Do you ever get the feeling that the thing you’re doing at that moment, you’ve done at least once before? Do you find yourself trying to remember how you did it, so you can do it again? This happens to me yearly now when I’m doing a seasonal task – packing for vacation in the summer, raking leaves or chopping wood in the fall, shoveling snow in the winter and firing up the grill in the spring. Years ago I found myself doing these tasks and feeling like I’d learned a trick or a shortcut last year but I couldn’t remember what it was. When you’re pressed for time that’s a bad feeling to have.
The reality of life today is that we have a lot of technical tasks we need to accomplish – even in the very-human realm of fathering. Another truth is that our brains are not designed to hold so much information and make it available step by step – especially for tasks we only do a few times a year or relatively infrequently.
But this is one of those times when I should know better – Standard Operating Procedures get beat into your head from the first day you show up for work in the Army. Much if not all of my time leading an infantry platoon or a Special Forces ODA between deployments was spent developing, capturing, practicing and revising all those actions we’d have to do when we headed overseas. Since every group of individuals is different – everyone’s experiences in life shape them in a separate way – every team’s going to have their own way of doing things. But it’s critical that every member of the team is of the same mind when in combat – that everyone knows what to expect from each other, especially when being shot at and team members are most at risk for doing something erratic.
A Standard Operating Procedure is defined as an established way of doing something that’s supposed to be followed in carrying out a specific operation or situation. For an individual who’s never used one knowingly before, probably the best introductory example you can find is in an instruction manual – like for a baby’s carseat. That manual’s going to tell you how to strap down the seat securely in your car, how to position the seat for best effect and then how to put your baby in it for use. It’s not meant to be interesting reading – it’s supposed to tell you how to do something right. So long as you have the manual handy you should never have a problem knowing how to do that task.
Want proof SOPs are used in the military? Ask any current or former servicemember with an infantry background to explain Battle Drill 1A for you. Don’t be surprised when the nearest flat surface becomes a makeshift sand table and you’re seeing a salt shaker and a pepper shaker maneuvering on a bottle of ketchup. How many other organizations of hundreds of thousands of people all know how to do the same exact thing the same exact way? A Battle Drill is a standardized form of an SOP that is so critical to the way a military fights that its procedure is dictated to all. Which is also usually a pretty good sign it’s effective.
What I propose to you is to make small manuals for yourself in order to first accomplish the task right next time, but more importantly learn continuously. In our case here the SOPs we develop will look like checklists – one-man SOPs for getting something done right with a minimum of wasted time, effort, frustration and mistakes.
The next time you as a father undertake a multi-step task (I recommend one you find yourself undertaking on a weekly basis), bring along a piece of paper and a pen. See if you can describe the task as a series of steps, one after the other. There’s probably a way you prefer doing it, or an end-state you’re going for – make that explicit. Think about the next time you’ll have to do that task and how you’d like yourself to approach it. Take that sheet once it’s done and make it available for next week (I like to type it out & make it available on my phone). Then use it the next time you need to complete that task.
Here’s an example of an SOP I use a few times a year in the fall:
Echo PB-250LN Power Blower Startup (Starting Cold Engine):
– 1. Move Stop Switch away from the STOP position.
– 2. Move Throttle Position Lever midway between idle and full throttle positions.
– 3. Move choke to COLD START (closed) position.
– 4. Pump Purge Bulb until fuel is visible and flows freely In the clear fuel tank return line. NOTICE: Recoil starter: Use short pulls – only 1/2 – 2/3 of rope for starting. Do not allow the rope to snap back in. Always hold the unit firmly.
– 5. Place the unit on a flat, clear area. Firmly grasp throttle handle with left hand and rapidly pull recoil starter handle/rope until engine fires, or maximum 5 pulls.
– 6. Move choke lever to RUN position, and if necessary, restart engine. Note: If engine does not start with choke in RUN position after 5 pulls, repeat instructions 3 – 5.
– 7. After engine warms up, gradually depress throttle trigger to increase engine RPM to operating speed. Note: Allow engine to warm up 3 minutes before use
I pulled a lot of these steps right from the actual power blower manual, simplified them, typed them out and put them on my phone. It makes my life a hell of a lot easier.
1. Use it: These things only work if you use them.
2. Have it handy: This is easier than you think, and it’s the thing that makes Rule #1 possible. Chances are if you’re clothed, you have a computer with near-instantaneous information recall in your pocket right now. Hell these days you’re probably reading this on it. You can store your SOPs on Dropbox and pull them up immediately on your smartphone if you label them right. As a failsafe I like to print mine out and have a hard copy too.
3. Keep it simple: In his book Checklist Manifesto, surgeon Atul Gawande says you should keep checklists between 5 and 9 tasks. This is to ensure you’ll actually use them and that pulling one up doesn’t become a task in itself.
4. Update it – and think about “future you”. This practice is about getting good at something and staying good at something while requiring minimal effort. Start with a first draft and actually use it – the more you use it the more you’ll see how you can simplify and streamline the process, partly because you’ll use it when you have different mindsets. Productivity experts Joe Buhlig and Mike Schmitz like to talk a lot about framing things for “future me” by considering how they’ll approach a task in the future – in their case they usually mean naming things very specifically so that there’s no confusion about what they wrote.
So how does this relate to being a dad? First, for me, it’s about time. It’s the scarcest of resources and it’s always running out – capturing the most efficient and effective way to accomplish something routine helps me get some time back in the future. It also helps me prevent missed steps and mistakes which can cost a lot more time. Second, it’s about internalization and improvement – one thing I’d like to pass on to my kids by way of example is an aptitude for diligence and steady improvement. I lack those things naturally – I tend to dive right in and get lost in a problem or task but it’s a frustrating way to live your life day to day. I’d rather give my kids a way to break out of that (see the Carolla PragerU link below on Internalization). Finally it’s a great way to communicate how to accomplish a task to someone else – have you ever had to tell your wife how to do something you normally do when you’re not at home? You can pass your SOPs to others in order to better communicate steps.
Adam Carolla on Internalization: https://www.prageru.com/video/change-your-life/
Joe Buhlig & Mike Schmitz on Checklist Manifesto: https://joebuhlig.com/16-the-checklist-manifesto-by-atul-gawande/
Joe Buhlig on Creating Checklists: https://joebuhlig.com/4/
Work the System – an interesting big-picture book about how SOPs can govern your life. Very cool: https://www.alibris.com/Work-the-System-The-Simple-Mechanics-of-Making-More-and-Working-Less-Sam-Carpenter/book/11212019?matches=54
Harvard Business Review on the Types of Checklists: https://hbr.org/2010/02/draftwhat-sort-of-checklist-sh.html
Derek Sivers’ Notes on Checklist Manifesto: https://sivers.org/book/ChecklistManifesto
Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande: https://www.alibris.com/The-Checklist-Manifesto-How-to-Get-Things-Right-Atul-Gawande/book/11624578?matches=204