The nature of work – visible, invisible, and that doesn’t look like work

As I mentioned in my last post, Proxies for productivity, and why no one trusts teleworkers, I think one of the big problems facing business right now is the fact that they do not understand what work is, and what it isn’t. I outlined the four most common proxies for productivity that I’ve noticed at play in the businesses I have observed:

  • Number of emails received
  • Amount of time spent in meetings
  • Length of the work day
  • Distance travelled and jetlag suffered

Now this is not to say that email, meetings, long days and travel aren’t sometimes needed, or don’t form an important part of what work is in the knowledge economy. A small number of emails are important; meetings can occasionally be very productive, not just from the point of view of making decisions but also for the high-value relationship building that can only be done face-to-face; sometimes long days can be not just necessary but also productive; and every now and again you really do need to get on that plane.

I’m keen not to throw the baby out with the bath water, but to make the point that whilst sometimes these activities are genuinely important, mostly they are not. When they have become goals in and of themselves, instead of a means to achieve a goal, they have shifted from being useful tools to proxies for productivity.

Think about the playground marbles champion, who holds his position primarily because he’s managed to win, buy, steal or otherwise acquire a very large collection of marbles, rather than because he’s actually good at playing the game. People who believe that they are working hard because they get lots of email, do lots of meetings, always work long hours and travel a lot have done nothing more than fill a very large bag full of marbles.

So if all of this activity, this busy-ness, is only rarely actual work, what is work? For a couple of years now, I’ve been in the habit of thinking of work as falling into two categories, one easy to define, the other a lot less so.

Visible Work
This is all of the stuff that other people can see you doing. Obviously, the proxy activities fall into this category – if they weren’t very clearly visible to your peers and your managers, they would be no use as proxies. Document writing, coding, designing, phone calls, conferences, presentations… the list is almost infinitely extensible.

These are things that easily answer the question, “What is Alice doing?” They are the knowledge economy equivalents of manufacturing industry work: behaviours that result in something, whether tangible or digital, that is easily described.

Invisible Work
One of the big problems with working in a knowledge job is that much of your work is done in your head. There is no way to embody what goes on in your brain, no matter how important it is in helping you to attain your goals. Indeed, a lot of what knowledge workers do is very creative, and creativity needs to be fed. That means knowledge workers can often end up doing things that, to the uninitiated, look like anything except work. Talking to colleagues around the water cooler, gazing off into the middle distance, getting up from your desk to go sit somewhere quiet… thinking.

When I worked as a web designer for PwC, back before the Great Crash, the head of our studio and our lead designer both recognised the importance of invisible work (although I doubt they conceptualised it like that). We were encouraged to spend time fiddling about with new ideas, we were taken on days out to the Science Museum for inspiration, we could talk to each other and do whatever we needed in order be creative.

But despite the fact that thinking is an essential part of knowledge work (it wouldn’t be knowledge work if it didn’t involve thinking, it’d just be… information work or data work) we give people very little time to pause, reflect, and consider their actions. It’s all go go go, all about the visible work. Because consideration looks far too much like inaction from the outside: the real work is going on inside your skull, and short of hooking everyone up to brain scanners, there’s no real external sign that anything at all happening in there.

So the knowledge worker either has to find a way to feign work in order to get a moment to think, or has to do it on their own time, mulling things over on the commute to work or under the shower. The deep, intense conversations that spark a revelation have to happen at lunch, or down the pub, or not at all, because “chatting” is skiving. (Unless, of course, it’s scheduled in the diary in which case it could be a meeting… but then your brain falls into meeting mode and, after years and years of bad experiences in meeting rooms, your creativity slinks off to a corner and quietly dies.)

Now, after a couple of years of thinking about this and watching what goes on around me, I want to add a new category to the list:

Work That Doesn’t Look Like Work
The internet has had a very bad rap over the last ten years. One person I know tells the story of how he used to do research for his job using internet tools, primarily a browser and Skype, but started to notice a chill in the work atmosphere. When he asked a colleague what was going on, she replied “Well, we see you using a browser, and… well… we only use the internet for booking holidays and buying stuff on eBay, so we assume you’re doing the same thing.”

