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Getting Lifehack Done: Global Collaboration

Getting Lifehack Done: Global Collaboration

Global Collaboration

    Somewhere around 3 dozen people, scattered across the globe from Hong Kong across the US to the UK, Europe, and beyond work together to bring you the collection of useful tips, thought pieces, and inspiration known as Lifehack. I thought it might be interesting to our readers to learn a little bit about what goes on “behind the scenes” at a big site like this – the tools we use, the processes we’ve developed, and the attitudes that help us keep Lifehack stocked with stories 260 days a year. (That’s 5 weekdays a week for 52 weeks – we don’t take holidays off!)

    Collaboration Tools for a Global Workforce

    Lifehack simply wouldn’t be possible, not in the form it’s taken today anyway, without the awesome power of WordPress. What’s most amazing about WordPress is that it’s free and open-source – itself the outcome of a global collaboration. Lifehack pushes WordPress hard, with dozens of active users under several different roles, and huge amounts of traffic, often coming is spikes that would take most sites down. Lifehack is one of the most-dugg sites on the Internet —

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    the 31st most-mentioned site on Digg and somewhere around 125th in terms of total number of diggs (sorry, I’ve lost the link to that), and Digg traffic can come as fast as a hit a second. Configured properly, WordPress handles it with ease.

    I’ll talk more about WordPress when I discuss our process. HEre are some of the other tools that make Lifehack possible:

    • Campfire: Campfire is an online chatroom service hosted by the good folks at 37Signals. Campfire allows me to meet with Leon Ho, Lifehack’s owner, every other week for a real-time discussion of the site’s direction, special projects, and so on – despite the fact that Leon is based in Hong Kong and I’m in Las Vegas. We also use Campfire for editorial meetings between myself and the other staff writers (Thursday Bram and Joel Falconer). My favorite feature of Campfire is that it archives all your chats, so we can easily pull up a record of past discussions if we need to clarify a point or look for action items.
    • Ta-da List: Another 37Signals product, Ta-da List is a simple task list that allows task sharing between several users. The staff writers use a single list to collect post ideas that they aren’t planning to use – maybe I have a great idea for a post I know Lifehack readers will enjoy, but I lack the time or knowledge to do it justice. Our Ta-da List lets me offer it up to the other writers, who can check it off if they decide to run with the idea.
    • Google Groups: How do you communicate with a staff of 30+ guest contributors? The answer, for us, is an email list. Every guest contributor is invited to join our private group on Google. This list allows me to send them all updates about upcoming events (like the Lifehack Great Big Summer Giveaway), editorial directions, and process changes. It also provides a forum for sharing tips on writing, using social media, and other information relevant to writers of a popular site like Lifehack.
    • activeCollab: This is a project management and collaboration suite that runs on the Stepcase servers (Stepcase is Lifehack’s parent company). In theory, it allows us to assign tasks, attach them to projects, record progress towards milestones, compile information pages about projects, and so on; in practice, I find it far too complex for the small number of people actively administering the site, especially given that our workflow isn’t really divided into “projects” as much as "ongoing responsibilities". I’m sure it works much better for larger workgroups in a corporate environment.
    • Email and other communication tools: Email isn’t fancy, but it’s probably the tool we use the most, simply because it’s ever-present, near-instantaneous, and easily archived. And for person-to-person off-the-cuff discussions, we often use Skype or other IM systems as well.

    The Collaborative Process

    To make this all work, we need a pretty clear workflow for each week’s posts. When I started at Lifehack over a year ago, articles were posted to the front page pretty much as they were submitted by guest contributors. When I took over the job of editing and scheduling all the posts on the site, I decided that we should batch process our posts — eating our own dog-food, as it were.

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    Today, no matter how many guest contributors post in any given week, I only spend a few hours on Sunday scheduling posts. Although staff writers and guest contributors are free to write whatever they want (within the scope of the site), I make suggestions of loose themes every month or so — this month was "home and work", for instance.

    Such themes, when we have them, are worked out by myself and Leon Ho, and sometimes staff writers Joel and Thursday, during our bi-weekly meetings. Those meetings are also where we work out technical issues, discuss editorial policies, plan the site’s direction, and generally bounce ideas off of each other.

    In between meetings, I act as the contact person for question from guest contributors and staff writers alike, dealing with simple issues as they arise and saving the more complex ones for our editorial meetings.

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    Collaboration is an Attitude

    Keep in mind that I have never met Leon or Joel or any of Lifehack’s guest contributors. I did meet Thursday once for coffee when she was visiting Las Vegas for a conference. But basically we are a group of about three dozen strangers. Yet that group of strangers manages to keep a lively mix of stories flowing every weekday, through the whole year.

    To do this requires more than just a set of tools — it requires an attitude. Everyone who contributes to Lifehack — whether as guest contributors, staff writers, or readers — does so for reasons of their own. Everyone recognizes that, and as long as I’ve been involved with the site, nobody has made an effort to impose their own view on anyone else. We’ve worked hard to make sure that there’s room for a variety of viewpoints, even conflicting ones — I sometimes disagree sharply with a piece I’m editing, but I respect the author’s intentions in posting it, and respect the readers’ right to agree or disagree free of my interference.

    Mostly, Lifehack works because everyone has a clear role and no more is asked of them than spelled out in that role. The development of a clear system for posting and communicating reflects that — I know exactly what I can expect of each person involved with putting Lifehack together.

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    Conclusion

    I’m lucky that mutual respect and clearly-defined roles are so effective, because to be honest, the tools we use are something of a kluge. I would much rather use a single collaboration suite that handled all the tasks we perform in bringing Lifehack together day after day. So far, I haven’t found anything that is functional, elegant, easy to use, and handles multiple roles well. WordPress is the exception — maybe someone will build a collaboration suite using WordPress as a platform?

    That said, the kluge we’ve got does work, as the continued existence of Lifehack shows. And it is sure to evolve as new tools become available that handle more of the tasks we need to perform, and handles them more efficiently. And hopefully, seeing how we do it might give you some ideas about your own teams and projects.

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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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