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On Full Horizon Planning and the Under-Appreciated Power of Workflow Systems

October 6th, 2015 · 27 comments

The Missing System

Here’s something that baffles me: the fact that most companies don’t invest in helping their employees develop effective workflow systems.

(It’s probably worth taking a moment here for definitions: When I say “workflow system,” I mean a set of habits and tools used to organize what work you do and when you do it. And when I say “effective,” I’m referring to the amount of value you produce.)

Most people don’t dedicate much thought to such systems. The default, instead, is to run your day as a reaction to events and deadlines on your calendar, an inconsistently referenced task list, and, most of all, the flux coursing through your inbox.

As productivity nerds know, however, there are much more effective ways to get important things done.

Full Horizon Planning

Consider my own workflow system (evolved over a decade of close scrutiny). I call it full horizon planning.

The motivating philosophy here is simple: every project I’m obligated to complete has two states, dormant or active; if it’s dormant, it’s tracked somewhere that is regularly reviewed (so I won’t forget), and once I make it active — and this is the important part — I make a plan for how and when the whole thing will be completed.

To pull this off, this plan must exist at multiple levels of refining granularity. That is, on the monthly level, I know what weeks I will work on the project, and only when I get to those weeks do I plan out what days I will work on it, and only when I get to the specific days do I figure out which hours it will consume.

(For specifics; c.f., here and here and here and here and here, among many relevant posts.)

These plans, of course, change as things unfold, but the point is that I don’t deal in abstractions, I like to work directly with the brute physicality of time. This makes sure I get the most out of the cycles I have available, and it prevents me from committing to more than is feasible.

This workflow system requires more upfront investment of mental energy than lurching from deadline to deadline, and it certainly wouldn’t work for all types of jobs, but it’s a major factor in my ability to consistently move ideas from conception to completion, and do so while rarely working past five.

To summarize, a good workflow system can (I suspect) at least double the amount of value the average employee produces. And yet, we rarely see much emphasis placed on optimizing this piece of the professional puzzle.

This smells like a big open opportunity to me.

27 thoughts on “On Full Horizon Planning and the Under-Appreciated Power of Workflow Systems

  1. Duncan Smith says:

    I work for a large software company that offers productivity training along with training in C#, SQL, etc. When I was in college, I think there was some sort of study skills center (which I never visited). The problem is not that companies don’t want to invest. It’s that this is a really hard problem. The reason that people manage their workday through email is that their colleagues are constantly sending them email. The Study Hacks approach requires swimming upstream. Never mind Facebook and peer pressure.

    How much should a company try to modify the behavior of their adult employees? I have a daughter in high school, and I regularly confiscate her school-issued laptop, which contains assignments that she needs to get done, because she is instead using it to read fan fiction or chat on Omegle. Back to paper and pencil for the afternoon! That helps temporarily, but it doesn’t turn a multitasking teenager into a deep focus-er. That requires an internal change of heart. If a benevolent dictator (me) with absolute power can’t get someone to develop an effective workflow system, I don’t know how much a corporation can. Companies are reluctant to meddle in their employees’ personal habits, especially when it comes to knowledge workers.

    I think tools like RescueTime have a chance of working because they rely on an individual voluntarily putting limits on themselves. A motivated person could use them to create habits and eventually graduate to the Study Hacks paper-based system. But imagine if a company endorsed a system that tracks every web site their employees visit! So it really has to come from the individual.

    1. tyelmene says:

      Duncan, I understand your reply. And I recognize that the current full-on daily demands, system structures and bureaucracy of your employer feel like a fixed boundary limiting everyone’s personal development. At the same time, I realize other focus distractions like your daughter is finding make matters more complicated. I get that it’s difficult to deliberately push ahead with your own work systems and professional learning development… but… but. It’s precisely why deliberately pushing here against organizational boundaries and fighting focus issues is so important. You may/will likely NEED to hold the benefits of your own professional development in your hands, as these factors all speed up and get worse!

    2. Daniel Dickson says:

      Great comment – I have the same concerns. Many factory workers are willing to be micromanaged to the second on the factory floor – see Japanese-style factory management – this would not fly with knowledge workers.

      Not that Cal is proposing micromanagement of knowledge workers. I think he is simply calling for a better balance between requiring systems and allowing freedom with knowledge worker jobs.

      But you are right that it is probably very hard to implement well – I’ve tried implementing certain systems onto a team of attorneys and it is like herding cats.

    3. Juil says:

      In regards to your daughter, might I suggest taking a different approach. Instead of enforcing rules, you could have a daily meeting discussing daily, weekly, monthly priorities with her that she leads. After which you would let her figure out how to get it done herself. The meeting shouldn’t be any longer than 5 minutes.
      This covers several bases: she develops a sense of autonomy (since she is in charge of her priorities and how she goes about them), intrinsic motivation (she’s doing it because she said she would), her ability to lead, plan, think long term, and responsibility for consequences.
      Especially because she is in high school, failure should be seen as a learning opportunity rather than something to be punished for.

      Obligatory disclaimers about not telling people how to parent their children.