People – peers and managers alike – too often equate the browser with skiving, an accusation which as never been fair. When I was a music journalist back in the late 90s, I could not have done my job without using the internet for research. It was an invaluable tool then and it’s an even more invaluable tool now. I cannot imagine how I could do my job without having the internet to provide not just information, but inspiration. Indeed, I would not want a job that cut me off from the web. It would be like undergoing a lobotomy.

Of course, businesses have had intranets – accessible only through a browser – for years, but many of them were under-utilised and so awfully designed that they provided clear visual clues that, whatever it was that you were doing on that site, it wasn’t going to be fun. (And, therefore, had to be work… oh, what a sad indictment of our attitudes.)

But now it’s hard to tell at a glance whether the blog or wiki or social bookmarking site that someone is using is business-related or not. (Even the definition of “business-related” is getting very loose and floppy, with information and insight coming from all sorts of strange places.) And given that many businesses are now using these tools internally anyway, the browser is no longer the sad second cousin of “real” office tools, but rapidly becoming The Daddy.

The question is, will attitudes keep up? Truth is, they can’t afford not to.

If companies want to survive the current economic crisis, they are going to have to start getting a handle on what “work” really is, and in particular, address some of the old misconceptions that are still prevalent about the nature of work. They need change the way that they judge how hard someone is working and re-evaluate their concepts of productivity. Because right now, they are engaging in strategies that are actively damaging their ability to function and, indeed, to survive in these straitened times.

When context switching becomes thrashing

I was having a chat to Kevin Marks on IM this morning, mulling over the idea of pitching an article to Charles Arthur at the Guardian. Kevin said he thought my idea was good, but I mentioned that I really ought to sort out some other things before I get down to writing out a proper pitch.

“That sounds like thrashing to me,” Kevin said. I had no idea what he was on about.

Turns out that thrashing is a computing term, and Kevin defined it as “switching between tasks too quickly to finish any of them”. Wikipedia defines it as “a degenerate situation on a computer where increasing resources are used to do a decreasing amount of work.”

Holy shit. That’s what I do! Seriously!

It’s been pretty clear for some time that as human beings we can’t actually multitask. Multitasking is nothing more than cutting tasks down into slivers which we then interleave, fooling ourselves into believing that we’re doing lots of things at once when we’re really just doing lots of things in teeny-tiny bits, sequentially and very inefficiently. The cost of multitasking should be pretty obvious – every time you switch contexts you incur a time penalty as your brain refocuses on what it was that you were doing the last time you were doing this task. The more you flit between tasks, the more time is lost switching context. That’s related to the whole problem with email – emails interrupt, there’s an interrupt cost, therefore email costs us time (and money).

But what happens when the habits of so-called multitasking become so ingrained that we don’t even realise we’re doing it? When we start context switching so rapidly that our brains don’t get the chance to finish a train of thought? Well, that’s when we start thrashing, alternating between tasks, thoughts, ideas, plans so fast that we can’t get a proper grip on any of them, can’t actually make progress on any of them.

Technology aids thrashing in ways never dreamt of before. If I’m not entirely clear on what my tasks for the day are, then I can spend a lot of time switching between various pseudotasks, sometimes engaging in both true procrastination and yak shaving (doing lots of small and probably unnecessary tasks, ostensibly as preparation for doing a bigger necessary one, but actually as a way to avoid the larger task).

In theory, tools like Omnifocus should help me get over this by giving me a clear idea of what needs to be done next. I love Omnifocus, especially the iPhone application which lets me capture those annoying “Oh, I must remember to…!” thoughts that I have whilst I’m on the Tube or somewhere else where my computer is not. But it has become increasingly clear that Ominfocus is turning into the place where tasks go to die. My list of projects and tasks is absurdly long, and it seems to get longer rather than shorter as things I “ought” to do get added, but never ticked off.

