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Four Instructive Questions for Instructions

Four Instructive Questions for Instructions

Instructions

    Whether you’re telling the new intern at work just how to file a new client’s folder, or giving your sister a rundown on how Fido likes his dinner prepared, you’re giving instructions. As a general rule, it’s easier to give instructions in person — the instructee can ask for clarification on anything he doesn’t understand.

    When you’re writing down instructions, though, it can be much harder to explain each step needed to complete the task. Think about doing your own taxes: the IRS’ instructions are enough to drive some of us to paying hundreds of dollars just to avoid dealing with the dratted things. As you write your instructions, keep the following questions in mind to make both writing them and following them at least a little easier.

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    What is the end result?

    “Rinse. Wash. Repeat.” The typical shampoo instructions bother me on a fundamental level. It’s mostly that I’m not sure when I should stop repeating. Just how shiny is my hair supposed to be in the end? How will I know when it’s clean enough to stop washing? I try to avoid getting existential in the shower, but this set of instructions shows the problem with half the directions that cross my desk. There’s no end, no goal, no product that makes it easy for the person following along at home to know that she can stop.

    When writing a set of instructions, the first thing you should make note of is the end result. Even a good title can take care of this task: a cook following instructions on “How to Boil a Pot of Water” can probably figure out that he can stop when the water starts boiling. Want to prove the point? Leave an untitled set of instructions on an office assistant’s desk and head out for the weekend. Long before you get to the beach, you’ll be getting a phone call to ask just what is sitting on the desk.

    Do you have the same starting point?

    I once wound up driving almost fifteen miles out of my way trying to get to a friend’s house. I followed his directions to the letter — I thought. Turns out, he had given me directions from some place quite close to his house, assuming I could get there on my own. And I probably could have gotten that far without directions, if I had known that I needed to start there.

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    Make your starting point clear, whether you’re giving driving directions or telling someone how to hook up their new television. The starting point may not even be an address; it may be a list on ingredients or necessary equipment that your user should have ahead of time. Think about running a combine out at the farm. If you had to run one, you might be able to, with good instructions. But would you recognize the combine in the first place?

    Are you speaking the same language?

    My version of the English language doesn’t quite match one of my clients. I mentioned that perhaps we should use social networking to market his business. He was with me to that point, but when I put together a list of steps for how we should proceed, he wasn’t familiar with a whole set of terms: “What the heck is tweeting? Do I need to buy a bird?” Some times we get so used to the jargon or dialect of our day-to-day conversations that we don’t realize that someone new to the concept — the exact type of person needing instructions — doesn’t use the same words in the same way.

    Your instructions don’t need to devolve into tasks within tasks and attempts to introduce that new intern to all the office terminology in one go. Just write your instructions to a less knowledgeable audience — think about your dear grandma who just isn’t up on modern day slang while you’re writing.

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    These questions can apply to visual instructions just as much as written directions. Symbols and icons don’t always communicate well, despite the claim that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ One lasting example is the sign on the ladies’ room door — that all-important instruction on just who is allowed entry. In the U.S., we have that funky stick figure with the fins on either side, meant to represent a skirt. In many Middle Eastern countries, though, the ladies’ room is indicated with a veil. Icons can trip us up just as easily as words.

    Can you test it?

    A set of instructions don’t need the same user testing that your new website design should probably undergo. But handing it to the guy at the next desk over, and asking “Does this make sense?” can speed up the time it takes someone to follow your directions by hours. Even thirty seconds of minor corrections is not too much effort, especially if you’re paying someone by the hour to complete this task. In some situations, of course, testing is impossible. It’s worth the effort if you can arrange it, though.

    If you are planning to use the same set of instructions multiple times, it’s worth asking the person who carried out the task to let you know of any specific problems. Clear them up now and you can minimize problems down the road.

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    Last thoughts

    And even perfectly-phrased instructions aren’t a guarantee that everyone will figure out what you mean. But they do up the odds that your new intern will survive her first day in the office and that you’ll manage to keep all of your hair. So write your instructions, breath deeply and relax with the knowledge that you’ve written a darn good set of instructions.

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    Last Updated on April 8, 2019

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    Unless you’re infinitely rich or prepared to rack up major debt, you need to budget your income. Setting limits on how much you are willing to spend helps control expenses. But what about your time? Do you budget your time or spend it carelessly?

