I already know your biggest problem.
Because, I have that same problem and so do millions of other people across the globe.
To quote the internets, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”
I don’t know a more true statement in all of history.
It seems that no matter how much time we have, it’s never enough.
It seems the perfect excuse for any situation is simply that we don’t have time.
But, it’s not true. We actually have enough time. In fact, in most cases, we have plenty of time. We just have trouble realizing it.
Why we think we don’t have enough time
There are two main reasons why we think we don’t have enough time.
First, we waste a large amount of time. And, second, we don’t use the time we have wisely.
To sum it up, we procrastinate and watch too much TV.
This may seem like a joke, but I’m dead serious.
If you think you don’t have enough time, it’s probably because you are wasting a big chunk of your day each day doing something completely unproductive, like watching TV, or it’s because when you do sit down to work, you spend more time procrastinating instead of actually getting what you need to do done.
I’ve ranted before on the dangers of watching TV. I don’t watch any TV myself and very rarely even watch a movie. But, it’s not just TV that is the problem. I pick on TV, because it is easy to pick on. Most people would get back two-to-four hours a day if they just quit watching TV—more than enough time to do whatever it is you claim to not have enough time for.
The real problem is anything that is taking your time, but not giving you anything in return. I’m not saying that you should spend all your time working, but what I am saying is that whatever activity you are doing with your time, you should be getting some tangible benefit from it.
But TV relaxes me, you say. Really? Does it? I mean yes, it feels good to plop down in front of the TV and laugh at some silly sitcom character’s latest plight, but does it really relax you so much that you get more time out of it than what you put into it?
What I mean by this is that if you stopped watching TV, and instead did something else with your time, do you honestly think you’d be less productive at everything else you did, because you were not as “relaxed?”
I keep picking on TV, but maybe your waste of time is playing World of Warcraft online, playing on social networks, reading the news, or even spending an inordinate amount of time going through some ritual to get ready for work in the morning.
Figuring out where your time is going
Your first step on your quest to reclaiming your time is to track it.
Look, I’m going to be honest with you here. This part isn’t going to be fun and you are not going to want to do it correctly, but if you really want to know where your time is going, you are going to have to start tracking it—at least temporarily.
Here is what I want you to do:
First, make a sketch of where you think your time is going. Pull out a piece of paper, or print out a sheet from a daily time planner and chart exactly where you think you spend your time during the day.
Make this chart pretty detailed. If you think you get up at 7:00 AM, put that down. Put down how long it takes you to get ready for work and what time you are out the door. Put how long it takes you to “settle in.” Put how long you work. How long you take for lunch. Put it all down and chart it on a 24 hour timeline.
Now, just looking at this “sketch,” you’ll probably already have a good idea of where you are wasting your time. But, here is the clincher: It’s not even accurate.
So, here is what you do next:
After you have your chart of how you think you spend your day, get another blank schedule and carry it around with you for at least three days. Plot exactly how you spend your day.
Yes, this is tedious. Yes, you won’t want to do it, but do it anyway. Track exactly how long it takes you to eat lunch—just don’t show your boss. Track exactly how long it takes you to “settle in.” (Again, you might not want to show your boss that one either.) And, don’t forget that TV time.
Ok, so once you’ve done this you’ll have two things:
- How you think you spend your time
- How you actually spend your time
Now, the only thing you are missing is…
How you actually want to spend your time
The next, step—and you may have guessed it already—is to chart how you’d actually like to spend your time each day. What is your ideal schedule?
Using the information about how you are actually spending your day and how you thought you were spending your day, you should be able to come up with an ideal division of your time for a typical day.
You might end up having a few different schedules for different days of the week, but this is the first step to actually taking back control of your time—and your life.
Think about it this way: You probably know where you are spending your money. Well, let me take that back. If you are financially responsible, you know where you are spending your money. If you aren’t financially responsible, you at least have to make a conscious effort to spend money—it doesn’t happen automatically. You usually have to pull out a card or some cash.
Spending time though, seems to have no cost associated with it. If you feel like you don’t have enough time, it’s not because you are actually living in time-proverty, it’s because you are not actually aware of how you are spending it. You need a time budget.
Now, let me say this right off the bat: You are not going to perfectly live your pre-planned schedule. That is ok. You don’t have to, you just have to be close.
You aren’t going to be able to change everything overnight. The reason you spend your time like you do is because of the ingrained habit that you’ve formed over years or even decades. It takes time to develop new habits to replace old ones.
