Friday, May 30, 2008

Just a little bit more than you want to...  

In my life, I've often found it necessary to work hard to get what I want.  (Whether this is the right thing to do is another matter).  But how much is too much, and how much is enough?

Sometimes I've been in startup and crunch mode where I had to work weeks or months on end, sometimes to good end, sometimes not.  Once I even worked thirty-six hours straight when a surprise bug forced a rearchitecture of a key software component - but the work was clear to do, the results easy to test, and the deadline ultimately easy to meet.  But you can't do that all the time, and from time to time I've had to look at what I'm doing and dial it back.  I find if you're not working so you spend most of the time ready and refreshed, you don't have the jazz to go to crunch mode if you have to.

Other times I've had so much going on - recuperation from illness, moves, life issues - that I've had to look at my work and say: hey, buddy, you need to do more.  I've never had a boss tell me that that I can recall; I try hard to figure out when to tell that to myself.  In the end, I want my employer to feel like they're getting their dollar's worth, so they keep on giving me the dollars; and I don't want or need supervision in order to do that, I want my employer to get that level of performance for free.

But if you feel like you need to get more done, how do you do it?  Go to crunch mode?  And if you're in perpetual crunch mode, are you trapped there?  Is there really no way out?

No, and no.  In my experience, when things are going well at work --- when it's not an actual emergency --- you need to put out just a little more effort than you want to to really get things done  That's it.  Not a huge amount; not crunch mode, not ten hours a day.  Actually not much at all.  It might take you an hour - even just a few minutes - to:

  • Drop in on your boss and give him a status update, or get one on something pending

  • Take the time to compose that email to your co-worker summarizing the meeting he coudn't make

  • Re-run the unit tests, and identify the bug you're going to start on tomorrow morning

  • Package up that small changelist and send it to your coworker for review

  • Go visit that collaborator you haven't heard from in a while and find out how he's doing

  • Write your Monday morning report ... Friday afternoon

If I take on a big task at the end of the day, I end up tired and drained and go home late, often defeated.  You can actually create for yourself a perpetual crunch by wearing yourself out so much you make mistakes!  If on the other hand --- right when I'm tired and worn out and want to call an early end to my day --- I instead hunt around for the small tasks, the little things I need to do but have been putting off, I find I can do two or three of them.  Or maybe one, small, self-contained programming task.  It usually takes between an hour or two to nail all of these things that I can.

The result? I feel energized, rejuvenated.  Instead of leaving tired after seven hours feeling like a slacker, or defeated after ten hours feeling like a loser, I go out on a high note after eight to nine hours feeling like a winner.  When you do this, you realize that no, there really isn't anything more you can do in the day, and that all the little grease-the-wheel tasks you just did just made your tomorrow clearer, cleaner and brighter.  In fact, often those little tasks are much more useful to your work and everyone else's  than if you started some "big task" that you wore yourself out on not making progress that you'd have to practically restart, exhausted in the morning.  You become more responsive, more effective, and get more done.

All it takes is to realize:

I don't want to work any more today, but if I do just a little bit more, I won't have to work any more today.

Or maybe this should be phrased, do some more of the little bits.  This strategy works far better than when I'd club myself in the head at the end of the day with big tasks so I could feel like I was "getting things done".  Now, I am getting things done - leaving work today, for example, with eight former "Next Actions" now tossed over the cube wall to co-workers and comfortably sitting in the "Wait For" state, and two more sitting even more comfortably in "Done" --- and knowing I can come in to work Monday morning not worrying about my weekly report, all those emails or anything else; just the two or three big tasks on my plate, the way for which I cleared before I left today.

This isn't how Dad did it, but it has been working out pretty well so far.  I'll keep you posted on how it goes in the future.

-the Centaur



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