As part of our series on Productivity we’ve interviewed Everett Sizemore to quiz him about his own personal productivity challenges, how he handles them and the tools he uses day to day to help.
Everett Sizemore is Director of SEO Strategy with seOverflow, a strategic SEO outsourcing partner for marketing agencies and in-house marketing departments. His background is in eCommerce SEO and technical site auditing. Everett speaks at industry conferences like SMX and has guest lectured at the University of Denver. He has been working remotely for over three years. You can find Everett on twitter - @balibones, Google+ and LinkedIn.
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 agree with Will Critchlow that 1-on-1 meetings tend to be the most productive type. However, sometimes you can’t avoid a group meeting and I’ve found that the following strategies help me get the most out of them.
First of all, I generally don’t do meetings during the first half of my day Tuesday through Thursday. I take Mondays off, but will discuss that later. If a team member or client is only available during those times I always make an exception, but that time is blocked off of my calendar every week as an ongoing event so most of the time nobody sends a meeting request for those slots. This creates at least twelve hours of every week in which I can focus 100% on tasks that require analytical and creative thinking.
This came about because I do a lot of highly technical site auditing in which I am buried in data from multiple sources (Google Analytics, Screaming Frog, Webmaster Tools, log files, SERPs…) and have several large spreadsheets, a notepad and dozens of windows open all at once. A single phone call or meeting would interrupt my flow, which often took about an hour to get back - and by that time I was often due for another meeting or call. Things just weren’t getting done. The constant shifting of gears between unrelated tasks, and the constant multitasking was affecting my productivity and raising my stress levels. This affected every aspect of my life, including the level of service I was able to provide for clients, my relationships with team members and, most importantly, my relationships with friends and family.
Since implementing the change, which was really only a matter of blocking the time out on my calendar, I have been able to dive deeper into the data and provide better results for clients than ever before. Nobody is going to do this for you. Block off the time yourself. Ask for forgiveness later, but chances are you won’t have to. Better results will do all of the talking.
Another meeting strategy I often use is to sum up deliverables at the end. I don’t speak out everyone else’s list, but I always reiterate what it is that I am taking away as a responsibility. I have found that other people in the meeting generally follow-suit and before long it becomes the norm. Something is wrong if you regularly have meetings from which nobody leaves with a clearly defined to-do list.
I used to enjoy the downtime in meetings and thought there was a team-building aspect to it. People would go around the table and talk about their weekends, and slowly things would move on to the topic at hand. It’s funny how your views change as your career progresses. These days I don’t like meetings for the sake of meetings. The weekly ones are the worst because you tend to have them whether anyone has something to share or not. Some of them are important, however, and they can keep things running smoothly. The trick is to know which is which. I was scheduled to be in the weekly link building team’s meeting, but have slowly bowed out of it because I found that the link building team was doing just fine without my input. When you find yourself sitting silent for most of the meeting, or doing other things like checking email or viewing analytics that are unrelated to the topic it is a sure sign that you don’t belong in that meeting. On the other hand, we have a weekly meeting to go over the on-page optimization projects and I find that extremely useful. It always has my complete attention. Know when you provide value and when you don’t.
I work remotely so I’m online in every meeting. A lot of the time other people won’t have their computers with them so I am the one who does a lot of impromptu data-mining, searches, quick website overviews, etcetera. When you can answer a question in a meeting rather than putting it on your to-do list for later it saves time for everyone and keeps the conversation on track. So, while multitasking on unrelated things is rude and a sign that you shouldn’t be in the meeting, I find having a laptop/smartphone/tablet in front of me to be very beneficial when used appropriately.
How do you manage your own personal workload?
Doing what you love will make you more productive. I try to cut out the stuff that that I hate doing (as much as possible). I really don’t like spending much time in places like Freshbooks and Central Desktop, although I see the value of these tools.
I don’t like spending time matching up six different schedules to generate a successful meeting request with clients or vendors either. That type of stuff simply isn’t what I enjoy, nor is it what I’m good at. Managing your personal workload starts with knowing what is, and what is not, a good use of your time. That is the easy part.