Even if it is turning out to be at least partly a graveyard for tasks, that’s an important function in and of itself. I need to have a place to put those unlikely to dos that would otherwise rattle round in my head and get in the way of the really important things. (Although I also need to learn to delete tasks which are, in all honesty, never going to get done.)

All bets are off, though, as soon as I have a client work to do, because my priorities become externally set and much easier to manage. There’s nothing like a deadline to focus the mind and clear out all the dross. This is one of the big challenges of being a freelance, actually. Managing your time when you have clients is much easier than when you don’t.

In the ten years I’ve been freelance, I think I’ve got to a point where I’m pretty good at being self-motivated and, because I don’t have any proxies for work to get in my way (more about which in another post), I suspect I actually am more productive than your average office-goer. I can’t fake working – everything that doesn’t get done today will still be waiting for me tomorrow. This also means that thrashing, yak shaving, procrastination and other such productivity issues need to be mercilessly hunted down and eradicated, because anything that dents my productivity also dents my ability to earn money. That pay cheque, sadly, doesn’t earn itself.

Thinking about procrastination, possibly too much

I’m reading a book at the moment called Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert (thanks to Derek Sivers for giving me his copy), which takes a look at how our brains remember the past, make sense of the present, and imagine the future. Our brains get this sort of thing wrong quite a bit, which means we end up being rather bad at predicting what will make us happy (or unhappy), and how strong our feelings of happiness (or unhappiness) will be. I’m not finished with it yet, so I may be missing out a key point, but I think that’s the gist.

One thing really leapt out at me, on page 18/19:

Forestalling pleasure is an inventive technique for getting double the juice from half the fruit. Indeed, some events are more pleasurable to imagine than to experience (most of us can recall an instance in which we made love with a desirable partner or ate a wickedly rich dessert, only to find that the act was better contemplated than consummated), and in these cases people may decide to delay the event forever. For instance, volunteers in one study were asked to imagine themselves requesting a date with a person on whom they had a major crush, and those who had had the most elaborate and delicious fantasies about approaching their heartthrob were least likely to do so over the next few months.

Is this perhaps a part of what procrastination is about? Some of the tasks that I put off longest are the ones that I have thought about in detail and which I have built up in my mind to being some sort of behemoth. It’s not necessarily that I think they are difficult or complex, but I have thought – or even fantasised, if you like – about them a lot. The fantasy might not necessarily have been ‘delicious’, but it would have definitely been elaborate even if the task itself wasn’t.

Of course, standard advice is to break tasks down into small, bite-sized portions – next actions that you can complete quickly and easily. Indeed, this is what many productivity and ‘to do list’ tools do – they allow you to break your tasks into small bits, and keep track of each one so that when you’ve done one bit you can move on to the next.

But perhaps that might end up being counterproductive, at least, if you put too much thought into it. If imagining doing something provides more pleasure than actually doing it, then it will seem preferable to delay doing it forever. At times like that, tasks that feels easier will be more attractive, such as reading RSS feeds, Twitter, IM or email (but not necessarily replying to the email – that itself can be something in which we’ve invested way too much imagination and which therefore takes on gargantuan proportions).

I think it’s important to know what you have to do, and to be careful to prioritise well so that you know both intellectually and emotionally that you’re doing what you need to be doing, or that you’ve done what you needed to have done. But I suspect that thinking about it too much, e.g. having your To Do List open in front of you all the time, might just turn out to be the straw that breaks the camels back.

One way to think less about what there is to do is to use Marc Andreessen’s approach:

On another topic, the tactic of each night, write down the 3 to 5 things you need to do the next day has struck some people as too simplistic.

That may be the case for some people, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve arrived home at night and am at a loss as to what I actually got done that day, despite the fact that I worked all day.

