You Can’t Boil The Ocean

You Can't Boil the Ocean - Marshall Atkinson


Have you ever heard this phrase, “You Can’t Boil the Ocean”?

I stumbled upon it a few months ago somewhere and jotted it down in my journal.  (Yes, I started journaling last year to improve my writing and idea flow).

Can you picture the ocean?  For some of you that might be hard because you may have never stood on a beach or been out to sea.  To a person, it is a majestic, seemingly infinite expanse.  It makes you feel minuscule in comparison.

It’s just flat out big.

Just like the gigantic amount of things that you need to be doing today.  This week too.  By the end of the month.  The end of the Quarter is around the corner.

It’s an endless list and just keeps going.  Like the ocean.  Waves are breaking on the shore as we speak.  Oh, wait…is that the phone ringing?

Surfs up!

This article will focus on three things to help you get some control.  Eliminate, Delegate, and Prioritize.

Let’s take a look:




Can we eliminate the ocean?  I hope not.  I kinda like it.

But for your gigantic ocean of things to do, what you can do is eliminate what you are working on in the first place.

For example, how many of the orders on your schedule are you truly making a decent profit?

If you are like most shops, you have one chunk that you were thrilled to land.  They are big, juicy orders from repeat customers.


In the middle, are the average sized ones.  If you were to look at your orders from a statistical point of view, these make up the mean average.  They aren’t the best ones, but they contribute to the lion’s share of the workload.

But the ones I want you to examine closely are in the last group.  These are the ones your gut told you not to take, but you did anyway.


These are the 15% – 20% of your orders that take up 80% of your time.

Do these sound familiar?


That crazy rush order without any art. It’s due Thursday!

The customer that is “dropping off some jackets” to be embroidered. They left four completely filled garbage bags stuffed full of random items. Surprise! Only three jackets.  But they included polos, aprons, and a few hats. There isn’t an itemized list either. Somehow you know there is going to be a small or medium something missing.

Color Diva alert! Every shop has at least one customer that changes the PMS color fourteen times on an order.  Hint: they are usually a “designer”.  Try 7502.  Nope.  How about 452?  Um, that’s not it either.  What about 4525?  Let’s try…

Don’t forget about Soccer Mom Susie that wants you to design three images for her fundraiser for the school, just so her committee can pick the one they like the best.  I think there is a term called “Designed by Committee” for a reason.  Nothing wrong with having three times the design work for one order is there?

Maybe you don’t even have the order yet.  How many hours of apparel blank research are you doing for that one quote request of forty-two shirts?  They want to see five different styles, with four color combinations, for both unisex and gender-specific needs. Can you order in samples by Tuesday?

I’m sure you can relate.

If we’re not careful here, this article could get overrun by a long list of “Geez, I knew it” type jobs.  Feel free to add your most painful challenge in the comments section.  I’m something just left your head shaking in your shop.

That’s not the point.  My thought here is why are you letting these type of jobs in your building in the first place?


Busy Being Busy


Are you guilty of “Busy being busy”?  What you should want is “Busy being profitable”.

Think about it.

Fairly soon, if it hasn’t started already, your shop is going to be logjammed with work.  The busy season is fast approaching.

Spring is here!

How many of the jobs on your plate will be for ones that require two or three times the amount of hand-holding to get them completed and out the door?

That’s a big block of your day.  Of your staff’s day.  You aren’t getting paid by how many times you touch something or have to follow up with the customer, right?

This is when it feels like we’re boiling the ocean.  When there is so much to do, these loser jobs tend to cause the sharpest migraines.

Here’s a “what if”.  What if you analyzed those problems in your shop?  List the biggest challenges and the impact they have on the rest of the work in the building.

Warning: My list above may not be indicative of your shop.  You have your own problems, I’m sure.

Do it before that ocean tidal wave of work shows up on your doorstep.  Plus, it’s due tomorrow.


Make Changes


What if you changed some rules for the shop?

Maybe smaller orders are a problem.  Change your minimum from twelve to twenty-four.  Or thirty-six.  You can absolutely set this to whatever you want it to be!

What if you don’t take customer supplied goods?  Plenty of shops don’t.  You can’t bring in your own steak to a restuarant either.

Redefined how your art department works.  Write some rules.

Charge for changing out ink, or even allowing customers to have on-site proofing access in the first place.  We all know what happens when that designer is standing there looking over the printer’s shoulder during set-up.  What should have taken fifteen minutes now has been three hours.  And still going.

