Absolute time vs. effective time

Most folks who have an interest in personal productivity have probably experimented with tracking time. This is challenging because this can cause large amounts of overhead – e.g., if you’re spending a minute every fifteen minutes noting down what you did. It can also be very distracting. After a few attempts with minimal success over the years, I think I have finally developed a system that works for me. More on this coming soon at a blog post near you (yes, this is just a teaser :-)).

A key part of the success has been learning to focus on effective time vs. absolute time. People call “effective time” by different names – focus time, flow, deep work, etc. I think of it as “effective time” as it is the time that was really spent in getting stuff that matters done. So, a few tweaks that have helped me focus on “effective time” are –

1. Not measuring time spend on email or admin. That’s not to say admin doesn’t get done. It is just that I know I will end up doing it. Admin and email also tend to be my favorite tools for procrastination. So, not measuring them means I keep focused on the things I ought to be working on.

2. Being strict about measuring “effective time.” After a 2 hour burst, for example, I record it in the form of a calendar event on my Outlook. I’ve generally erred on the side of being strict around exactly how much I put in. If I feel like I spent only 1 hr 40 mins, I generally put in an hour and a half (generally measured in 15′ intervals as it is easy to count at the end of the week).

3. Not sweating the small stuff. I’ve been measuring how I spend my time for 14 weeks now and have learnt that I shouldn’t worry about small slippages. It is completely okay to sleep an extra hour, spend an extra 15 minutes enjoying your lunch or to just stare into space. What really matters is what you do when you get to work. In fact, the less stressed you feel, the more you will probably get done. If you can squeeze in effective time when you are at your work desk, the small stuff doesn’t matter.

It comes down to understanding and then measuring the effectiveness of the time you spend working. Meetings, for example, are an example of time you might measure as “work” but it is typically low effectiveness work. So, you definitely need to think about what you really need to do to get work that matters done. Once that is done, then it is all about creating a clear list that spells it out, not worrying about absolute time you’ve spent on your desk and just maximizing the effectiveness of time you spend working.

Once again, don’t worry about time spent at the office. Worry about what you do when you are actually there.

(This is the sort of post that feels so obvious and simple once you write it. Somehow, the execution tends to never be close to obvious or simple..)

A bit of thinking, a lot of simplification

I’ve been using folders and about 8-9 email accounts on my Outlook for 8 years now. I never questioned it and always assumed that would be the norm. As I was reviewing my email set up 2 months back in the spirit of “what got you here won’t get you there,” I felt I needed to set up some thinking time to think about this.

I am beginning to appreciate the importance of setting aside to think about these things. It is almost impossible to do so when you are stuck in the “daily grind.” I love the daily grind but it isn’t ideal for digging deep and thinking.

I spent 2 sets of time thinking about email. This involved writing down the reasons why I used email, how I ensured the why’s were being met, and what my approach would be if I started all over again. My conclusions were as follows –

Why
– Facilitate thinking and productive work –
On the one hand, this is working well. It helped reinforced my happiness with Outlook as I’ve found that the Gmail interface sucks my desire to work. However, on the other hand, I felt it called for much needed simplification. I’m down to 4 key email addresses I use a lot and I’ve set up email forwarding on 8 or so others (each project invariably had a separate email address)

Stay in touch and keep connected. Again, all good.

Search through past ideas, conversations, information. I do most of my search on gmail and realized I didn’t need desktop search anymore. Additionally, even if I did for a recent email, folders was only adding unnecessary baggage to the search. I had created folders as a part of an initiative to teach myself to be organized many years back. I’m happy with my ability to organize and they aren’t useful anymore.

So, I’m down now to a simpler Outlook interface – my primary folder is an “Archive” where I dump nearly everything that comes in. I have other folders – “Accounts,” “Feedback,” “Smile,” and “WIP” that I use for finances, 200 words project feedback, nice emails, and work-in-progress stuff. I have reduced my email use to 4 email ids – it feels light and easy.

This process didn’t take long – probably 3 hours in total – but has simplified a lot. I’ll also aim to share the results of my thinking around passwords and Lithium-ion batteries. A bit of thinking, a lot of simplification – loving it.