And I also can’t tell you how often I’ve had a huge, highly-structured todo list in front of me with 100 things on it and I stare at it and am paralyzed into inaction (or, more likely, structured procrastination).

So a day when I get 3 to 5 concrete, actionable things done in addition to all the other stuff one has to do to get through the day — well, that’s a good day.

Writing down tonight what you have to do tomorrow gives you a good night’s sleep (hopefully!) during which you can forget about the longer To Do list, and clear your mind. I personally find that I get a lot more done when I can forget about everything else and just focus on what’s important.

But given the background noise of all the stuff that needs to be done but which isn’t important enough (yet) to claim my full attention, it’s very easy to feel like I’m drowning in a flood of equal priority tasks, until something genuinely important pops up and I can focus on that. If there isn’t something genuinely important, I search for it by repeatedly checking email and, if that doesn’t reveal anything pressing, I focus instead on easy but pointless things like Twitter or IM.

Instead of searching for that big thing, I shall pick five lower-priority things and just ruthlessly ignore everything else until those five things are done. If something urgent comes along, I shall deal with it, but I won’t search for it. I shan’t think too hard about all the other things that I have to do, and will attempt to stop myself fantasising about doing them or having them done, lest I end up ‘complixificating’ them to a point of self-paralysis.

Note to clients: Obviously, I’m very efficient when working on client projects. Money is a great motivator.

Multi-tasking is as bad as procrastination

Deep down, we all know it. Multi-tasking is bad for productivity. I’ve known for quite a while that I get less done when I’m multi-tasking, but I can’t get out of the habit of having half a dozen (or more) applications and windows open at once. As a minimum, I usually have instant messenger, Twitter, e-mail, several apps and at least two web browsers with tens of tabs all open at once. All of this screams for my attention.

But like every other geek I know, I’d like to think that I can multi-task. I’d like to believe that I can post an update to Twitter at the same time as I am holding an instant message conversation, simultaneously to writing a blog post or a report for a client. It’s a seductive idea and one that has gained a lot of currency over recent years. Technology, we are told, allows us to do many things at once more quickly and effectively than we ever could before. It seems almost sacrilegious to suggest that this might not be true, but the other day I read in the New Scientist that it’s just not possible to multitask, not really.

Alison Motluk says in How many things can you do at once? (requires subscription) that the only tasks that you can do at the same time are very simple stimulus and response tasks, such as seeing a shape and hitting a button or hearing a sound and saying something. Even these simple tasks need training to complete successfully simultaneously. Most of us can’t simultaneously see a shape, hit a button, hear a sound, and say something very easily. Think how much harder it is to genuinely multitask, to a hold three conversations, say on Twitter, IM and e-mail, at once whilst trying to focus on writing original prose and listening to music or a podcast.

Developing from what Motluk writes, I think that what we are really doing is splitting up tasks into tiny pieces which we then interleave one with another. Is it really any wonder that multi-tasking slows us down? Every time you swap from one task to the next you have to shift context, you have to recall what it was that you were doing or saying, and then you have to take your tiny action before swapping context back to what you were doing previously. If you said, ‘Okay, I’m going to split every task up into small five second chunks and in between each chunk I’m going to stand up and sit down again’, you wouldn’t for a second be able to deceive yourself into thinking that that would make you more efficient. But that’s effectively what we’re doing when we’re trying to multitask. The fact that we’re interleaving tiny junks of work with each other instead of standing up doesn’t make any difference – we’re still slowing ourselves down.

I remember once reading in a book of aphorisms that ‘The best way to get many things done at once is to do one thing at a time’. From what I’ve read in the New Scientist there now seems to be some evidence that this is actually the case, that the best way to multi-task really is to do one thing at once.