The tricky part is getting buy-in from management or the executive team. You need to phrase it in economic terms. For instance, if you make about $50 an hour on salary and spend half your time doing project management tasks, niche directory submissions, running reports… the company is losing $25 an hour because these are all things that can be handled just as well by someone who makes half of your salary.
When I started working with seOverflow there was no project manager. I stressed myself out for a few weeks before realising that it was a simple matter of economics. Now we have a fantastic project manager who has a graduate degree in that field and a decade of experience managing projects and client relationships. He is doing what he is excels at and enjoys, and so am I. We are able to handle more clients and give more attention to existing clients, which more than covers the additional human resource.
How do you keep track of what your team are working on?
We have project status boards in Google Docs that are open to the entire company. This wonderful idea was implemented long before I joined the team, and allows me to see at a glance what everyone is working on and where every project is at any given moment. There doesn’t seem to be much trouble with buy-in / adoption because everyone seems to find it useful to keep their project status boards updated. Our new project manager, Tommy Bailey, also helps out a great deal if the status boards fall even a little behind. I don’t need to call anyone or schedule a meeting to know what someone is working on, which saves a lot of time.
How do you manage collaboration between your employees? Are there any tools or apps you’d recommend?
I think something like DropBox is an absolute necessity if you have people working remotely. We also use Google Docs, Central Desktop, Skype, GoTo Meeting (not my favourite these days) and Google Hangouts from time to time.
The Google Docs feature that sends document notes back and forth is very useful when collaborating on a new document, such as a new procedure or product offering. We all use Gmail so Google Chat is a frequently used tool for quick questions back and forth.
EchoSign makes sending human resource documents, proposals and contracts back and forth a breeze. I’ve tried tons of different tools, having worked remotely for the last few years, and can say that Gmail, Skype and Dropbox are the ones I couldn’t live without. That probably isn’t a huge tip for anyone since most people use them these days. I think there’s a reason for that.
How often do you check email a day? Do you have a system for managing your inbox?
I check email dozens of times a day, but not when I am involved in a project unless it is related to the task. My system usually involves a quick glance in the morning to see if there is anything urgent. If not, I try to get something related to a project or writing content done before I dive into the other emails. If you start your day by answering emails that aren’t urgent it tends to derail productivity for the rest of the day. Unless it is urgent it can wait a few hours. Get something “done” instead and the rest of your day will be more productive. Being on East coast time and working with a team on Mountain Central time certainly helps with this.
I try to use email filtering as much as possible to make sure things that can skip the inbox don’t take my attention away from more important emails. For instance, I filter Google Alerts and automated reports to their own folders. Anything that has to do with the office (e.g. Pizza party today! or Chocolate cake in the break room…) just gets filtered into the trash. You may need to get the person responsible for sending those emails to use a standard in the subject like “Office Talk: Subject…” so you don’t have to filter ALL of their emails.
I use Rapportive almost every day, and I’m going to start Task Force thanks to your wonderful infographic. I don’t get much use out of Boomerang at the moment, but I can see how it would be extremely valuable for people doing sales, outreach, PR or link building.
Once a month I set aside a day to go through and clean out the inbox completely. Few things feel as empowering as a clean inbox, and it’s amazing to see how many things you forgot about that seemed really important at the time.
What are your tips for working efficiently when you’re away from the office?
I’m always “away from the office” so this is something I have a lot of experience with. It really depends on the person, but I’m going to assume that anyone reading this interview would be the type of individual who is self-motivated, hard-working, passionate… and would do well working remotely.
The first thing I want to say is: Try it! My productivity working remotely is much higher than it ever was in the office environment. Nobody passes my office and decides they want to invite me into a last-minute, impromptu meeting. I never go to the break room to join in the cutting of a birthday cake or to see the cute puppy someone just got. I never have to be one of the dozens of people who quit working for ten minutes because a visitor came into the office. I don’t lose an hour or more of every day sitting in traffic. This could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the point.
