Saturday, April 2, 2011

Time Management and the Value of Context

As I was listening to the most recent "Back to Work" podcast this week (that's the one that Dan Benjamin and Merlin Mann do over at 5by5), they discussed the various things that help you find inspiration, and that inspiration, while nice, doesn't really create anything all by itself. it's spending time and attention on things that actually matter that gets you to the point where you are creating great stuff.

During the discussion, they ventured of into understanding what you actually spend your time doing. If you could get a handle on all of the things you do, and were honest with your interaction with them, you would discover a lot about what really matters to you. There's a phrase that gets bandied about a lot that says "you are what you think". I disagree, I think the more appropriate measure is "you are what you do", because your thinking is encapsulated in your actions. I may say or think that I want to be come a solid Ruby programmer (as an example), but when I sit down and see what I spend my days doing, it's clear that programming in Ruby is not high on the list.

What if you could actually see what you do during the day, to the minute and second, and get a granular breakdown of the things you really do the most, and categorize them? Well, there's nothing outside of the brain and a notepad that can do that for you when you are off the computer, but for the time you are actually sitting at the computer, there are ways to do this. the one that Merlin an Dan discussed is a program called RescueTime, and it is set up to monitor all of the things that you do on your computer and break down the activities into categories, with a rough scoring for the activity, ranging from highly productive, productive, neutral, distracting, and very distracting. I installed this program, and decided to run with is default parameters.

Wow, was my report interesting the first time I ran it (LOL!).

According to the system, I did a terrible job. I was very distracted 7 hours out of the day, and according to the system, I should be fired immediately... except that the system in its default state doesn't know me or the context of what I do. Here's the thing... I'm a tester for a company called SideReel. SideReel tracks and allows users to connect to Internet Television, Movies and WebTV content. Therefore, the vast majority of my work involves checking the SideReel site and peripheral components to make sure that we can get to the sites that store the content, and verify that the shows that appear are the actual shows we link to. If you didn't know that, you would look at my time management report and say "wow, this dude is a total slacker! All he does all day is watch TV on the Internet", but understanding the company, you realize "OK, this dude is doing his job and is very focused on it!"

This reminds me of the value of context, and as a fan of the context-driven school of software testing, this should come as no surprise. Were this tool to just leave me with the default listings, it would be of little benefit to me, because it is misreading my reality. It may make sense in other areas, but it doesn't make sense in mine. For a bank, someone watching Internet television is spending time on entertainment and is therefore wasting company time. For me, watching television on the Internet is a source of business intelligence, and therefore is the most productive thing I can be doing. Actually, let me rephrase that, my confirming the episode should be where it is and can actually play is business intelligence. Going much beyond that, and actually watching the whole show, is not business intelligence. It then becomes entertainment and would definitely be a hindrance to my job... unless the whole point is to verify that the tools we have built can play an entire show... context is everything.

The cool thing about RescueTime is that each of the categories allows the user to determine what activities are valuable and which ones aren't. In this case, it helps to be very honest with yourself and realistically apply categories and ratings that make sense. Also, it's important to know that what's important and productive actually varies from day to day. Email to me is a distraction, but if I don't actually answer it or reply to it, it can build up to a point where it becomes very important, and then slugging through it becomes a very productive activity (compared to the consequences of ignoring it entirely). Facebook is generally considered a"very distracting" activity, unless I'm actually testing interactions with Facebook that day. At that point, Facebook becomes a power tool and the most important focus of my day.

My point is, tools like this can be really cool and they can show you what you really think is important, but keep two things in mind. First, it's a snapshot of what you actually do, which can be very telling. Second, all things have a context, and it's up to you to be totally honest about that context and how they are actually applied. If you are willing to be honest with yourself, you can learn a lot about what really matters to you, and then adjust accordingly so that those things that "should" matter to you can get more floor time.
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