I’m not sure that this is really new news, though. Who, deep down, hasn’t pretty much known that multi-tasking is a con? We’ve known for years about the state of flow, where you are so entranced by what you are doing that each next action comes almost effortlessly, and it seems pretty obvious that if you are constantly interrupting yourself you cannot enter a state of flow. The problem I have is not in recognising that multi-tasking is a bad idea, but in breaking the multi-tasking habit. I’ve been fooling myself into thinking that I can multi-task for so long now that I have slipped into some really bad habits which I desperately need to break if I am to really get done some of the big projects that I want to work on this year.

One tool I’ve started using to help me focus is Think, Mac software which blocks out all the other apps you have open with a black screen, allowing you to focus only on the one application you have chosen to bring to front and centre. It sort of works for me, but doesn’t really go far enough, because it’s easy enough for me just to alt-tab to another application at any time I want. It does stop me seeing if another email or Twitter message has arrived, but I can achieve that goal just as easily by – oh, the horror! – closing those tabs in my browser.

But I wonder if the solution to my focusing problem lies elsewhere.

Last week, my friend Stephanie came to stay and she was keen to show me how she had set up Dragon NaturallySpeaking – speech-to-text software – on her Mac, (using Parallels because Dragon is sadly Windows-only). I had a bit of a play with it, as it’s been quite a long time since I’ve tried any dictation software, and I was pleasantly surprised by how good it is. With only 20 minutes’ training, it was fairly accurately transcribing what I was saying. In fact, the first draft of this blog post was dictated with it.

Whilst I was dictating, I had a bit of a mini-epiphany. Despite having all the usual applications and websites open that haunt me on a daily basis, I was much more tightly focused on what I was doing. Because I was speaking aloud and not writing, I found I wasn’t spending half as much time looking at the computer screen as usual – instead, I was gazing off into the middle distance, scrutinising the door jam or staring at the ceiling. I only noticed that there were Twitter messages or IMs to read when I glanced back at the screen. Even though I felt awkward dictating, I got closer to a state of actual concentration than I have in a goodly long time.

It wasn’t just where my eyes fell that made me not take so much notice of Twitter and IM. It was also the fact that in order to react to Twitter I have to switch output modes from speech to text, and I felt reluctant to do that. Normally the majority of what I am doing is reading and typing, and because that accounts for about 90% of my working day, it feels as if everything I do that involves reading and writing is basically the same task. No matter that each is an individual action, they all sort of blur into one because they are the same type of action. But moving from a speech-based task to a text-based task seemed like more of an effort than moving between two text-based ones, so it was easier just to ignore the text-based task until the speech-based one was finished. In effect, dictating made it easier to ignore the things that usually distract me.

I’m going to get Parallels and Dragon NaturallySpeaking installed on my Mac so that I can do a little bit more of dictation and see how I take to it. The software has evolved amazingly since I last used it in 2000 – it’s incredibly fluid now, even with a minimal amount of training – but it will be interesting to see how it affects my style. I’ve noticed in editing the draft for this post that I produced in Dragon that my style was really very different, but as I get used to dictation perhaps that would normalise back to my usual way of writing.
Might this be a new way of helping me to focus on written tasks that are currently proving too easy to procrastinate? Task like… dare I say it… writing a book? I’ve been saying to ages that I want to write more blog posts and write a book, but somehow I seem to waste hours and hours in tiny five second chunks spread out over the day, in Twitter, IM or e-mail. Maybe dictation is a way for me to focus on what really needs to be done.

EuroFOO: Working a four day week

This session was lead by Ryan Carson, and it was one I was particularly interested in. My aim for the next few years is to work part-time on the stuff that pays the bills, and spend the rest of my time writing books and stuff like that. I’ve thought a lot about this issues, and it’s one I want to write more on in future. But certainly this was one of the most enlightening sessions of EuroFOO, partly because I didn’t realise that there were other people who were challenging the tyranny of the over-developed work ethic.

Anyway…. to my notes:

We don’t need to work five days – there’s no rule that we have to work five days. It’s just a matter of choosing. We [Ryan and his wife Gillian] have total control, so why not choose to work less and that will give us more time to experience things outside work.