What if you provided your customers with a curated list of “best” ideas for blanks?  Have this pre-defined and ready to send.  “Here are the three best t-shirts we recommend.”  Maybe the three best hoodies, tank tops, or canvas tote bags.  (There is a cool free Chrome Extension called PromoHunt that allows you to curate a list, catalog it, and send one link)

How the “What If” part of challenge resolution works is to redefine something that slows down your shop.  Make the change.  Eliminate the problem.

You don’t have to boil the ocean if you aren’t even there to begin with.




For some, this is a big problem.

You know you can hand off that task to someone, but the control freak in you can’t let it go.  You drive yourself crazy with a mountain of work because you feel the need to touch everything that comes through the shop.

Instead, I want you to focus on this idea.

You should be working on $15,000 an hour tasks, not $15 an hour ones.  That’s how your shop is going to grow.

Every day you are knees up in the surf, scooping up seawater to boil.  “Nobody can do it like me”, you say.

Do you really believe that?  Really?

Delegating is all about the outcome.  A task gets handled by a timeframe with a certain level of quality.  You simply have to teach what you want the expected outcome to look like.

The “how” it gets handled doesn’t matter.  Let go of that.

The point here is that if you define your expectations and hand someone the pot, they can start boiling that seawater for you.  Also, I should point out that this person doesn’t necessarily have to be an employee or even a person for that matter.  There might be an app for that.

When you free yourself up from these daily mundane tasks is when you can start being a better leader for your company.

That’s when you’ll move from trying to boil the ocean, to asking if you are in the right sea.

Which is another problem entirely.




So in your everyday craziness how do you know what to work on next?

Is there a method, or do you hop-scotch from one fire to the next?

How good is your shop at looking at the schedule for next week an understanding if they can take a job for next Wednesday and be 100% confident it will ship on time?

There are only so many hours in a day.  And despite your super-human powers of awesomeness, you probably are not as effective as you might think at multi-tasking.  So what do you pick first?


Chunk That Mother Up


Grab the most important things first.  You know which ones I’m talking about.

If you don’t do this thing right now, you are dead in the water.  Yep, that one.  It goes first.

Next up, is another one with some urgency too.  And so on.

You put first things first, and get them handled.

Human Nature


But that’s not how we work as people sometimes.  Sure, that big order is due next week.  But are you working on getting the art ready?

Nope.  You are chatting about the game last night.  Maybe making a snarky Facebook post.  Or banging out a proof for that simple job that’s due in two weeks because you really like Carol.  She brings you cookies.

Your number one task that you should be working on is still sitting there on your desk staring at you.

In the back of your mind, you know it’s there.  “I’ll get to it in a minute”, you think to yourself.

We’re human.  Procrastination is always easier.  We like easy.

What You Should Be Doing


Instead of leaving the decision on what to do next up to Carol’s cookies, you should be prioritizing the workload with a system.

You know.  Rules.

They don’t have to be anything incredibly complex either.

For example, what if the first determining factor in what to work on next was the Ship Date?  The Ship Date is the day on the calendar that the job has to leave the building.  Like Elvis.

Every department in your shop can use the Ship Date as the starting point to weigh what to start on next.

Let’s say you have forty-two orders to produce.  Twenty-eight of them are more than eight business days away.  We’ll put those to the side for a second.

So now, let’s look at the remaining fourteen.  Of that group, six have due dates within the next three days.  We’ll put those other eight off to the side for a second.

Of the six, one is a huge order that is going to take production more time to complete.  The other five are smaller, but of those, one is due tomorrow.

So now, you work on the Big Boy as that’s tied to more revenue, and then knock out that one for tomorrow after that.  Everything else falls into place.


Second Nature


Sure, this may seem like second nature to you.  I get it.

But does your crew?

Yes?  “We got this”, you say.

So why then do you have a production scheduling meeting every single day in the morning?  If you have to actually point out and prioritize someone else’s workload and decision making for them, you don’t have a working system.

Sorry, pal.

Make it so the decision about what to do is obvious.  There is only one way to do something.  This happens by developing clear expectations and easy to follow rules.  You have to install that training and trust.

Otherwise, it is going to be you boiling the ocean all day.

Who wants that?


“We boil at different degrees.” – Clint Eastwood

“When the water starts boiling it is foolish to turn off the heat.” -Nelson Mandela

“I drank some boiling water because I wanted to whistle.” – Mitch Hedberg


Because You Need It

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