Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

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How to get from where you are to where you want to be

A Small World

“Never before in history has innovation offered promise of so much to so many in so short a time.” Bill Gates

Today after being on a conference call between three different time zones, I stopped to marvel at the amazing transformation the internet and telecommunication tools have had on business. My father reminds me of the days he was in Saudi Arabia in the early 80’s, when using the telephone was a luxury and all business transactions were either done in person or through telegrams. I cannot even begin to fathom doing that today. With the explosive growth of computers and the internet, the world has suddenly and truly become a small world. No one is really inaccessible and everyone is linked to each other through various social networks. At times however it can be quite overwhelming knowing that one is constantly plugged into this network be it through a computer, laptop or mobile phones.

The world having become increasingly more connected has brought about many new opportunities for entrepreneurs in it’s wake. Today you can be sitting in Singapore talking to your supplier in Guangzhou, China and selling your product to someone in Brazil. All this with the help of Skype, E-Banking and some collaboration software. However, not enough entrepreneurs are being able to see the multiple opportunities that exist now that we are able to bridge these massive divides. My father and many of his friends are in the import/export business. They can literally conduct business anywhere in the world just by using a phone. Other opportunities such as outsourcing are also becoming increasingly popular and Timothy Ferris has dedicated an entire chapter in his book “4 Hour Work Week” to it.

I have quite a few friends who use e-bay and other such websites to make a decent part time income to supplement their primary income streams. Some of them are the first ones to get the latest mobile phones from Asia and sell them to buyers in the West; others buy handicrafts from China and supply major retail stores. This definitely requires doing your homework, finding a niche and seeing whether you can locate a gap to fill. By leveraging on technologies which are readily available today this has become increasingly simpler from days of yore when you needed to go to the post office to send out a telegram. This is only one of the ways we can leverage on available technologies. I will discuss the impact of these technologies on various aspects of business processes in the near future.

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5 Steps to Get Things Done (GTD)

“Contemplation often makes life miserable.  We should act more, think less, and stop watching ourselves live.” Nicolas de Chamfort

Every passing day signifies 24 hours of our life, which we will not be able to get back. Very often, days pass by so quickly that they turn into weeks, months and years before we know it. We often complain about the day not having enough hours, and yet, we tend to lose precious moments every day. It is only when we look back and think of what could have been, do we realize how vital it is to use the time we have to the best of our ability. I do not believe in regrets and beating myself up for what could have been. What upsets me however, is seeing myself waste time. It can be procrastination, day dreaming or the fact that I was overwhelmed with everything that needed to be done. Either way, I know I will not be able to get that time back. When searching for ways to organize my life and use time wisely, I found the GTD system, which has introduced accountability as part of my days. Listed below are 5 steps to use, and implement a system to get things done.

1. Collection: This begins with picking up pieces of our lives scattered all over the place. This includes cluttered desks, messy drawers, loose papers, over flowing inboxes and over loaded thoughts. We have to begin by collecting all these “open loops” and putting them into a system where we can process each and everyone of them. It requires much discipline and hard work to get all this stuff into one place initially. The key is to have a system in place which allows us to record these open loops as and when they are created. This takes a huge load of one’s mind, and allows it to focus, rather than be confused with all the happenings in your head. To learn more about how to get started on the collection step, please click here.

2. Processing: After step one, there will be much information to be processed. This means we need to go through each item and open loop, sort out which needs to be acted upon, those that need to be archived, and most importantly, those that need to be trashed. We have to make a conscious effort to minimize the number of items our system will hold as much as possible. Items which require 2 minutes or less of action, must be acted upon instantly, and those loops closed. For example, the expense sheet that needs your signature, sign it now, and send it to the required person. To learn more about how to process all your items please click here.

3. Organizing: Once we have the information after processing, it needs to be organized in a manner to enable us to refer to it, as and when needed. This means each item needs to be allocated specific buckets to slot into. These buckets can be projects or reference topics, in which to organize all the necessary items under one file. For example if you are launching a new corporate website, all the items and thoughts for that project need to be filed together. It is important to label all these action items with contexts that allow you to focus on them when required. Examples of contexts are “Phone Calls”, “Emails”, “Errands” etc. This way you can batch certain activities together. To learn more about how to organize your data please click here.

4. Reviewing: This is a critical step which refreshes your mind of commitments, and closes loops on projects taking up more time than they should. I use three reviewing cycles which are a daily, weekly and monthly review. In these review cycles, I ensure that my daily schedule is structured to maximize my time. Weekly reviews give me a higher level view of everything accomplished during the course of the week, and the progress made. Lastly, the monthly view provides me a snapshot of the larger picture. Without these constant reminders it is easy to get side tracked, and revert to old ways. To learn more about my review cycles please click here.

