How many Pure Work Hours do you really have?

Being a big fan of the products and philosophies of Jason Fried of 37 Signals, I harken back to this TED talk he gave a while ago about truly productive work. The question is simple: How many of you have a moment in your day where absolutely nothing interrupts your workflow? Pure focus. The zone. Feelin’ the flow. You know the exalted state I’m talking about.

Think about it. How often do you encounter a person coming up to you to ask you a question, a phone call, a buddy suddenly IM’ing you, etc. I’m also including interruption by choice like looking at your phone, checking your email, watching a YouTube video, whatever. Quite often, probably, right? And when we have these interruptions, the brain takes a little while to get back on track – a friend of mine told me 15 minutes is what’s required to get back in that frame of mind. 15 minutes. Think about how many lost minutes and then lost hours that equates to.

How many PURE work hours do you really have?

In this context, the answer may be zero. Or 1-2 hours if we’re lucky.

The point isn’t that doing these other things is bad. The point is that we can get smarter about how we balance it.

For creative people working on another insane deadline, there’s never been a more important time to shut out the world. That’s not easy in an agency when you’re sitting in your cube trying to bang out some brilliant headline or website design and people are flying by talking at loud volume about the upcoming client meeting or brainstorm. Which is why agencies need to invest more into spaces that allow their people to get away and just think in peace on the idea they have to come up with. If your agency doesn’t have that or all the good spaces are taken, take it upon yourself to at least invest in some really, really good noise canceling headphones.

For entrepreneurs like myself that operate from a home office and use a virtual office from time to time, we may not have as much danger of office interruptions but we still can run into bad habits that disrupt our flow, like the e-mail/phone checking mentioned above. Besides that, here’s another yours truly was guilty of: For many days, I’d have a schedule that consisted of writing, email checking, conference calls, taking a networking meeting, writing some more, sharing a video, sharing an infographic, taking another meeting, writing, checking email for the 30th time, reading an article on last night’s Bulls game, you get the idea. Not that unusual from most people’s days…except breaking things up with too many variances was undoubtedly having an effect on my pure work hours.

In other words, you could have a seemingly “balanced” day that is, in reality, doing bad things to how clear-headed you can be. It’s not just about being efficient. It’s about clearing more time for ideation to happen – which makes us better Copywriters, better Designers, better Web Programmers, better Brand Strategists. Better in many other professions too.

So I’m trying something a little different – rather than jumbling the mix in what seems like balance but is actually more disruptive, is it possible to push more pure work into whole days devoted to that and more new business development and client meetings into other days devoted to those activities? It’s an interesting experiment and I’m sure there will be times that it won’t work absolutely perfectly but it’s an effort worth making. I’ll let you know how it goes.

In the interim, think about this concept of pure work hours without any interruption. Rather than beat yourself up for being too in touch with the world, I wonder if you have any ideas for how you find that special zone that nobody else can get into for a designated period of time. Feel free to share your tips and tricks for how you tap into it. For while it may not deliver creativity and strategic thinking on demand, I have a feeling this approach gets us a whole lot closer.

Simplifying your brain even with an additional 37 Signals.

A thought today that inspires me from Chicago-based 37 Signals.

Rather than add on, think about what you can strip away and simplify to make the experience of working with you more enjoyable for your audience.

Innovation via undoing complexities your customers face. What a refreshing concept in this perpetual “add on” world of ours.

When people have come to me over the last several years with an idea that will launch a new product or service, their minds often start to race with product line extensions, offshoots and even selling the company. All before anyone on Earth knows about them.

This is where taking your eye off the prize can lead you into trouble. I’m paraphrasing, but I can recall reading 37 Signals founder Jason Fried saying to the effect of, “We don’t need to offer training for our products because they’re so intuitive, you just get them.”

He’s right. Just to be on the safe side, they supply 1-2 minute bite-sized videos of each feature of his products, but you never need to watch it more than one time. His project management tools like Basecamp, Highrise and Backpack are that intuitive and easy to grasp. Basecamp essentially allows your team to collaborate and communicate with clients in a way that’s both advanced and very simple (posting thoughts in streams of communication not unlike what you see on Facebook but easier than e-mail).

