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Rubber and Road

I wrote a small time management app in Sinatra a few days ago, with timestamps, graphical displays of how long I’ve been working on each task, everything.

Now that the rubber has met the road and I have an sense of how long it takes me to complete my work, I’ve learning things I didn’t know about myself.

I used to have this idea that, on my best day, when the stars were aligned, etc., etc., I could do the work of 10 men, or perhaps 3 or 4. I’m getting a better sense now that I am one person, and that work takes time. There’s no free lunch; real work, mental work, takes time, and with my records right in front of me, reporting the truth to me mercilessly, I can see that a task that stretches over 2 to 3 hours is not exceptional.

You’d think I would’ve known this; on some abstract, personal level, I did know, and would’ve asked for 3 to 4 hours if asked by someone else to complete it (while expecting to complete it in less). Part of the issue is that most ‘real’ tasks (that aren’t trivial) are really composed of many sub-tasks, some of which are pretty vague and require some flailing around to get a grip on.


For instance, say I’m looking up how to interact with a database. ‘How do I interact with a x database’ is a very vague search term, and, as often as not, won’t help me. So first, I have to narrow down my search terminology; then, I have to drill through a bunch of pages that get me closer to what I want; finally, I have to try to understand them, stopping and searching for intermediate-level terms along the way, to ‘feel’ my way towards a solution that I can’t fully define yet.

On my tasker, though, this is just going down as ‘set up x database’. Those hours of research with it dozens of little mini-jobs get squashed into one line, and one check-mark when it’s complete. So now I have a fuller understanding of the hugely variable times associated with each tasks (could be 15 minutes, but could be 3 hours), and how that impacts my productivity.

I could, of course, just chunk that one job into many smaller jobs to inflate my completion rate and make myself feel better, but that’s gaming the system. The real point is that meaty tasks take time, no matter how much you might want to hurry them.

There are upsides, though. I also have a sense now of the passage of time, in a way I didn’t have before. I had a vague sense before – I started this about an hour ago, I’m making some progress on it  – but now it’s very specific, very granular: I’ve been working on this for 26 minutes (last time I refreshed the page), this is the third task I’ve completed before.

In a way, I’m seeing that ‘forgetting’ was a kind of time and stress management technique I used before, when things piled too high; now, they’re always in front of me, they don’t ‘disappear’ anymore when my attention flags, and I can see that chipping away at them is the only way to make them go away. So that helps.


Finally, I’m learning that there’s strength in minimalism. In the beginning, I was tempted to go graph-crazy, and slap on a half-dozen different displays of how long this tasks took, how it compared as a fraction of my day to my total time, to the amount of time the last task took, etc. Pretty soon though, my visual sense got overloaded; worse, to the extent that it repeated previously accomplished tasks, it gave me a sense that I was working hard already, and could rest on my laurels a bit and coast on my previous work.

So I stripped some of that information back out, added it to a separate page (that I can check if I feel like it), and kept the main task page basic: here’s your task, here’s how long you’ve spent on it, here’s that as a graph of the time you have left, now go. With my attention one-pointed like that, it’s a lot easier to ‘barrel through’ and steadily march on to the next check point without getting distracted by the things I’ve done already.

Since the essence of time management, in a way, is simply avoiding distraction and focusing attention, displays that downplay distraction and channel the mind to a single point of focus work best.


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