Designing your workflow: the ultimate New Year’s resolution

Many of the ways we work could do with being rethought.

This post is about how I’m thinking about re-designing mine, and how we could all benefit from thinking more deeply about how we design our work, and from comparing notes with one another.

Re-designing workflow

We might think that this is self-evident, since things should always be improving upon systems, approaches and methods. The rise of the social web toolset – all those lovely social network, web services and search engines – gives this extra urgency. We can do things faster, better, bigger if we use the new tools we’ve been playing and working with over the past few years.

Part of what I was driving at with my last post was not overly focusing on the platforms when we’re thinking about the web, what it means, how to respond as individuals, organisations and whole industries. When you’re planning a marketing or media programme, this means not thinking that Facebook page = social media strategy. When it comes to the personal end of business life, our own individual working days, it means not blogging, Tweeting, bookmarking and hanging out in LinkedIn without thinking about how these things fit into our workflows.

Workflow, according to my trusty Mac dictionary is:

the sequence of industrial, administrative, or other processes through which a piece of work passes from initiation to completion.

The most famous work-flow in the world?

This diagram is from the book Getting Things Done by David Allen, and many of you will be very familiar with it. It describes a system for, well, getting things done and it is designed to take away the worry that things won’t get done, to provide complete system for processing tasks.


For many people, including myself until recently, this is the only designed workflow they have – and really I often only use this in a fragmented way (i.e. bits of it, some of the time).

The exception is, of course, project managers, who are trained to understand how complex work gets done and to make sure it happens. I love working with good project managers, for the sense of control, transparency and security they bring to projects. Most of my career was spent away from such skills, however, and it was only in recent times at iCrossing that got to experience how great working with project management systems and professionals was.

Stopping. Thinking. And starting with ends in mind…

I’ll doubtless return to stuff-we-can-learn-from-project-managers in a later post or two. For now, though, let’s think about how much more effectively we can work if we stop just piling into tasks, throwing ourselves with brute force at stuff that needs to be done and break things down a little.

Very often I’ve been guilty of starting at the end of a piece of work, rather than starting with the end in mind. What I mean by that is if I have a presentation to write I will open up Keynote or Powerpoint and start to write it, there and then.

It’s the sort of thing that presentation experts like Carmine Gallo say you absolutely shouldn’t do, but there you go. They tell us not to put quotes or long sets of bullet points into presentations either, but our reaction is to nod wisely, tell each other about it and then do it anyway, because it feels easier than building a presentation the right way.

Toward the end of this year I started applying a combination of workflow design, Getting Things Done (a.k.a. GTD) and the Pomodoro technique to tasks like writing a presentation. In the past writing a presentation on a new topic could fill a week or more of my time, as I wrote bits, went off on tangents. Working like this, the deadline acted like the music being turned off in a game of musical statues – as it hit it was time to tidy up, polish the slides and head to lectern hoping for the best.

This way of working was a bit like making a new recipe for a dinner party without all of the ingredients being prepared or even knowing if I have everything I need. Even though I am lucky enough to have a small, well stocked supermarket next to my house nipping in there two or three times during the course of cooking will cost me a lot of time, disrupt my concentration, waste time that could have been spent perfecting the recipe, adding little touches that would make it great.

I plotted out how I wanted the presentation preparation to progress and the tools I’d need: four Pomodoros (4 x 25 minutes) to gather new research on the topic (I had a lot of insights already, just needed some specifics on a new niche), two for crafting the story (distilling the insights and ordering them into a rough narrative), four for designing the slides in Keynote and two for curating the presentation. It looked a bit like this:


Under the bad old way of doing things it was the curating that suffered most, that is ordering the research into notes for a blog post, posting the slides on SlideShare and Tweeting them so that people could take a look. It used to be that I would post the slides to SlideShare and my blog sometimes days later or not at all. With the new approach, I’d not only done things faster but I was able to Tweet a link to the slides at a conference (using the correct hashtag, of course) as I went on stage to present or immediately afterwards – just at the point where that information would be most useful to the most people.

Sharing workflows

When I wrote about Howard Rheingold’s workflow for writing his book (see How Howard does it: attention master at work) I loved the way that the different social web and other tools fitted into what called “turning information into knowledge”. Recently, David Wilcox left a couple of really interesting comments, and a simple, brilliant idea:

Create a simple showcase where people can share the pathways they use on mobile and desktop devices – for example, to find and store information, and turn it into knowledge.

It would be great to see something like this take flight – I’m looking forward to chatting to David about the idea. My personal first law of web services – “if you think of something you want it probably already exists” – may come into play here. Let us know if you’ve seen anything that would be useful.

How Beth does it

Here’s an example of the sort of workflow that is useful to share. Beth Kanter is a well-respected blogger about social media and Not For Profit organisations. In a post I serendiptously came across in my Google Reader yesterday, Beth talked about her “system for online learning” and how social media tools featured in it.

Naturally you should take a look and read it for yourself, but here is a diagram she uses to summarise her system (which we could also call a workflow, for the purposes of this post):


Some of the things I really liked about Beth’s post and her approach:

  • She differentiates between specific tasks with and an end point and ongoing listening or “scanning”, but both types of workflow have focus and defined outputs / benefits.
  • Her “circle of the wise” approach (in turn learned from Vicki Davis) – having a maximum of 12 bloggers she always listens to – is a great way of filtering her network and creating helpful limits on her reading list (I have a similar folder in my feed reader called “Friends” that does this for me).

The ultimate New Year’s work resolution?

I’m writing this on New Year’s Eve. This year for me is going to be about re-desigining workflows, my own for sure, but also the broader topic. I’m pretty sure this is going to be a major theme for my new book. More to come soon…

In the meantime here’s a new Year resolution many of us could benefit from: “Think more about how to work smarter”.

If you take a little time out of the day to think about how you are approaching tasks, especially complex knowledge work you’ll probably be able to very quickly sketch out a better way of doing it. Maybe some of the directionless use of tools like Twitter and reading blog posts, might be tuned so that it supports other work or just becomes more effective.

4 responses to “Designing your workflow: the ultimate New Year’s resolution”

  1. Hi Anthony

    I’ve also been looking at workflow tools, and one that looks fascinating (and potentially super-powerful) is Their blog is great for case studies.


  2. Thanks for the tip, Simon – I know Evernote but I hadn’t read the blog. Subscribed!

  3. Good perspective Antony, and timely. I will admit to suffering from platform overload at the moment, and the attending feelings of panic and inadequacy. I’m conducting a bit of an audit and am considering (but not committing to) making some changes in where I go for information, and where I file it away. But at a certain point, I want to chuck it all, and go screaming back to Delicious and LinkedIN, where I’ve been happily bookmarking stuff and chatting about PR for years.

  4. Yes, especially in our roles we need to put time in to trying out new platforms and learning about them, but for actually getting work done we need those trusted tools.

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