5. Doing: Very often it comes down to taking action. Lists are only useful, when the items on them are periodically checked off and progress made. Without action we could use the most sophisticated technology in the world to collect, process and organize our data; without seeing any improvements at all in our lives. I use the four criterion model where the task I choose depends on the context, time available, energy and priority. For example if my commute to work everyday is 30 minutes and I have access to my phone during that period of time, I use my “Phone Calls” list and make all the calls during this period of time. Likewise the task I choose depends on the time available, the amount of energy I have and most importantly how important the task is. To learn more about the four criterion model please click here.

There is not just one way the GTD system can be implemented into your daily lives. Everyone has different needs and requirements, each step can be customized. What is important is that we create a system which is reliable and all encompassing. We need to take the load of our minds and put it down on paper, where we can process it more efficiently. As David Allen says, the aim is to reach a “mind like water” state. Where we will be able to move seamlessly from one activity to another, while maintaining a high level of productivity and efficiency. I hope this simple guide serves as a helpful starter for those wanting to begin using this system. I would appreciate your comments, feedback and experience using the GTD system.

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GTD Step 5: Doing

“Success will never be a big step in the future, success is a small step taken just now.” Jonatan Mårtensson

Going through steps one to four, can be a liberating experience in itself. Through these steps, we have I believe, brought some structure to our often chaotic lives, and now have access to a system with a broad overview of happenings in our lives. These steps must however be executed on a daily basis, in order to bring about a reliable system. We are the main engine for making this system work. The minute we stop inputting our commitments, action items and thoughts into the system, the reference angle is meaningless. Hence, we have to set-up the system in a manner that is easy to use on a daily basis. There are several methodologies used to keep the wheels spinning in a GTD system. Outlined below, is the one I prefer to use.

Four Criteria Model

1. Context: All my action items are always grouped according to context. Therefore, depending on where I am, and the tools currently available, I select a context to work in. For instance, if the commute to my office takes 30 minutes, and all I have access to at that time is my phone, I bring up the list of calls I need to make. If I am able to work on multiple contexts at the office, I will use the remaining three criterion to help make a decision.

2. Time Available: I am at the office and have a meeting scheduled in the next hour, I can use this time to come up with an agenda for a proposed meeting, or review the presentation I have to give on my computer. If I only have five minutes before the meeting, I can scan my list of short phone calls or emails, and deal with them  using this period of time. This way, I am able to maximize the awkward 5-10 minutes in between meetings, calls and appointments.

3. Energy Available: Some tasks require more physical and mental effort than others. Let’s say it is 7:30pm after a long day at work. I have a list of low energy tasks which I could do at this moment. Depending on the time and tools available, this is a great time to fill in expense sheets, data entry or another task which requires minimal effort. For tasks requiring more energy, I work to place them in the earlier part of the day when I feel fresher and have a clearer mind.

4. Priority: We all have critical tasks which need to be given a higher level of priority. These tasks are usually flagged in my task lists, and are completed as soon as possible. If an entire day goes by, and these tasks are left undone, it often feels like the entire day has gone to waste. It is essential that your task list clearly marks priority, to ensure that you see these flagged tasks first and get them done as soon as possible.

Using this model I am able to collect, process and organize my action items throughout the day. It is undoubtedly not the most structured approach out there as compared to other methodologies. I like to be able to switch between projects depending on external factors. Other people that I know have more structured approaches, where they complete certain types of work at predefined times in the day. It is important to select a methodology that you are comfortable with. The primary objective must be to make it easy for you to use the system regularly and refer back to it whenever required.

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GTD Step 4: Reviewing

“People love chopping wood.  In this activity one immediately sees results.” Albert Einstein

Steps one through three, involved the gathering of data, putting it into appropriate buckets, and ensuring it was placed in a system to enable us to know what to do next. The fourth step in the process is a critical one, it puts a review system into place. The purpose of a review system is to analyze whether we are on track, as also gauge the progress we are making. A common case  in need of such a review system is, making lists of things to do, and then never getting around to doing them, because of inadequate and irregular review system . A review system helps to refresh your mind of commitments and closes loops on projects taking up more time than they should. I use three main review cycles, they are outlined below:

Daily Review: The first thing I do when I get into office is to open my calender, and review the tasks allocated for that particular day. This helps me plan accordingly for the rest of the day. The next task is to review my project lists, and determine the next action and it’s context. Depending on this list, I plan my day to maximize completion of tasks.

Weekly Review: This is by far the most important review cycle of them all. My weekly review is scheduled for Sunday morning, for those who work a 5 day week I suggest keeping it on Friday when things are still fresh in your mind. During this review I have a couple of key tasks which I now do habitually.

