Thursday, November 10, 2011

Fitting It All In?

I received a great note today from someone that complimented me on the blog and said they found encouragement from what I wrote. They also had a question that I think deserves to be answered (hence today's post)...

"One thing that fascinates me is how you manage to pack so much into your day and if it was not too much of an imposition, I would love to see you write up an account of how you manage your time, between all your endeavours and also as an active family man."

First, I think it's important to realize a few things up front. I may give this image of being hyper-productive, and some days I am, and other days, well, not so much. I value my sleep, I value my time with my kids, and I also like doing things and often need to do things that get pushed to the back burner. Whenever someone says "wow, you get so much done", I often laugh and say "have a look at my front and back yard sometime" ;). Seriously, though, this does point to a fact of life that I'm totally stealing from Merlin Mann and a talk he did a couple of years ago about "Time and Attention". The simple takeaway from Merlin's talk is that "we need to put in time to do great STUFF. We need to put in attention to do GREAT stuff". Time is the easier value to manipulate. Attention is the more difficult one.

A simple truth and one I struggle with a lot is that I can't do it all. I can't even get vaguely close to doing it all. It does help, though, to get a handle on the things that you are doing and understand why you are doing them. that way, If you really want to see where there's some give and take in your day, you can honestly and directly evaluate what you want to change and why. I've mentioned in the past that I use a software program called "Rescue Time". We had a heated exchange in a Weekend Testing session about it and the idea that it's evil incarnate for organizations to use stuff like this to track their workers. I do, however, find it to be interesting on a purely personal level in that it gives me a snapshot of the things that I actually do (at least online) that show me where my attention actually goes. Oftentimes, we learn some painful truths about ourselves this way. We think we are hyper focused and that we are producing a lot, when the data tells us otherwise (and I'll leave it to the individual to decide it it's worth their time to do this for themselves. I personally find it helpful).

Another thing I do is, well, this blog. Two things to be aware of. First, many of these entries are written in advance (not all of them, but a lot of them are, and sometimes I have several finished and waiting in a queue). When you see a post that is marked as published at 5:00 AM or 5:00 PM, that's a clue that that was likely a scheduled post and written in advance. I also often have dozens of blog posts in various draft forms. Some are outlines, some are a couple of sentences, some are several paragraphs. As I wrote in my book review for Gerald Weinberg's "Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method", I've been doing this for years but never really knew there was a term for it. I often keep a text editor open on my desktop and during the day, if something pops into my head, I'll write down a though, sometimes a paragraph or two, and it may sit for days or even weeks. I do make it a point to go through them each day and see what I can do with them. It helps me to focus my thoughts and it gives me scraps to work with at various times. Also, my blog is, for me, the repository of my learning. It is the home of all my doubts, my fears, my goals, and it's my best line of defense against "The Resistance". Once it makes its way into my blog, it's do or die time. The Resistance doesn't stand a chance :).

I've also commuted via train the past several years, and whenever I'm on the train, I'm doing something related to "my hobby of furthering my testing knowledge". It's a 25 minute ride up and back, plus the wait time for the train to leave on the way home (I take CalTrain and 4th and Townsend is the start/end of the line). So there's 50 minutes of dedicated time should I choose to use it with little interference of any kind. Often, the favorite use of this time is editing audio for the TWiST podcasts.

Finally, my one "great trick" (and when I tell people about it, they often think I am nuts) is that I have a special block of time I call on maybe once or twice a week. If I really have something I want to focus dedicated and uninterrupted time on, I do it then. When? Early in the morning. How early? 3:00AM. What?! Why?!! I've not quite figured this one out, to tell the truth, but for me personally, my brain is literally "on fire" between the hours of 3:00 AM and 7:00 AM. It is the best time for me to do anything that requires tremendous focus. I can do stuff at other times during the day, too, but there's something about that four hour block that is really amazing. It's also exhausting, so I don't call on it all the time, but when I need to make headway on something important, or I need to devote all my cycles to something that's been driving me crazy, or really needs to get done, I'll set up my "early office hours" as an appointment, get to bed a little earlier the night before, and hold an early morning session to focus intently on whatever problem or project I'm struggling with. Also, it's very easy to get a lot done when everyone else is asleep :).

In the end, though, there are times when I just bag it all and head out with my family and friends, hang around the house, go watch a marathon of Bones or Psych or "fill in the blank". Sadly, some things have taken a significant back burner. It's been almost two years since I've played meaningfully with a video game (I have a few that I want to play, but not bad enough to break my current momentum). I listen to a lot less music than I used to. I do a lot less "for pleasure" reading. And frankly, I'm sure a lot of the things that I do I could do a whole lot better were I to jettison something else from my life. The simple fact is, when you agree to do something, you are agreeing to not do something else.

I down-shifted my life for a number of years specifically so that I could be a hands-on dad with my kids when they were younger. Now, I'm shifting back into a higher gear with my own career pursuits and putting in the energy necessary. This is something I've discussed with my wife and kids and they understand the reason why I am doing things the way that I do them. They are also there to let me know when the balance is too far out of whack and when I need to pull back and focus on other things. In short, there's no great magical "do this and you can get a lot of stuff done". It's really all about grabbing the opportunities when they present themselves, and knowing when you are stretching yourself too far or spreading yourself too thin. Sometimes, I'm good at this, other times I'm not. I can say it does help to enjoy what you are doing. It's a lot easier to get a lot of stuff done when you are having fun doing it :).


Phil said...

Really interesting to read about how you organise yourself and get so much done. Thanks for the insight

Sean Burton said...

Thanks for the insight Michael. Not sure about the 3am starts but the concept of blocking-off time for productive bursts is definitely one I could subscribe to.

Dedicated time ' focus intently on whatever problem or project I'm struggling with.'
and ''s a lot easier to get a lot of stuff done when you are having fun doing it :) is close enough to the Zen of Lots Of Stuff . Thanks for sharing.