Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Hacking Down a Backlog

Oftentimes, when we get into doing a lot of things, we find ourselves either dropping items we want to work on, or we seem to forget that there are things we still need to do or that we have committed to do. We also tend to get into a mode when we somehow feel that, if we can't devote all of our attention to something, it's out of our reach and it's just not worth doing.

For fans of Seth Godin's "Linchpin", this is a classic trick of "The Resistance". When faced with what seems like an insurmountable task, we throw our hands up in the air and we say "oh, this is just not something I'm going to be able to do" and we hide from the commitment. That may make us feel temporarily good, but in the long run, it doesn't get us closer to our goals or to finishing good work. It also makes us more prone to put off more things that are important, and puts us in the mode where we just work on the things that are urgent (and often not all that important).

So how can we get a handle on all of this? I'm going to dare to pontificate, and realize my pontificating on this is not me trying to say that I am somehow an expert at doing these things, just that I fall victim to them a lot, so these are healthy doses of "Physician, heal thyself" :).

First, I think it's critical to give yourself set times to do certain things and do them in a regular manner. An example is when I produce the TWiST podcast. I know very well that, for me, my most focused time is early morning, so two to three days before the podcast is due, I get up an hour early and devote time to editing, listening, and taking notes. Because this is a regular delivery of mine (i.e. every week we post a new TWiST), it's a standing set of early morning dates, and I know when it happens. The net result, I rarely have to fight for time to edit the podcast, because nothing interferes on those sessions. It's ingrained.

Second, I look at things that are perhaps larger commitments. For one of the Foundations classes, I committed to giving detailed feedback to every one of the students. I am still making good on that one, and it's been several weeks since the last class ended. Life intervened, and it taught me something important. Even the best laid plans can be derailed by other things we have little control over. I also fell prey to the fact that I figured I'd be able to do this in an evening's time. Nope, not gonna' happen. So I had to readjust my expectations and the reality of what I could do. I couldn't review everyone in one night, but I can review one person per day. That means a few students will be waiting for awhile, but at least this way, I can set the expectation, and now I can focus on the one person who needs my feedback at that given time.

Third, if you use a tool like RescueTime to see where your online time goes (and believe me, getting familiar with that can be very informative) you can set goals for yourself in particular areas so that you are alerted when you meet them or if you go beyond a threshold. Do you want to spend a certain amount of time learning Ruby from a particular site? Set a time goal and track it. Do you want to make sure you don't spend too much time on Facebook or Twitter? Again, set a time goal and track it (and pop up an alert that says when you've spent too much time).

Fourth, sometimes we just need to dedicate "now" time to something. I have experimented with two different time focus techniques, and I see benefits to both. there's the Merlin Mann Procrastination dash (10 minutes on, two minutes break, repeated five times an hour) or the Pomodoro Method (25 minutes of focus, with five minute breaks, for the duration of time you want to be focused). Each of these still requires you to commit to timed periods of focus, which leads us to...

Fifth, eliminate distractions if possible, or make time or physical constraints for them if you can. I remember working with a company called WebSense a number of years ago when, at the time, their primary focus was security and filtering of web traffic. One of the phrases I remember one of their engineer's often saying was "You can't have it now, but you can have it later". This was at a time before video and audio streaming were as ubiquitous as they are now, and doing these things could be hugely draining on a corporate network (they still are, but nowhere near as much as back in the late 90's when these technologies were still in their infancy). The idea they fostered was to either put a time constraint or a physical constraint. For me, this might be "it's OK to spend as much time on Facebook or Twitter as I want, but I have to be walking on the treadmill desk to do it". It could also mean "personal emails will only be answered between the hours of 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m." or any other number of areas. By doing this, we force distractions into scheduled blocks, and then we free ourselves of having to deal with them at other times.

Again, I come back to these things time and time again because I'm often the most guilty when it comes to dealing with these areas (or not dealing with them). We can't have it all, we can't do it all, there are no more than 24 hours in a given day, and those hours go by way faster than we want to believe. Taking small steps to whittle away at a backlog will one day get it down to a reasonable size. Yes, one day. It's not going to all disappear at once. The sooner we all get used to that, the sooner we can accomplish the things we need, and want, to do.

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