    Deadlines are the chronological equivalent of a budget. By setting aside a portion of time to complete a task, goal or project in advance you avoid over-spending. Deadlines can be helpful but they can also be a source of frustration if set improperly. Here are some tips for making deadlines work:

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    1. Use Parkinson’s Law – Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the time given to them. By setting a strict deadline in advance you can cut off this expansion and focus on what is most important.
    2. Timebox – Set small deadlines of 60-90 minutes to work on a specific task. After the time is up you finish. This cuts procrastinating and forces you to use your time wisely.
    3. 80/20 – The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of the value is contained in 20% of the input. Apply this rule to projects to focus on that critical 20% first and fill out the other 80% if you still have time.
    4. Project VS Deadline – The more flexible your project, the stricter your deadline. If a task has relatively little flexibility in completion a softer deadline will keep you sane. If the task can grow easily, keep a tight deadline to prevent waste.
    5. Break it Down – Any deadline over one day should be broken down into smaller units. Long deadlines fail to motivate if they aren’t applied to manageable units.
    6. Hofstadter’s Law – Basically this law states that it always takes longer than you think. A rule I’ve heard in software development is to double the time you think you need. Then add six months. Be patient and give yourself ample time for complex projects.
    7. Backwards Planning – Set the deadline first and then decide how you will achieve it. This approach is great when choices are abundant and projects could go on indefinitely.
    8. Prototype – If you are attempting something new, test out smaller versions of a project to help you decide on a final deadline. Write a 10 page e-book before your 300 page novel or try to increase your income by 10% before aiming to double it.
    9. Find the Weak Link – Figure out what could ruin your plans and accomplish it first. Knowing the unknown can help you format your deadlines.
    10. No Robot Deadlines – Robots can work without sleep, relaxation or distractions. You aren’t a robot. Don’t schedule your deadline with the expectation you can work sixteen hour days to complete it. Deathmarches aren’t healthy.
    11. Get Feedback – Get a realistic picture from people working with you. Giving impossible deadlines to contractors or employees will only build resentment.
    12. Continuous Planning – If you use a backwards planning model, you need to constantly be updating plans to fit your deadline. This means making cuts, additions or refinements so the project will fit into the expected timeframe.
    13. Mark Excess Baggage – Identify areas of a task or project that will be ignored if time grows short. What e-mails will you have to delete if it takes too long to empty your inbox? What features will your product lack if you need a rapid finish?
    14. Review – For deadlines over a month long take a weekly review to track your progress. This will help you identify methods you can use to speed up work and help you plan more efficiently for the future.
    15. Find Shortcuts – Almost any task or project has shortcuts you can use to save time. Is there a premade library you can use instead of building your own functions? An autoresponder to answer similar e-mails? An expert you can call to help solve a problem?
    16. Churn then Polish – Set a strict deadline for basic completion and then set a more comfortable deadline to enhance and polish afterwards. Often churning out the basics of a task quickly will require no more polishing afterwards than doing it slowly.
    17. Reminders – Post reminders of your deadlines everywhere. Creating a sense of urgency with your deadlines is necessary to keep them from getting pushed aside by distractions.
    18. Forward Planning – Not mutually exclusive with backwards planning, this involves planning the details of a project out before setting a deadline. Great for achieving clarity about what you are trying to accomplish before making arbitrary time limits.
    19. Set a Timer – Get one that beeps. Somehow the countdown of a timer appears more realistic for a ninety minute timebox than just glancing at your clock.
    20. Write them Down – Any deadline over a few hours needs to be written down. Otherwise it is an inclination not a goal. Having written deadlines makes them more tangible than internal decisions alone.
    21. Cheap/Fast/Good – Ben Casnocha in My Start Up Life mentions that you can have only have two of the three. Pick two of the cheap/fast/good dimensions before starting a project to help you prioritize.
    22. Be Patient – Using a deadline may seem to be the complete opposite of patience. But being patient with inflexible tasks is necessary to focus on their completion. The paradox is that the more patient you are, the more you can focus. The more you can focus the quicker the results will come!

    Featured photo credit: Estée Janssens via unsplash.com

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