It wasn’t because work is bad, we love what we do, but it was more that if you work in the web industry it can be all consuming and can take over your life completely. And you end up checking email, and post on blogs, and it’s Monday and it’s time to work again.

We decided to work Monday – Thursday, 9-6, and have two employees, and pay them a full salary but they also only work 4 days a week, and they get 30 days holiday a week. And the idea is that people tend to work 5 days because they spread their work out over five days instead of thinking ‘gotta get stuff done because I’ve only got 4 days’.

In the run up to the Future of Web Apps, they didn’t abide by that rule but the rest of the time they do.

Martin: Law firm, 17 employees, had a discussion that the best thing would be prolong the weekend with an extra Monday or Friday, but not everyone takes the same day.

Ryan: Good thing is that everyone else is working on a Friday, and it’s quiet to be out and about. Very empowering.

Part of this is that we have products instead of clients, so if you have a client you can’t tell them not to call on Fridays.

Protestant work ethic, Lutherian, divorced from religion now, but people are almost perversely proud to be working 16 hours a day. In many non-western countries people are a lot less about working, they are happy to avoid work. In the west, particularly UK and US, this work ethic has become rampant.

Company cultures, top-down, decide what’s important, and what the holiday culture is. So Carson can decide how to live, and then let their employees live like that two. If you’re at a company and your boss isn’t going to do a four day week, then you aren’t going to be able to.

Have to realise that it makes sense to give people more time off. Why is it that Scandinavian societies are more productive with shorter working weeks? When you measure productivity in America, or between Denmark and Sweden, those with more time off are more efficient.

Yet also need to allow for downtime, for chatting, and getting to know people and what’s going on. Having 4 days to work really focuses you and you cut out what’s not important. If it’s not important it doesn’t get done, but that doesn’t matter because it wasn’t important.

Can easily create an unreal pressure to work more. But that pressure is in your head, it’s not always real.

What’s interesting from working 4 days a week is that they have to leave the laptops at work over the weekend else they just log in to email and then that turns into work.

Me: I need to turn laptop off at 10pm so that my brain has time to wind down before bed. But there’s a real blurring between work and play, so you end up feeling you’re ‘faffing’ all day.

Ryan: Important to challenge our perceptions of how much we are supposed to work. If you enjoy playing scrabble on your laptop, then that’s cool, but we decided that it’s best for us to force ourselves to do that. But that sort of constraints are not for everyone.

Realised that by being on the computer all the time, we weren’t experiencing very much.

Martin: Question of focusing and being more aware of instead of trying to process a lot of information. Trying to powernap. Programme that generates power-naps. Does a power-nap at 1pm and 7pm.

Paula: Expectation management. People don’t care how much you work, they care that the thing that they care about gets addressed. It’s important to set expectations with people right from the beginning. Felt so passionate about it, didn’t think about setting limits. But energy levels aren’t sustainable if you don’t.

Me: Also need to set expectations for yourself, and realise that other people’s expectations may not be what you think they are. Email is the biggest stressor. Have had to set ‘away’ messages saying ‘I have too much email’.

Paula: Have to set boundaries early on. Have to also give yourself permission to think of every moment away from home as a ‘work’ moment, when you travel.

Ryan: Martyrdom pride in the tech industry, and ‘oh we’re launching a product and working 7 day weeks’ but that actually means that you’re doing it wrong.

If you can, get a PA. Getting rid of phones for some people. Email – can react later – doesn’t have to be immediate.

Paula: Ask more. Interrogates requests, asks for more info, when do people need things? To what depth? Because assumptions are: immediate; to the greatest depth.

Martin: and people like being asked those questions.

Paula: Teaching people to give info in the first place. Starting to get more qualified requests which helps her to prioritise.

