Monday, 9 January 2012

Working with calmness and composure

By knowing how long things take

It is stressful and unpleasant being late for an important deadline. 
There is nothing elegant or enjoyable about running, red faced and flustered to catch a train.  And it is traumatic and disruptive burning the midnight oil to finish a key report that was started too late.  Creative juices do not flow and it’s not good a good way to work, or to live.  Of course what I’m describing here is different from being in “flow mode” where you are so lost in your work that you don’t notice the time. 

Being on time, with a little time to spare has much to recommend it by, not least the higher quality of work that gets done.  Planning ahead, having time to think, and finishing things to a high quality causes less worry and is more enjoyable.  It encourages “flow mode” because the brain isn’t stuck in "panic mode".

Repeatedly hitting deadlines without compromising quality requires a number of things to get done:

1.     Creative thinking or brainstorming about how to give it the “wow factor” (less appropriate for catching the train, more appropriate for key reports).  Sometimes referred to as the “fuzzy front end” it can have dead-ends and wasted work, but is important nonetheless.

2.     Identifying tasks - figuring out what needs to be done (talking to certain people, reading around the subject, checking the train timetable, etc)

3.     Estimating how long things might take (easy for how long the train will take to get to Edinburgh, less easy for creating and agreeing an outline for a report)

4.     Planning what will be done when, and who will do what.

5.     Creating checklists for repeating tasks.

6.     Accounting for other things that need to be done – so you can be confident that you are working on the right thing, at the right time, without another problem cropping up elsewhere.

7.     Working the plan – trying to do what you said you were going to do, when you said you were going to do it.  And trying to get everyone else to do what they said they were going to do, when they said they would do it.

8.     Reviewing and adjusting – either for this project, or for the next one.

Reading through that list makes me, and probably you, realise just how much scope for error there is in the whole process.  Not least because things take longer than we think they will take, other people don’t do what they said they would do, etc. etc.  To such a degree that many people don’t believe it’s worthwhile to make a plan because “things change anyway”.
A particularly difficult (but crucial) step in this process is estimating.  Figuring out how long things might take is difficult for many reasons, but up at the top of the list is the belief that whatever it is we are doing is a “one-off”, with the second being optimism.  The “one-off” argument says that this project is different from the last one, and that the problems encountered on the last project won’t be encountered on this one, which inevitably leads to optimism.  Instead of thinking we will have different problems, we think we won’t have any, and therefore believe the new project will be quicker to do. 

How do I know, for example, how long it might take me to write this blog article?  I don’t know when I start how long it will be, or how complicated the subject matter might turn out to be.  The only way to know is to time myself when I write blog articles - long ones, short ones, difficult ones and easy ones.

Only then will I know whether I'm likely to finish one before I have to leave the office to catch a training in 45 minutes.  Otherwises I'm likely to start, get absorbed and then end up running for the train.

I appreciate that timing what we do is counter-intuitive, but much of what we depend on today were once considered alien.  Like the trains running (roughly) on time or knowing how long a policy document might take to write.

All the planning in the world is useless if everything takes twice as long as the plan says it should take to complete.  Or even longer.

1 comment:

  1. Ahh yes Caroline, I agree the 'estimating' can be a challenge. I've taken to using my early morning gym time to start the creative process for blogging and writing .... it does help.
    1. reduces the time on the laptop
    2. numbs the 'pain to gain'gym experience
    3. boosts the creative efficiency!