Step-by-step instructions for everything

The world is complicated; lots of moving parts.

If you’ve ever written a computer program to solve a problem or worked on any complicated real-world system you realize that it takes real time to download the way a process or system works to your brain’s short term memory. It takes even more time if you don’t have a method of expediting this mental downloading process.

I don’t know how many times I’ve approached something again and thought, “how does this work again?” Probably too many. Then I have to kind of go through the discovery process again which I’ve likely already gone through to remember the steps. Hopefully, you’ll remember some of the lessons from the first time but the truth is: We should never have to go through another sort of trial-and-error mind recalibration for something we’ve already solved.

It’s kind of sad that we waste a lot of our time trying to figure stuff out for a second or third or fourth time. Not everything is like riding a bike.

This is why one must have a step-by-step process written out for anything you’re likely to forget.

I often work on technical workflow systems involving many different people but this same mindset should be applied to how to use your home theater system if you’re likely to forget how to change inputs. (This paragraph was written for my mother and father.)

I write out step-by-step instructions in Google Docs for almost everything. I have a step-by-step process for how I backup and sort my digital photos. I have another step-by-step process for how I monitor my finances. If I think it will help, I’ll also make a video screencast with voice narration and link to it in the written step-by-step instructions.

Then, of course, as a manager, I have written a step-by-step process for my coworkers to follow when performing tasks that I can reference and even a step-by-step process for how I check on all my coworkers, the health of the system and even a step-by-step process on how to both write a process and how to solicit and integrate feedback on the strength of a process.

Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham talks about this as it relates to software developers in his essays.

I had been writing documentation for many years but my thinking on this was heightened by reading Michael Gerber’s E-Myth Mastery. I like referring to it always as “step-by-step.” In the past, I’d written documentation that was insufficiently detailed. This is why calling it “step-by-step” is so important. We can’t leave anything nebulous! You don’t want your brain to have to piece things together. This is wasted time and energy that a younger you has already invested in solving this thing!

Having a totally step-by-step process written down helps your brain download what it needs as quickly as possible. It’s like how we used to attach a Game Genie to our old Nintendo to help us get to the next faster. It’s like any external tool we can develop to help overcome the weakness of our mind.

Here are my types:

  • Make sure it’s actually step-by-step.
    • Don’t assume you’ll remember certain things about a process.
  • Keep it modular
    • If you have some really complex stuff going down, you’ll often need to refer to another step-by-step process inside of a new process. This is fine. Just keep your process in separate docs and then you can cross-reference. Never rewrite a process again when you can just reference it / link to it. If you have a bunch of related step-by-step instruction you can put them in one document and if you need to reference
  • Keep it standardized
    • You should write a process for how to write a process! One of the parameters should be to keep the style and formatting of each of your step-by-step process docs the same so the only thing that varies between all the processes you reference are the actual steps.
  • Write it in collaborative doc
    • It’s 2017! No need to keep this hidden away on a parchment scroll. Being able to share your step-by-step process with someone quickly and access on any of your devices is important. Google Docs is great. There are some new entrants from Dropbox and Microsoft Word is now cloud-based.
  • Write a general process for how to improve the process
    • Is your process working reliably? You’ll need to write a process to measure the success of your process. Over time, you’ll also want to look at new technology or solutions that could improve your process and experiment with them and have a process for this experimentation and the evaluation you’ll use to decide whether this “new thing” will actually improve your current process and the measures you’ll use to objectively make this determination.

I’m amazed at the ways humans are able to get all these moving parts to work together to do new things or perform operations quickly and reliably over and over.

But our brain is still bad at storing lots of complicated step-by-step info in its short term memory so we need to give more life and free time to our future selves by created detailed step-by-step instructions to help us quickly and reliably solve recurring problems.