day-to-day and goals, and I can be focused when I get into the groove. I’ve always thought of it in terms of commitment.

    If I start working on today’s idea, will I still be engaged with it in 2 weeks? 1 month? 6 months? That’s why limited engagement client projects work well: get the info, ramp up the knowledge, do the work, hand it off. Next!

  3. Dave Seah 14 years ago

    Chris: Thanks for the great insight! Instead of being the MOST productive, it’s probably enough just to be MORE productive than you would, on the average, be. The tyranny of being the best need not apply. I think my big challenge is really actually doing what I love, which increasingly seems to be working with people rather than doing only design and development. In retrospect, this trend has been a long time in the making, as I’ve always sought the story behind the work as my personal interest rather than the work itself. Fascinating!

    Mark: Commitment is an interesting way of looking at it. There are two kinds of commitment I can think of for me right now: commitment to doing joyful things, and commitments I have made as a promise to someone else (including myself, actually). I think the blockage I fear is due to overcommitment; I follow the GTD and 7Habits maxims of not making too many commitments, but not making a commitment still carries a cognitive burden for me. If I could forget about commitments I haven’t taken, I would be fine, but I want to do everything and therefore they haunt me like ghosts.

    These ghosts derive their power from the notion that there’s limited time, and the time to do things is right now. You either get more productive, or you start triaging. It may be that there are more things I want to do than really are humanly possible, and what makes them particularly painful is that I can see/smell/taste the possibilities so clearly, and can derive the process/methodology needed to at least get moving. So I see a lot of “roads not taken”, and feel a comeasurate amount of regret.

    Having identified this, I should just banish them. Begone, ghosts! I am implicitly saying, then, that there Is Time. Even if there isn’t, I shouldn’t worry about it. Kairos time, baby, not chronos!