So, you are going to have to go through a bit of a transition period, while you recalibrate your schedule from the default way you are currently spending—wasting—your time, to the new budgeted schedule of how you want to spend your time.
You’ll probably find that you actually have time to do the things you claimed you didn’t have time to do—now that you’ve actually planned them into your schedule.
If you still find that you don’t have enough time to do what you want to do, you’ll really have to question whether or not you really want to do it, or if you are even trying to do too much.
It’s all about priorities
The whole point of this exercise—of this blog post—is to make you realize that time management is all about priorities.
What I mean to say by this is not that your priorities determine how you spend your time, but rather that how you spend your time shows you what your priorities currently are.
You have to understand your current priorities in order to create new ones or to lower the value of current ones.
By tracking how you are actually spending your time, you are learning about your current priorities.
By projecting how you think you are spending your time, you are indicating what you think your current priorities are.
By actually scheduling your time, you are setting your priorities.
So, if you do all this and still don’t have enough time to learn how to cook, get your degree, get a better job, start that side project, or even start a blog, it’s not really because you don’t have enough time, it’s because you choose to spend your time somewhere else.
(Also, if you are interested in more about this topic, I recommend the book: Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time)
But, didn’t you say something about not using time wisely?
So, we’ve only really solved half of the problem here.
Remember how I said there were two main problems? That not only were you wasting a large amount of time, but you also weren’t using that time wisely?
We’ve already covered wasting time. If you are allocating the time in your day how you would like to allocate it, time is no longer being wasted. You are using your time exactly how you want to be using it.
To be clear, this could include watching TV or playing video games. As long as you have made a conscious decision of how you want to be spending your time and that is how you are doing it, you aren’t wasting that time at all. (You might not be meeting your objectives in life, or accomplishing what you want to accomplish, but at least you are making the conscious choice to do so—not blaming it on the lame excuse of not having enough time.)
Now, about using time wisely.
This really boils down to productivity and procrastination.
If you’ve already budgeted your time, the only other thing you can do to get back more time is to reduce the time budgeted things take.
If you lollygag your way through getting ready for work in the morning and something that should take you one hour takes you two hours, you are not using your time wisely. I won’t say wasted, because you planned out that time, so it’s not truly wasted, but you could have accomplished the same goal in a lot less time.
The same goes with “settling in for work,” or even getting a task done at work. The more you procrastinate and choose to use your time in an unwise manor, the longer you have to allocate for the various things you are doing.
But I can’t cut down my nine-to-five, so why bother
Now, you may say, well John, that is nice and all, but I have to be at my desk from 9:00 AM until 5:00 PM, what difference does it make if I use that time “unwisely” or not?
It might not make that much of a difference to your paycheck, but it might make a whole lot of difference to your bottom line and your career.
If you can accomplish more work and learn more things during your nine-to-five, over time this is going to add up to a huge benefit.
Besides, not everything falls into that nine-to-five category, and even though most employers would probably frown on it, wouldn’t it be better to spend time working on some side-project or personal development project than browsing Facebook?
Let’s be honest here. We all waste time at work. At the very least we could waste that time in a productive manner.
Getting serious about lost time
I get most of my blog posts done in under two hours. It literally takes me less than two actual hours from when I sit down to write the blog post until it is scheduled and ready to go.
That might seem like a lot of time, but considering that many of my blog posts are around 2,000-3,000 words and contain a bunch of images and links, that is a pretty short amount of time.
The secret to how I get my blog posts done so quickly each week is that when I sit down to write a blog post, I sit down and actually write it. I don’t sit and ponder the subject for an hour, forget what I was doing and check Facebook or my email. I don’t write a little and then go grab a snack. I sit down and I write until I am done.
I make an efficient use of my time.
You should apply this kind of work-ethic to everything you are doing if you really want to maximize your time.
It’s not for the faint of heart though. When I first started using the Pomodoro technique and actually focusing on making the most of my time and not procrastinating, it took a lot out of me. I did not expect how exhausting it would be.
For a detailed account of how I plan my week, check out my YouTube video.
And to learn more about how I use the Pomodoro technique, you might want to check out my book “Soft Skills: The Developer’s life manual.”
The point is: there is a lot of hidden lost time in the tasks that you are doing that you aren’t doing very efficiently. If it took me four hours to write a blog post instead of two, I’d get a lot less done each day. I’ve have to choose some things I couldn’t get done.
Summing it all up
Ok, so to sum it all up, if you think you don’t have enough time and you want to get back more of your time, here is what you need to do:
First, go through the process of charting how you think you spend your time, how you actually spend your time and how you want to spend your time.
