Time Waste: Stop Working on Too Many Projects
“Highly motivated people will start so many great projects that nothing gets finished. What they need to do is stop, prioritize their work to see what will produce the greatest value, and then finish that thing before moving on to the next project.”
Written By Noah Cohen: Published Jan 16th, 2020 | Updated Jan 16th, 2020.
Noah Cohen is the driving force behind Humanic.Tech, a habit tracking app and life dashboard designed to help people reach their most ambitious goals. 🚀
18 Minute Read
“If you are looking for ways to scale your productivity, it is going to require finding ways to replicate the things you are good at in other people.”
First of all, thank you for joining us today Mark to talk about your experience in the process improvement and project management space. You run a popular blog in the productivity space and many come to you for insights on topics relating to productivity. You cover many topics in the productivity space, but today we want to focus our conversation on the topic of “time management”. However, before we dive deep into that topic, why don’t you kick off this interview by telling us a little bit more about your background and what pushed you in the direction of wanting to help people and companies with their productivity?
I studied music composition as an undergrad and graduate student and funded my college by doing computer work for some hospitals. I started out helping setup individual computers and then moved into managing networks.
I realized that when dealing with an individual computer I was mostly limited to helping one person at a time, but when I switched to doing networking, my work was leveraged in a way where I was able to help hundreds of people at a time. This seemingly trivial insight had a profound impact on how I saw my work and pushed me toward looking for ways to better leverage my time in ways that would impact the largest number of people.
That push led me to software development and eventually to managing and coaching software development teams. Productivity501 was started about halfway through that journey as I wanted to find ways to share the things I was discovering about managing my time better.
Currently, most of my time goes into helping organizations get better value from the money they pay for custom software with clients that range from the US government to small genetic startups to central banks. I also produce a youtube channel with videos about Agile software development and speak at a number of conferences each year.
When most people think about agile project management, they think about a framework that helps projects get pushed through to completion.
How can agile planning be applied to self-management and help the average person with achieving their personal goals as well? How have you seen agile project planning used in the personal development space?
The Agile principles and values are designed to help align the work developers do with the things that provide business value. The focus is on getting something to where it starts producing value for the business–even if it is a very small change. When a business invests $1 into software development, they do so because they hope that $1 will produce a return. When a software project runs for years without delivering anything that is actually providing real tangible value there is a huge amount of waste. Think of it this way. What if a potential employer said they would pay you your salary as one lump sum at the end of 10 years. Would you be willing to take the same yearly salary as what you are making today? Of course not. How much more would they have to pay you to get you to agree to terms like that? It would probably significant. I imagine most people wouldn’t take a job like that unless the pay was at least 10 times what they make today and many people probably wouldn’t unless it was 100 times more. Why is that?
Well when you work for a job, you want to see the return on the investment you made fairly soon. Most people get paid every few weeks. You don’t want a long delay from when you invested your time until you get the return from that investment.
Agile is basically applying this concept to software development and trying to get organizations working in a way that when they pay a developer to write some code, there isn’t a long period before they start getting the benefits from that investment. So how can this approach be applied to the way we manage our personal lives? Obviously the answer is NOT to avoid any long term investments of our time. But there are ways to look for getting benefits sooner rather than later. For example, let’s say you are looking at getting a master’s degree. That is a good long term investment in your future, but it will probably take you a number of years before you complete a program. (The last master’s degree I earned took me about 10 years.) How can you get the benefits of your investment sooner? Well one way would be to look for a program where you can earn a certificate for a subset of the courses that you will need for your master’s degree. It would give you a credential to put on your resume at a point far short of completing the program and you can use that to help boost your earning potential while you continue to pursue your overall goal. Another idea would be to try to arrange your classes to start with a course that will give you the biggest immediate advantage in the marketplace.
So that is one way that you can take the Agile approach to software and apply it to your personal life in the area of education.
Another related concept from Agile is to finish in-progress work before you start something new.
This can be a huge deal for personal productivity because many highly motivated people will start so many great projects that nothing gets finished. What they need to do is stop, prioritize their work to see what will produce the greatest value, and then finish that thing before moving on to the next project. But once again, this concept is driven by the idea of getting your work to the point where you start earning a return from what you’ve invested in it.
Time and time estimation play a big role in all types of project planning. In your experience what are some of the biggest time estimation errors you see companies and individuals make and what advice would you give to help these people correct their errors? How can people better estimate the amount of time it takes to complete a task? Why is proper time estimation important?