Emails: During the course of the week, I make sure my inbox remains as empty as possible. However if there are unprocessed emails which require thinking about, this is the time I usually clear them. I also identify emails that I am expecting, but which have not been received yet. I then create reminders, to ask the concerned individuals during the course of the week.

Calender: I review last week’s calender and see which tasks need to be moved forward to this week if required. I schedule appointments and action items for the coming week in advance if required. This way I ensure nothing is left unprocessed from last week, and move into a new week being aware of the workload to expect.

Project Review: Next, I review all the projects labeled for weekly reviews. In this manner I can monitor fairly adequately how much I got done during the week. If I have fallen behind schedule on certain tasks, I identify the reasons, and make sure that greater time is allocated to get them sorted out in the coming week. This project review helps close many loops on concurrent projects and helps me stay afloat with the activity, without getting overwhelmed.

Monthly Review: This review is carried out on the last Saturday of every month. I use this review to monitor progress of the macro goals I have set for myself. They  include growth of a businesses, personal finance, personal development and health. These are some larger goals which a weekly review does not cover. Through this review I get a perspective on the larger picture, without feeling bogged down with smaller projects running simultaneously. This is a very important review cycle, I recommend it’s use to everyone.

Incorporating a review system into my schedule has greatly increased my productivity and focus in life. The feeling of being bogged down with simultaneous project rarely occurs now. This provides a degree of control which is calming and reassuring at the same time. Without this vital step the GTD methodology will impact in a less meaningful manner. A disciplined review system, is a foundational building block, and helps this system unlock its true potential.

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GTD Step 3: Organizing

“The sculptor produces the beautiful statue by chipping away such parts of the marble block as are not needed – it is a process of elimination.” Elbert Hubbard

After the first couple of steps of the GTD process, there will still be much that will need to handled. Step three is best run parallel with step two. In so much as, that when we process we should organize the data into buckets which we will review and take action on, at a more appropriate and later time. Let’s say for example you are processing your “in” basket, and there is a memo about a call you need to make on Tuesday to a client. If you label it as such, and defer it to next week, you need a system in place to remind you on Tuesday morning to make that call. Every individual’s system will develop naturally, depending on the nature of their work and personality. Listed below are some key components of my organization process.

Setting up Buckets: Buckets are placeholders for any project which requires more than one action item to complete. They can also be created to manage reference material.

Projects: For example, at the moment I am working on launching a new website. I have created a bucket for this project which has a list of all action that needs to be taken before the website is actually launched. Similarly, we may have other projects such as “hire a new marketing manager”, “clean work desk”, “sign up for a medical insurance”, “plan a party for a friend” or even “plan winter vacation”. I do not make distinctions between personal and professional projects, you may want to however. What is important is that each project have a specific outcome and be reviewed on a regular basis to monitor progress.

Reference Material: The GTD system introduced me to something called a tickler file. This is quite simply a file which reminds me of tasks that need to be carried out on particular days. For instance, while processing  I find I need to make a call on Tuesday morning to a client, I place the item in the tickler folder, which I will open in the normal process of things on Tuesday morning. One can also set this up on an actual paper based system, be it a calender, a diary or a software program to manage your tickler file.

Working in Contexts: Contexts simply place all action items on your list, according to certain functions. For example, some of the contexts I use are “Phone Calls”, “Emails”, “Errands”, “Research”. Lets say I have a project which was “launch new website”, the first action on the list was to call a web developer and set up a meeting. I would assign this action item with the “Phone Calls” context. This way I can batch all my phone calls together and process them quickly. I strongly recommend batching your actions using contexts to increase your overall productivity.

Checklists: When we have several things happening concurrently, our brain often goes into overdrive. To help me through busy times like this, I like to organize my thoughts in a routine processes. For example, I have a checklist for “Conference Calls”, it outlines everything I need to do before, during and after the call. For the days I have to take and handle many such calls, it helps to make sure that I have not missed anything. Likewise, I have other lists for “Staff meetings”, “Backing up of data”, “Things to do before I travel”. One can set up lists for just about anything.

The organizational step takes time to get used to and to implement completely. It is important that we use this step to put all of our open loops into writing. This gives us the ability to free ourself from stress regarding smaller things such as “buy milk”, which if not processed on time and in the routine, takes up much more space than it should. Once we have processed and organized all this data, we are ready to move to the next important step of the system, reviewing.

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GTD Step 2: Processing

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” Hans Hofmann

If you have followed step 1 outlined in my last post, chances are you have a lot of stuff to deal with. When I go off the GTD system, my desk drawers become bottomless pits where I deposit just about anything, and then completely forget about it. I am sure all of us have cleared desks and drawers this way many a time. We are suddenly faced with all this surplus information which needs to be processed. Looking at a huge pile in front of you is stressful, so take a deep breath to start with! Next, pick up one item at a time from your in-basket, and start to process. It is important to deal with each item in the tray one at a time, and not put the item back until it has been processed. Outlined below are steps I follow to process my in-tray.