The five stages of productivity

Basic assumption – You have a goal or goals you are working towards. Productivity only exists when we work towards a goal.

Stage 1 – Developing a clear understanding of how much time you have available in a day: You only understand this by taking on too much and stretching yourself beyond capacity. This is finite and, yet, it is amazing how often we underestimate how much time we actually have on our hands. Hence, the adage – if you want to get something done, give it a busy person.

Stage 2 – Eliminating waste-age by banishing procrastination and hustling while you wait. Now that you understand how much time you have, it is critical to eliminate waste. With the ability to clear news and blog reading backlog, check email, and listen to audio books available on our phones, we really have no excuses with the “hustling while we wait” part. Banishing procrastination, on the other hand, is tougher (and potentially life long) battle and a worthy one at that. Mastery over procrastination takes you very far very quickly.

Stage 3 – Developing the ability to scope projects and to estimate how much of your capacity they will consume. This is the natural next step and is a skill that doesn’t come easily. While it is possible to move forward without having mastered this, it is essential to check back from time to time and make sure we’re getting this right.

Stage 4 – Focusing on what’s important by learning to say no. As Warren Buffet says, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say “no” to almost everything.”

Stage 5 – Developing the physical and mental stamina to work at high intensity for long periods of time. Once you’ve ensured you’re using all the time available to you by working on the right things, the last step is building the necessary physical and mental stamina to work at high intensity. This is the area where the masters blow the rest of their competition away.

While it is possible to achieve step 5 before you master step 3 and work on couple of steps concurrently, it is hard to achieve mastery without getting really good at the previous steps. If you don’t have a grasp of how to make use of your time or to scope projects right, you’re going to be spending most of the time fighting fires. This is a step-by-step process and we’re best served when we focus on achieving mastery at every step.

PS: Notice how technology barely comes into the picture here. Technology doesn’t make us productive. It is just a tool that we can use to improve our productivity. These steps require old fashioned grit, desire and focus.

What is the goal

If you are working hard (and I hope you are), we assume a large part of that is devoted to productive work.

Productive work is work that enables us to make progress towards a goal. Hence, many hours of watching YouTube video is considered unproductive when you have a report to be finished. A short video break might aid productivity but it still wouldn’t be productivity.

So, if productivity doesn’t exist without a goal, defining a goal becomes all important. What is the goal you normally work towards when you don’t have fires to fight? Is there even a goal?

It is hard to set goals in every aspect of our lives. We struggle with just exercise goals and expecting more than that is wishful thinking. However, we could easily make a case for the importance of productive work in the case of our personal relationships, a.k.a. quality time, and productive work in case of our hobbies. So, how do we go about doing that?

My suggestion would be to consider defining your personal “why.” My personal why, for example, is ‘to build active relationships with family and friends, learn, and have a positive impact on the world.’ Once I have this defined, it becomes very clear as to which activities move me towards this goal and which don’t. This “why” has been a work-in-progress for 2 years now (so get started now!) and I consider this a near-finished article. It makes for an excellent measuring stick.

Take time to define your why and your goals. Productivity doesn’t exist without goals. And, now that you are here and taking up some space, why not be productive? :-)

Hat tip to Messrs Eliyahu Goldratt for the insight

Sand and big rocks

If “top priority” tasks are the “big rocks” and small admin tasks are the “sand” – always focus on the big rocks first. That’s good common sense advice.

In practice, I think almost always works better than always.

I think a bit of flexibility in our getting-things-done process does a lot of good. For example, on days when I feel my attention is fragmented, I find it a lot more helpful to tackle the sand first. I’d never be able to focus on the big rocks till I get a bit of the sand out of the way as the sheer volume of sand stresses me out.

So, if that’s happening to you, don’t feel guilty. Just set aside a couple of days as admin days and plug away on clearing the sand. “Big rock” thinking is not allowed on these days – we don’t care about the big picture. Just focus on managing the sand in your life.

Sometimes, you have to wade through the sand to get to the big rocks. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.