Time’s money (and more)

Time management is tricky. Or isn’t it? At least it seems that a lot of people are having problems with managing their time (see Sonja’s post from one year ago).

The dirty little secret is: Time is limited. You have 24 hours each day, and you can’t just go down to the corner shop and buy some more. People seem to believe that there is some ingenious “time management” scheme which allows you to do more stuff, but there isn’t. You can’t do more stuff, because your time is limited.

So time management is all about doing the right stuff, doing the things which are important. And this means pointing out the things you will not do. It’s about realising that in a limited amount of time, you can do only a limited amount of work. You have to find the tasks which are essential, and do them first. You still won’t get everything done, but at least you won’t waste your time on unimportant problems.
Basically, this is all you need to know about time management.

The problem is people like to cheat: “I’ll just work harder and/or longer, and get more work done.” – or some variation thereof. There’s a kind of ethic that expects and rewards this; I know one professor who told a bunch of high school students – in all honesty – that “when you’re graduating, everybody should expect a 60-80 hour work week”. And a lot of people really are working such hours.
They are cheating at their time management.

They fail to realise that priorities exist in their lives outside of work. But if you don’t account for these priorities, you won’t even be able to get much done at work.
As an experienced manager puts it in his web journal:

“Long experience has taught me that the average programmer can work 40 hours per week pretty much indefinitely. At 50 hours, significant performance degradation begins after two to four weeks. At 60 hours, degradation begins at well under two weeks. I call this degradation “burnout”, although most people don’t start calling it that until they discover the victims spending their entire days playing Quake III instead of programming.

Regardless of what you call it, the degradation is real. As the brain goes, the team gets less useful output, higher defect rates, more time wasted fixing those defects, and a rapid reduction in the wit and will available to come up with effective and creative solutions to the growing list of problems. Not long after that, you lose the butt as well, as stress-related medical and family problems begin to exact a much more tangible toll.”

Still, sometimes it feels better to work long hours. It feels better because, even though you don’t get everything doe, you have at least tried everything. Nobody will be able to blame you if you don’t make it completely. But you’re really just trying to make up for mistakes in the planning.
Of course there still may be a one-time effort, putting in long hours and one or two weekends, as an effort to make it to the finish line. This is cool and rewarding, as the condition doesn’t become permanent. Constant overtime is an indication of structural problems. (If you’ve read Peopleware, you’ll already know this – and more)

This, by the way, is also my gripe with all that “goal-oriented” cultures out there: It places the responsibility for the results solely with the person doing the actual work, and not with the ones who are responsible for the planning and the allocation of resources.

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