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Paul Tevis

Entries in productivity (32)


Limiting Work To Capacity, Part 2

The first step in measuring my capacity was figuring out what not to measure. It didn’t make sense to measure things I couldn’t change. Starting with a 24-hour day (or more usefully at 168-hour week) and then subtracting out time for sleeping, meals, driving, and other sundry tasks would imply that those were subject to my control, i.e. that I could choose to spend less time on them. So I what did was identify those things that made up what I think of as the “framework” of my day. For me, that’s sleep, work, and meals (though there will be more on that last item later). I made a conscious decision not to measure them but treat them as given. Instead, I decided to measure things that were different from day to day and I did for some sort of reason.

The next step was deciding what things were big enough to bother measuring. I knew that if I decided to measure things that were too small, I would (a) get overwhelmed by details, and (b) spend more on measurement – and fine-tuning my system – than on getting things done. I knew I wouldn’t get as much return out of the time spent analyzing things that were too short, so I decided to focus on tasks that took up at least a certain minimum amount of time. This is where I made a somewhat arbitrary decision, but one that worked for me: I was only going to measure things that took at least thirty minutes at a time.1

Step three was determining how to track my time. I already used a daily to-do list to track what what I was going to do, so I just decided to annotate this with how I spent on each task during the day.2 Easy peasy, as they say, which made it likely I’d be able to do it.

Today’s to-do list, with semi-intelligible time tracking information.

They also say that the proof of the pudding is in the eating3, and it turned that eating was about as easy as I thought. I’ve been logging this data since December, with only minor tweaks to the process along the way. What did I do with that data? You’ll have to come back for Part 3 to find out.




1This was mostly due to my previous experience with the Pomodoro Technique, which already had me thinking about time in half-hour chunks.4

2 Again, basic Pomodoro stuff, though there’s some philosophical differences between this and the Pomodoro Technique. I was less concerned about the flow states that a continuous stream of Pomodoros gives you and more about chunking my time into boxes to measure it.

3 The proof is not, contrary to popular opinion, in the pudding.

4 I’ve actually switched to breaking down things that are less than one hour into 15-minute chunks, with a bias towards half-hours, but that’s a later refinement.


Limiting Work To Capacity, Part 1

One of my co-workers came into my office on Wednesday and told me he was worried about burning out. He’s been completely overloaded at work for the last year or so, and recently he’s been working 12-hour days to meet some deadlines. He’s been trying to unload some of the things on his plate by getting management to bring on some contractors, but as always there are money concerns. I told him, “This is going to sound funny, but part of the problem is that you’re working too hard.”

A while back I read a great article called “Saying No: A Short Course for Managers.”1 Its premise is that when you find yourself in a situation where you say yes to something even though you know it’s likely not to work out, you’re part of the problem. Among the insights from the article: when you don’t say, “we can’t do that,” you deny the group the opportunity for problem solving. Many of these sorts of issues are really organizational and structural problems. Making heroic efforts to get things done despite, say, an organizational tendency for taking on too many things at once hides the real problem. All you’re doing is treating the symptom, not the illness.

One of the things that I love about Scrum is how quickly it makes problems like this apparent.2 My boss and grand-boss had to report on the status of our project to the monthly company-wide project governance meeting. They said, “based on our measured rate of progess and the number of features left to do, we’ll be done sometime in 2012.” That got people’s attention (the project is supposed to be done by the end of this year), and the group gave us the go-ahead to pull more people onto the project and look at how to reduce the scope. Basically, we were able to limit work to capacity.

Despite the number of times I keep learning this lesson at work, I have a tendency to forget how important a sustainable pace is in all parts of my life. Some people have heard my “cycle of busy-ness” story before; basically, I tend to oscillate between being overcommitted (when I say “yes” to too many things) and under-enthused (when I drop all of my committments because I was overloaded). Part of the reason for those oscillations has been my inability to say “no” to things, but there’s more going on. I haven’t understood how much capacity I really have, so I haven’t been able to determine what a sustainable pace really is.

I decided it was time to figure that out. More on that in Part 2.


1 Which seems to have disappeared from the Internet, unfortunately.

2 As Angela Druckman said in the Scrum Master class I took: “Scrum will not solve your problems for you, but it will make obvious which ones you need to solve.”

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