Once you do this, you’ll shift your priorities and hopefully get rid of some big time wasters that are taking up time you’d rather be using somewhere else.
This should be the single biggest way you find more time. It may involve dropping some things that turn out not to be that important, but at least you’ll be making a conscious choice.
If you still don’t have enough time, the only other place to squeeze time from is tasks you are already doing.
If you can do things more efficiently and use your time more wisely, you’ll get a lot more done and have a lot more time on your hands.
Try to find one or two things you do in your day that take up a large amount of time and see if you can cut them in half or at least reduce them by a third.
All the bonus time you get from implementing these techniques you can allocate to other things you want to be doing, but just haven’t had enough time for.
It’s time to stop using that old excuse of not having enough time and to actually do something and make it so you do.
If you liked this post and would like to hear more of what I have to say, join the Simple Progammer community and get blog posts like these, inspirational videos, tutorials and more directly in your inbox—all for free. I won’t spam you, but I will try and motivate you.
In my last post, I detailed four of the biggest reasons why software developers suck at estimation, but I didn’t talk about how to solve any of the problems I presented.
While estimation will always be inherently difficult for software developers, all hope is not lost.
In this post, I am going to give you five real tips you can utilize to become better at estimation–even for complex software development tasks.
Tip 1: Break Things Down Smaller
In my last post, I talked about how lengthy time periods, that are so common with software development projects, tend to make estimation very difficult and inaccurate.
If you are asked to estimate something that will take you five minutes, you are much more likely to be accurate than if you are asked to estimate something that will take you five months.
So, how can we solve this problem?
There is actually a relatively simple fix: Break things down into smaller chunks and estimate those smaller chunks.
Yes, I know this seems simple and obvious–and I know that this approach is often met with skepticism. There are plenty of excuses you can make about why you can’t break things down into smaller pieces, but the truth is, most things can be broken down–if you are willing to put forth the effort.
The key point to realize is that you are never likely to get good at estimating large things. Well, let me rephrase that: The only way you are going to get good at estimating large things is to be learning how to break them down into many smaller things.
If you really need to accurately estimate something, it is well worth the effort to spend the time breaking down what you are estimating into much smaller pieces.
For example, suppose I was going to estimate how long it will take me to write a blog post. It’s not a very large task, but it’s big enough that estimates can be a bit inaccurate.
If I want to be more accurate, I can break down the task into smaller pieces.
Consider the difference between trying to estimate:
- Write and publish a blog post
- Research blog post and brainstorm
- Outline blog post
- Write first draft of blog post
- Add images, links and call-outs
- Schedule post for publishing
By breaking things down into smaller pieces, I can more accurately estimate each piece. In fact–here is a little trick–when things are broken down this small, I can actually time-box certain parts of the process–which is effectively ensuring my estimate is accurate (but, we are jumping ahead, we’ll talk more about time-boxing in a little bit.)
The next time you are asked to implement some feature, instead of estimating how long you think it will take you to do it as a whole, try breaking down the task into very small pieces and estimating each piece individually. You can always add up the smaller estimates to give a more accurate estimate of the whole.
But wait! I know exactly what you are going to say is wrong with this kind of estimation. Sure, each individual piece’s estimation may be more accurate, but when you add them back together, in aggregate, you’ll still get the same level of error as you would from estimating one large thing.
All I can say to that argument is “try it.” To some degree you are right, the smaller errors in the smaller pieces will add up and cause the whole to be off by more in aggregate, but the smaller pieces also tend to average out. So, some take less time and some take more, which means that overall, you end up a lot more accurate than estimating one large thing with a large margin of error.
Tip 2: Taking time to research
Why do you suck at estimation?
Because you don’t know enough about what you are estimating.
In the previous post, I talked about how the unknown unknowns, that plague many software development projects, make estimation extremely difficult, but I didn’t really talk about how to deal with these things that we don’t know that we don’t know.
Again, the answer is really quite simple: research.
The best way to get rid of an unknown unknown is to know about it.
Whenever you are tasked with estimating something, your first instinct should be to want to do some research–to try and discover what it is that you don’t know that you don’t know yet.
Unfortunately, most software developers don’t immediately think about doing research when trying to estimate something. Instead, they rely on past experience. If they’ve done something in the past that they deem similar enough, they will confidently estimate it–ignoring the possible pitfalls of the unknown unknowns. If they’ve never done something similar to what they are being asked to estimate, they’ll assume there are unknown unknowns everywhere and come up with estimates full of padding.
