Tuesday 22 September 2015

Improving Documentation ROI: Part 7 - Personal Productivity

In Part 1 we looked at what ROI is, and how to calculate it.
In Part 2 we looked at the broad area of improving ROI by improving costs.
In Part 3 we looked in a bit more detail at direct costs, and specifically direct financial costs.
In Part 4 we looked at reducing direct time costs for other areas of the business.
In Part 5 we looked at creating a passive time income to save you time in the future.
In Part 6 we looked at ways to save time by using production line efficiency.

In part 7, we're going to look at ways to save time by improving your personal productivity.

As has been mentioned on many occasions in this series, time = money.  When it comes to you, it's your time, which means that everything you do costs the company money, because they're paying for it.  More than that, if you want to be a effective employee (or director, or company owner, or contractor, or hobbyist) you will need to have at least some basically efficient personal routines and habits to prevent you spending time on things which you either shouldn't or don't have to do.  This is where the concept of personal productivity is useful.

Personal productivity means different things to different people but for our purposes, where we're looking at improving documentation ROI, it means using your time efficiently and effectively to maximise your writing time.  The more time in the working day you can dedicate to researching, learning, writing, reviewing, proof reading, and all the other things that us writers have to do, the more documentation you can produce, and the higher the quality of that documentation.  

With that in mind, there are 2 main areas that are worth investigating to see if you can save yourself time or make better use of non-writing time:
  1. Time Management - This has 2 core components: you, and other people.  Managing your time well means cutting out interruptions, distractions, intrusive communication media and task switching as much as possible.  All of these problems are caused either by you (especially distractions and task switching) or other people (especially interruptions and intrusive communication media).  The goal of a time management system is to spend your time working on the most important priorities, not whatever is deemed most urgent by the other people interrupting you, and to spend that time in blocks large enough to allow you to focus properly. 
  2. Task Management - This is the art of capturing, processing, doing and reviewing tasks, whilst using planning and prioritising to make sure you do the right tasks, at the right time, in the right order.  Task management covers both repeating tasks (either regularly or irregularly) and one-off tasks.  The difference between the repeating and one-off tasks is that whilst you can build an effective methodology for getting from start to finish that works for both types, you generally only have defined routines and habits for repeating tasks.  This is for the obvious reason that by definition there can't be defined routines and habits for one-off tasks.
A lot of personal productivity training will focus on getting the right things done without wasting time on unimportant or unproductive tasks.  The definition of "the right things" will be different for different people, roles and situations.  For a personal assistant, emails, phone calls and calendar organisation are the right thing to focus on.  For a professional technical writer those things will be the wrong thing to focus on, at least most of the time.  Ultimately, the decision on what are the important and productive tasks is entirely contextual, but I'm going to assume that the right thing for you to focus on is producing high-quality documentation (including the non-writing tasks such as information gathering that technical writing requires).

To that end, the specific skills to develop are:

  • Communications management (emails, phone calls, IM, social media);
  • Capturing and processing tasks into a system;
  • Assertiveness;
  • Effective communication;
  • Saying No to people;
  • Managing expectations;
  • Prioritisation;
  • Planning.

And the general skills to develop are:

  • Understanding the power of building and maintaining routines and habits;
  • Why building a system is useless unless it works and you use it;
  • What motivates you to get things done;
  • What motivates others to help you (or leave you alone); 
  • How to achieve a state of flow;
  • How to not panic or have a breakdown.

Depending on your current level of productivity and your work situation there will be other skills you need to develop, but these cover the majority of things which take away time and focus from the important work, and also the basics of getting that important work done. But bear in mind that getting a productivity system in place and working is like giving up smoking - you can use all the patches, sprays, and other aids you want, but ultimately willpower is required. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that the system is the important part, because it's not.  You're the important part.  The systems you develop to make yourself more productive are only useful if a) you use them, and b) they actually make you more productive.  One of the easiest mistakes to make is to spend more time finessing the system than actually using it.  This is particularly easy when you're something of a perfectionist or you have a tendency to get deep into the detail rather than the big picture.  Keep the ultimate goal of increased productivity in mind.  Tweaking your system to the nth degree is not productive.

If you've noticed that nowhere in those bullets points does it mention anything to do with writing skills, help authoring tools, or anything else that is specifically related to producing documentation,  then congratulations and have a gold star on me.  It's a fair question to ask: How can I talk about personal productivity as a writer without mentioning writing?  

The equally fair answer is: Because I'm not talking about how to write productively (or well, or better, or more efficiently), I'm talking about how to consistently create and maintain the conditions you need to write.  What, why, how and when you write is up to you, although of course I'm not averse to throwing my two penn'orth into that discussion.  But that's for another time.  This is about getting you set to write and that's enough for now.

Getting back to the point of this article: Calculating the ROI of personal productivity can be tricky, but it requires the same calculation as any other project: Work out the time it takes to build the systems you need, work out how much time they'll save you over a defined period, and plug the numbers into the equation.  However, in this instance it might not be worth performing this exercise unless you need to justify what you're doing, because the return will be difficult to predict and you are unlikely to need budget approval for an activity that shouldn't require much if any outlay other than your own time.  And, if you're serious about being more productive, a lot of the thought that needs to go into the system can be done on your own time. 

I'll be covering all of these skills in a future series, but not as part of the series on ROI.  If you want to crack on with improving your personal productivity, there is a slew of personal productivity information on the web.  When I made that search, there were over 35.3 million results returned, so there's plenty of resources to help you.  Good luck, and like all things in an agile world, don't be afraid to inspect and adapt to make the systems work for your personal system.

A more normal service will be resumed in part 8 of this series, where we'll switch from looking at saving costs to actually generating revenue.

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