Getting my Central Hub In Order

If you are a living breathing human being you most likely suffer from a common problem that all humans suffer from: forgetting stuff. Big or small, we tend to forget things. A large part of my job is to delegate tasks — sometimes I remember to follow-up to see if a task has been done, but too often I forget.

About a month and a half ago I got really tired of these delegated tasks falling through the cracks — my system of tracking items needed to be overhauled.

The Old System

Before I talk about how I now track things, I thought it best to talk about how I was tracking things:

  • OmniFocus
  • Basecamp
  • My memory

I used to put things in OmniFocus manually and track them there, or simply add them as a task to someone else on Basecamp. Either way, I rarely would set a due date, instead just waiting for a person to check off their task in Basecamp. With this system about 20% of all things I needed to track would go into either Basecamp or OmniFocus — not so great.

The rest of the tasks went into my brain — just ask my wife how well that works, and I would say that I was missing follow-ups on about 60% of all delegated tasks. This matters in my job for two reasons:

  1. Maintenance tasks that have not been completed reflect poorly on my company and the building owners. Tenants are less likely to want to renew, or sign a new lease on a building if it is not being well maintained. Putting my company at a high risk of having its contract terminated.
  2. Safety of tenants is incredibly important — failing to change light bulbs may result in dark pockets at night making the parking lot unsafe for someone to walk alone. There is also increased risk of theft and vandalism, as well as general low visibility concerns.

Sealing the Cracks

Before I could start trying to fix the systems I had in place I first needed to take a brutally honest look at where I was failing. It became clear that I was failing to follow up on sent emails, and phone calls. I also found that the time I spend on Basecamp has decreased significantly, to the point where it is barely used any longer.

OmniFocus

I decided that I was going to try and consolidate all of my tracking into OmniFocus — it is the tool that is with me 99% of the time. To do this I created a new single action bucket and titled it “Maintenance Tracker” — additionally I created another bucket that would serve as a more general tracker and would not reside inside my work project folder.

My goal was to make it ridiculously easy to input items that need to be tracked, while still keeping them separate from items that I actually need to do. After using this setup for a bit I can say that this works fairly well for me. Any time I assign a task to someone else I make sure to note that task in OmniFocus and assign a due date that reflects when I think the task should be completed.

Instead of checking off items when I follow up on them, I will re-assign the due date to a later time if the task is still not completed. I also file all tracker actions under the context ‘waiting’, which is an apt description, as well as being important for the email component.

That pretty much covers the memory fault issues that I was experiencing. Making these steps habit is the most important aspect towards making sure that I don’t start relying on my memory once again.

The last bit that I really needed to tackle was with email. Until I found this magical script I had been using MailTags and setting a waiting context to emails I needed to follow-up on and then sticking those emails into a follow-up folder for later action.

This worked OK, but not great. Typically the follow-up folder would be overflowing with email to the point where I would just gloss over everything and only find the high-priority stuff. I just ignored far too much and began to loathe looking at the folder. Now though I have an applescript that will automatically add emails that have been flagged as waiting with a tickler date, sending them to OmniFocus’ inbox. From there all I need to do is assign a project and they are filed away, complete with a link back to the email that I sent.

It is incredibly important that I get the link to the email that I sent, not a link to the email that I responded to. I need to know exactly what I asked someone and have the ability to re-forward that ask to them in order to make this setup work well for me. The ability to take searching for the right email out of the equation makes the system that much more frictionless.

(As a side note: When I follow-up with people that I have assigned a task via email, I simply forward them the email I sent them and ask for a status update. I haven’t had any complaints about it and I seem to be getting much faster action on items that I send. People don’t want to be reminded of stuff they didn’t do, so they seem to get my stuff done first. This is a nice little bonus for me.)

Highrise

I also have added a new-ish tool to my arsenal: Highrise. I had previously only been using Highrise for email archiving (you can blind copy Highrise and it will store that email with the contact(s) that you are sending the email too) and for culling together all of my contacts for the business to help distribute contact lists to my co-workers.

I have now started to make a better habit of logging notes in Highrise so that my co-workers can stay in touch with everything that is going on. This greatly simplifies our company communications so that we don’t have to meet just to keep each other apprised of what we are doing. Most importantly, Highrise keeps a running log of when tasks are completed (either via entering a note, or responding to a persons email that says they are done). This comes in handy when you need to tell someone when something was completed. Highrise offers a better way to find information that Mail.app does for me.

Central Hub

The key to revising my system was to remove system fragmentation. I was tracking actions in: Basecamp, OmniFocus, Highrise, and my memory. Now, I track all actions in OmniFocus and use the other tools as support.

I only have one place where I need to look to see what needs to be tracked. I cannot begin to tell you how greatly this tweak has effected my business. I am a person who is very embarrassed when I forget things, or when I don’t meet the quality expectations that my clients have of me and making OmniFocus the central hub for my tracking and my tasks has greatly reduced my level of embarrassment.

This all seems so simple and obvious now, I should have been tracking everything in OmniFocus to begin with, but better late than never. I think we all get too caught up thinking that using more tools is a better solution, right up to the point when things start to falter, only then do we realize: the only thing that matters is actually using the tools.

My old system failed because I never checked or use the tools that I had appointed for tracking. My new system is working exceptionally well because I use the piss out of OmniFocus.

Originally posted for members on: January 7, 2011
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