By August 24, 2012 18 Comments Read More →

How To Scale Yourself as a One-Man Band

one-man band

This is a post about how to scale yourself as a “one-man band” to flow more value, get more things done, and free up more time for yourself.

One of my mentees asked me to write about how to free yourself up in terms of more time, while getting more things done, and making more impact.  She didn’t want just good ideas.  She wanted serious and significant ways to amplify her results, and take her personal productivity to the next level.

I welcomed her challenge to write about the art of “extreme productivity” and how to achieve better, faster, more meaningful results, in less time.

Getting fast and effective results in today’s world is an increasing challenge.  More and more people are asked to do way more with a lot less. In other cases, it feels like there’s just too much “noise” getting in the way of the actual value.  And in other cases, people are spinning their wheels without making much traction, and it’s a lot of effort for so little impact.

Let’s fix that.

The key is to create a one-man band where you can scale yourself with skill.  When you know how to scale yourself with skill, you can also scale others, and you can scale teams.  Worst case, you stop being the bottleneck to yourself and others.  Best case, you exponentially flow value for yourself, and help others flow their value more effectively.

What does it mean to scale?  In simple terms, think of it as responding to demand, and being able to do more, in a better, faster, and cheaper way.  When it comes to scaling, you can scale up or you can scale out.  Scaling up means you personally can flow more value, better, faster, cheaper.  Scaling out would mean more people (or systems) can do what you do.  For this post, I’m just going to focus on helping you exponentially scale what you’re capable of.

If you are ready to super-scale yourself, let’s dive in.

3 Key Strategies that Help You Scale Yourself

Here are three key strategies that will help you scale yourself as a one-man band to flow more value, get more things done, and free up more time …

Extreme priorities list

What is your short list of the most important items on your plate?

Keep it short.  Keep t it simple.  Keep it focused.

This is your list of five big rocks at your finger tips.  It is crisp.  There are no extra details.  It is simply a list of THE most important things on your plate.  You put this list up on the wall, or you have it in hand.  You never have to pause to ask yourself, “So what was I working on, again?”  This list should reflect extreme value.  In other words, if you were to rate the impact for each item on a scale of 1-10, these are items that have a value of 7 or more.  At work, you would check with your manager — do they agree your number one item is an 8 or 9, if you were to complete it?

You extreme priorities list will help you instantly remind yourself what to focus on, where to spend your time, what to structure your time around, and what to deliver on.  It will also be your laser-focused way of checking what’s valuable.  You can quickly check if item number three on your list changes in value from an 8 to a 3.  It happens.  It happens because time changes what’s important, and some things have windows of opportunity and expiration dates.  Don’t miss your expiration dates.

Identify the 80/20 Value

What is the absolute, bare minimum, essential thing that would be a workable solution?  You are looking for the most crucial choices, the most vital things, that actually matter.

Your goal is to identify the 20%, that makes up the 80% of the value.

In anything you take on, the first thing to do is identify what is actually valued.  This is your extreme short-cut.  As soon as you know what actually counts, everything else melts away.  It’s no longer your focus.  Your extreme focus is now on those essential elements that somebody actually cares about.

When you have the skeleton of essential value in your mind, you can easily see anything that is overhead, or waste, or a tangent, or simply doesn’t matter.  In my experience, so many people tack on things before nailing the basics, and lose track of what the value is, and create their own busy work, and bury themselves, and the value in the process.

If you master “the art of the essential value”, you will easily unburden yourself tenfold, and find short-cuts every day to extreme value.  You will not only lighten your load, you will increase your “time to value”, which will build your reputation as somebody who makes things happen.  This builds momentum, and it builds your confidence, and your confidence will serve you when you hit the tough stuff.

Quick Answer Now, Better Answer Later

Focus on creating a fast answer.  Don’t block yourself with analysis paralysis.  Don’t try to over-engineer what a great answer would be.  Create a fast solution.

Fast answers might be a quick response in email, a paper prototype, a sketch on a whiteboard, a first draft of a chapter, an outline of a project plan, etc.

