Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Getting Things Done, 15 Minutes at a Time

I've been trying to jump start a number of things that I have wanted to get done, but many of these things have just been sitting around and waiting to get the inspiration, desire and nerve to jump in and do it. This may sound easy to do, but it's more elusive than it seems at times. I think the biggest reason for this is that so many things overwhelm us and we make them out to be larger than they really are.

I have decided that it's important to break these things down and make them accessible, so I'm practicing a new model so that I can get some of those "quick wins" in to motivate me to get going and do more. To do this, I've decided to focus on very specific items, give myself a very concrete time limit, and make a simple criteria for saying "It's Done" or "It's Not Done". Example; I'm currently in the process of learning C# and C# Script. The reason is that I want to be more conversant with the development team that I work with and get a better understanding of the products that we develop and what goes on "under the board", so to speak. A vague and nebulous plan like "learn C#" is a hard thing to wrap one's head around, but "read chapter 3 in C# book and work on the question s at the end of the chapter" is an easy goal to wrap your head around. It fits what I like to call a SMART approach to accomplishing tasks (those Wood badge geeks out there already know what the SMART acronym stands for; Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time Based.

I've discovered lately that the last element, "time based" can be my worst enemy or my best friend. When a project is nebulous, and it's needed in a short time, I tend to get hung up on the details and suffer from a, "analysis paralysis", or I get so anxious about it that I find reason after reason to put it off, only to convince myself "ah, what's the use, I can't do it anyway!" Personally, I *HATE* this aspect about myself, and I know that I do it way too often. there are many things that I love to do, and when I love to do them, I can totally dive in and spend hours and hours on them. It's the other tasks that I know I need to do, they will be important and reap dividends down the road, but they are tedious, onerous or just plain hard, and sometimes not in a fun way (I really wish I could say that programming is fun for me. It is, but not in the way that, say, backpacking or snowboarding is).

So how does one get over the hump and start getting some "wins"? For me, it's the 15 minute rule; I break down anything I need to do in 15 minute chunks, and I determine very specific things I need to do in those 15 minutes. Why 15 minutes? Because I can handle anything for 15 minutes! What happens is that, after you get some small victories under your belt (you read through something, you accomplish a small goal, you put into practice something you have learned, you can focus on the next fifteen minutes, and the next and the next). This way, instead of just saying "I tried to do something today, but it didn't work out" you can say, I accomplished eight steps towards my goal today, and those eight steps took me two hours to complete.

One other big benefit of the fifteen minute rule is that, if you see that you are not getting anywhere with something, you can make the decision to stop and do something else, and not feel like you have totally blown your plans or your momentum. I've discovered I'm a terrible multi-tasker. I need and relish the ability to focus on one task at a time, and also, I'm way too prone to give into distractions if I try to do too many things at once. The fifteen minute rule allows me a simple method of focusing on something. It also allows me the option to tell people "sorry, I'm right in the middle of something, but if you give me [component of 15 minutes left, then I can talk with you about [whatever]].

Don Aslett and Larry Winget are two guys whose no nonsense approach to work and getting things done greatly appeal to me, and both of them have the same philosophy when it comes to time management... they think it's a crock; you cannot manage time. You can only use time, and what you choose to do while you use that time is what makes the difference between success and failure. Don't manage time, manage accomplishments; if stringing together ten or twenty accomplishments gets you to the goal of doing what you set out to do, then by all means do that. At the end of the day, you will always feel better saying "I did 20 or 30 small things" or ""I made 20 or 30 steps towards accomplishing my goals" than you will if you said "I worked the whole day, was busy the whole time, but didn't feel like I accomplished much of anything". If you feel like the latter statement (and believe me, I have lots of days like that) try going the 15 minute approach and making lots of small steps. You may find that you get to the point where a given area gets so familiar and so well covered that, over time, you only need 15 minutes to get big things accomplished. Like many things in life, though, that only comes with experience, so start setting your timer (or stopwatch or whatever you want to use to keep you honest :) ) and start setting some 15 minute goals today!

1 comment:

Larsen's said...

That happens to me alot - I put off something for the longest time...and then when I actually do it, it only takes - ta da! - 15 minutes!