Neither approach is good. Instead, you should first try and estimate how long it will take you to research a task before giving an estimate of how long the actual task will take. I’ve found that most software developers are pretty good at estimating how long it will take to research a task, even though they may be very bad at estimating how long it will take to complete the task itself.
Once you are armed with research, you should have fewer unknown unknowns to deal with. You may still have some unknowns, but at least you’ll know about them.
But, how does this look in reality?
How do you actually research tasks that you are supposed to be estimating?
Well, sometimes it involves pushing back and planning things out a bit ahead of time. I’ll give you an example of how this might work on a Scrum or Agile team.
Suppose you want to start improving your estimates by doing research before estimating tasks. The problem is that when you are working on an Agile project, you usually need to estimate the tasks in an iteration and don’t really have the time to research each and every task before you estimate it–especially the big ones.
I’ve found the best thing to do in this scenario is instead of estimating the big tasks right up front, to push the tasks back one iteration and instead estimate how long it will take to research each big tasks.
So, you might have in your iteration any number of small research tasks which only have the purpose of getting you enough information to have a more accurate estimate for the big task in the next iteration. During these research tasks, you can also break down large tasks into smaller ones as you know more about them.
Wait… wait.. wait… I know what you are thinking. I can’t just push a task into the next iteration. My boss and the business people will not like that. They want it done this iteration.
Right you are, so how do you deal with this problem?
Simple. You just start planning the bigger tasks one iteration in advance of when they need to be done. If you are working on an Agile team, you should adopt the habit of looking ahead and picking up research tasks for large tasks that will be coming up in future iterations.
By always looking forward and doing research before estimating anything substantial, you’ll get into the habit of producing much more accurate estimates.
This technique can also be applied to smaller tasks, by taking, sometimes, just five or ten minutes to do a minor amount of research on a task, before giving an estimation.
The next time you are trying to estimate a task, devote some time upfront to doing some research. You’ll be amazed at how much more accurate your estimates become.
Tip 3: Track your time
One of the big problems we have with estimating things is that we don’t have an accurate sense of time. My memory of how long past projects took tends to be skewed based on factors like how much I was enjoying the work and how hungry I was.
This skewed time in our heads can result in some pretty faulty estimations.
For this reason it is important to track that actual time things take you.
It is a very good idea to get into the habit of always tracking your time on whatever task you are doing. Right now, as I am writing this blog post, my Pomodoro timer is ticking down, tracking my time, so that I’ll have a better idea of how long blog posts take me to write. I’ll also have an idea if I am spending too much time on part of the process.
Once you get into the habit of tracking your time, you’ll have a better idea of how long things actually take you and where you are spending your time.
It’s crazy to think that you’ll be good at estimating things that haven’t happened yet, if you can’t even accurately say how long things that have happened took.
Seriously, think about that for a minute. No, really. I want you to think about how absurd it is to believe that you can be good at estimating anything when you don’t have an accurate idea of how long past things you have done have taken.
Many people argue that software development is unlike other work and it can’t be accurately estimated. While, I agree that software development is more difficult to estimate than installing carpets or re-roofing houses, I think that many software developer’s suck at estimation because they have no idea how long things actually take.
Do yourself a favor and start tracking your time. There are a ton of good tools for doing this, like:
If you are curious about how I track my time and plan my week, check out this video I did explaining the process I developed:
By the way, following this process has caused me to become extremely good at estimating. I can usually estimate an entire week worth of work within one-to-two hours of accuracy. And I know this for a fact, because I track it.
Tip 4: Time-box things
I said I’d get back to this one, and here it is.
One big secret to becoming a software developer who is better at estimating tasks is to time-box those tasks. It’s almost like cheating.
When you time-box a task, you ensure it will take exactly as long as you have planned for it to take.
You might think that most software development tasks can’t be time-boxed, but you are wrong. I use the technique very frequently, and I have found that many tasks we do tend to be quite variable in the time it takes us to do them.
I’ve found that if you give a certain amount of time to a task–and only that amount of time–you can work in a way to make sure the work gets done in that amount of time.
Consider the example of writing unit tests:
For most software developers, writing unit tests is a very subjective thing. Unless you are going for 100% code coverage, you usually just write unit tests until you feel that you have adequately tested the code you are trying to test. (If you do test driven development, TDD, that might not be true either.)
