This is a follow-up to a post I published last week, ‘Why and how to start a pilot project in EA’. This article focuses on the many lessons I’ve learnt since I started developing Effective Self-Help (ESH) eight months ago.
For the short, practical version you can just read the summary. For those keen to read my mistakes in delicious detail, well the rest of the article awaits.
Hopefully, I’ve distilled some key takeaways that can provide useful guidance to anyone starting or running their own small project. I think these lessons are probably also valuable and relevant to people with jobs in existing orgs who are relatively new to their careers and/ or in a role with a high degree of autonomy.
Begin with good systems
- Ensure you start with robust frameworks in place for managing your time, tasks, meetings, and personal wellbeing. Two key questions here are:
- How are you going to ensure your own accountability when self-employed? Recommendation: time tracker (e.g. Clockify); accountability buddy/ check-ins
- What process will you use to track, manage, and prioritise your tasks? Is this efficient/ robust/ something you’ll actually use?
Recommendation: task management software (e.g. Asana; Trello) or flexible diary system (e.g. bullet journaling)
- I was overly hesistant to reach out for feedback/ advice from people who felt more senior/ experienced until several people in this category reached out to me to offer advice/ support.
- Public feedback, such as by writing here on the Forum, can feel scary and be hard to adjust to initially. Practice a scout mindset as much as possible and look for valuable takeaways in all feedback. Accept to an extent that you will likely always get some negative feedback/ pushback, no matter how polished or perfect your argument -> therefore best to push on and publish (gets easier with time)
Focus, focus, focus
- Build at least a rough theory of change before you start on any direct work/ research. Be clear on what your end goal is and how you think you can achieve it.
- Define your work in terms of its importance to your end goal and asking yourself consistently what you’re currently doing is the most effective thing that you could be doing. In this way, avoid getting caught up in intermediate metrics and cool but unimportant things.
Begin with good systems
Set yourself up to succeed
Prior to starting Effective Self-Help, I hadn’t ever worked full-time on a self-employed basis. With this lack of experience, I underestimated the importance of good systems to enabling consistent, sustainable productivity. In particular, I would encourage you to build solid frameworks for task management and personal accountability prior to starting a project in order to best set yourself up to succeed.
For the first four or five months’ of working on ESH, I’m reluctant to admit that my ideas and tasks spilled over phone notes, draft emails, scraps of paper, post-it notes, and my journal. Needless to say, this was not an inefficient system. At worst, I would lose the paper or post-it notes I’d written something down on. At best, I would just waste time while I checked three or four different places to find a particular note I’d written only hours before.
Task management systems, like a lot of productivity advice, can seem excessive. I’d often viewed these things with a little disdain, as a distraction from doing the actual work for the CEOs and business executives more concerned with showing off how busy they are than with getting things done.
I no longer endorse this view. Using Asana has notably improved my retention of ideas and clarity of purpose in my work. Scheduling tasks with different deadlines allows for efficient prioritisation. It’s far easier to concentrate your work on what’s most important when you can quickly file away new tasks that come up, confident that you will come back to them at an appropriate point.
Alternatives to Asana, like Trello and ClickUp, also seem good. Choose one and use it. The vast majority of value is in the move from no system to using a task management system. By comparison, which one you use is likely pretty unimportant.
Using a time tracker for personal accountability is one decision I’m particularly pleased with from when I started ESH. I use Clockify to track the hours I work each day and what tasks I spend them on. While I think these sorts of time tracking systems are designed for organisations where you submit your time at the end of the day/ week to a manager, I found this a remarkably effective tool purely for my own use.
Seeing the number of hours I worked each day/ week kept me accountable to the commitment I’d made in my grant application. Pausing the clock when I started going down a rabbit hole of distraction provided valuable motivation to stay focused and get back on track far sooner.
Your mileage with a system like this may vary. What I think is key here is to have at least some kind of system of accountability. Working on your own with no real oversight provides ample opportunity for distraction and inefficiency.
Put a plan in place to stop this.
A good alternative/ addition to this would be to set up accountability calls with a friend or family member where you check-in with what you’ve accomplished and what you’re planning to do next. Consider scheduling similar calls with a focus on your wellbeing. Running a project with minimal supervision can be pretty overwhelming. Make sure you have someone with whom you can share the lows and frustrations that will inevitably occur.
Ideally, this person will have a good knowledge of you as an individual (be an existing friend/ family member) and have at least a reasonable understanding of your work and the ideas behind it (have had at least some prior exposure to EA).
Make a project plan
I started Effective Self-Help with three months’ funding and a lot of uncertainties around how the project could be most useful. After a few days of trying (and largely failing) to compare the value of different approaches, I made a vague best guess at which might be best and decided to dive straight into conducting research on that basis. This helped me get a lot of useful feedback more quickly. In hindsight though, I would have benefitted from taking a few days to map out a larger plan for the project.
