The Infinite Manager: How we manage our personal flows

The following excerpt is from our in-house onboarding flow for new team members. We are publishing it as a series of articles, which we’re calling The Infinite Manager. The series describes the unconventional operating system that has enabled our small team to have such an impact on the web’s leading companies.

In part 1, we explained why Meetings Managers (people who manage using meetings) are much less efficient than Flow Managers (people who manage using flows). And we gave examples of some great flows. In this part we’ll cover why, to be a great Flow Manager, you need to start with your personal flows.

Being a great manager begins with being great at managing your own work. Because if you can’t manage your own work effectively, how can you manage the work of others?

The great thing about using your own flows is that you are dogfooding them. You get to see what works. You get to experience firsthand how elegant, effortless, and usable your flows are (or how awful they are). If you struggle to understand a flow you created in the past, you get to experience the type of pain you inflict on your team members.

Your future self is one of the best teachers you’ll find. When you design for your future self, you get to be both the creator, burdened with the curse of knowledge, and then later the user, blessed with fresh eyes. Feedback from your future self is rich, because it’s not communicated via the lossy medium of words. It doesn’t need to travel through the low-bandwidth air gap from one head to another.

Your future self will provide more than 90% of the user feedback you’ll ever receive. So don’t try hard only on documents that are public. That’s like a musician deciding to try hard only once they make it to Carnegie Hall. Every time you write a note to yourself, a checklist, a calendar entry, a to-do list—or any other type of flow—it’s an opportunity to practice your flow-creating skills. Whenever you create flows, try your hardest to make them easy for your future self to follow.

As with musicianship, the goal is fluency: you want to be able to work intelligibly in real-time, to be able to create usable flows fluently, in plain English. Because doing so helps you to think. Your documents should always be in a state that they could be understood by someone else without explanation. Often, that someone else is your future self. So aim to make your sentences readable as you type them. Aim to make your tables, charts, and flows intelligible as you create them. If you can tidy in real-time, you won’t need to tidy retrospectively. And, realistically, if you’re too busy to do it now, you’ll probably be too busy later. Tidying later is often harder, because of the principle of Chesterton’s Fence:

“Imagine a fence erected across a road. A reformer says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let’s remove it.’ A more intelligent reformer replies, ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I won’t let you remove it. Only once you see the use of it may you remove it.’”

To give you an idea of how arduous it is to tidy later, just read the following heading from one of our in-house documents: “Data we think we should change or delete but first we need to understand why it was created.” Fortunately, we don’t have many sections like that, and they almost always refer to work that was created before we appreciated the importance of the principles in this document. In such cases, tidying becomes 1% editing and deleting, and 99% laborious detective work.

If you don’t try hard on your personal flows, you can’t become great at usability (and readability, which is a type of usability). Just as a good proofreader can’t resist correcting a typo, a good manager can’t resist fixing a road bump in a flow they use every day. That’s why, when we hired you, we were interested in the systems you had created to manage your own work. Such systems gave us insight into how you create and perfect flows.

Flows for managing your personal work

One flow that you’ll use every day is your flow for managing incoming tasks. The book Getting Things Done describes a useful flow, which is summarized well by the following diagram:

Flowchart diagram of the Getting Things Done process
If you don’t already have a flow for managing the influx of tasks, Getting Things Done can be a useful starter. We find this diagram to be more useful than the one in the book.

We find it useful for making sure nothing important slips through the cracks.

Getting Things Done recommends tagging tasks according to the context you’re in—so you may have a context of “When I’m at a computer” or “When I’m on the phone.” We like to reduce your number of contexts as much as possible—by ensuring that you’re always near a phone and a computer, and that you can carry out almost all your activities over the web.

Of course, you don’t want your work to be dominated by your incoming tasks. Later in this series, we’ll address how to ensure that your working day is driven by proactive tasks that drive you toward your goals. We’ll also cover phenomena that dominate—and slow things down—when there are multiple tasks and multiple users: phenomena like bottlenecks, handoffs, visibility, flow, and waste.

