Six Ways on Getting Less Done each day

Playing with yesterday, I came across the popular post “Six Ways on Getting More Done each day”. I certainly hope its popularity isn’t a sign that people are going to follow its ideals.

1. Focus high importance tasks first

“If you are choosing to watch TV over completing your project that is due tomorrow, you are definitely getting your priority wrong.” Actually if you’re unable to watch TV because you haven’t yet finished a project that’s due tomorrow, then you have a bigger problem. Granted, that problem might be that you work in an organisation that doesn’t give you enough time to do your job, but working late into the night to show actually you can finish things on an impossible deadline isn’t really going to help with that problem long term. Probably just the opposite. But assuming you had enough time to do the project in the first place, then why aren’t you finished yet? If it’s life quality you’re after, then being finished with time to spare wins by quite some margin every time. Kathy Sierra had an interesting post a few days ago about how people can’t be afraid and rational simultaneously. The fear of not getting a project finished on time is a very good way of making sure that the project isn’t actually done as well as it could be. When this happens most people tend to blame it on just not having had enough time to do it well. Kathy’s post made me realise that it’s not the lack of time, per se, so much as the inability to use that last minute time as well as normal.

2. Work smarter

Now, everyone knows that I’m a major proponent of *that*. But I’ve refined my approach quite considerably over time. These days I rarely think that it’s a net win to try to completely automate away something you do. Certainly not before you’ve even tried to do it. The amount of effort involved in doing this is almost always going to be greater than in just doing the task. Hackers tend not to notice this as when you’re expending the energy on something you like, rather than on a boring task, it feels like you’re getting more done. But in general you’re actually getting less done – just enjoying it more. These days I’m a much bigger proponent of automating away one part of the task each time you do it. In general this should be the part that you’ll get the biggest “bang for the buck” in automating based on how long it will take to automate vs how long you spend doing it each time. It’s a fairly tricky equation to get correct, so don’t get sucked in to trying to calculate accurately. Again that just distracts from doing it. When in doubt make the improvement that you know will take least time. If you’re doing the task often enough, you’ll make so many improvements that you’ll manage to get 90% of the task automated away quickly enough anyway. The other 10%, of course, is usually almost impossible to automate away sensibly. The systems that claim to do this usually just play a smoke and mirrors game where the work is instead diverted to some other part of the system. Usually a user who suddenly has to do some new task to work around the lack of fudgability in the system

3. Work faster

Again, people should imagine that I have no problem with this. I certainly agree that almost everyone who uses a computer regularly could benefit from learning to type faster. But I also agree with Dijkstra that, save for secretarial-type tasks, the bottleneck should usually be thinking, not typing. And thinking isn’t something that works well at a faster pace. If anything, for me at least, it prefers a slower pace. Of course, in a great many organisations, appearing to work hard, and appearing to work fast, are seen as good things. Appearing to be just sitting thinking is seen as a bad thing. And as for going for a walk around the park to think … Again, I much prefer the approach of trying to speed up everything you do a teensy little bit every time you do it, and relying on the cumulative effects.

4. Work harder

“Drop your TV watching session. Drop your tea break.” Erm. No. Not at all. If anything, take more breaks. Working constantly just means working less efficiently. I really didn’t think anyone believed this.

5. Concentrate and focus tasks

“Concentrate yourself on one task and only one task.” This is one I’m not sure about. There are certain types of tasks where this probably works well. But most people’s jobs are interrupt driven. Everyone like to complain about how terrible this is, and how much they’d be able to get done if they just got peace to do their job. I wonder how much more we’d all get done collectively if we learned to accept that interrupts are natural, and possibly even good, and learned to work effectively with them.

6. Avoid to make mistakes (sic)

“There aren’t any excuse if you are making the same mistake twice. Note it down as notes and remind yourself when you are doing similar tasks again.” I agree that mistakes are time consuming. But just noting them down to try to remember not to make them again is a huge mistake. Instead you need to identify how the mistake came to be made, and try to make it so that that sort of mistake /can’t/ be made again. Again this is subject to the same sort of rules as #2 above. If you’re making lots of mistakes you certainly don’t have time to stop everything each time and concentrate on the root cause. But you certainly have time to put even one barrier in the way of a future you (or a future someone else) going down that path again. As before, if it’s a common error, the entire path will very quickly get blocked up quite effectively.

Reading back through this, and thinking about my reactions to these points, I think the key to Getting More Done is, like most things, slow steady improvement. It’s not glamorous, it doesn’t sell books, and it’s certainly not easy. But it’s effective. If you can make a 1% improvement on something every day, then you’ll be twice as good in about three months, and over ten times as good in a year. This starts to add up fast. Of course, the more finely tuned you can get everything, the harder it becomes to find something else to squeeze out. But most of us have so much nonsense tied up with everything we do that that problem is usually years away!

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