• tarahthornburg

Killer Systems and Processes to Increase Productivity

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The Fearless Creative podcastIf you’d rather read instead of listen, I’ve included the abridged transcript below. 

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Welcome, welcome, welcome to the show everybody. This past week has been a very good week for me, and I hope it has been good to you.

Last week and this weekend, I have spent a lot of time in the yard kind of waking it up for the summer. I have been weeding and spreading mulch and doing all the things. My backyard is a constant work in progress, but we have had such beautiful weather this week that I’ve really been enjoying it.

I am also thrilled to announce that I went into the analytics for the podcast on Thursday, and I discovered that we have a new listener in Turkey — at least one. We also have a new listener in Germany, South Africa, and either Trinidad or Tobago.

This to me is very, very exciting. If you are listening from outside the US — particularly if you are my listener in Istanbul — please get in touch with me at writewithtarah.com or @writewithtarah on Instagram or Twitter. 

Tell me a little bit about you: whether you are originally from the country where you are listening or if you are perhaps an American expat…Let me know how you ended up abroad and where you are on your creative journey.

This week, I want to talk about creating killer systems for maximizing productivity. As creative entrepreneurs — hell, as human beings living in 2019 — we all need some systems to help us be more productive when it comes to the things we HAVE to do so we can spend more time doing the things we LOVE to do.

This is especially true if you are plugging away at your creative venture while also working full time. I think those of you who are consistently working to grow your creative side hustle are the true champions of the podcast. I’m thinking of my brother, who is side-hustling as an actor. I’m thinking of my sister-in-law Lisa who is painting and selling her beautiful cakes while working full time. And I’m thinking of my author-friend Jessica…

It’s not easy to prioritize your passions when so much is competing for your time and attention…That’s why streamlining those niggling weekly or monthly activities is so important.

But first, it’s time for our Discovery segment. This is that time during the podcast when I share something interesting or thought-provoking that has caught my attention this week. And right now, I am obsessed with the TV show Chasing Life, which is hosted by CNN health expert Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

If you get CNN through your cable provider, you can watch the entire six-part documentary series on demand. The premise of the show is that Sanjay Gupta travels to six different countries where people are living the longest with the fewest chronic illnesses. He asks those people the secrets to their health and vitality, and he partakes in some of the traditional practices that keep people healthy.

Some of the more interesting segments for me centered around the Japanese practice of forest bathing, how Bolivians use coca leaves — the raw material used to make cocaine — as a cure for altitude sickness, and the ancient Indian science of Ayurveda. I’m actually getting my own Ayurvedic workup from a friend of mine who is currently training to become a practitioner. It’s very, very interesting.

Let’s dive into this week’s topic: the systems and processes that can help us be more productive.

I want to preface this by saying that although I enjoy “life hacks” and finding ways to be more productive, I am not a person who is all about productivity in every aspect of life.

The vision I have for my summer this year is slowing down, spending lots of quiet time outside in nature in my garden, and really taking every opportunity I can to savor the season.

But because I am a particularly busy period of my life, the time to slow down has to come from somewhere. Some of this time has to come from me just stopping myself from rushing on to the next thing.

As I said, I am getting my full Ayurvedic workup, and I am predominantly a Vata person. From what I’ve learned, Vata people tend to be fast-moving, hyperactive, prone to high levels of activity — both metal and physical — and we tend to run ourselves into the ground.

This month and this summer, I am trying to be less frantic — less rushed, less “busy,” and balance my Vata — so sometimes, I just have to stop myself from doing one more thing or rushing through what I’m currently doing so that I can squeeze more in.

But another thing I am doing to carve out more time for creativity and leisure is to identify all those necessary life activities that are sucking up my time and energy and make them easier, less stressful, and do them in a way that requires less effort.

So how do you identify those life and business activities that you NEED to develop a system for? For myself, I always start by identifying those activities that I dread: things like bookkeeping, following up on emails, learning a new advertising platform, creating new ads, running any errands that require me to get on the highway and drive across town…things like that.

Then I ask myself: Is this a one-step activity or a multi-step activity? So a good example of a one-step activity would be driving across town to the plumbing supply store to get the new faucet to fix the leaky one on our antique clawfoot tub. It’s not a fun activity, but it is really simple and straightforward.

These are the activities that I am just procrastinating on, and I just need to do them because the dreading is always worse than the doing.

On Friday, when I finally just went and got the faucet, the whole thing from the time I left my house to the time I got back took less than an hour.

But if it is a multi-step activity that I’m dreading, that’s when I know I need a system. This is an activity that I need to break down into smaller or more manageable steps so that I know what I have to do and I can do one step at a time so it doesn’t seem so bad.