This fast solution might suck.  But it sucks way less than swirling ideas in your head, and not having something down on paper.  If it sucks, you can improve it.  If you have something in hand, you can get fast feedback.  You can test it.  You can try again.  Worst case, you learned another way how not to do something.  Best case, you learned surprising insights you can use to change your solution.

Creating fast answers will give you a starting point.  Fast answers will give you a baseline.  Fast answers will help you blaze a trail forward.  It will also keep you from getting stuck, getting bogged down, and falling into the trap where you are just shuffling a bunch of things around in your mind.

Additional Ways to Scale as a One-Man Band

If you did nothing else but those three strategies, you have already exponentially reduce your workload, while exponentially increasing the value, and what you are capable of.  You have freed yourself from the mundane, and have aggressively focused on the high-value things.

That said, let’s add several more tools to your personal productivity toolbox, to seriously and significantly change your game, and help you spin circles around anything and everything you do:

  • Anticipate.  The better you can anticipate what’s coming your way, the more you can head it off at the pass or prepare for it.  While you can’t anticipate everything, you don’t have to be a dear in the head-lights.  You can also play out a few possibilities, so that you are effectively “ready for anything.”  You learn to anticipate by checking what sorts of things happen around this time of year, and asking your network (up, down, and sideways) of what things are top of mind.  Doing this cross-check helps you identify the things that would normally surprise you.
  • Boundaries and Value.  Before you invest your time, put a box around it.  How much is it worth in terms of value, and how much time should you spend?  Don’t spend $20 on a $5 problem.  If you’ve done a good job identifying what the value is, you can assign a quick timebox to it.  For example, normally, I would try to limit spending 20 minutes to write a post like this.  In this case, because of the potential value, I’m willing to spend 40 minutes.  If I spend more than that, it’s diminishing returns, but worse, I miss the big window of opportunity.  My mentee really wants the information today to have it help her the most.
  • Build a network of capabilities.  You don’t have to be able to do everything.  You should be able to do something very well, and have a rounded set of capabilities that help you adapt and change.  Most importantly, you should build a strong network of people that are great at the things you need help with.  Your goal is to pair up with the people that can help you get things done super fast and with great quality.  More doors open up to you when you bring something to the table.
  • Change your pace.  Think of yourself as a “fast finisher”, and make finishing things fast a goal.  If you only have one gear, then every time you hit a mole-hill, it becomes a mountain.  Try not to make a major production out of non-blockbuster challenges.  Now the art part, is when you know how to slow down to speed up, or take a step back to take ten steps forward.  The other art part is when you know how to savor the moment you’re in, and truly connect with the work you are doing, and changing gears accordingly.  Most people don’t need to learn how to go slow or get stuck, they need to know how fast they could be, and what’s possible.  For example, when I was reading at 450 words a minute, I didn’t know what it was like to read more than 1,000 words a minute.  Now that I know what it’s possible, it’s easy for me to change my gears, and speed things up exponentially when I need to.
  • Consolidate and batch.  The best way to optimize your time is to batch it.  I’m a fan of 20 minute batches of time, because that’s the most common productive time I get.  Even if I have an hour, I tend to do twenty minutes, then break, twenty minutes then break.  Of course it varies, but I find it easy to “sprint” for twenty minutes, than to try and make everything an intellectual or creative marathon.
  • Create friction-free glide paths.  Remove the little things that get in your way, in the little things you do each day.  If you walk your scenarios, you can probably find a ton of opportunities to eliminate the overhead or create a more friction-free experience.  Where you can’t create friction-free, at least find ways to reduce the friction.  Some common scenarios might include, how you start your day, how you read your email, how you research a topic, how you learn a new thing, how you build a quick prototype, how you create a pitch deck, how you capture your ideas, how you organize your tasks, etc.  You can create templates, you can create simple lists, you can create relevant reminders, etc.  If you find yourself doing weird maneuvers to get to things, that’s a great sign to clear up your path.
  • Don’t get bogged down.  Don’t always swing for the fence or go for the home-run.  Don’t create your own burdens, and don’t let the burdens bring you down.  When you start to get stuck or start to take on too much, the burden can start to weight you down, mentally, physically, and emotionally.  Find some low-hanging fruit and some quick hits and some quick wins, and build your momentum.  Stop looking for the ultimate answer, and find a few little answers that might make a little progress.  Your little progress will add up.  But it will also add to breakthroughs and leap frogs in ways you won’t expect or can’t predict.  It will create a serendipity of productive opportunities and breakthroughs.
  • Don’t let big stuff, block little stuff.  Don’t let all the big things you’re doing, block the flow of the little things.  Don’t let your big answers, block little quick answers.  Don’t let your big books, block the flow of your little books.  Don’t let your big apps, block the flow of your little apps.  Quick hits and quick wins are everywhere, and there are probably several sitting on your plate.  Find a way to set them free.  The momentum this builds will help you tackle your big stuff with more gusto.
  • Get the ball out of your court. Treat incoming issues like a hot-potato.  Add your value, but get it off your plate fast.  Ken Blanchard teaches us don’t walk around with other people’s monkeys on your back.  This is again where your fast answers come into play.  When too many balls are in your court, you turn into a juggler, when what people are really looking for is somebody with a great serve or a fast swing.  The last thing to be is a black box, where people have to constantly ping you and interrupt you to keep checking … “Is it done yet?” … “Any progress on XYZ?”
