Amount of time spent on a project isn’t what counts — it’s the amount of uninterrupted time

According to Edwin Bliss

Amount of time spent on a project is not what counts: it’s the amount of uninterrupted time.

and

One of the most prolific of modern novelists was […] Georges Simeon. [His] method was to cut himself off completely from the outside world while working on a book: no phone calls, no visitors, no newspaper, no mail; living, as he said, ‘like a monk’. After about eleven days of total immersion in his writing he would emerge with another best-selling novel.

Few of us would carry concentration to that extreme – but what if we did, who knows what we might accomplish.

Stephen B. Jenkins wrote an excellent article on the huge cost of interruptions to the productivity of computer programmers and practical advice on how to reduce that cost.

For the historical context, a good source is Christine Rosen’s “The Myth of Multitasking“.

Making the best of a bad interruption

On longer time scales, when you must drop something for a while, it’s important, before doing so, to leave behind enough context for yourself to swap it back in. Write down some organized notes about where you were, what still needed to be done, etc. Keeping a log can be a big help, too, but it’s not a substitute for a high-level summary before suspending the task.

(For programming in particular, when you consider that you will need to revisit most computer code someday in the future, this is also a selfish reason to build a legacy of great comments and documentation.)

A good mental model for suspending a task is to leave behind the sort of information that you would need to hand it off to another person to finish.

Pretend that you are handing off the task to another person and you will be going away on a long vacation and unavailable to answer further questions, because when you come back to the task you will effectively be that other person.

Swapping in a new context is very expensive. Saving your state well when you suspend is actually much, much cheaper overall, assuming that you’ll need to come back to the task eventually.

This is one reason it’s important to write your to-do list at the end of the working day, instead of waiting until the start of the next working day.

Using concentration to overcome procrastination

For overcoming procrastination, here’s a tactic that really works. I call it a “work-or-nothing session”. (Footnote: on 18/Nov/2009 an article in the Wall St. Journal informed me that essentially the same tactic is being recommended as the ‘Pomodoro Technique’. Too bad I didn’t patent it back in the ’90s. 🙂 Really, it’s just more evidence that it works.)

  1. Get very clear on the specific task that you want to make progress on, for example, update a  resume, write a proposal, clean out the garage, etc..  Write it down in a steno book, next to the  current date and time.
  2. Turn off the TV, radio, stereo, iPod, etc., and silence your phone and pager.  If your task  requires a computer, turn off e-mail and IM.
  3. Set an egg timer for 30 minutes.
  4. Until the timer goes off, either do the specific task or nothing at all.  No talking, eating,  drinking, web surfing, daydreaming, writing notes about other ideas, doing other tasks, going to the  toilet, looking at the timer, etc.  If it’s a sit-down task, and you’re not doing it, then just sit  there stupidly until you get started again.  If it’s a stand-up task, and you’re not doing it, then just stand there stupidly until you get started again.
  5. When the timer goes off, end the session.  Don’t push a session past the 30 minutes you committed to. A deal’s a deal, including with yourself. But if the spirit moves you, then commit to another formal 30-minute session and dive back in. Just don’t neglect to write it down and reset the timer first.

Why does this work? Concentration is a big part of it, of course, but I have a theory — instead of further reinforcing avoidance with pleasurable diversions, you’re  turning work itself into a relatively pleasurable diversion from avoidance, because it’s surprisingly unpleasurable to sit there stupidly or stand there stupidly.  Whatever the reason, it does work.

What’s the catch?  Although almost anybody can muster the will power to last through a 30 minute commitment until the egg timer issues its reprieve, actually making the commitment to a work-or-nothing session in the first place is not so easy.

Here’s a simple technique that works for me.  Store a handful of red stir sticks in your desk.  Each morning, take a few of them out, one for each work-or-nothing session you’re committing to for that day, and set them on one side of your monitor.  When you start a work-or-nothing session, move a stir stick right in front of you, such as on your keyboard. If you successfully complete the work-or-nothing session, move the stir stick to the other side of the monitor.  But, if you quit part way through, throw the stir stick back on to the to-do pile. It feels so good to move those stir sticks to the other side — and it keeps you honest.  If it’s lunch time and you’ve only moved 2 stir sticks to the other side so far, where did your morning go?

Red stir sticks

Set a goal for the number of sessions per day or week.  Start small, say one per day, and steadily build up your stamina until it becomes a treasured golden habit.

More blog entries on Effectiveness.

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