Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Long Term Output is More Important than Minute-to-Minute Efficiency

Photo by: .Fabio

In the quest for productivity, blogs with the word “hack” in the title and other similar literature often end up discussing in detail ways to increase efficiency. What does that mean, efficiency? Efficiency is most often some metric for gauging output per unit time; how much work you are getting done in a given amount of time. So a more efficient person produces more output in a given amount of time than a less efficient person. Let’s agree on this definition of efficiency, in this context, for the sake of discussion.

Over What Time Scale Does Efficiency Really Matter?

This is the big money question. What is more important, the stuff I get done per minute or the stuff I get done per year? For grad students and all other “knowledge” workers, it is clearly the latter, or at the very least, not the former. Unfortunately, it’s easier to focus on maximizing minute-to-minute efficiency because minutes go by a lot faster than years. When you say to yourself, “Over the next x minutes, I’ll do this and this and this,” it doesn’t take very long for those to pass so you can evaluate how you did. Years on the other hand, are a different monster. Most of us don’t have a problem making the same self-commitments for years as we do minutes, “By next year I will have…” But they take so damn long to pass we simply forget, lose our drive, or change our minds. That’s a problem because when other people look back on your output (bosses), or you yourself look back, no one is really going to care how you spent each minute, they will care what you accomplished over longer periods of time.

So how do we make sure that we are following through on commitments to ourselves and others, finishing projects we start, and simply getting things done over the course of weeks, months, and years? We should make a plan.

Step 1: Forget Minute-to-Minute Efficiency Once and for All

We need to let this idea go so that we don’t stress over minutes, or sometimes even hours, lost here or there. Stress is paralyzing to getting things done and enjoying life, so we should seek to minimize it. Don’t plan your day by the minute, don’t worry if you lose a minutes here or there because you screwed up or didn’t plan as well as you should have. Simply recognize what can be improved and move on. Sometimes reading too much “hack”y literature can make you feel that if everything isn’t completely automated and streamlined you’re somehow being inefficient, you’re not, don’t worry. Lastly, if you are thinking that minute-to-minute efficiency should logically translate to efficiency over longer times, think again. Whatever minutes are saved in such short-time efficiency are quickly averaged out over the long term, or simply don’t matter. A few minutes saved here, and a few there, get canceled out by natural fluctuations in time taken for longer activities. You would have to not waste a single minute on every activity, every day, all the time, for saved minutes to add up to a significant increase in output in the long term. This simply doesn’t happen for reasonable human beings.

Step 2: Pick a Reasonable Time Scale on which to Focus

Now that efficiency on the scale of minutes is out of our minds, we can focus our attention on bigger and better things. We need to pick a time scale over which we will be accountable to ourselves. Minutes are too short and years are a tad large (although it can be useful to evaluate your goals every year). For this purpose, however, we need a length of time, where we can list things we want to accomplish at its beginning, try our damndest to get them done throughout, and evaluate our progress at the end. I think one week works well for this, but try what works for you. Every Monday I make sure my list of tasks for the week are set (e.g. Notecard for the Week), throughout the week I try to focus on these most important tasks (e.g. Notecard for the Day), and on Friday I see where I am and if I need to do anything over the weekend, and Sunday I make a final assessment and clean up my list.

Step 3: Make your Schedule Fit your Tasks, not Vice Versa

Now we’ve picked a reasonable length of time on which to focus on output. Continuing the above example, we are now focused on maximizing output over the course of the week, and could care less about minute-to-minute issues. We understand that trying to maximize the efficiency of every single minute is futile unless we are working every minute we aren’t sleeping or eating, which is ridiculous. I contend that at this point, we must create a schedule that is most conducive to getting all our tasks for the week done, which is not necessarily the schedule that every one else uses. In other words, simply plan your schedule around your tasks, not the other way around. This is incredibly pertinent for grad students doing experimental work, or anyone that has to book time on shared equipment or resources. Why come to work at 9 and leave at 6, keeping yourself busy with computer work (reading papers, etc.) when the absolutely most important tasks for you involve using equipment that is always booked during the day? Simply shift your schedule to make sure your tasks get done. Come in at 6pm and work till 3am if necessary, and enjoy sleeping in the next day. If you are at time when computer tasks are the most important but you are spending 1.5 hours doing 1 hour of work due to other people distracting you all day, you can move your schedule around similarly. Note that I’m advocating schedule shifting when necessary, and not schedule expanding. That wouldn’t be sustainable. You don’t need to become a complete night owl and not interact with anyone, that would stifle creative interaction, just ensure that you have a schedule that includes significant amounts of time for uninterrupted, focused work on the tasks you have deemed most important.


Above all else, I’m advocating finishing what you start and that obsessive focus on minute-by-minute details only distracts from finishing real substantive tasks. Once you’ve picked your time-frame-of-accountability, you need to be dead set on finishing. Significant stretches of uninterrupted work, at locations, with equipment, and at times that are most conducive to finishing your tasks are the means to that end.

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Geri said...

I think you're absolutely right here. I do use GTD, but find that it and other 'hack' advice doesn't seem to fit well with the grad student work dynamic. For us ( and other knowledge workers I guess) and other people who don't have a boss breathing over their shoulders, it is indeed the aggregate work done rather than the most efficient use of time that is more important. I'm a bit of a 'hack', time management and GTD junkie, but your post has helped me understand why the advice and tips I read don't always translate well to my reality as a grad student.

I'll be taking your tips on board, particularly adjusting my focus to the weekly scale, as I tend to get lost with end of year type goals!

Thanks for the post, keep up the good work!

Bdizzy said...

Thanks geri. I'm also a definite junkie (hence this blog) but this recent bit of wisdom on major task focus instead of time or number of tasks focus has been profoundly beneficial. My motivation and energy especially are kept high when I'm not constantly fishing for ways to "be more efficient".