  • Have a buffer. Don’t be a camel where the last straw will break your back.  Have some breathing room, and structure your time to allow for things to go wrong.  If you cram so much into your day or every hour, you’ll create too much stress to be effective, and the reality is things come up, things do go wrong, and the unexpected does happen.  Sometimes the best plan for the unexpected is simply to have a buffer so you don’t break every time surprises comes your way.
  • Have something in the background to switch to.  When it comes to creative work or knowledge work, sometimes the best way to solve things faster is to switch to something else.  Not only does this allow you to continuously make progress, but it helps you switch your gears, and take a break from problems that might start to bog you down, or get you stuck.  It’s a quick and simple way to change the pace, while pushing multiple balls forward to the finish line.
  • High-value work.  Make it a priority to do high-value work.  Find ways to outsource your low-value work, or to streamline and simplify it.  Find ways to make sure that 80% of your day or more is on the high-value stuff that lights your fire, and helps flow the value of the stuff that actually matters.  This is the key to staying relevant, and staying competitive, and to expanding your capabilities.  Always focus on growing your capabilities with the work you do, and make your work your self-expression.
  • Innovate in your personal processes.  Don’t throw more time at things.  Find ways to cut time, while flowing more value.  If you don’t innovate in your personal processes, eventually you get priced out of the market, or you become the victim of your own overhead.  There are always ways to simplify and streamline, and sometimes it means finding a completely new way to do something.  When you change your approach, the test is always to measure against results and to measure against effectiveness.  Shiny doesn’t mean better.  Better is better, and better is in the eye of the beholder or the stakeholder, which in this case, is you and the people you serve.
  • Never block.  Reduce your dependencies.  There is always something you can do without crippling your productivity by depending on a bunch of other people or things.  Find a way forward by finding alternative paths to the end-in-mind.  When you have your eye on the prize, and clarity of the essential value, you can easily find more ways to make progress, than a single path, that might be riddled with blockers and dependencies.
  • Never outsource your core competencies.  When you outsource your work, never outsource your core competencies.  These are the high-value capabilities that help you add value both to yourself and others, and the things that differentiate you in the marketplace.  You grow, groom, and mature your core competencies with practice, and testing and exploring ways to do things better, faster, cheaper.
  • Optimize your workspace.  Get all clutter and distractions out of the way.  You should never have to work too hard to know your priorities, focus on the essentials, and flow value.  Is it too hard to make a phone call?  Is it too hard to dump your ideas down?  Is it too hard to get a handle on your day?  Is it too hard to work in a non-disrupted or distracted way?  Sometimes, the best way to eliminate the bulk of distractions is to change where you work, or change the time you work.  Sometimes the best answer is simple white noise.  Sometimes the right answer is the right pair of head-phones that ward off the people that tend to interrupt you, when you are in your zone.
  • Outsource your mundane and routine activities.  This is a simple strategy to help you spend more time on your high-value work, and to keep growing your strengths, skills, and abilities.  You can get creative in how you outsource your mundane and routine activities.  Sometimes it’s by automating the process.  Sometimes it’s by find the right virtual assistant.  Sometimes it’s by trading with somebody who their mundane is your pleasure, and your mundane is theirs.  Sometimes it’s as simple as asking your manager to pair up with you and help you get rid of the stuff that gets in the way of your high value work.  An effective manager would want to bring out your best, and they may have creative solutions.  They can’t help if you don’t have crisp clarity on the mundane and routine work that you do.
  • Put just enough process in place.  Chances are you have processes for many of the things you do.  Simplify your processes so they serve you.  The rule of thumb is to have “just enough process, and no more,” so that you stay adaptable and can change.  If changing your process is a scary thing, that’s a sign that you should change your process … and step number one is simplify it so change is no longer scary.
  • Simplify everything you do.  Let’s keep this simple, and just say that simplicity is your friend.  Simplifying for the sake of simplicity is often a good bet because it leads to elegance, and it leads to maintainability, and it helps you find creative breakthroughs.  Most importantly, it reduces your burden, and you will stay more flexible and lighter-weight, when you can keep things simple.
  • Fast and focused.  Streamline things.  When you know your focus and you know the value and you know the goals and you know the outcomes, you can find a lot of short-cuts in any of these areas.  As Wooden would say, “Be quick.  But don’t hurry.”  The quick comes from your clarity of value, and your focus on the essentials, and getting rid of all the noise, all the waste, and all the chaos in between.
  • Structure Your Time. If you don’t, somebody else will.  If you’re a morning person, than push the bulk of your high-value work there.  If you’re a night-owl, then find a way to leverage that.  It’s all about finding your best times for your best work.
  • Use a handful of strategies and principles that serve you.  You don’t need a rule for everything, but you should have some operating principles that guide you.  For example, one of mine is to “80/20 value.”  I constantly focus on the minimum and the essential to flow value.  This serves me extremely well in a variety of scenarios.  “Solve your bosses problems” is another example.  It helps me stay connected, and free up my manager to help me and the team more, by not getting bogged down.  It also helps me amplify the impact of what I do.  Find the vital few principles that help you with your worst bottlenecks or beasts of burden, and chop them down to size.  Another principle that helps me here is, “Stay flexible.”  If I find myself falling into routines and ruts, then I start asking myself whether I’m focusing on the high-value work, and whether I’m challenging myself to innovate in how the work gets done.  It’s a very dynamic thing, it’s not static.