So one system that I developed back in January that has totally changed my life is my monthly bookkeeping system. Bookkeeping used to be something I was really bad at…I hated doing it and so I would put it off for several months, and then when I went to record my expenses and balance my cash-flow statement, it was a living nightmare. If I found a discrepancy between my cash-flow statement and my bank statement, I would have to go back months to find the problem, and sometimes I would just give up.

Now, I have a checklist that I complete on the 3rd of every month. I go into my bank statement, I add up all the royalties I earned the previous month. I record that number. I pay off my business credit card. I record my bank balance and make sure this matches my cash-flow statement, and I check my previous month’s sales to estimate my revenue 60 days out.

I also have a weekly process for recording my business and personal expenses that I do every Monday. I’ve found that if I just have a specific day where it’s expected that I do something, it doesn’t feel like this big burden.

If you have something like this that needs to happen every month, I highly recommend creating a checklist for yourself so you don’t even have to think about it. For me, doing something once a month isn’t enough for it to become a habit, so I need a list to make sure I’m consistent.

I’ve also started creating a loose meal plan and social media plan for myself at the beginning of the week. It’s nothing in depth, and I don’t have to stick to it…But at the bottom of my to-do list for the week, I just write the days of the week down one side and jot down ideas for what we could have to eat every day and what I could post on Instagram every day…It takes less than five minutes, and that way I don’t have to think about it later.

There’s one more system I’ve developed that has made my life a lot easier. This one is a life hack, not a business hack, but I wanted to share it because it’s a really good example of developing a process for something so that it takes less time and less energy.

Something I’ve realized as a creative person is that one thing that really exhausts me is decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue is basically when the quality of our decisions deteriorates after we have been forced to make a lot of small decisions. So President Obama once said that he only ever wore gray or blue suits while in office. That was to reduce the energy involved in making a minor decision so he had more energy to make big important decisions. There’s a great Fast Company article on Obama’s productivity secrets that I’ll link to down in the show notes.

But as a writer, I have to make dozens of small creative decisions every day. I also have to make big high-level decisions for my business.

And so I really try to reduce decision fatigue in other areas of my life. This is the reason why I started the meal-planning and social media planning.

And one life activity that gives me a lot of decision fatigue and fatigue in general is something that most everyone can probably related for…My most dreaded of all dreaded tasks: going to the grocery store.

Now I don’t know about you, but I am the person in our household who is responsible for doing the grocery shopping and cooking most of our meals. Yes, we are maddeningly gender-normative in our household roles…

The reason the grocery store has become such a dreaded task is that there are so many steps involved. There are a lot of tiny decisions that have to be made…The store is always really busy no matter what time of day I go…And it’s something that I feel like I have to squeeze after work when I’m already tired and depleted and hungry.

I have to drive there, figure out what we’re going to be eating, remember all the staples we’re running low on, navigate the grocery store, circle back five or six times to get things I forgot, check out, schlep it all back to the car, drive home, make room in the fridge, put things away, wash vegetables, and start dinner.

But…I have new rules and a system for myself, and I have SOLVED the grocery store, people. I have figured it out. And no, I didn’t hire a kid on TaskRabbit to go to the store for me…Don’t think I haven’t considered it.

My new rules for grocery store night are as follows:

  1. Clean out the refrigerator before I leave. Throw out any leftovers that are too old to salvage and straighten up all the things that have gotten disorganized. This also helps me do a quick inventory and see what we need.

  2. Wash all the dishes. We do not have a dishwasher, and there’s nothing worse than coming home from the grocery store with a sink full of dirty Tupperware and lunch dishes. So I wash them and clear out the sink so that when I come home, I can immediately dump the fruits and veggies into the sink with a little bit of white vinegar in water to wash them.

  3. I plan what we are going to eat for the next three days BEFORE I leave my house. This way I can check whether we already have certain ingredients and make a list of the things I need while I have the recipe in front of me. (I have tried planning four days’ worth of dinners, and this is just too many meals for me to figure out and shop for. Three is my max. Any more than that and I see diminishing returns on my efficiency.)

  4. I now make a complete list with everything I need, but I make the list in order of how I will go through the store. This is really important to keep me from having to circle back several times once I’m there.

  5. Before I leave the house, I make sure I have my reusable bags, my headphones, and a green smoothie. It’s always best to eat before you go to the grocery store, but sometimes this just doesn’t work out with my schedule and so I bring a green smoothie with me so I’m not hangry. Yes, I drink it as I shop…But there are people who put non-service animals in their grocery carts, so trust me when I say that this is the least-gross thing people do at the grocery store.

So what do I do when I get there? First thing’s first: I put in my headphones.

Now, I know this is really controversial among grocery store-goers. I used to really hate on headphone people at the grocery store…I thought it was rude and dangerous…Kind of like snowboarding with your headphones in.