Most organisations will map out anywhere from a one-year to a five-year plan that identifies their goals and how they might achieve them. As you’ll likely be operating on a short(er) funding timeline, I’d suggest beginning with anything from a one-month to a three-month plan.
Focus on the following questions:
- What’s an achievable goal by the end of the time period?
- How might you best approach getting to that goal?
- How will you know if you’ve succeeded/ failed?
Again, the value here is in mapping out a concrete plan where otherwise you would have been proceeding based only on your rough intuitions. Don’t worry about making it particularly detailed or polished. This is for your personal benefit, not for show.
Be proactive in seeking advice
I think it’s easy as someone newer to EA to feel insufficiently experienced to engage with people who have been involved in the community for far longer. This is, of course, unhelpful. Early on in developing ESH, I was reluctant to reach out to people who I felt were doing high-quality work in similar areas.
This is a shame as I think there’s valuable feedback I could have received earlier if I’d been more proactive. In turn, this would likely have saved me significant effort trying to solve uncertainties I had on my own.
After publishing a post ‘Introducing Effective Self-Help’, I had several people reach out to speak to me. With a boost to my confidence in the value of my work from this, I’ve been significantly more proactive in reaching out to people since. This was a particularly useful lesson to learn in the run-up to attending a couple of EA conferences. It really pays to shoot for speaking to who you’d most be excited to talk to, not just who you think will accept a meeting with you.
Write about what you’re doing!
As hinted at above, writing here on the Forum about whatever you’re working on is a great way to gain exposure and facilitate feedback. This works both directly through the post (in the comments) and indirectly (people who reach out privately with additional suggestions/ advice)
The EA Forum has provided immensely useful exposure and feedback for me. I’m continually surprised by the places and people my work has reached through it. Even if it’s not important to your key goals, consider writing a short post quickly introducing what you’re doing, why, and how people can help.
Part of exposing your work to more people is learning quicker where and how you’re failing. It’s inevitable that you will do things that on reflection feel like a waste of your time - this is normal and okay. If you aren’t failing/ trying things that don’t work out, you’re probably not being ambitious enough.
Focus, focus, focus
I think it’s hard to overstate the importance of this. Try to make as specific and focused a path as possible towards your end goal (how your work will translate into real-world impact). In my experience at least, there is always more work that you will feel like you could be doing. In the discussions you have with people, ideas for side projects and pivots in direction will consistently crop up.
Focus on a single thing. Do it well, very well even, and then consider expanding. It’s far easier to demonstrate the value of a concept by excelling in a singular component than in producing a succession of partially fulfilled ideas.
Beyond defining clear goals and parameters for your project, a useful technique here is to time cap your work. Timecapping involves committing in advance to spending a specific, limited amount of time on a task. Set out in advance the number of hours/ days you want to spend researching a particular topic. With a clear deadline, you’ll avoid the temptation to pursue as many additional avenues of research.
Similarly, try to avoid evaluating your project’s wider goals and strategy outside of pre-determined points. It’s easy to view each small success or failure as an indication that you should pivot your project’s overarching plan.
I think consistently reviewing your project in this way leads too easily to procrastination on doing the core work you set out to do in favour of debating your wider aims and approach. This is a pitfall I’ve often found in my work on ESH, spending too much time re-evaluating uncertainties around the organisation’s strategy and not enough time just doing more research.
Quite simply, it doesn’t matter how well thought-out your overall strategy may be if you’re failing to produce work that gets you closer to your goal.
Is this the most important thing you could be doing?
While constant questioning of the substance of your overall goals may be counterproductive, I’ve learnt the value of consistently asking whether the work you’re doing is actually progressing you towards your key goal.
Define your key goals and ask yourself each day as you’re working: is this the most important thing that I could be doing right now? There are many tasks of only indirect importance that will crop up. Minimising the time you spend on these will help you be far more effective in achieving your key goals.
One useful guide here is the Eisenhower Matrix, which provides a fast and effective tool for determining which tasks you should focus on. The more spent prioritising what’s important, the better. While I’ve found it helpful at times to ‘warm up’ with smaller, less-important tasks, I think this can easily become a slippery slope. Better to be slow at replying to people’s emails and fast at achieving your key goals than vice versa.
Borrow as much as possible from others
Another useful strategy for staying focused on the core of your work is to borrow existing processes and frameworks wherever possible. As you build your project, you’ll carry out an increasing number of tasks which you haven’t done before and may not immediately know how best to approach.
In most of these cases, there will be existing materials and quickfire guidance that you can borrow. There’s no need for you to write your own job advert or general interview questions. Similarly, a quick google search can provide you with templates from anything from invoicing a contractor to writing a fundraising pitch.
In short, never start making something from scratch before you’ve at least checked for something you can borrow.
A huge thanks to everyone who has given me feedback and advice on Effective Self-Help over the last 8 months. I intend to write a more specific evaluation of Effective Self-Help in the coming weeks, covering its successes, failings, and how I think it could be most useful moving forward.