If you set a time-box for how long you are going to spend on writing unit tests, you can force yourself to work on the most important unit tests first and operate on the 80 / 20 principle to ensure you are getting the biggest bang for your buck.
For many tasks, you can end up spending hours of extra time working on minor details that don’t really make that much of a difference. Time-boxing forces you to work on what is important first and to avoid doing things like premature optimization or obsessively worrying about variable names.
Sure, sometimes, you’ll have to run over the time-box you set for a task, but many times, you’ll find that you actually got done what needed to be done and you can always come back and gold-plate things later if there is time for it.
Again, just like tracking your time, time-boxing is a habit you have to develop, but once you get used to it, you’ll be able to use it as a cheat to become more accurate at estimates than you ever imagined possible.
Tip 5: Revise your estimates
Here is a little secret: You don’t have to get it right on the first go. Instead, you can actually revise your estimates as you progress through a task.
Yes, I know that your boss wants you to give an accurate estimate right now, not as you get closer to being done, but you can always give you best estimate right now and revise it as you progress through the task.
I can’t image any situation where giving more up-to-date information is not appreciated.
Use the other four tips to make sure your original estimate is as accurate as possible, but every so often, you should take a moment to reevaluate what the actual current estimate is.
Think about it this way: You know when you download a file and it tells you how long it will take? Would you prefer that it calculated that duration just at the beginning of the download process and never updated? Of course not. Instead, most download managers show a constantly updated estimate of how much time is left.
Just going through this process can make you better at estimations in general. When you constantly are updating and revising your estimates, you are forced to face the reasons why your original estimates were off.
What about you?
These are just a few of the most useful tips that I use to improve the accuracy of my estimates, but what about you? Is there something I am leaving out here? Let me know in the comments below.
Also, if you liked this post, join over 6,000 other software developers that are part of the Simple Programmer community. Just sign up here and start your journey to becoming a better, more fit, and productive software developer.
This is part two in a series about quitting your job. Check out the first post here.
Imagine you are going for a run in your neighborhood; just a casual jog. You are running along comfortably, not really straining that much or breathing heavy, but making good progress. Now imagine that all of the sudden a tiger jumps out of the bushes and starts chasing you.
What do you do?
For the longest time I had this fantasy of quitting my job and working for myself. Well, actually my real fantasy was playing video games all day and not having to work at all, but even fantasies need to have some basis in reality, so I modified it to be a little more reasonable.
Anyway, I always wanted to be my own boss; to work for myself. I thought that life would be so much better if I had more control over my life; if I could come and go as I pleased and set my own work hours.
Now that I’ve actually done it, I’ve found that working for yourself is not exactly as I had imagined it… let me explain.
The 8 hour fantasy
One of the main things I thought about when I had dreams of working for myself was just how much I could accomplish if I had 8 full hours in a day to work on goals and projects that I set for myself.
For a couple of years my life was pretty miserable. I would work 8 hours during the day for my employer and then when I was done doing my first job I would take a little break to eat dinner and spend some time with my daughter and then back to work for another 4 hours doing Pluralsight courses at night. Weekends usually involved at least another 4 or so hours of doing Pluralsight courses and perhaps another 3-4 to create a blog post each week.
I kept thinking to myself that if I could work full time on the Pluralsight courses I would get an additional 4 hours a day and not even have to work nights. I should be able to get twice as much done and work far fewer hours during the week.
I ran some calculations to see if the payment for creating Pluralsight courses would cover the income I made from my regular job if I produced twice as much content. The numbers seemed to say I would come out pretty far ahead, so as far as I was concerned “quitting my day job” was a no brainer.
The 8 hour reality
My first week of working for myself turned out to not be the fun lighthearted adventure I had set out on.
When the end of the first week had come, instead of completing 4 to 5 modules of a Pluralsight course, like I had anticipated, I had actually only barely completed 3, and that was with me putting in the same 12 hour days that I had put in before quitting my job.
Something was wrong; something was seriously wrong. Working a full time job I was completing 2 modules a week, so if I had 40 extra hours in the week, shouldn’t I have been able to easily get done another 2 more, perhaps even 3 more?
I shook it off as just a fluke. The particular course I was working on required a large amount of research and prep-work as well as scripting out paragraphs of text for each slide—it must have just been bad timing.
The next week I fared a little better, but still not anywhere close to what I had anticipated. I got 4 modules done but it still required around 12 hours of work each day during the week and some on the weekend; the math just didn’t add up.
Here I was busting my butt for only slightly improved results over what I was getting before.
