Tools, Notebooks and Monkeys

Written as part of the SupportDriven writing challenge. SupportDriven is a community of the best (100% objective observation) professionals working in customer support and product management at companies large and small.

The question asked was “what tools do you use to manage your time?” An immediate answer would be whatever productivity app/Chrome extension/Gmail plugin/notebook system I’m using this week. But giving it a little more thought I find that the tools that have the biggest impact on my work are not software tools or notebook systems – though I am a sucker for a good to-do list and have plenty of software hacks to speed up things. It’s methods and approaches I’ve pieced together from people I’ve worked with. A hodgepodge of techniques, tips and truisms that have all been useful in some way.

Self-care

Most of the things on this list get at self-care one way or another since many of them deal managing workload and prioritizing things. But a very useful tool that I’ve used on and off is journaling of some sort. For a few months I tracked how I felt at the end of every workday and made a few notes about what had happened during the day. It was surprisingly useful in terms of helping me understand what really brings me down and energizes me at work.

Understanding business

Follow the $. What makes money? It may sound vulgar, cold, calculated, but it is actually effective. Effective in terms of understanding the motivations of the people around me. Not that they necessarily do what they do thinking of $. I don’t work in a boiler room. But whatever they’re motivated to do at some point comes back to $. Whether that is as revenue for their department or bigger budgets for next year it’s about money at some point. Understanding that makes it a lot easier to parse all the stuff that goes on at a company. I don’t think a business school degree is needed to understand the core of a business. Just figure out where the money comes from and where it’s going.

Understanding other people

A good questions to ask is always “What is your biggest challenge right now?”. Or  “How was last week at work? What is the most annoying thing you will have to do today?”. Anything that gets people talking about the thing they’re really thinking about right now.
Find the shared goals. There’s always something you agree on trying to achieve. It may be pretty abstract and seem far from the issue at hand. But work from that shared goal towards the issue you need to solve is a lot easier than going back and forth trying to simply convince each other of opposing positions with seemingly nothing in common.

Tools for communicating

Most updates can be done in three bullets, one sentence each. The higher the stakes, the simpler the communication should be. When in doubt, direct and literal is usually the best way to go. It took me a really long time to get from writing long, thorough (I thought) emails to being able to summarize a project status in a few sentences. And it still takes a long time. Write the long email first but then take the time to carve out the few sentences that get to the core.

Tools for managing workload

Not my monkey. Is the thing that’s stressing me out really my responsibility? I’m not advocating dodging responsibility. But don’t end up in the situation where something that’s not your responsibility is stressing you out more than it’s stressing out whoever is actually responsible for it.
List things and ask the people you work with: “What should we remove from this list to make sure the other things actually get done?”

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