Don’t you love it when you get immersed in what you’re doing and completely lose track of time? I do. This is mainly because there are very few activities that can hold my attention for long. So once I’m set, there is no looking back.
Watching TED talks is one such activity. I try to watch at least one video every day. I love how some ideas trigger a thought process. One day, I ended up watching 8 Talks back to back. When my legs fell asleep, I stood up to stretch and looked at the time. I had spent way more than the allotted time for the videos. I remembered that I had to move on to other pressing matters. A part of me wanted to continue watching the videos because I was sure I would not remember most of the details if I resumed later. A part of me also knew that if I continued watching the videos, I would have to forgo the next task. At the end of the day, I would be left with pending tasks which would never get done unless I compromised on something else. That would go on till I gave up on the list of tasks forever. I was in a dilemma.
It took me years of exceptional planning and failing to realize one simple fact. I was bad with estimates. I would plan my work but I’d end up underestimating the work that could be done in a timeframe. So I would either have a dozen half-completed tasks or end up completing only 50 percent of the planned work, leaving the rest untouched. I still haven’t figured out which option I can learn to live with. Some days I’m fine with skipping other work as long as I’ve completed one important task at hand. Some other days I need to make progress on multiple tasks and can’t have the luxury of doing just one thing right. The struggle is real!
Turns out I wasn’t the only one who made this mistake. Google had so many solutions for me. But I was interested in two particular solutions.
I was bad at estimating the work because my tasks weren’t clearly defined. I got to know that the most important rule to make progress with work is to define measurable goals. It would help us track our progress in a much better way. For example, I used to write tasks like this,
1. Read for an hour
2. Write for an hour
3. Drink 4 litres of water every day
And I figured it should actually read like this,
1. Read at least 50 pages
2. Write 500 words
3. Drink 1 litre every 3/4 hours
Defining goals clearly will give you a much better idea of what you should be doing, rather than spending time figuring out what to do and what amount of work to put in to label a tick off a task from your Todo list.
So now that I’d tackled one problem, it was time to tackle my estimates. Learning the art of estimating wasn’t all that simple.
I resorted to analytics to get some help. For 2 weeks I made a note of the time I took to complete my tasks. I did not make any conscious changes. I wanted to see if there was a pattern in my habits under normal conditions. I also changed the time at which I worked on my tasks. If I did something before leaving for work on a day, the next day I would do that task after getting back from work. I tried all possible combinations and made a note of the time taken.
After two weeks, I could see a pattern. A certain kind of tasks got done consistently (like working out and reading) and a certain other kind of tasks always took up more time (like writing and cooking). I noticed my productivity was at its best the first thing in the morning and just before I slept. The same task that took 1 hour in the evening (right after work) got done in 70% of the time when I took it up in the morning. Irrespective of how quick or slow I was, any tasks I took up right after coming back from work (and taking rest) took way longer than anticipated. I was happy to draw many insights from my habits with just a simple pencil and book. I will also take credit for knowing to ask the right questions to get the right answers.
Knowing my strengths and weaknesses got me closer to reality and helped me understand my capability (No, I’m not the jack of all trades, sigh!). I was able to plan well and work effectively. Completing 80% of the work on an average, was a huge achievement.
A few tweaks to my existing schedule (in terms of organizing) and a bit of reorganizing and reprioritizing got me a system that worked wonders for me. Putting it all down in paper, helped me gain a different perspective of things and process the information better than it was in my head. It helped me clear the false sense of reality that was clouding my mind and let me handle what was staring at me.
If you want an objective and unbiased analysis to see how things work, you don’t need a complicated algorithm or tool. Put everything down on a piece of paper. Analyse and review it like how you would if it were someone else’s data (that was the best part of the entire exercise). Unless you stop giving excuses for your habits, accept that there is a problem, and find ways to handle it, you will never be able to figure out even the most obvious patterns. It’s all in the mind!
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