Let’s look at another company – Yammer takes the concept of e-mail communication and speeds it up internally for greater group communication and input. Sending e-mail back and forth: Clunky. Yammer: Crazy simple.

Think about this notion for a moment as it applies to you. Is your product something that is so simple that nobody would have to sit down with one of your people to understand how it works? That they could just watch a 2-minute video? If not, where do the complications occur?  If you offer a service in the B2B realm that requires a face-to-face, can you structure yourself in such a way that people get exactly the advantage of working with you (“Just go to our website and you’ll see what we do.”)?

This is not an easy challenge as we all have varying things of complexity we sell to the world, whether it be bobbleheads or I.T. solutions. Yet, I believe we hurt our own cause when we try think about one-upping competitors by adding on rather than taking away. It goes back to focusing on what you are absolutely best at, not what you are mildly good at.

By now, this is where I get a reply sort of like the following:

“We’re a full-service accounting firm. We can’t strip away our services. That wouldn’t be realistic.”
Perhaps, but you’re not making it easy on someone to say you can do it all. Really. A more likely and natural scenario is that they’re looking for one service at this moment. Then, in time, you may be able to expand the relationship into other areas as they become more trusting. In other words, are there areas of your communication that could be simplified to focus more on ONE area of service that you are particularly known for or a partner has gained a reputation for that you can play up more than ALL of your parts?

Similarly, if you’re a Realtor, why say you’re the Realtor who has been around for 25 years? No offense, but that’s what a lot of people say. How do you make the process easier on first-time homebuyers in the western suburbs of Chicago?

What I’m getting at is a combination of de-cluttering your brand and clarifying your focus from an operations/technological/process/people perspective.

Simplification of Audience
Be honest with yourself. Who represents the audience you have related best to? If they’re not profitable enough, you can add on another audience to go after, but just remember how that will affect the communication strategy you need to present. I’m a bigger fan of “Here’s how we understand your audience” messaging that’s tailored to a specific group vs. “Here’s what we do at our firm” messaging that aims to appeal to all.

Simplification of Process
It’s not merely about some fancy name and putting a “tm” next to it. Is your process marketable by its simplification or does it follow the same path that any other competitor would expect to follow? From a customer service standpoint, if other companies have a maze of an automated phone system, do you have texting, Skype and other methods that streamline the way to get a hold of you faster? Can you use a product like Square to let them pay for services then and there?

By the way, this has applications to internal processes too. I once worked at an agency that had 8 pages on workflow process, complete with flowcharts for all scenarios. Impractical? You could say that. Talk about a glaring need to do away with extras for the benefit of the end user: the client.

Simplification of Product/Service
What can you “undo” in complexity that is atypical of your industry? This doesn’t even have to mean entirely new products or services – you can start with aspects of your business. For example, if the client expects a mountain of paperwork in order to engage you, what can you do to go paperless or provide just one invoice (there’s a nice environmental angle in this as well)?

Listing all your services is fine, but how do you make it easier on someone to find a wealth of information on exactly the service they know they need? And please, give them more than “We have X employees in the ____ division” when they get there. You’re not making it more complex by adding content here – you’re making it easier for them to make a decision because they’re finding more about you than the other firm and it’s raising your credibility in their eyes.

Simplification of Rewards
Think about the mechanism you can implement that make it easy as pie for a client to understand what they need to do in order to get rewarded from you. Maybe it’s nothing more than giving you their business – so what reward do they get? Maybe it’s a certain number of times visiting your restaurant and checking in on Foursquare. Maybe it’s an Amazon gift card for every qualified referral they make. If they sign up to try your software and forward a link to 5 friends who also sign up, does that original person get an upgrade? In any event, the complexity here isn’t that there’s too many rewards…it’s that there’s usually none. You can take advantage of this empty space others don’t always inhabit by communicating what clients will clearly get for a desired response.

Innovation through simplification. I’d love to hear examples of it you’ve come across, whether in your own company or other brands you’ve encountered.