    4. Newscaper says:

      Referring to the pursuit of processes for knowledge workers, software development has struggled with this for a while in the Agile movement, with much of the resulting consulting industry focusing on methods such as Scrum which all too easily can become implemented antithetical to the Agile Manifesto.

      I highly recommend this somewhat skeptical take on one side fits all approaches
      linkhttp://www.agileproductdesign.com/blog/there_is_no_spoon.html

      My personal pain point was a consultant and mgmt assuming that just because you could come up with a list of likely elements in the solution to a highly complex problem involving deep innovation, that it would somehow become a nice linear paint by the numbers process. If really original switch projects didn’t come off the assembly line like commodity web apps then there must be a problem with their people.
      Idiots!

  2. Tjerk says:

    Even though I value the benefits for knowledge workers of endorsing your work habits, I think you’re missing the point here. Your system can only work if it’s voluntarily endorsed.

    Let me explain: your system requires a lot of mental energy and focus to fight the “flow” (referring to both the psychological state and the day-to-day busyness). Hence, apart from the fact that not everyone is even willing to spend so much energy on their jobs, it requires a high motivation level of those willing to. A few hundred dollars extra a month will not do, they need to have an intrinsic motivation to excel in their jobs, and the three key requirements for this (as the literature on motivation seems to agree on) are a sense of skill mastery, a sense of purpose (both inherent in your ideas), but also a sense of autonomy.

    Even a ‘gentle obligation’ or ‘nudging’ towards the incorporation of such a system could be enough to diminish the motivation of employees who were otherwise perfectly internally motivated to adhere to such work habits. Result would be that your best people, adhering to strong work ethics, would leave your company, because they fill “overcontrolled” and not trusted.

    It’s a risky business to meddle with your employer’s work habits.

    1. tyelmene says:

      Oh, I think you’re missing this entirely tjerk. The entire trend that is forming that Mr. Newport’s commentary is speaking to is not made from the organizational practices side of the house, this is decided a ‘personal’ professional development advocacy! This is about ‘hacking’ your own working functions/job to accommodate your own personal growth to either contribute more toward your employer/organization or not, in spite of the employer’s demands. Now the proper way to do this is to either make your own development transparent/in coordination with your employer, or at a minimum absolutely benevolent to/in support of the organization’s, best outcomes. But make no mistake, these actions are not meant to be/not being left to anyone’s employer to drive. This is a YOU thing!

      1. Duncan Smith says:

        See the first sentence of the post: “Here’s something that baffles me: the fact that most companies don’t invest in helping their employees develop effective workflow systems.” The post is specifically about companies influencing their employees’ productivity, not productivity systems in general. That’s what we’re referring to.

    2. Juil says:

      Of course you don’t want to force your employees to do something they don’t want to. That is why a unified and well-understood vision for you company/team is so important. There are many examples of when purpose is clarified, the employees voluntarily join forces to do great things. This is understandably a difficult conversation to have, but so important.

      As a caveat, most of the greatest changes in employee behaviour seem to happen in times crisis.

      And if after clarifying your business priorities there are still employees resisting self-improvement, you can find someone who can.

  3. tyelmene says:

    Thank you for sharing this fold-in mechanic insight into your work organization. There is an element within this notion of planning that truly fits and is appropriate in between a true goals/objectives planning system and a true long-view operational personal planning system for professional development. And while the choice of the label “workflow” is interesting, the term as applied here is unfortunate, as it conflicts with the commonly held understanding for another concept in this same/related domain. Again, thanks for a very interesting share!

  4. Tim Dawes says:

    I’m unfortunately in agreement with the comments above. You have a classic case of selling broccoli – something people need but which is no fun to do.

    Discipline feels like deprivation. If I take it on as an individual contributor, it means I work more every day. And will it get recognized and rewarded? I doubt it. That means I effectively lower my hourly rate (same pay for more work done).

    If my company takes it on, they look like task masters. Again, I’m unhappy.

    So, this is a very smart idea, that would add a lot of value, that needs some kind of compensation in order to be attractive.

  5. AS says:

    I think it’s very difficult to develop a general workflow management system. First, it requires a lot of intelligence and managerial sense. My company, which hires pretty smart people, is still struggling with this. We redefine our workflow almost quarterly, but it still has problems. It’s a huge management/organization problem that even the best minds cannot solve perfectly. There are always flaws and we always end up having to make exceptions for urgent high-priority projects. Sometimes I wonder if our system is really doing much better than people just following their own idosyncratic processes. If someone could come up with a “general” solution to the problem, it would be much appreciated. But as you probably have learned in your academic research, general solutions to complex problems generally do not exist. And workflow management is a very, very complex problem.

  6. ed says:

    Great post. Tom Sachs, who is an artist and runs a studio, has a short movie called “Ten Bullets: Working to Code.” http://tenbullets.com/ . While it is a bit of a satire on corporate flims, I think the same spirit is there. I am interested in looking for workflow systems ” In the wild.” If people know of any, please post here in the comments. Thanks.

