No Longer Working for the Sake of Working

This post was originally published on August 17, 2014.

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Busyness is a mean beast. You heard me right. Busy-ness. The quality of being busy. With a full time job and trying to launch Compass on the side, how else can I describe my life. When people asked “how’s life?”, I’d respond “I’m busy.” This phrase worked it’s way into my default small talk over the past months.

It’s a phrase I hope to never use again.

Part 1: Even if I am busy, no one actually wants to hear about it

Anyone who has ever enjoyed Dale Carnegie’s iconic How to Win Friends and Influence People will agree: no one cares about how busy you are. This very idea is baked into his first takeaway: “never criticize, condemn or complain”. Talking about how busy I am is quintessential complaining in my book.

From more up-to-date literature, I stumbled across a piece by Janet Choi titled Busyness is Not a Virtue. In it, she discusses the “meaning behind busy”. Each of her “I’m busy” interpretations are negative including “I Matter”, “I’m super important” and “I feel guilty” (if you’re wondering what I mean by this, skim the article… it’s really good). The main takeaway is that most people use the phrase “I’m busy” as a cop-out, avoiding saying what’s actually on their mind.

My intent for telling the world “I’m busy” depends on the situation, but I have certainly over-used this phrase over the years. Even if I happen to be busy, talking about it will hurt more than it helps me.

Part 2: Why Should I Be Busy?

When Mike and I started working together, we accepted that busy times would come. In this acceptance, we submitted to the norm. For Compass, we adopted tendencies that we had known from our prior work experience. Yet, in this prior experience, we weren’t nearly as busy as we now are. We quickly realized that things needed to change. We needed to go beyond the norm, and adopt practices that help Compass succeed.

Our first realization was that we were meeting too frequently. Meeting too much leads to lower productivity and ultimately a busier life for both of us. About a month ago, we realized this pattern. We were meeting for the sake of meeting. This quickly prompted a meeting (yes, we had to meet about meeting too much) where we fixed the situation. We outlined how we do meetings and why. Going forward, each of our meetings has a very clear purpose.

How We (currently) Do Meetings

When Mike and I meet about Compass, we have purpose. The meetings can be labeled “QP&E” (Quick, Productive and Execution based), or “S&P” (Strategic & Planning based). We even have a “C” (Creative) whereby we loosely dream about ideas that can benefit Small Businesses or anything. Without these loose sessions, we’d lose valuable ideas that can only come with a relaxed, care-free atmosphere.

The meeting labels and purpose help me prepare for what’s to come. If it’s a QP&E, I come ready to crush work. I put my productivity hat on, and create and accomplish actions left and right. A meeting, however, prompts a much different response. I’ll usually go for some exercise before hand, perhaps some Yoga. Something to clear my mind and get the creative juices flowing. It’s remarkable the different “hat” I’ll wear walking into a QP&E vs a meeting.

With the evil meeting pattern solved, the Compass team realized a more profound problem: we were also working for the sake of working. It was as if we craved being busy. I, for one, couldn’t ditch the romantic vision of embodying a struggling entrepreneur (similar to the starving artist). Someone who works 70–80 hours a week mixing a day-job and trying to launch a startup on the side. We would fabricate work for ourselves that had no end goal or objective. It was too unstructured, and the hours spent weren’t adding up to anything profound.

Keep in mind that, before all of my profound busyness, I had read the literature. All of these productivity rules supposedly sunk in long ago; rules that are “backed by science”. I knew about the 80–20 rule when I read Tim Ferris’s 4 hour workweek. I knew to delegate, say “no” to lots of things, and to ship products before perfection. All this and I still fell into the trap of “working dumb.”

Some things don’t sink in until you’ve experienced the problem; lived and breathed it for months. With that in mind, what i’m about to tell you is effectively useless without some context. Without experiencing the problem, this advice will fall on deaf ears. It certainly did for me.

Before you read what’s next, I advise you make yourself way too busy. Seriously. Go work 70 hours a week. Try to ensure you have no structure, and that you’re performing mindless, misdirected tasks: tasks that don’t ultimately add value. It’s the only way that the next piece will sink in. Immerse yourself in “working dumb.”

Compass, moving forward, is working smart. We’ve aggregated an organizational stack of tools and processes that, hopefully, push the needle. It’s honestly too early to tell if our adopted methods will work. If they don’t, we’ll take what worked, abandon what didn’t, and adopt new processes. For now, our organizational stack includes:

Asana

Compass uses Asana as our primary task management system and agenda organizer. Every Sunday, Mike and I sit down for an hour to map out the tasks for the week. We prioritize tasks based on our OKR’s (see below for reference) and weed out work that won’t benefit Compass.

Asana has a useful function that integrates well with Email; one that we leverage for agenda setting. If something profound strikes me or Mike during the daily grind, we simply email the thought to “x+13107142580773@mail.asana.com” (I have it saved as “Compass Agenda Item” in my Google contacts for simplicity). This records the thought in an Asana agenda project, one that we review before our QP&E meetings.

OKRs

O.K.R. is an acronym for Objectives and Key Results. Pioneered by Google (i think), OKRs allow organizations to organize without a traditional management team. The system works by setting high level Objectives, then very specific and measurable Key Results.

Holding Ourselves Publicly Accountable

On Sunday, August 24th, Compass solidified our OKRs through January 31st. Since we want pressure to accomplish our Objectives, we’re publically listing them in this blog post. If any changes are made, you can all view them in this Google Doc.

Objective #1: Develop and test an end-to-end process for our method of site creation that adds value to clients and our freelancers.

1. KR: Build 10 websites for clients

2. KR: Receive feedback from all customers on the on-boarding and feedback processes.

3. KR: Reduce the number of touchpoints between (Compass + Freelancer) <> (Client) by 50% from the first client to the last.

4. KR: Reducing the overhead ratio by 20%

Some key metric definitions:

Touchpoint: (n): any method of communication between a freelancer, Compass, and the client — email, phone call, text message, etc.

Overhead ratio: the amount of time the freelancer spends doing things like data entry, communicating with the client, or managing files, as a percentage of the total time spent on a project.

Objective #2: Create a pitch deck to deliver to investors and advisers, presenting the business model, customer analysis, and positioning.

1. KR: Size the market and form a practical revenue model.

2. KR: Collect survey responses from 50 small businesses with the intent of learning more about our customers and who finds our service attractive

3. KR: Perform a competitive landscape analysis, gathering data about the types of companies that are currently creating sites for small businesses.

We’ll treat these OKR’s like our north star for the next few months. If what we’re doing isn’t driving these key results, then it isn’t smart work.


Taylor is the Co-Founder of Compass and a 2013 Venture for America Fellow living in Detroit.