There is work and then there is work
I bet you are probably wondering what exactly happened at this point. What can explain the results I was seeing?
You see, at a job you get paid just for showing up. Now I don’t mean to say that you can just sit at your desk and do nothing all day, but in reality you can just sit at your desk and practically do nothing most days at most jobs.
Again, I don’t want to make it seem like I wasn’t working hard for my employers. As an employee, I have always worked hard and done a good job, usually performing well beyond the level that I was expected to perform at. But regardless for how hard I ever worked at any job, I never worked so hard as when I started working for myself.
The reality of the situation is that even the hardest desk worker I know who is working for someone else usually only actually works less than 4 real hours in an 8 hour day. I would actually venture to guess that actual hard nose-to-the-grindstone hours would probably average about 2 per day.
Now, before you get all upset about what I am saying, let’s take a moment to think about why this is.
There are a number of reasons why employees work much fewer hours than the hours they are on the clock. The first, most obvious reason is because they are getting paid by the hour and not the job. When you are getting paid by the hour you have no real motivation to be fast or efficient or to make sure you are working every minute of every hour.
This means that a task that would perhaps take you an hour to do if you were working as diligently and as hard as possible, might take you 2 to 3 hours if you are working, but just not working hard at the task.
Think about the difference between jogging down the street and running for your life because a man-eating lion is chasing you. It isn’t like you are being lazy when you are jogging down the street, it is just that you aren’t in any real rush.
Another major source of distraction is office conversations. In most work environments, people socialize. It is not unreasonable to assume that 2 hours of each day, on average, is eaten up by socializing about non-work related topics or remotely work related topics.
Let’s take another slice out of that 8 hour pie and account for general job overhead. This would be things like checking your work email, reading bulletins and memos, attending pointless meetings, etc. I’ll be absolutely ridiculous and assume this kind of thing only takes up an hour of time a day on average, (although we really know that it probably takes up much more.)
Finally, we get to just plain laziness and doing personal stuff on company time. Life is life and things happen. Your kid gets called into the principal’s office and you get a call at work about it that you have to deal with. You are buying and house and need to fax those loan documents to your mortgage broker. Sometimes you get to work and you just feel burnt out and tired and can’t really manage to do much other than pretend to code while you scroll repeatedly through lines of code waiting for the clock to tick 5:00.
I’ll be nice again and attribute this to only taking up an average an hour a day, but based on my Facebook and Twitter streams, I am pretty sure we all know that number is greater than even the most candid of us will be willing to admit.
So let’s go ahead and do the math. Take your 8 hours and subtract away 2 hours for socialization. That leaves you with 6 hours. Take away 1 for work related overhead and another 1 for life related overhead and laziness and you are already at 4 hours right there. Now take the 4 hours of work that could be done at a running pace and reduce it to a jogging pace, and you are effectively cutting it in half to about 2 hours of actual real work. If you come in late or leave early or you are more social or more lazy or you have more meetings than average, the number could even be further reduced. Some of you might be coming up with negative numbers. It is a wonder anyone gets any work done at all!
So, where did my hours go?
Just because you switch from working for someone else to working for yourself doesn’t mean that you immediately go from getting 2 hours of work done a day to a full 8. Some of the office distractions are eliminated by working for yourself, but others are not.
Most importantly though, there is a big difference and adjustment from being used to working 2 actual hours of real hard work to working 6 to 8 hours of real hard work.
It is sort of like going for a 3 mile jog every day for a couple of years than suddenly one day deciding to start running 12 miles instead. You might be able to do it, but you are going to feel like total crap until you adjust.
It turns out for me that my old routine, before I quit, was working my regular job during the day, which wasn’t all that taxing on me, then working 4 hours each night, at which time I would accomplish perhaps 3 hours of real hard work.
Each day I was perhaps doing 5 hours of real hard work.
When I started working for myself, I found that I was actually doing about 5 hours of real hard work during the day and by the time the night came, I would work perhaps 4 hours, but was so exhausted that I was only getting about 1 hour of real hard work done.
So overall, I was only adding about an hour or two of actual real work worth of progress each day. This lines up about perfectly with the results I was seeing. I was still having to work the same number of hours and I was just getting marginal improvements in my results.
Tracking my time
I’ll put things as civilly as possible here, but to say the least, this was royally pissing me off.
I mean, I was not happy at all with this revelation I was discovering.
I thought long and hard about different jobs I had and what I did during the day at work. I tried to count up the hours and determine if it was really true that I was only spending a couple of hours of real hard work, on average, a day at any given job. Then, I thought about how at most jobs I was getting a lot more work done than most developers were and it made me even more sad.