Step 1: I ask myself…. “What action does this particular item require?”. It could require a form of action or, none at all.

Step 2a: If the item requires action, I determine what level of action is required. There are three possible options at this point:

i) Do it: If the item can be completed in 2 minutes or less then I get to it immediately. For example, if the first item on the tray is an approval letter which requires my signature, I sign it, and have it sent to the appropriate person.This item could also be responding to an email, or confirming attendance at a party. Anything which takes a short period of time to complete.

ii) Delegate it: If the item requires another person to take action on it, I mark it, and have it sent to the concerned individual. For example, if the item is a contract my partner needs to comment on, I have it sent over to him.

iii) Defer it: If the item cannot be processed immediately but requires action in the near future, I mark it, and place it on my calender. For example, if the item is a post-it note reminding me to call a particular customer, and today being Saturday, I will put an action item on my calender to call the individual on Monday morning.

Step 2b: if the item does not require any action, there are then a couple of easy ways to deal with it.

i) Trash it: If the item in your tray is junk mail, it should go straight into the trash bin. Anything which does not have some value must be trashed.

ii) Incubate: If the item is an invitation to a wedding, which is to take place in a months time, and you are uncertain of your travel schedule, put it away in a file to review after a designated period of time. Many items will require you to think about stuff, and such a file is a great place to organize them.

iii) Reference: If the item is a competitor’s brochure, I would keep it as reference material. It is important that your reference material is well marked and easily retrievable. Much of the time we archive stuff and never see it again. Mark your files carefully, and keep them within reach at all times.

This may all seem excessive when you first look at it, however, with a little bit of practice all these decisions take place almost instantly. We know instinctively what we need to do with each item, since much of it may have been bothering you for some time. Getting into the habit of keeping your in-basket at a manageable level at all times can greatly improve the quality of life. It is important that you process this tray regularly. Once we have processed all the information, we can move to the next stage, which is, organizing all this information.

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GTD Step 1: Collect

“For disappearing acts, it’s hard to beat what happens to the eight hours supposedly left after eight of sleep and eight of work.” Doug Larson

Here is a common scenario in which I have fallen off my GTD schedule. My inbox has hundreds of emails which need to be sorted and processed, I am moving from one project to the next without getting anything accomplished, books are left unread half way through, my desk is cluttered with to-do lists and post-it notes, and overall, things are just not getting done. As an entrepreneur every day spent in such chaos is a day wasted. Time flies by, and I am left wondering when the day started and when it ended. According to David Allen, this scenario is a result of having too many ‘Open Loops’ in our brain. An open loop signifies thoughts in our brain which need closure. When these loops are left open for extended periods of time, we tend to procrastinate and get stressed out over all the things that need to get done. If you are carrying too many open loops presently, read the steps below to start clearing them out.

Step 1: Clear your Workspace: Our desks are where we spend the better part of our working day, they reflect our state of our mind. A messy desk serves as a reminder to our brain, of all the open loops we are carrying. At one moment we may be working on an important report, suddenly our eye catches an unpaid utility bill. Our focus suddenly switches to the bill, and we begin worrying about getting the payment in before the due date. Beneath the bill, we notice a letter for a seminar we needed to register for yesterday, we have missed the deadline to sign up. This process goes on and on until we sit down and clear our desk of all, but the necessary items which need to be on it.

Step 2: Clear your Computer: Somehow, desktop screens seem to collect a lot of stuff very quickly. Downloaded files, new documents, attachments and a host of other new creations. These serve as constant reminders of open loops and can be very distracting. Create folders, set dates and time to clear them as soon as possible. Next, move to your email box and begin dealing with all unanswered emails, delete those which do not need a response and archive important emails to designated folders for easy retrieval.

Step 3: Clear your Mind: This is one my favorite exercises. When I cannot bear the open loops any more, I take a piece of paper and start putting down my thoughts onto the sheet of paper. This can literally cover anything which is bothering me. For example, it could be, buy a box of chocolates, call the cable repair man, chart out a timeline for the new project, make a Doctor’s appointment, make reservations for saturday night dinner, or, start doing some charity work. This is one of the most therapeutic things you can do for yourself and putting it all down feels really good.

During these steps many documents and files need to be handled. Set up a basic ‘in’ and ‘out’ tray to manage all the data, and set dates and time to process all the information which has been gathered. I also use basic file folders for specific information, and I review those folders on a periodic basis. There is no point in collecting all this data, thoughts and action points, without setting up a system to manage your collection properly. Before you begin the collection process have a couple of fresh envelopes, file folders, labelers and, the trash bin nearby.

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