Desk diary update

Back in June, I started using a new tactic to combat procrastination – using a desk diary to note down what I was doing and when. My aim was to help me understand how I was using my time and I have to say it has worked pretty well. I’ve tweaked my method in recent weeks though – my A5 week-to-view diary didn’t give me enough room to note everything down clearly. So I’ve bought an A4 day-to-view diary instead and, whilst it’s big enough to be a viable weapon should I ever need to defend myself from burglars, it’s now much easier to note down how my day is split up. And instead of just noting how long I spend on work-related stuff, I’m also noting down how long I spend in the shower, how long I spend doing reading blogs, how long I spend faffing about doing nothing.

It’s an enlightening look at my day. It seems that no matter what time I wake up, it takes me about two to three hours to be ready and able to work. I also have a tendency to work quite late, mainly because Kevin often does a 12 – 8 shift, so I figure I may as well do a 12 – 8 shift myself. It just seems easier that way.

Interestingly, my assumption about how much time I waste each day is totally over-exaggerated. When I actually add up how much time I spend actually working, it is indeed equivalent to (or more than) a normal working week. I admit, I do faff a bit during the day, spending half an hour here or there putting laundry on or washing up or whatever. Yet because I have no commute, it means that the total length of my day is about the same as someone who works in an office, but the ‘commute’ time is spread out through my day and used for chores, rather than reading books and magazines or listening to music, as I used to when I had an office.

The other adaptation that having a bigger sized desk diary has allowed is that I am now more disciplined about my to-do list. I have another book for my master list – which now runs to 10 solid pages of A4 – and instead of using post-it notes or a small notebook to distil off the most important bits, I’m using my diary. Each day I write a short list of the most urgent items for the day, and I find that it gives me a much better sense of continuity through my week because at a glance I can see what I completed yesterday or the day before, and how much stuff I have still to do.

I have learnt, though, not to have too many things on the list at once, otherwise it all feels a bit too daunting. I can always add things later on, if I get through it quicker than expected (although how often does that happen? Usually it’s the other way round…).

In fact, the only thing that didn’t work from my last post about anti-procrastination techniques was the idea of giving myself an hour a day to do stuff for me. My intention was to spend time working on or getting to grips with Second Life or other R&D things. But the trouble with giving myself an hour a day is that it’s very easy to put it off, and then you get to 8pm and think ‘Ok, time to quit’ and find you haven’t actually taken your hour.

After a long chat with Lloyd Davis last week, I decided to do what he does and mess about on Friday afternoons instead. I mean, who wants to work on a Friday afternoon? Really? I only started this week, and I must admit that after an hour, I did get distracted by something totally non-R&D-y, but whilst I can’t say what it was, if you knew you’d know it was inevitable that it would take over my brain for a while.

Of course, over the next month and a half, I have an insane amounts of travel and the nice rhythm that I had started to slip into this week will be totally disrupted, so I guess we’ll see just how robust my working habits really are!

A new weapon in the fight against procrastination

A few months ago I caved in and bought Getting Things Done. Although I didn’t get it read, I did get as far as the bit about To Do lists, and closing mental loops: you keep thinking the same thing over and over again, until you either do it or write it down. So I started a master to do list and that seems to sort of help by getting all the stuff I have to do out of my head and on to paper.

But I’m still left at the end of each day wondering what I have accomplished. I reach a point, around 7 or 8pm… or 10 or 11pm, when I think that it’s about time I gave up for the evening, yet I rarely feel that my day is done, that I’m finished. There’s always more to do. The list just gets longer, never shorter.

Now, for some clients, I have to keep a record of my hours. I’ve been doing this in an Excel spreadsheet, because it’s easy to add things up in Excel. What’s not so easy, though, is jotting things down. I tried keeping multiple spreadsheets, with each project on a different sheet, but it didn’t work. I’d get confused as to exactly how much time I’d spent on different things – the only reason Excel worked for my client is because I was working on-site, so I knew the time I arrived, the time I left, and what breaks I’d had, so therefore I knew how much time to bill them for. When I am sitting at home with blog posts to write, email to answer and all the other bits and bobs that I need to do, it was harder to separate out how much time I spent doing what.