I decided to start tracking every minute of every day I spent doing work on my Pluralsight courses and whatever else I was working on during the day in order to see where my time went.
My results after several weeks confirmed what I had already known. In any given day, I was lucky to get 5 hours of solid work done during the daytime and 6-7 hours overall in the entire day was about the average.
I was also busting my butt harder than I had ever before.
Summing it up
So, what am I trying to say here? What can you learn from my experience?
Well, first of all, working for yourself is much harder than you might imagine. When you are working for yourself, you are only getting paid if you are working. You don’t just show up and get paid.
You may think you are busting your butt at your job now, and you may very well be, but I can almost guarantee you that you are not working nearly as hard as you would if you were working for yourself. There is a huge difference between doing 2 hours of hard work per day and 6 hours or more of real hard work per day. If you aren’t ready for this change of pace, you can easily be crushed and discouraged by it.
You might just think that this doesn’t apply to you; that you can just sit down at 9:00 AM, plug in your headphones and work hard until 5:00 PM when you disconnect and smile happily at your 8 hours of good old hard work you put in that day.
But, if you are of this mindset, I’d encourage you to do two things before quitting your day job. First, take a week off and try it out. During that week track your time and see how much work you actually get done. Only count work that results in you creating something you get paid for. Don’t count all the overhead and checking emails, etc.
Second, after you see how dismal your results are, get a copy of “The War of Art” and learn that you are not alone. We all struggle with the same problem of being lazy creatures who want to do what is pleasurable instead of being productive and habitually rationalize all our actions until we are reduced into believing that the course of action we are taking is the only possible and reasonable choice.
I’m not saying don’t quit your job. In fact, I encourage you to find a way to build your own business and work for yourself. But, just realize that if you don’t like the idea of working hard every single day you probably won’t like working for yourself very much.
I like to procrastinate.
I don’t really enjoy procrastinating, but it is one of my weaknesses. I’ll delay doing something that I know is important until the last moment that it needs to be done.
I’ve learned to overcome this weakness of mine by trying to be more productive to compensate for it.
Blah, blah, blah, productivity system… procrastination… blah blah blah!
I know you’ve heard it all before, but here is the strange part—I almost always get things done well before the deadline.
So what is my problem then?
My problem is that when I sit down to actually do the work, I end up doing a million other little things.
Even though I am overcoming the results of my procrastination by self-imposing much earlier deadlines, I am still fighting against the core of my procrastinating nature.
It is like I have put the angry demon of procrastination in a cage where he can’t harm me, but because I have to constantly feed him and deal with his demands, he’s still slowing me down.
I call it micro-procrastination
Perhaps you suffer from it to.
The symptoms are as follows:
- Sit down to do work and first check Facebook, Twitter, emails and every other single site that could have something interesting and updated for you.
- Justify in your head that you need a 10 minute or so transition period to check all this stuff before you sit down to actually do the work you intend.
- Pick something smaller that is not important and work on that instead. (Clean out email inbox, etc.)
Just about every week, my goal for the week is to record 2 modules for whatever my next Pluralsight course is.
I really never miss this goal, but it would often take me a while to get started each night. I would sit down to do the work, but not actually get to working until about 30 minutes to an hour after when I had first sat down at the computer.
Once I got started, I usually found that I didn’t have any problem continuing with the work until it was finished.
I tended to do the same thing with my blog posts as well. I know now I need to get a blog post down each week, but it would always take me a while to get started writing the post itself.
Even when I went to write code or solve a programming problem, I noticed that I would try to do many other work related activities like answering emails or further investigating a problem, rather than just working solely focused on the task at hand.
I started to notice a common occurrence between all of these situations in my life. If I got about 15 minutes into actually doing my Pluralsight course, writing my blog posts, or coding up a feature, I’d almost always end up staying focused on the task.
I found that I would often not want to quit something once I got started. I’d even miss lunch or be late for lunch or bed because of this.
The 15 minute rule is born
Based on this observation, I decided to try a little experiment. The next time I was going to work on something, instead of doing my usual ritual of checking email, checking twitter etc, I did the following steps:
- Pick out the single task I am sitting at the computer getting prepared to work on. (It helps to define this very clearly.)
- Turn of all distractions for 15 minutes or just decide not to let them bother me for that time period.
- Work without pause, without break and without excuse for 15 minutes straight.
- At the end of 15 minutes, if I want to quit, then I can quit or multi-task.