Many people use task manager software like Things, and OmniFocus. We prefer to manage task lists as bullet-point lists in Google Docs. Doing so has the following benefits:

  • It’s simple. We often see people getting overwhelmed by their task managers.
  • You can easily navigate your way around your tasks using a keyboard.
  • Each heading in a Google Doc has its own URL, so you can easily link to sections in other Google Docs.
  • It works fine on all platforms; we have never had syncing issues.
  • You can share docs using granular sharing—for example, you can allow a person to “comment only.”

Some “kanban-style” task managers, like Trello, use columns to represent stages of a process, like “to do,” “in progress,” and “done.” In Google Docs, we achieve the same thing by highlighting tasks as follows:

Screenshot of color coding of tasks in Google Docs
The colors we use to indicate the state of each task.

We also use the conventions in the following screenshot:

A screenshot showing two details of how we mark completed tasks.
How we annotate completed tasks, and how we mark skipped tasks.

If a task has a date associated with it, we move it into Google Calendar and include in the calendar event a link to the related document.

When highlighting isn’t enough, we sometimes use headings, too, so work progresses from heading to heading. For example, each person in a flow may have their own section—demarcated by a heading—so when one person completes a particular task, they move it to the next person’s section.

We also use headings with our daily to-do lists:

Daily task list template
In Google Docs, you can use headings and highlighting instead of kanban columns, resulting in a page that’s fast to edit and has high information density.

Notice how the task that was still in progress at the end of Tuesday was completed on Wednesday. (It could have been moved rather than duplicated, but it’s useful to be able to see retrospectively how many tasks were left “in progress” at the end of a day. Ideally, there should be no more than one—otherwise, why did you start another task.)

We find the following Google Docs keyboard shortcuts incredibly useful for task lists. We have quoted the ones for Mac (because almost all of us use Macs), but Windows has equivalents. It pays to learn them a few at a time, rather than all at once:

  • To insert a link: Command+K.
  • To copy a URL: Command+L (and then Command+C)
  • The arrow keys allow you to move horizontally one character at a time or vertically one line at a time.
    • If you hold down the Alt key at the same time, you move horizontally one word at a time or vertically one paragraph at a time.
    • If you hold down the Command key at the same time, you move horizontally to the start or end of a row or vertically to the start or end of a document.
    • If you hold down the Shift key at the same time as the above, you highlight the text you move across.
  • If you misspell a word, delete it using Alt+Backspace—which tends to be faster than fiddling around backspacing one character at a time.
  • To move a bullet point up or down in a list (this doesn’t appear to be documented anywhere, and we stumbled upon it by mistake):
    • On a Mac: Control+Shift+Up Arrow (or Down Arrow).
    • On Windows: Alt+Shift+Up Arrow (or Down Arrow).
  • To indent or unindent a bullet point: Command+] or Command+[.
  • To highlight text—green, orange, red, or whatever—you have two options:
    • Option 1: Set the default styles for Headings 4, 5, and 6 to be plain text highlighted in green, orange, and red, respectively—and then trigger them using Command+Alt+4 (and 5 and 6). The only drawback is that the whole of a line must have the same color. (Thanks to reader Joel Shetler, who sent us this ingenious tip.)
    • Option 2: Google Docs’ keyboard shortcut for highlighting text is cumbersome: You have to press Alt+/ then type “highlight green” and Enter. It’s quicker to just use the mouse. However, if you use the macOS automation software Keyboard Maestro, you can create a keyboard shortcut to type it. Here’s a screenshot of how the macro looks in Keyboard Maestro:
      Keyboard Maestro macro for highlighting text green
      Note that the first step is to undo the typing of ,gr which will have overwritten the words you selected. The pauses are to give Google Docs a chance to keep up. Once the Keyboard Maestro shortcut is set up, to highlight text in green you just select the text and type ,gr. We use shortcuts to highlight in green (,gr), orange (,or), red (,re), magenta (,ma), yellow (,ye), and white (,wh). Commas followed by letters make great hotkeys, because you’d never normally type a character immediately after a comma.
This article is one of a series, the index for which is here. In the next part, we describe how flows can eliminate work, so you only have to think once.

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