Review: The Simplicity Survival Handbook

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.

SimplicityI originally picked up The Simplicity Survival Handbook because I was full of enthusiasm for Getting Things Done and I was looking for all sorts of additional things I could do to keep maximizing my time efficiency. Once I had discovered how a few big tweaks could literally free up hours of my time each day, I was utterly thirsty for more things I could apply.

That’s exactly what The Simplicity Survival Handbook is: 32 tweaks to save yourself time and make yourself more efficient during a given day. The best part? Most of them are applicable to anyone, no matter how you do things.

The worst part? The book is laid out in a very annoying fashion, with a lot of extra “junk” surrounding the useful nuggets. If you remove all of this unnecessary stuff, this book becomes really short – which might be why it’s there in the first place. Trust me, though, the good stuff is well worth getting to.

So what’s inside? I’m going to briefly stroll through all 32 tips presented in the book. I tried to state each tip in just two sentences to keep it brief, but each one has several pages on the topic which really fleshes out the core ideas. I put a big red star like this one: * after the ten I found most useful.

Looking Into The Simplicity Survival Handbook

1. How To Ignore Most Corporate Communications *
When you get a communication of any sort, look at it and identify an action you must take and a deadline for that action within the next two or three weeks; if you don’t see either, ignore it. I usually just file away such documents so my inbox (both paper and electronic) is empty as soon as possible.

2. How To Delete 75% Of Your Emails *
If you look at an email and neither the subject or the sender creates a feeling of urgency, just delete it. Then apply the first chapter filter to what remains, then if there’s anything else left, it needs to be connected to your current work and convey what needs to be done and why – if it doesn’t do that, toss it too, because it’s not important.

3. How To Quickly Prepare For Any Communication *
Whenever you want to send any communication, whether it be an email, a phone call, a memo, or anything else, make sure that you consider what you want the person to know from the message, how you want them to feel about it, and what you want them to do as a result of the message. Consider each of the three pieces, then issue the communication.

4. How To Leave Shorter Voicemails For Better Results
Use the same “know, feel, do” plan for communication from the third chapter – leave a voicemail that contains nothing more than the one piece of knowledge they need to know and the plan for them to follow up, and do it with an appropriate tone in your voice. Leave a contact number, and do not exceed thirty seconds or else you’re leaving too much information for a mere voicemail.

5. How To Write Shorter Emails For Better Results
Your email should be less than 110 words and the “meat” of the message should fit in a space less than a 3″ by 5″ index card. If you have to convey more than that, make the crux of your message fill that space at the top and put the details below it.

6. How To Do Less And Still Deliver An Awesome Presentation *
Boil everything you’re presenting down to the key points, then turn them into questions for the audience to discuss – turn your presentation into a conversation. Always create a one page summary with the headline “What This Means To You”, have only one slide for every three minutes you present, and give everyone a handout that outlines what you’re presenting.

7. How To Go To Fewer Meetings And Get More Out Of Them *
Before attending any meeting, ask yourself how much value you will get from the meeting, how much value you can contribute to the meeting, and whether the meeting will go on if you were hit by a bus; if you’re not getting value out of it and not contributing much value either, it’s a meeting you can safely skip. Almost always, regularly scheduled meetings are worth skipping.

8. How To Do Less And Still Run A Great Meeting
Invite only the minimum number of people that are truly necessary for the meeting and define what would make the meeting a success both in terms of behavior and of outcome, then communicate those measures of success right off the bat. Then do nothing in the meeting that doesn’t move you towards those benchmarks of success, even if it’s outside the norm.

9. How To Give Executives Less Information And Keep ‘Em Happy
Plan for only one third of your alloted time when you present so that you’re forced to compress your message as much as you can, and always have a “What This Means To You” single summary slide (it should come right at the start, with the other slides just detailing these points). Also, ask the executive for input as often as is reasonable during the presentation so that you learn something from the presentation, too – what exactly the executive wants.

10. How To Say “No” To Anyone In Any Situation
Above all, trust your gut and, if it’s an obvious and clear “no,” just say so and be as brief as possible. If it’s less clear, simply list the reasons why you’re saying no and be honest about them (this forces you to have legitimate reasons, which are the only ones that matter).

11. How To Use One Question To Do Less And Deflect Work *
The one question is why; ask it three to five times before agreeing to do stuff. If there’s no better reason than “Because I said so,” it’s likely not worth doing because there’s no clear application to the bottom line of the organization.

12. How To Deal With Bosses Who Just “Don’t Get It”
There are basically three things you can do: smile and nod and then do it your way, go around the person, or else look for a new job. Of course, don’t resort to this until you’re sure they don’t get it and you’ve explained to them multiple times in detail.

13. How To Never Again Need A Time Management Course *
Make a list of your top five time wasters and try pushing back against them by asking why they’re important and then just refusing to do them if there’s no clear explanation of why they’re important. You’ll often find that they melt away, leaving you free to spend more time doing actual important work instead of time wasting menial stuff.

14. How To Figure Out If Your New Employer Will Work You Harder, Not Smarter
If you interview and they’re obviously interested, ask to spend a day at the workplace. If they refuse or are confused, they’re probably in a very structured workplace with a lot of rules and regulations to follow – i.e., busywork. If they allow it, go there and just think about working in that environment – that should guide you right towards an appropriate decision.

15. How To Get The Orientation You Deserve
Most formal orientation programs in large organizations are a waste of time; instead, you should try to do your own orientation to actually figure out what your new job is actually all about. This chapter offers a lot of suggestions – my favorite was asking for as much information about your job as you can get after you accept the position but before you start – it allows you to understand what you’re walking into better. Another good tip for the first few months on the job: focus on networking and building connections, and just deliver one notable success during that timeframe.

