Weekend Upgrade (by R.J. Nestor)

Weekend Upgrade 18: Recurrence is efficiency

Published over 1 year ago • 5 min read

Happy Friday!

How many hours…

…no, forget hours. How many weeks of work have you lost in your life because you started working on something from scratch even though you had done similar work (or identical work!) before?

How many of those times did you say to yourself "I need to save this process when I’m done so I have a template for next time"? But then when you were done, you didn’t feel like taking the time to make the template. And so, "next time" was once again from scratch.

I am deeply familiar with this problem. I’ve reinvented enough wheels to keep Toyota’s production line stocked for a year. But because of that experience, I can also give a testimonial: when I have invested the extra time to create templates, the time I’ve saved has been significant.

Recurrence is efficiency

When work is reusable—in full or in part—we can make future work far quicker and simpler if we capture what's reusable. Capturing recurrence is creating a template, which requires three steps:

(1) Document processes

When you complete work, there are two products. The first is the work itself—whatever it is you accomplished. The second is the way you did the work—the process. Write the process down!

(2) Identify reusable processes

Regularly review your processes and identify what you've done before and what you're likely to do again. Those are your candidates for templates.

(3) Create a template up to the Last Predictable Step

Take the reusable processes apart and look for the line where you move from work that is identical every time to work that is different every time. I call that line the Last Predictable Step. It's the point beyond which you can't do (all) your work in advance.

Which means before that point you can do everything, and that pre-work can be saved in a template. The next time you do similar work, the template will allow you to start much further along in the process, and you’ll save time, energy, and mental bandwidth.

💡 Automate your Pre-Production 💡

👆 That’s your weekend upgrade.

In the film and TV industry, there are phases involved in bringing a story to the screen. Two of them are relevant to our discussion here: Pre-Production and Production. Pre-Production is the planning and preparation required to start filming. Production is the filming process and its related tasks.

In our analogy, Pre-Production is the work prior to the Last Predictable Step, and Production is the work following it. Creating a template is automating the Pre-Production phase. Every step is predictable, and thus should be completed in the template.

Templates do even more than that. Some of the steps after the Last Predictable Step are still mostly predictable. We often know what types of information or work will be required in the Production phase.

Which means our template should include as much of the Production workflow as possible, using empty placeholders for the types of information or work we know we'll need. That way our template contains everything predicable, even beyond the Last (fully) Predictable Step.

Example: Worship aids for church

In my role as Director of Liturgical Music, I prepare a worship aid each week using Adobe InDesign. It includes the hymns, psalms, readings, etc., for the weekend Masses.

Template components: Pre-Production

Certain components are identical in every worship aid:

(1) The number of pages will be a multiple of four (an 8.5 x 11" page folded in half, double-sided). The template is 12 pages, which works for nearly every service.

(2) The church name, names for the readings and music (Responsorial Psalm, Communion Hymn, etc.), and copyright permission information on the back cover.

(3) Within each church season, certain music stays the same every week.

(4) The Nicene Creed is rarely omitted, so it belongs in the template.

Those components are Pre-Production, entirely predictable for every worship aid. (That's perhaps a slight exaggeration, but it's easy to adapt on the rare occasion an adjustment is needed.)

Template components: Production

There are other components that I know the type of, but not the specific content. These are filled with placeholders.

(1) The Sunday name (e.g., "24th Sunday in Ordinary Time"), dates for the Masses, and the specific books/chapters/verses of the readings. I use text-frame placeholders for these.

(2) Readings, hymns, and Responsorial Psalms. I have text-frame placeholders for the readings and PDF-frame placeholders for music.

Those components are filled in during Production, but the template accounts for their type and thus streamlines Production considerably.

Template creation & iteration

The key to reliable templates is iteration. When I created my first worship aid, I made it from scratch. It took an hour and a half. When I made the second one, I opened the first one and replaced what needed to change. This was the first iteration of the template: I saw what pieces stayed and what pieces didn’t.

Prior to making the third worship aid, I opened the second and re-saved the file with “Template” in the file name. Then I removed content that wasn't common to every Mass and left placeholders for the rest. For a few weeks, I fiddled with the template to find the correct line between Pre-production and Production—the Last Predictable Step.

With the finished template (actually multiple templates reflecting different church seasons, but you get the idea), creating a worship aid now takes 12 - 15 minutes. If a week has particularly long readings or hymns—meaning they need additional space and I have to adjust the layout a bit—it might take up to 30 minutes. But that’s a far cry from the 90 minutes the first one took, and it’s because I found the Last Predictable Step where unique work begins and saved the rest in templates!

How can Tools for Thought help?

If you’re new to the Weekend Upgrade newsletter, I explore how processes can be created in Tools for Thought (TfTs). TfTs are apps optimized for linking your ideas, thoughts, notes, etc.—apps like Roam Research, Amplenote, Logseq, Obsidian, and Craft.

"C'mon, R.J.," you may be thinking. "Your worship aid templates are in InDesign. How could Roam Research or Amplenote or any TfT make a difference?"

There are two ways, actually. First, remember we want to capture the process as well as the work. In essence, we annotate the work—similar to commenting in software code—and the flexibility of TfTs make them ideal for that kind of text capture. If your work is based in your TfT, the captured process might even wind up being the template.

Second, there’s no point having a template if you forget where it is, and TfTs are perfect for cataloguing your templates. This is true even for templates based in other tools, like my worship aids in InDesign. I still need the process documented so I don't lose track of where my templates are and accidentally reinvent wheels.

What do I do next?

(1) Take 2 minutes and answer this question: What’s one thing I learned in this newsletter that I can put into practice right away?

By committing to a specific action, you make it much more likely you’ll do it.

(2) Identify a project or process you perform regularly but haven't standardized.

The next time you do it, note how you do it as you do it. Then search that process for the Last Predictable Step and build a template using what you find.

If this was valuable for you:

Share the newsletter with someone you think would also get value from it!

Until next time, friends:

Pre-done work is time saved!


P.S. Cohort Six of my AP Productivity course launches October 7. Today (9/23) is the last day for the Early Bird registration 15% discount. Don't miss out: sign up for Cohort Six now!

Weekend Upgrade (by R.J. Nestor)

Weekend Upgrade provides tools to improve your productivity and communication, especially if you use Tools for Thought like Roam Research, Amplenote, Logseq, or Obsidian.

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