  7. David D says:

    Company culture may play a large role in the adoption of any system. For example, I was provided the opportunity to attend a Franklin Covey training session years ago by my employer at the time. Everyone in my department attended. The excitement of the training and the peer pressure to use it afterwards lasted a long time, as we all used it for the remaining 2+ years I stayed at the company. The system may not be perfect for all, but I think we all were more productive because of it. So, it can be done in the right setting.

  8. Anastasia says:

    I and im sure many others would highly value the webinar though on our own schedules if possible. Many thanks for your high impact productivity help.

  9. A-ron says:

    I don’t give a crap about what value I produce for the company I sit in a chair and operate a computer for. Mostly, because they don’t care. Eff ’em.

    What I do care about is how I manage and plan my personal projects. I’ve used a version of your planning system for almost a year now to tremendous effect. I’m more interested now in longer term planning, i.e. scheduling time to work on projects in the “dormant” state or to rotate different projects in and out of tasking.

    Oh, thanks for being awesome. I love you.

  10. David W says:

    I wonder if there is a correlation between how measurable work output is, and the investment in workflow systems.

    For example, most of the objections above seem to be rooted in knowledge work, or similarly difficult to measure fields. Examples jump to mind like programming (where elegance and cleverness aren’t easily captured in a number) and script writing (where opinions vary wildly even on good work).

    However, I’m in Sales, and workflows are measured, tested, and retooled on a seemingly weekly basis. Number of emails, number of calls, success rates by vertical, conversions to PoCs, pipeline estimations… all data points leading to a sale or a loss. Reps get training on current techniques and then innovate in whatever way they see best. If something new has disproportionate success, then it’s rapidly dispersed to the rest of the team and routinized if at all possible.

    Admittedly, it leads to a bit of a frankenstein workflow if taken all together, but the willingness for investment seems to be there because the feedback loop is clear.

  11. Gallop says:

    While it may be difficult to institute workflows in the workplace, it should be more straightforward to hire people who have workflows that work for them. As I’ve never been asked “How do you work?” in an interview, nor have I ever asked it as an employer, there seems to be some way to go on this, but in theory, a worker should be able to distinguish themselves.
    I know that if I sat down with somebody and their answer to “tell me about yourself”, was a detail description as to how they manage their time and deliver results, I’d likely hire them right then and forget about the rest of the interview.

  12. I agree with you Cal that teaching people how to be effective is incredibly valuable. I see the value in that on a daily basis through my work.

    I also understand the concerns of the commenters that people may or may not follow through on the systems.

    I still think it would be worthwhile for all companies to explore teaching effectiveness best practices and integrating them into their company culture. Even if there’s just partial compliance, the increased productivity of people who are willing to integrate the learning into their jobs can have a great payoff.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  13. DJ says:

    That OmniFocus screenshot pops up every once in a while in your posts. Is it just a useful metaphor for different levels of focus or do you actually incorporate some non-paper organization tools?

  14. JJ says:

    Great post.

    Sounds like your process has morphed a bit since some of your last posts. Just like your “paper shots” of your daily plans in your 9/2015 post on daily planning were helpful, could you provide some photos that more specifically show what you are discussing?

    Also, I’ll second DJ’s query – do you now use OmniFocus? If so, could you provide a screenshot of what your process looks like?

    These would personally be helpful to me as I’ve heard so much advice about focusing on one thing until it’s done etc., but a number of us have jobs/obligations that require handling multiple projects at once. More specifics would be much appreciated!

  15. JJ says:

    I was going to ask about your morning ritual, but – here’s go Google – found my answer here:

    http://www.businessinsider.com/cal-newports-morning-routine-2015-3

    Am curious about when you/others fit in exercising – is the general consensus that it is better to do first thing in the morning? My personal catch-22 is that I like working out in the late afternoon/early evening the best (especially because I like warmer vs cooler weather for running), but many times things come up that prevent it from being consistently done. AND I find that I’m most productive in the early am…if I work out at that time, I’m not doing my version of deep work (writing a research manuscript, studying, etc). Examples/suggestions?

    1. Ondrej says:

      Time of day is irrelevant. I’d recommend reddeltaproject on youtube because it focuses on basics, simple bodyweight training and no dieting and yet maximizing your potential. So it’s very flexible.

  16. Ondrej says:

    Accomplish for android looks like electronic version of your planner.

  17. Adam Bertram says:

    What about the projects that are waiting for someone else? If they are high-priority projects I don’t want to mark them as dormant. They are active but I can’t make any progress towards them.

  18. Francis Wade says:

    IMHO, I believe companies don’t teach workflow because they don’t know how i.e. they lack a workable pedagogy.

    They know enough not to try to force everyone into the same habits, as that produces a backlash (as someone earlier noted.) However, they don’t know what to do instead.

    Here’s an idea… use a heutagogical approach… one that treats the learner as a self-directed adult. Here’s how:
    1. Teach them how to analyze their current practices / workflow, using best practices as a benchmark.
    2. Use this analysis as input to set some new target behaviors.
    3. Build a plan over time to reach these targets, which may cover several years. Habits, practices and rituals are hard to un/learn.
    4. Set up a robust habit change support system.

    I have gotten great results using this approach on myself and with others.

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