16. How To Clarify Your Goals And Objectives More Quickly
Whenever your boss sets a new goal or objective for you, ask them how this changes what you’ve been doing, and follow that up with a series of “whys” until it becomes clear. Once you understand what needs to be done, ask for a suggestion on the first step and also clarify what success for this new objective or goal looks like.

17. How To Deal With Managers Who Pile It On: MoreMoreMore, Now! *
If you work in an environment where there’s a lot piled on, ask your boss to define the three things you should be focused on over the next month (and keep shortening the timeframe until you can get just three). Those three things should be the focus of your work – let everything else just float on by.

18. How To Deal With Teammates Who (Unknowingly) Pile It On *
Look at the project, then specify some very clear and specific to-dos for everyone involved that can be done over the next few days. Almost always, people involved with a large team project will want more of this because it adds clarity to their role in the project – basically, this is leadership.

19. How To Track Your Success: Are You Really Doing Less?
The biggest sign that you’re doing less is that you’re feeling less stressed out and thus enjoying your job more (and likely turning out better work). Without that stress and time burden, what will you do with the time and freedom? What is the bigger goal you have?

20. How To Customize Training Programs: Getting What You Need
If a training is useless and you’re not required to go, just simply ask to skip it; if you’re required to go, call up the trainer and ask if there’s a “cut-to-the-chase” version of the training you can take. Thus, only spend time on training that’s actually useful and applicable to your life and your career.

21. How To Continuously Improve Your Do-Less Skills
If you’re at a place where you now feel content with your workload, look for opportunities to practice these techniques, such as multi-discipline team tasks and tasks with short deadlines and steep learning curves. Step in and apply all of these ideas to those projects and you’ll likely learn even more about how to effectively use them – plus you’ll look like a world-beater to upper management.

22. How To Deal With The Stupidity Of Performance Appraisals *
Ask your manager each month how you’re doing in a specific fashion and follow that up with regular questions about the general focus of your job. Then just follow that lead and ignore the boilerplate performance appraisals, which usually exist so a company can cover itself.

23. How To Get Better Budgets With A Lot Less Effort
Instead of worrying about dollars, focus on the specific things that have upper management worried (like efficiency, potential changes in the marketplace, losing control of the organization, potential scandal, etc.) and make clear how your budget nails those issues. In fact, never even mention dollars at all – just ask for another meeting, which gives them time to chew on what you’re providing (which will help them sleep better at night) and then makes them much more open to giving you what you want.

24. How To Be A Trusted Advisor To Senior Execs
This chapter offers ten great suggestions on how to build a trusting relationship with a senior executive. My favorite one is to start a difficult conversation by using real data as a starting point – find a data set that clearly illustrates some problem or issue that needs to be talked about and then ask how this trend can be fixed or improved.

25. How To Measure Respect In A World Of MoreBetterFaster
Focus entirely on the productivity aspects of your job – does the workplace make it easy or hard for you to get things done? The chapter actually suggests going so far as to survey people about it, providing a sample survey, and using those results to reveal where improvements need to be made.

26. How To Decide: Stay Or Go? How Much Is Too Much?
Before you quit (if you’re thinking about it), try very hard to implement some of the immediate timesavers (the first several chapters of the book) and see whether they’re supported in the workplace. If they’re not supported, it’s probably time to move on.

27. How To Fix Leadership Development
A good leader tries hard to develop others into good workers; this chapter recommends focusing on teaching them how to communicate and how to manage their own time and tasks well. If you work in a team environment, it might be worthwhile to pass around copies of Getting Things Done and On Writing Well around to your team members.

28. How To Fix Your Worktools
This really boils down to one thing: clarity. Is all of the information needed to fulfill a task or interact with others easily available to the people that need them? If not, then there’s a specific place for a change that’s needed to make the workplace more efficient.

29. How To Turn Transparency Into An Advantage
Within the organization, individuals should always have complete access to the information that’s vital to their jobs and vital to the overall state of the organization. Once you make that available, people are much more likely to make good, informed decisions and actually feel like they’re part of the company.

30. How To Fix Performance Management
The best way to do this is to allow for as much communication as possible and for there to be a two-way review process. One method I’ve seen in a local company that’s done wonders is that each week, a manager has a five minute meeting with every employee directly under him/her to discuss goals and progress, every employee files a monthly anonymous survey about their immediate supervisor once a month, and they’ve completely tossed out regular “performance reviews.”

31. How To Fix Training And Development
All training should start off by explaining how it’s relevant to the person’s job and responsibilities, what the immediate follow up steps to the training are like, and what’s in it for them. If you can’t answer these, then maybe the training needs to be retooled.

32. How To Spot Tomorrow’s Great Places To Work
A great place to work is a place where everyone has maximum access to what they need to do their job and these employees are respected and trusted to execute for themselves.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

Different parts of The Simplicity Survival Handbook are applicable to different people: the earlier chapters are really useful for people trying to get their work done, but as the book goes on, it moves up the management ladder to the point where the final parts are for people who are the bosses of an organization.

Given that, there are useful elements of this book for anyone who works for a living. Not all chapters are applicable to everyone; in fact, many people will find that as few as a third of the chapters are really useful to their specific situation. However, those chapters that are useful to your specific situation are very useful.

If you’re in a job where you’re feeling stressed out and overworked, no matter where you are in the hierarchy, The Simplicity Survival Handbook is well worth reading.

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