Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Wednesday Book Review: How to Have a 48 Hour Day

Through the years, I have come across a number of books that I have used and valued. These may be new books, or they may be older ones. Each Wednesday, I will review a book that I personally feel would be worthwhile to testers.

There have been many books written over the years about "time management" or "self management", ranging from light and fluffy to drill sergeant intense. Don Astlett's 1996 book "How to Have a 48 Hour Day" (and the more recent version of the book which is titled "DONE"; just to make sure everyone is clear that these two titles are the exact same book) is definitely on the latter end of the spectrum. Don is a guy who created a cleaning business and built it up to being a corporation that employs a lot of cleaners and maintenance people. I first bought this book back in 1996 because Don came from a background I also came from (while in school and while I was a musician, I supported myself by cleaning houses and businesses, too). This, however, isn't a book about cleaning (if that does interest you, though, Don has a bunch of books on that topic;  Clutter's Last Stand is one that I can recommend :) ), but a book about making a commitment to do one thing, get more done.

Don makes it clear that his philosophy is a tough one. He believes in the power of producing, and in being consistently and regularly productive, not just in work, but in all areas of life. To some, his tone and attitude will be a turn off, and frankly, I don't embrace everything that he espouses, but there's enough here that I do agree with and appreciate that I come back to this book again and again. One of the key points that Don makes early on in the book is that "[…]we can't stretch time, buy time, save time, stop time, find time and beat time. We are foolish enough to think we can manage time. You don't and won't do any of these and you don't make time either (wow, what a commodity if you could manufacture time and sell it!). We have only one alternative here, there is only one single thing we can do with time and that is use it. We can't manage time but we can manage our own behavior and activities and use it wisely."

Chapter 1: Why Do More?

Don gives a working list of reasons why any of us would want to get more done. Many of these resonate with me: self-respect, being in control of situations, producing and shipping, qualifying for opportunities, for a stronger family, for a sense of accomplishment, for attention, etc. In short, to do more, you first have to have a reason to want to do more. Don spells it out early on, his goal is not necessarily to do more in less time, it's to do more, period. Making a goal to focus on getting more things done will in and of itself help make it possible.

Chapter 2: Ordinary Me, Do More?

Let's face it, we all have, more or less, the same brain structure, with the same number of neurons and dendrites. The difference between being ordinary and extraordinary is a matter of choice and perseverance. Don gives numerous examples of people who come from different walks of life, different situations, and different work experiences, and shows how all of them were able to maximize their opportunities and experiences, whatever those opportunities might be. At the end of a chapter is a list of productivity traits that you can select that may (or may not) describe you, and where you might fall on the productivity curve. Me personally, I could use some help in certain areas at certain times of the day :).

Chapter 3: A Little Subtraction… Adds a Lot of Production

In many ways, the clutter that surrounds us (physical, mental, emotional) can be our greatest enemy when it comes to being productive and focused on completing a goal or task. Taking the time to remove elements that stand in the way can be huge time savers and goal jump starters. Here's where Don's stock and trade comes into play the best. Remember, Don's a cleaning man at heart, and he's very much anti-clutter. His first maxim is to "dejunk". Get rid of items that are distractions, or put them in places where they will not interrupt what you need to do. Likewise, prune before you prioritize. Rather than make a list of priorities, decide which things, at least for the time being can be swept out of the way completely. Make it a point to get the right tools for the job, and maintain those tools, rather than drag around more than you really need. Remove impediments that cause you stress, whatever they may be (financial, physical, emotional, etc.). To paraphrase Albert Einstein, sometimes your biggest break-through's will happen because of break's-with.

Chapter 4: The Mainspring: Direction

When people who have become famous for something (musicians, artists, athletes, politicians, business aficionados, writers, etc.) are asked how they got where they are, it's rare to hear that they made it to where they are by accident. In an overwhelming number of cases, people got where they are because that's where they wanted to be. Likewise, Don makes the case that people tend to be where they are because they've chosen a path to get there, and created a direction to follow. To continue with the clock analogy the dominates the book, Don uses the metaphor of a mainspring that drives a clock to describe the direction that we all need to get where we want to do. Make a point to decide what will excite you, motivate you and get you going towards where you want to be. Very few people need much motivation to go and do things that are genuinely fun (no one has to twist my arm to get me to go snowboarding, for instance). Focus on the end result and where you want to be, rather than all of the effort that will be required to get there. To borrow the old platitude: if you don't know where you are going, all roads will help you get there. If you know where you want to be, and fix your sights on that destination, you'll find a way to get there.

Chapter 5: The Magic of Early

 The biggest enemy to accomplishment, and the biggest creator of stress, at least to me, is being late. It's my biggest pet peeve, and I tend to get irritated with people who are late, but more to the point, I'm even more annoyed when I'm the one who is late. If left to my own devices, I will often procrastinate, and run myself up to the last minute on items. This can at times be very effective, because I get hyper-focused and sometimes I do very good work, but just as often, I end up getting blindsided by something I didn't consider, and the net result is I'm late with my deliverable, whatever it may be. Don makes the case, rather forcefully, that the key to getting more done is committing to being early. That goes for finding problems early, getting involved in projects early, and taking the time necessary up front to avoid getting into last minute scenarios. This is definitely relevant to software testers. How many times have we heard about how inexpensive it is to fix issues found in the design stage as compared to fixing an issue that is discovered in production? Don presents the idea of a front-log in this section, the idea that we should work on things that are ahead of us rather than drag behind us things that we keep meaning to get to when we catch up with everything else. Make a list of the things that you want to do and hack at it every chance you get, so that you finish things before they are due, before a deadline looms, and before the chance of being late ever enters the picture. This is a simple concept, but as many of us know, it's far from easy, especially when others tend to work in the opposite manner. We can't control what others do, but we can control what we do, and working ahead or having a front log puts us in greater control of actually getting the things done that we want to, and we have more to say in that outcome if we are early.