With these tools on your side, you have an extreme advantage when it comes to flowing more value, being highly productive, and using less time, to achieve more of what matters.

Pick a few of the strategies you can use today for instant impact in your work and life.

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18 Comments on "How To Scale Yourself as a One-Man Band"

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  1. Kimbundance says:

    This is such a nicely done post. I think structure of time is important as well. So many times people seem to get out of focus because they haven’t structured their time appropriately. Thorough read! =D

  2. Evan says:

    Superb JD, thanks.

  3. JD says:

    @ Kimbundance — Thank you. I’m always amazed how a little structure goes a long way. Having a time for things, is like having a place for things, and it’s all the difference.

    @ Evan — Thank you. I tried to reveal some of the best lessons I learned from the school of hard knocks.

  4. Patricia says:

    I hate to dust – thus the surfaces are clean and I know about getting it down on paper and out of the head…those ideas and concepts tracking through the head are devastating to writing a good post.
    I could not write a blog at all if I did not outsource….all the IT work…it is just that it is free and I can not afford marketing…and key word stuff…so I spend hours attempting to do it – after 5 years well I am getting tired of the struggle…now how to figure out how to just use the core value and get paid for it :)

    Good stuff found here JD Thank you for sharing

  5. JD says:

    @ Patricia — I feel your pain around the struggle, whether it’s marketing or SEO. There is a ton of bad advice, and a shortage of actionable, prescriptive guidance to follow that’s scenario-based.

    I’ve tested a lot and I’ve found some things that work. I’m at 165,000 unique visitors per month now. I’ll share some insights and actions on SEO in the coming months.

    I’ve also learned a lot more about strategy, marketing, and online business, and I’ll share those lessons, too.

