Effective Work: Secrets To Working Effectively in the Age of Information Overload
I’ve just finished my book, working on it on and off in the span of the last 3 years, I finally had the chance to invest some serious time to gather all of the notes, half-baked texts, drafts, and go through the painful process of producing something that I can be proud of.
Here are a few excerpts of the chapter titled: “Flow”
How effective you are with your work and tasks depends on your mental state. Ever wake up for an alert being on-call and tried to troubleshoot an incident? It’s one of those memories that tend to stick. Can you think clearly and take on “heavy” tasks when you’re feeling under the weather? Do you feel like making an impact on the world when you’re plain tired?
On the flip side, there are many situations in which you want to tear up the world. You just got great feedback on a product you’re building, people shared your article and gave you great feedback: “keep on writing!”, or you’ve got lots of hours of sleep and feel super energized, or you just finished a fantastic workout at the gym.
Understanding these mental states which have a close relationship to “effectiveness states”, and being aware of them is hard. You might be just starting to get a cold, not noticing it, and hitting a brick wall with an algorithm you’re developing and you have no idea why something trivial became so complex to you at that moment. You can’t understand why nothing is working, you’re quirky, angry, and frustrated — and it doesn’t help.
Identify One Mental State
If there were just one mental state that you can train yourself to identify and be aware of, I’d say that would be — identify the times when you have low amounts of energy. When you have low amounts of energy, all you need to do is pick a different kind of task. This also means you want to classify a special category of tasks as “low energy” (you can use a label or what have you). Things like “tidy up my drawers”, or “order groceries” or “call the cable company” are useful, but obviously you don’t want to use your premium high-energy time for these kind of tasks. Use the “low quality” time where you have low energy.
This also means we discovered a principle: time is not of constant and equal quality. Or in other words an hour isn’t always an hour.
As for the rest of the various ups and downs of our effectiveness states — being sick, being moody, and so on, it’s very helpful to be able to understand and listen to your body (look up: mindfulness), but I have to say there’s very little you can actually *do* at that moment to be mark yourself “effective”. When you’re sick you need to rest, as the doctor ordered.
The Circadian Rhythm
There are some things that are common to all of us, in theory. In theory, we all should be following the Circadian Rhythm to varying degrees. This means that as humans our bodies and minds were programmed, like all animals, around a cycle that’s rooted in our sleep and waking time. The Circadian Rhythm tells us, for example that we’re at our highest alertness at 10am. Guess what we’re all doing at 10am? that’s right. Stand up meetings. What a waste.
A clever manager will move stand up meetings to 14:30pm, where we have “best coordination”. But that’s not the end of the story; I believe this rhythm is just a starting point, as we’re all also affected by things that are new to the world (relatively speaking) such as flights, substances we consume (caffeine, alcohol), and things like blue light from screens which trick our minds about the conditions outside (light vs darkness) and mess with our sleep cycle. The core idea is that you’re human: listen to yourself, and try to come up with a way to measure how *you* react to the Circadian Rhythm.
For example, everyone says going to the Gym first thing in the morning is the best. I get absolutely dizzy, low energy, bad gym sessions in the mornings. However I’m completely pumped for planning and prioritization work first thing in the morning. So instead, I use mornings to plan and work; nights for sports and gym. Just to note that it took me a few years to accept this as my routine, since everyone kept telling me Gym in the morning is the best; this way I learned there’s no “best” when it comes to *your* fitness habits, there’s only *you* and the ways you have to measure if things are going well for you.
Know How to Stop
Here’s a trick I use often when I write code. Contrary to what people might expect, I stop my work and make an effort to break my code. Sometimes I just either write out — right there and there — in plain english on code — what I need to do to continue such as “make sure to reimplement the file reader” which spits out a ton of compiler errors, or the more civilized version of this: write a failing test.
The idea is that the next morning or evening when I open up my project to continue, I start in a “hot seat”. I have something that I have to fix immediately in order to start working. Often the act of fixing this *simple* broken code puts me in the right mental state, which is where I stopped the evening or morning before.
So the idea is to leave yourself some mental breadcrumbs. In code it is: break your build in a simple way, you don’t want something fancy because you don’t want to be stuck really figuring out how to fix a broken build.
There’s just one problem — if you’re going away for a long time, say more than a couple of days from this project, make sure you do the complete opposite. Tidy up everything that you can, make sure the project is in pristine condition before you leave it; you can’t afford coming back to a broken project when you’re completely out of context because you’ve been away for a week or two.
I usually tidy up everything and maintain what I call a “work log” on Evernote where I just scribble the day’s happenings, like an informal journal, in a tone that sounds like speaking to a friend. This is an investment — it takes energy to maintain this kind of log so I only do that when I know that I’m context switching between projects for an interval of weeks or a good number of days. A couple weeks later I can read this log and rebound to a great amount of detail.
Guess what happens when you have everything planned out? Well, you still haven’t solved the problem of finding more time, you just have things planned out.
Sometimes when you do your homework right and you plan everything to the letter, you rediscover that time is scarce. You have your 3 hours every evening, and you have your roadmap all laid out, but you find out that you have a task that you’ve estimated to be 1.5 hours — but you never get to it.
You’re not sure if you can lift that kind of a heavy weight; and that investing 1.5 hours — half of your evening time in one bulk is going to give you the feeling you’re looking for: “I did a lot today”. Some times approaching this task is just a form of anxiety because it’s complicated or because it’s a lot to do. I call this task commitment anxiety.
This commitment anxiety is fuelled by two factors: realizing you’re committing a good chunk of your allotment of time, naturally we stay away from this because we feel that we’re “paying” a lot of time into just one thing. The second factor is just our natural tendency to conserve energy, we try to keep a balance of not spending energy (which is why we procrastinate).
Take a Nibble
Here’s how I break this anxiety: take a nibble. For every task that weights above an hour, if you have a time window that allows for starting it — start just 10 minutes of work out of this task. After ten minutes, one of two things will happen:
- You’ll just be pulled in and execute this task, overcoming commitment anxiety, or
- You’re going to realize this task needs to be split into two or more subtasks, the first part being “research” or “POC” and the second part being just the boring and dirty work of building something that’s already spelled out to the letter.
Basically, you want to take away choices, which means your commitment anxiety was simply pronouncing the risk in a task — something that you’re not aware of but deep inside you *know* a task contains a good deal of unknowns and your brain wants to stay away from it to avoid failure or the unexpected. You can make the 10 minutes “nibble” work for you while you commute in the morning, before sleep or at another casual point in your day so that it’s no big deal to start.
As long as you understand the mechanics of this kind of “anxiety”, you might come up with a different technique to “jumpstart” it. The principle is this: you need to learn how to start things which feels uncomfortable starting. Be great at starting, the rest will follow.