Chapter 6: How About Some Help?

The fact is, few people ever totally "go it alone". When someone has made the decision to go somewhere, do something, or accomplish agoal, usually they get some help along the way. The key is to determine the right kind of help at the right time. Sometimes that help is other people, sometimes its good tools, sometimes it's having spares or duplicate items in different places to help you keep going and sometimes it's just having someone get on your case when you are slacking. In my world, I find I get more done and I accomplish more when I have "accountability partners". They don't necessarily have to be people that are directly related with a project or goal, but they are people I tell what I am doing or hope to do, and often, these people get as excited as I am about achieving the goal, and they help me indirectly by cheering me on, or at times even directly by giving me a hand when I need it. Waiting for a "big break" or that magic moment when everything will "just work" is pointless. You can get a lot of support, some high fives, maybe even a bit of grilling to do what you need to do, but ultimately, even with your helpers, you need to roll up your sleeves and just "get on with it".

Chapter 7: Timepiece Tuners

To continue with the clock metaphor, Don offers some advice to those who want to keep their 48 hour clock on time and tuned up. Small steps like keeping your primary objective in mind, focusing on being effective rather than just being efficient (if you can do both, great, but if it's one of the other, go for effective over efficient), making the point to do what you need to do to maximize your productive time (prepare well, organize well, be early), and avoid the trap of being busy just for the sake of being busy. Lots of time and effort can get chewed up in the busywork we do, but little is there to show for it at the end of the day. Don makes a point about being "mentally awake" when it comes to our work and the things that we do. The best way to describe this is to imagine playing a game of chess. Many players think about their next move when it's their turn, but the truly excellent players think two, three, or four moves ahead. Their success rate in the game is immensely improved because they are looking ahead. Try your best to have everything you need together so you don't have to hunt for what you need or move around needlessly to have what you need to be effective. Learn about when you are at your best physically and mentally, and when you are not, then use the time accordingly. As for me, my "hottest" times of the day are early morning and late afternoon. If I have anything creative to do, the early morning hours and the late afternoon are when my brain is best suited to do those tasks. Late morning/early afternoon and late evening are great for "busywork" tasks, shuffling papers, and anything that doesn't require me to be "fully on". Knowing when to move from one task to another, what Don calls "ship jumping" is also a good skill to develop. If something isn't working at the moment, move on to something else and come back to the other task later.

Chapter 8: The Healthy Stretch (Will It Hurt?)

Sometimes we may feel like we are really doing all that we can do, and that we just can't take on any more. In many cases, this is the absolute truth, and taking on more, or committing to something else will be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back. But truth be told, that's rarely the case, and for most of us, adding another obligation or goal doesn't kill us, it energizes us, when it's really something that we want to be doing or feel strongly enough about doing it. Back to my snowboarding example. I could have had a killer week of long days, back to back meetings, crunch time, and any of the other things required, yet Saturday morning at 4:00 AM I'm practically bolting out of bed to go hit the snow. Why? Because it's something I love to do. We rarely find ourselves wallowing in pity when something we're really excited about doing comes into the picture. When we're excited about what we are engaged in, momentum does half our job for us (well, it certainly seems to be that way for me). Sometimes, though, we have to focus on things that are not always so fun, and that actually require us to make that stretch to do what we need to. The same aspects that work for the fun stuff can also come into play here as well. IT may take a little longer to get excited, but when a goal starts gaining momentum, often our own level of excitement about keeping it going builds with it.

Chapter 9: The Harvest of Having a 48-Hour Day (Every Day!)

The last chapter is a summary for why we would want to experience this mythical 48 hour day, really the net benefits of being a high producer and getting things done. For me, the idea of accomplishing a lot of things really comes down to wanting to be engaged, but engaged in a meaningful way. I personally do not want to be the dead weight of any team, to be the one dragging my feet. Sure, it happens, and sure, I'm not at my best on all days (who is?), but there's much to be said about getting into those areas that you want to do well, and rolling up your sleeves and getting elbow deep in the mud and grease. It's work, it's challenging, but it can also be a lot of fun. If you are lucky enough to be able to literally be doing what you love, becoming a high producer, frequent shipper, and a 48 hour watch wearer will be very simple. For some, that may be a really tall order, or perhaps an almost impossible one. Ask yourself, if you don't hove what you are doing, perhaps it's time to put your efforts and energies towards doing what you really want to do. Getting involved in a broader community that shares your interest, your vocation and your passions can do wonders towards getting you into this mindset. The goal of being able to do more is that, ultimately, you'll be one who can enjoy more and have more to show for your efforts. That's the theory, in any event, and overall, I can't say I disagree with it.

Bottom Line

Don is advocating what he feels is a difficult and demanding road, but one he feels is worth it. There's a lot to like about what he advocates, but many will be put off by what they feel is effectively advocacy of being a workaholic. Some of Don's suggestions are a bit extreme, and were some to follow everything he says to the letter, they would likely feel burned out, resentful and unhappy. For me personally, there's a lot to like about what he advocates, and I choose those things that work for me, and I downplay or don't actively use the things that I feel do not or will not work well for me. Ultimately I like his closing line in the book… "what would you do with a 48 hour day? Share more, serve more, lift yourself, be more selfish or unselfish? Once you have more time you could even waste a little time if you wanted – get out of survival into savoring". I've had this book for 14 years now, and I find myself coming back to it again and again. Again, you may not like everything in it, but I'll still say that there's much to appreciate and apply here for just about everyone.


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