What I found is that after 15 minutes of working steadfast and diligently on a single task, I didn’t want to quit.
I found that something that I had no motivation or desire to actually be working on 15 minutes before was now all I could think about.
I found that just like it takes the first few chapters to get into a book and actually feel compelled to continue reading it, it takes about 15 minutes for me to get drawn into my work and want to see it finished.
I’ve been applying this “15 minute rule” pretty regularly now, and I have been having some pretty fantastic results.
I’ve also slipped up on occasion and reverted back to my old ways and have had quite the opposite of results.
I’ve tried other systems
Now I’ve definitely tried many other systems that attempt to solve the problem of procrastination or productivity or both, but none of them seemed to work all that well for me.
I know these other systems work, and I know plenty of people are successful with them and that my system isn’t really much of a system at all—it’s just what I do.
The problem I have found with other systems though, is that they are either:
- Too complicated to apply regularly unless you are 100% devoted. (Big barrier to entry.)
- Only address productivity, and priority, but not actually doing work.
- Assume you can sit down and actually do what you have set out to do. (Which remember, was the hardest part for me.)
I am a big fan of Getting Things Done and I highly recommend it. At the very least read it, because it just has some great overall advice, but…
I don’t apply it anymore, because I don’t need to organize what I need to get done. My life is currently so packed and scheduled every day that I already know exactly what I need to be doing just about every hour of my day.
I don’t even watch TV or movies… Ever. No really, I mean never ever.
So, with my schedule being so packed, my biggest problem isn’t figuring out what I should be doing—I’ve got that covered. Instead, my biggest problem is doing it efficiently.
The closest technique to what I am doing is probably the Pomodaro technique. I also think this is a great technique and is likely to work for many people.
I’ve just found that my mind tends to defeat the technique by telling me that I don’t have enough time to get a whole Pomodoro done right now, so I should just do part of one.
You could call what I am doing a modified Pomodoro technique, whereby I set the duration to 15 minutes and actually try to avoid taking breaks for as long a possible.
Why the 15 minute rule works
I suspect the main reason why this technique works is because of momentum.
When we start to get momentum going for us (and 15 minutes seems to be just about enough time to do so) it is much harder to change course.
Focus is also a big part of the 15 minute rule. The world today is a fast paced multi-tasking parallel processing rat race in which we are conditioned to switch our attention between multiple things all at once.
If you are reading this post right now, you probably have even switched back and forth between multiple browser tabs or chat windows or something else and aren’t focusing 100% on reading. I don’t have 15 minutes to grab your full attention and draw you in (unless you are a very slow reader, in which case I congratulate you for making this far.)
The point is, we have to purposely focus on a single thing in order to turn off that natural tendency to try to be omnipresent.
Doing the 15 minute rule forces me to focus, and that focus tends to shut off everything else in my mind with has the potential to distract me.
The 15 minute rule also prevents me from overthinking about a problem and standing back to admire the problem instead of working on it.
It frees me from obligation. If I know I have to work for 15 minutes, I am not afraid of not making much progress. My only obligation is to be working on the task at hand, without interruption and with complete focus for 15 minutes.
I also find that after 15 minutes, I’ve developed a commitment to the work. Because of the time I’ve already invested in the task, I feel more compelled to complete it.
Applying the rule
Hopefully you’ll find this technique useful and if not perhaps you have a better suggestion or technique. If you do I’d very much like to hear it, since I am always looking for some practical ways to be more efficient.
Before I let you be on your way, I’ll leave you with some parting advice that I’ve found useful when applying the 15 minute rule.
- Remove all distractions. That may mean closing browser windows or turn your phone off or just deciding to ignore everything else.
- Don’t forget to focus. Removing distractions is not enough, you must also focus intently on what you are doing. Be present in the moment.
- Work, don’t think. I know thinking is working, but the mind wanders too easily and merely thinking about a topic doesn’t seem to create that same mental traction. This might mean you start writing a first draft or first hack, but it is important to be actually “doing.”
- If you feel like you can’t start “doing,” make your “doing” brainstorming, but brainstorm by actually writing a list or making a mind map.
- If at the end of 15 minutes you are still not into the work and want to quit, go ahead. Come back a little later and try again.
- Take breaks when you need to, as long as the initial focused 15 minutes has passed, I’ve found that I can take a break and actually want to get back to my work.
- Put a sticky note on your monitor or somewhere you’ll notice that reminds you that when you sit down to work to start off with the 15 minute technique.