Productivity tip: notice how long it takes to do stuff

Generally, I’m an optimistic sort of person. And generally, that works pretty well for me. One lesson that I seem to continually need to learn is that my optimism can play havoc with productivity. Why? Because I’m somewhat optimistic about how long stuff takes to actually DO. Something tells me I’m not alone here.

We’re generally pretty good at making TO DO lists, setting goals, and knowing when the deadlines are. Some of us are more systematic, process-happy about this than others, but most of us can figure out what needs to be done, by when.

Where I find we can fall down is appreciating how long it will take to do the ‘what’ and meet the ‘when’. Why do we do this to ourselves? Here are some common traps we set up:

  • We don’t break the task down into small enough steps. Therefore it doesn’t seem as though there’s all that much to do.
  • We don’t factor in what project manager jargon refers to as ‘dependencies’ – which means that progress is dependent on something or someone else. Maybe we need to delegate something and allow the person time to do it. Or we need to wait for approval to go ahead to the next step.
  • We don’t remember how long it used to take us to finish a task when we were new to it. As a result, we can give colleagues and clients over-optimistic estimates of when a team member will have something done by, and make life tough for the person responsible for the task.
  • We gold-plate the job, when simply ‘on time’ and ‘good enough’ are what’s required. If everything is now ‘beta’ or in test mode, then refinements can be made later.

So what can we do? Act like a lawyer, accountant or other professional service person. Log the time stuff actually takes. I know, it does sound tedious, doesn’t it? But it really helps us:

  • Plan our time more realistically
  • Negotiate deadlines with people
  • Allocate the right amount of time to a task
  • Review actual time taken in project wrap-ups
  • Raise our awareness of what we’re really doing all day
  • Compare with others how long the same task takes them – and share tips
  • Get routine stuff done faster – if a job’s worth 30 minutes, we JFDI in 30 minutes.

I’ve just applied some of these principles to writing this blog post, and they’ve helped me stop procrastinating and get it written. As the wise saying goes, “Lessons are repeated until they are learned…”

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