  6. Vidya Sury says:

    This is such a great post, JD. I’ve been feeling a little overwhelmed with all that I have on my plate. I make lists all the time and follow them, most of the time. In fact, I fold a large sheet of paper like an accordion, and use the individual panels to make lists. When I open it out I can see everything at a glance. But I only have one panel showing to keep me focused. Every once in a while, when something unscheduled happens, things get a little shaken up. I try to reschedule only the thing I missed and carry on with the rest of the items..but I’ve been having issues with that lately.

    I am bookmarking this to read and motivate myself when I am offtrack. Thank you. So thorough, JD!

    Hugs, Vidya

  7. JD says:

    @ Vidya — Thank you.

    I really like your accordion technique.

    A technique I fall back on the most when I really need to get clarity is to write everything on my mind that I want to accomplish on a big yellow pad. I don’t draw an actual line, but I basically dump everything down in two columns, so that more fits on the page and I limit myself to one page.

    Next, I write down a 1 next to the most critical things. This actually helps me identify my extreme priorities list, while also having my master map.

  8. Yvonne Root says:

    JD,

    It is great that your mentee needed this information because I do too. :) My request is that you would give an example of identifying the 80/20 value as I’m having a difficult time with the concept as a whole.

    Thanks!

  9. JD,

    You always give so much value in your articles! I like one of the key threads of this article which is about changing my pace. Recognizing that I can simply hit it and get it done instead of lingering or getting stuck in perfection. I’m going to post the three keys strategies and scale myself this week!

  10. JD says:

    @ Yvonne — No problem, here you go …

    I’ll share a few examples:
    - Let’s say there were 10 things I wanted to write about on topic X. I could pick the top 2.
    - Rate the top 10 books you want to read, and start with the top 2.
    - Rate the work tasks that you do in terms of value, and the time you spend, and focus on the least time spent, and highest value.

    Two books that elaborate on how to use the 80/20 rule are:
    - The 80/20 Individual: How to Build on the 20% of What You do Best, by Richard Kock
    - The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, by Tim Ferris

    @ Sandra — Thank you!

    Lingering and perfectionism can be tough habits to break. The best ways I’ve found are:
    - Set timeboxes or time budgets (This outcome is worth 20 minutes of my time.)
    - Focus on the 80/20 rule in terms of flowing value
    - Make it work, then make it right (Practice being fast at finishing end to end, and then circling back to improve.)

    The big reason for doing things fast end-to-end, is because it’s often the easiest way to identify what the most valuable things are, and what the highest risks are. If you dive deep or wallow each step of the way, it’s easy to lose perspective.

    If you periodically check yourself — “How much time am I spending on XYZ, and how much is it worth?”, you’ll continuously find ways to stay on track and flow the 80/20 value.

    Best wishes on your articles, and scaling this week.

  11. Yvonne Root says:

    Thanks JD!
    Of course – and it makes sense. It is rather simple. I think I was trying to make it harder than it is.

  12. Alik Levin says:

    JD,
    This is awesome blueprint! Consolidate and batch is that keeps me on the surface. It is also the one that I brutally apply when I go underwater (just because I neglected this practice in first place). Not only this technique helps to do more in less time it also creates clarity allowing brutally drop things that less important making some more extra time and room for higher impact things.

  13. JD says:

    @ Alik — Great point that consolidating creates clarity. It gives us the bird’s-eye view. It lets us see the bigger picture at a glance and prioritize items against the bigger picture versus taking a myopic view.

  14. Happened upon your site by chance just now. Am still scanning but in short, my first reaction….I’m impressed! Great ideas (they pass the ‘useful’ test). Pragmatic. And simple. As a psychologist, trainer and writer, I especially appreciate your perspective and lessons learned.

  15. Esther says:

    Wow, these tips are worth their weight in gold. The point that especially stood out to me was to make it a goal to finish things fast. “If you only have one gear, then every time you hit a mole-hill, it becomes a mountain.” – Thanks for writing this article, JD.

    • JD says:

      It’s the secret to “outpacing” our problems.

      It’s also the key to “staying on top of things” (and this helps us build momentum, so rather than feeling overwhelmed, we overwhelm our problems ;)

      Thank you.

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