Then, my god! A flash of genius. (Here’s where the new weapon comes in.)

I bought a desk diary. Yup, that’s write, a book made of paper with dates printed on each page. I can jot things down in it. It’s great! Who’d’ve thought?

So I now have my three-pronged approach.

1. My master to-do list allows me to clear out my brain as much as possible, and hopefully helps me to remember to do stuff.

2. My ’45 mins’ rule – that I work solidly for 45 mins, then make myself have a break (often turns into 50 or 55, but the idea is to get up and move about at least once an hour).

3. My diary in which I write down how many hours I have worked on which project.

What this undeniably does is tell me where my time has gone. For example, yesterday I spent 4.5 hours replying to Open Rights Group email. I went through my inbox, replying only to ORG emails, and after 4.5 hours I had had enough. I hadn’t finished, but I had done about as much of that as I can cope with in one day.

I had never realised that I was spending so much time on email. Previously, I would have felt like that was a day wasted, that I’d achieved nothing. After all, no documents prepared, no campaigning done, no client meetings, nothing that you can pick up and show and say ‘This is what I did’.

I think knowing what you’ve done is a key part of battling procrastination. You put off doing things that are big, because you think “I need a clear 5 hour to do that”, or you interrupt yourself with email when working on something else, or you sit there answering endless streams of emails and wondering where the time has gone. Knowing what you’ve done, and how long it’s taken, puts a shape on your day. You can say “I’ve done one hour of my five hour task”, or “I’ve spent 4.5 hours answering emails”, and suddenly it doesn’t seem so much as if you’ve wasted your time. You realise that some of that stuff that felt like procrastination was, in fact, work.

The other thing it lets me do is say “OK, I’m gonna have one hour a day of ‘Suw’ time, where I blog, or work on my site, or do whatever the hell I need to do”. The thing about being a freelance is that admin and finding new clients may not be ‘billable’ time, but it’s still stuff that needs to be done. Yet it’s infinitely easy to put off. When you have a client who needs something, or you have a deadline, your own admin is the first thing to be put on the back burner.

I can’t count the number of times that I’ve spoken to other freelances and heard them say “Oh, I really need to update my website, but I just can’t find the time!”. But if you don’t make the time, you end up falling into that feast/famine cycle, where you spend your feast times working like a dog on your client’s stuff, only to discover when that contract ends that you have nothing to take its place and that famine is on the horizon. You just have to recognise that the tedious admin you don’t want to do is still work, and you still have to find time to do it during the working day.

The other thing I’m trying hard to fight is my over-developed work ethic which would, if I let it have its way, have me working every hour I am awake. I’ve done it in the past – and I don’t know many people who haven’t. Insane hours. Exhaustion. And a perverse sense of misplaced pride in it all.

I want to write a full post about that, but suffice to say, I’m becoming more and more jealous of my weekends, more and more jealous of my evenings. When you accept that your To Do list is more like a Mobius Strip than an actual list, you accept that it will never been finished. The question then becomes “At what point do I abandon my day as ‘finished’?”. Sometimes it’s dictated by deadlines, but more often than not it should be dictated by “When I have worked a full working day”, which I interpret to be between 7 and 8 hours.

With my old-fangled invention of a desk diary, I can at least now say “OK, time’s up!”. Emails which have not been replied to will have to wait. Documents that still need work will also have to wait. When my evening begins, that’s my time.

Creative procrastination

Derek Powazek, with whom I worked at Technorati for a week or so last summer and whose design chops I highly rate, writes about how important is it to let things stew sometimes. This is what’s missing from my life right now. Although I’ve had more time lately – sitting on planes, waiting at airports – which is already combining with some really cool conversations with some really bright people and threatening to splurge out of my brain just as soon as I get a moment free.