But I’ve found that some sensory deprivation is the best way to peacefully navigate the grocery store at 5:30 on a weekday. I put on my rasta party playlist, and I can be super nice and chill the whole time I’m there. (In case you’re wondering, I do take my headphones out at the meat counter and when I check out because I think it’s rude to the workers to have your headphones in when you’re being helped.)

Now, I’m about to give you a hack that will completely and forever change how you experience the grocery store. If you do nothing else, you should do this one thing and it will instantly improve your experience.

Once I am inside the doors, I go AGAINST the flow of traffic.

Now every grocery store is laid out for a very specific flow. It is designed this way by the merchandisers so that you will spend as much money as possible. In fact, two-thirds of grocery store purchases are unplanned, according to Paco Underhill, author of “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping.”

My neighborhood King Soopers grocery store is set up for a clockwise flow…Yours might be the opposite, but the flow is always going to send you through the produce and prepared foods section FIRST and the refrigerated section LAST.

This is because everyone always needs milk or eggs, and so the merchandisers want you to go through everything else before you can get what you really need.

Also, the out-of-season produce and prepared foods have some of the highest markups of any items in the grocery store. AND people are the most optimistic when they first enter the grocery store, so they will usually pick up more fruits and veggies if they go through that department first because they are fooling themselves into thinking they’re going to eat really healthy.

By the time they get to the processed food aisles, that wishful thinking is gone, and they’ll throw some Oreos and Frosted Flakes and Doritos into the cart too. Some people think customers buy more junk food if they go through the produce first to reward themselves for all the healthy eating they plan to do.

Now almost everyone goes through the flow in the way the merchandisers intended, but this is actually the least efficient way to go through the grocery store.

For one thing, there is always a bottleneck in the produce department because people have to spend extra time to pick out the best fruits and vegetables.

Fruits and veggies also get moved around depending on what’s in season, so it takes extra time to find what you are looking for. Sometimes people also get hit with decision fatigue because it’s really challenging to plan meals if you start with the veggie part of the meal. You’re forced to work backward and figure out what veggie will go well with your main.

So always start in the refrigerated section. This way, if you need staples like milk or eggs or creamer for your coffee, there’s no way you’ll forget it because it’s the first section you go through. You can knock out a big part of your list right there because you know exactly what you need…There are no decisions to be made.

Then there are the center aisles, and you really shouldn’t be spending much time here anyway and unless you need specific ingredients. You should always stick to the perimeter because that’s where the healthy whole foods are. I do usually dip down the cereal aisle to get Ben his cereal and the rice aisle to get my grains, but otherwise I can skip like 75 percent of the aisles.

Then you end up at the meat counter. Voila! Isn’t that smart? If you eat meat, this is where you can pick up your main course for your meal. Doesn’t that make sense?

Then and only then am I ready to go into the minefield that is the produce department. By this time, any wishy-washy idealism has worn off, and I am able to proceed with clarity instead of getting dazzled by the colorful buffet in front of me.

I have the staple fruits and veggies that I always pick up for my breakfast and Ben’s lunches, and I’ll usually improvise on the veggies for dinner based on what’s in season and looks the freshest.

Finally, it comes time for the true test: the checkout lane. Now, I’ve experimented with this, and after extensive testing, I no longer believe that self-checkout is the fastest for a full cart of groceries. The technology just isn’t perfect yet — especially if you bring your own bags. 

But how do you choose the right cashier during peak hours? This is the eternal quandary.

You go to the clerk with the fewest customers in line — regardless of how full their carts are. The reason behind this is that there is a set amount of time that it takes people to say hello, type in their loyalty card number, pay, put their wallet away, and go. More people in line means more time spend on these things.

I try to avoid getting in line behind people with small children…Kids slow things down by distracting their parents. It’s not their fault; it’s just a fact of life.

And finally, pick a female cashier. This sounds sexist, but this comes from Robert Samuel, who literally makes his living standing in line for things in New York City. Female cashiers tend to be more efficient cashiers across the board.

There is a wonderful article with more tips for faster checkouts, and I’ll put a link to that down in the show notes.

I feel like that was a really long tangent about the grocery store, but I decided to share it because we all have to eat, and I think going to the store is something that a lot of us dread. It’s time-consuming, it’s expensive, and it zaps a lot of energy that we should be putting toward creating and RELAXING on the front porch with a glass of iced tea.

If you have any amazing productivity hacks or systems to share, please get in touch to let me know. I’m @writewithtarah on Instagram and Twitter, and you can also find me and a transcript of this episode at www.writewithtarah.com. That’s Tarah with an “H.”

And listener from Istanbul, I am waiting to hear from you.

If you enjoyed this episode, please take a moment to leave a rating and a review wherever you get your podcasts. This helps other creatives find the podcast and their home away from home on the Internet.

I’ll see you next time, and happy creating!

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Photo by Nathan Dumlao

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