Expert Interview with Will Critchlow from Distilled

The Simply Business Productivity series

  • By Hannah Smith
  • 3 May 2012
Will Critchlow of Distilled

As part of our series on Productivity we’ve interviewed Will Critchlow to quiz him about his own personal productivity challenges, how he handles them and the tools he uses day to day to help.

Will co-founded Distilled in 2005 with Duncan Morris. Distilled provides natural SEO and paid search services from offices in London, New York and Seattle; and hosts regular industry conferences. You can follow his tweets at @WillCritchlow.

Meetings

Meetings are often cited as being unproductive – whether that’s because they run on too long, are unfocused, fail to result in action (the list is endless!). Please share your experiences and your tips for keeping meetings productive.

I try to avoid large meetings. I don't really count 1-1s as meetings and generally find them to be some of the best uses of my time.

When I do need to have a larger meeting, I am getting ever stricter at enforcing:

1. A single person in charge who:

a. circulates any prerequisite information well before the meeting so everyone is on the same page at the start and time isn't used for drawn-out status updates
b. has (and sticks to) an agenda - also circulated in advance

2. A note-taker who always asks "who has ownership of that?"

Related: I am a big fan of Merlin Mann on meetings:
http://www.43folders.com/2010/10/06/broken-meetings

Workload

How do you manage your own personal workload?

I use:

  • Trello for my backlog (and "lists of lists") - I find it lets me keep my to do lists nicely segmented by project / context
  • Evernote for capturing random thoughts and also for my "daily" list (more on this below)
  • A physical notebook for scribbles and free form ideas
  • Google Calendar (and other apps features) for my schedule and interaction with my team

I try to stick to a "getting things done" sweep of my inboxes into my task lists. I don't always manage it.
 

How do you keep track of what your team are working on?

For my team, I use a combination of an internal system (that we call "distilled tools") and toggl for tracking client work and Trello (mentioned above) for planning sprints.

Probably the biggest leap I've made recently for my own personal productivity is separating my backlog (someday / maybe) from my "today" list - into completely separate systems. I try to force myself not to revisit the backlog until I've done the stuff I decided was today's top priority.

For keeping up to date with our growing team's activity, I have one high-tech and one low-tech tip:

High-tech (relatively): use G+ as an internal social network (works well if you're on google apps) - so that you can easily share stories of what you're working on in a safe walled garden

Low-tech: I am a massive fan of the simple weekly round-up email. We are still managing an all-hands round-up with nearly 50 people. I suspect this will fragment soon, but it's a great way of staying in touch.

Collaboration

How do you manage collaboration between your employees? Are there any tools or apps you’d recommend?

My most-used tools for collaboration are:

  • Trello (see above)
  • Google Docs - particularly for collaborative editing in text documents and presentations
  • Gchat (part of Google Apps) for adhoc conversations
  • Google Plus Hangouts (or Skype video chat)
  • Dropbox Team

Email

How often do you check email a day? Do you have a system for managing your inbox?

I have recently found myself less efficient at turning email off completely. I dip in more than I'd like just to "see what's there". However, I am reasonably diligent about not worrying about the inbox most of the time and processing my email in sprints. I try to manage a daily sprint to inbox zero. I love gmail priority inbox and only really use three labels for categorisation:

  • Inbox = unprocessed
  • Archive = done / replied to
  • Starred = to do

I can't imagine using any tool other than gmail these days and once again, I turn to Merlin Mann on inbox zero:
http://inboxzero.com/
 

Remote working

What are your tips for working efficiently when you’re away from the office?

All of my tools work anywhere I have a decent internet connection. I notice very little difference in (tool-related) productivity regardless of where I am.

For productivity on the move, I generally rely on my (Android) phone along with tethering my (tiny) Macbook Air.

One slight email tweak I've found useful is to have an email label entitled "office" which is for anything I can't action on the move (like printing / scanning). That helps clear my headspace nicely when I know I'm going to be travelling for more than a day.

Your top productivity tip

If you had to give one tip to small companies looking to grow and improve their output, what would it be?

Get a culture of inbox zero across the organisation. Add a culture of ownership (i.e. that when you ask someone to do something they will definitely either handle it or flag it up for discussion early) and you're 75% of the way there.

ROI

What ROI have you seen on your efforts to improve productivity within your company?

Honestly? I've made no attempt to measure it quantitatively or qualitatively. My biggest qualitative metric is that *failing* to push hard on this stuff makes everyone get very upset with each other.

Read more about: General business , Managing your business