With that said, there are some issues unique to working remotely that can really screw up your day and waste a lot of your time. If you work from home it is absolutely vital that there is a clear separation of work and non-work times. Otherwise you run the risk of always being “on-call”. Though it may sound good in theory to be able to move seamlessly between work and non-work, you’ll actually spend more time working and will have less to show for it. Ask any nurse or doctor who is on-call if they can truly enjoy that time at home. They can’t because work is always in the back of their minds.
Never give clients or team members your personal / home phone number unless they are also friends outside of work.
Have a separate space for work. It might sound like dream-come-true to work on the couch with a laptop and a hot cup of coffee, but outside of doing this every now and then, I’ve found it to be invasive of my personal space. I like to “leave” work at the end of the day, which means much more than turning off the computer. This may not apply to someone working remotely once or twice a week or less, but if you do it every day there needs to be a physical location change.
I have a home office, which helps, but I also rent a small office. It is about a ten minute drive away in a quiet country town, and is a place where I can focus 100% on work without distractions. My wife can handle things like calling the plumber, soothing a screaming child, and signing for a package when I’m not around - but for some reason she needs my help when I’m working from home.
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?
For individuals, it would be to stop thinking of multitasking as a positive thing.
Multitasking isn’t a trait to be admired and cultivated. It is a disease that keeps us from giving any single thing our best effort. Most of the white-collar work force these days has a really bad case of ADD. Just focus on one thing at a time. Stop checking email, analytics, Twitter, Facebook and Google+ every ten minutes. Go to work to work.
Get it done and get out so you can go home and enjoy quality time with family and friends. It will make you more productive and happier. If you can’t help yourself it is a sign that you are working too many hours doing things that you aren’t passionate about. Make a change.
For businesses, I’d say let your top performing employees go to a four-day work week. Set some kind of bar similar to what you would set up for a bonus structure and those who hit it get an extra day off.
Make sure the bar is high, yet attainable, and don’t keep raising it. If someone hits it month after month, good for them. I only work four days a week and get more accomplished in those four days than I ever did working a five-day week. And I don’t do 12 hours every day to make up for it either.
I did take a huge pay cut by leaving an in-house position with an enterprise ecommerce business, but the back-to-back daily meetings and corporate culture was not conducive to the lifestyle and work environment I wanted to build for myself.
The SEO I hired to replace me there is leaving now too. I wish I could just explain to that company that throwing money at someone is only going to buy their passion for a little while. I’ve never been “unhappy” at a job because I wanted a raise. Burnout and unhappiness at work happen for reasons usually unrelated to salary. You need to change the culture of your organization if you want to keep smart, impassioned people around.
I feel that we’re all a little obsessed with work for work’s sake.
We left the simple life, moved off the farms, got embedded into the industrial machinery and invented miraculous technological breakthroughs all for the promise of living a happy life free from drudgery and the day-to-day struggle for existence. And it hasn’t worked.
We are humans. We are blessed with highly analytical and creative brains capable of extraordinary things, yet we lock ourselves in cubicles of our own making and don’t give our beautiful minds enough time for rest and reflection.
The result is that we stifle creativity and try to make up for it by working even longer hours. We have to buy things we don’t need to save time we don’t have because we have to work so much to buy the things we don’t need.
Case in point: At one time I was working 60-hour weeks.
I’d pay $30 a month for a gym membership and had to pay someone else to mow my lawn because I didn’t have “time” to do it myself. I was paying for someone else to work out in the sun while also paying for myself to work out under florescent lamps. Right around this time I realised that things had been turned upside down. I’ve been busy turning my life the right way around ever since.
What ROI have you seen on your efforts to improve productivity within your company?
Since going to a four-day work week and blocking out chunks of my schedule for project work I have been zooming through projects faster than ever. We’ve had record months, and the clients I work with have benefited greatly from the depth at which I can now give to their projects.
These days I look forward to coming into work every morning, and every week has a three-day weekend. Yet somehow I still manage to produce more and better results than ever before. It is about time we started looking at results instead of hours because hours-worked has become a meaningless metric.
Last but not least, here is a great video… http://www.ted.com/talks/nigel_marsh_how_to_make_work_life_balance_work.html