Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Project Focus, One Action at a Time

by Andre · No Comments

Work, time and effort are often considered synonymous, so writing about productivity can be a thorny proposition. Discussing productivity as a measure of results rather than personal sacrifice requires a different frame of mind than appealing to subjective work ethics.

A comment in a recent post criticized my observation that “Firewalled focus can be antisocial”, retorting that this sounded like “an easy excuse to work less.” Of course, firewalled project focus itself can be an easy excuse to work less, since “I’m busy” is the king of easy excuses, but there’s a larger issue at stake: the thin line between firewalled attention and tunnel vision. Instead of charging ahead at full steam, it helps to build in intervals of reflection to make sure the ship is heading in the right direction.

Knowledge work is measured in days, not hours

Tom DeMarco’s Slack has a revealing chapter on overtime. Like multitasking, overtime has a demonstrably negative impact on productivity, but remains a cultural norm in the workplace. Operations analysts studying knowledge work (domains like engineering, design and administration) are able to extrapolate a project’s time to completion by sampling the initial days of output and plotting a scatter diagram.

What’s curious about the method is that the degree of accuracy doesn’t increase when measuring the total number of work hours instead of days. From my review:

For the correlations to be meaningful, the factors measured need to be defined in such a way that the scatter points fall as close to the trend line as possible — the object is to find the factors that improve prediction by narrowing the scatter. One possible refinement would be to substitute effort in workdays with effort in workhours. In theory, this would improve accuracy, since the number of hours worked from day to day can be highly variable. In practice, increasing the hours per workday makes no empirical difference. “[DeMarco:] The twelve-hour days don’t accomplish any more than the eight-hour days. Overtime is hogwash.”

In other words, two twelve-hour days yields the same output as two eight-hour days. It’s easy to demonstrate to yourself: just try journaling for 20 minutes today, then 40 minutes tomorrow, and see if your second session has twice the number of words as your first. In all likelihood, it won’t. Why wouldn’t two twelve-hour days accomplish as much as three eight-hour days?

Knowledge work is different than rote work. It’s less deterministic and more abstract. On an assembly line, the correlation between hours worked and widgets cranked is much tighter. The worker simply has to execute the work that’s already been defined. A knowledge worker has to define the work that has to be executed, then execute it, then redefine it and repeat the cycle; so constant recalibration is required. Too much time spent in continuous execution leads to wandering.

Focus on next actions

Days and hours are useful units for tracking work, but less practical for defining it. Instead of saying, “I’m going to work on X for Y hours,” consider reframing tasks into next actions modular enough to complete without needing to resume them over multiple sessions. Instead of writing “Read Python book” on my next actions list, I write “Read Python book Chapter 9.” By making next actions is discrete as possible, you avoid the tendency to stretch them out. More importantly, it’s much easier to redefine the work that immediately follows (Read Python book Chapter 10) without feeling as though the project will continue indefinitely. You’re building in those moments of reflection needed to keep projects on track.

If you do need to block out more than an hour to work on a single task, feel free to schedule the time on your calendar for the general activity, but still have a more specific next action on your action list. For instance, if I wanted to spend four hours reading the Python book, I would enter, “1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.: Read Python book” in my calendar, but on my @Home list, I would only enter the very next action: “Read Python book, Chapter 9.” If I finished the chapter after the first 90 minutes, I would cross off that next action and redefine the new one: “Read Python book, Chapter 10.”

I deliberately avoid putting this down ahead of time, before I completing Chapter 9, since reading the latter chapter is a prerequisite. For a next actions list is different than a To Do list: instead of listing everything I need to do, I only list the actions that I can do immediately. The object is to avoid cluttering your attention with things you can’t actually do.

(Photo credit: chascar)

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