The biggest problem I see most organizations make when it comes to estimating is the amount of time they spend estimating. And the reason they spend way to much time estimating is because they are dealing with chunks of work that are so large that it is just basically a guess. Spending large amount of time on guessing just isn’t productive. The solution is to find a smaller portion of work that would be valuable and then do that instead. You may still be making something of a guess, but if I guess that something will take 2 days and it takes 2 weeks, I can adjust things going forward. If I guess that a project will take 2 years and I’m not going to be getting the feedback I need to really adjust things as I go. Worse, if I won’t get any value until the end of the 2 years I can’t simply stop once I’ve done the parts that seem valuable. If my estimate is bad and it takes 14 years…well I’ll probably get fired or bankrupt the company before then.
Instead of focusing on estimating how long something will take, it is more important to divide it into smaller chunks that are independently valuable and can be completed in a small amount of time. When my company does development work for startups, usually this amount of time is 4 to 12 hours. When I work with governments and banks, we usually shoot for chunks of valuable features that we think can be completed in 2 to 4 days. When you break down work into units of roughly similar size, the important thing is no longer estimating how long they will take, but ranking them in terms of how valuable they are. If I have 100 units of work that I think will take 2 to 4 days, I can just start with the one that I expect to make me the most money over the next year.
What are the biggest and most noticeable consequences of poor time estimation?
The big risk is that you will keep on throwing money at something that you should give up on and work on something else. Large scale estimates are especially risky.
If I think something will take 4 days and at the end of 2 weeks I’m not even sure if it is possible, I’m in a good position to decide if there is something else I should work on that has a better risk-adjusted rate of return.
If I’m working on something that I think will take 2 years, I will have thrown a lot more money at it before getting to the point where I might start questioning if it is possible. Also the more money I’ve invested in something the harder it is for me to admit I made a mistake and cut my losses and redirect to something else. If you are constantly “betting the farm” you will eventually lose the farm.
I really enjoyed your blog post entitled “getting more done”. In that blog post you mention that there are only two ways to get more done. First, people can spend more time working or they can do more in less time. However, you bring up a really interesting point. You mention that focusing on working more doesn’t scale very well. In that post you say “If you allow 8 hours per day for sleep and eating, you can’t go beyond 16 hours of work per day. If you were able to convert all of your extra time into productive work, you’ll only be twice as productive as the average person who works 8 hours per day.” Therefore, at best you’d be 2X your competition which isn’t that impressive. I’m sure in your career you’ve seen examples of explosive growth (more than 2X) from individuals and companies. What strategies did use create better scaling systems?
As I mentioned earlier, in my career I went from helping one person at a time with their computer to helping hundreds at a time by doing networking. Then I switched to helping thousands at a time by writing software. Now by helping teams be more efficient, my work is leveraged to where I’m doing things that benefit every taxpayer in the United States.
So one way to become more productive is to move into areas where your skill and your work is leveraged so it impacts a larger number of people.
As another example, I was once working with a development team writing some software for the US Treasury. The system we were writing had been estimated at around $50 million in development cost and would require a team of 40 to 50 developers. I helped coach a team of 5 developers and we delivered the software for only $15 million. We did this by ruthlessly focusing on being efficient in the way we were creating the code and developing in a way that gave us rapid feedback. Many of the government systems required 6 to 12 weeks of testing to prove that a change hadn’t created unintended side effects, so new code is only deployed once every 6 months or so. On this project we made a huge investment in automated testing and the return on that investment was the ability to prove that the software did what was required in 20 to 30 minutes. One seemingly trivial change that we released in a week turned out to be worth quite a bit. Our ability to get it into production in a week instead of 6 months was worth $5 million.
The first point from that story was that my ability to be productive was magnified by getting into situations where I was able to leverage my skills to help others create software instead of just creating software myself. Now this was a talented team, so I definitely can’t take credit for all of their development skills, but I was able to help them extend those skills by giving them an environment where they were able to be 7 to 10 times more productive than they would have been on a team taking the government’s traditional approach. If you are looking for ways to scale your productivity, it is going to require finding ways to replicate the things you are good at in other people.
The second point from this story was that we were working on a system that processes $10 billion each year. The value of what I was providing was significantly greater when working on a system at that scale than it would have been on a system that only deals with $1,000 per year. If you want to scale your productivity, you need to be headed toward solving problems that operate on a large scale.
If you are stuck solving problems that have a low value, your only way to scale is to just try to be busier and cram more work into less time. You might be able to make some improvements, but this doesn’t really scale.
The third point from this story is that I was helping the team invest in a system for building high-quality code. I’ve been off the project for several years now, but they are still seeing the benefits from that investment. My work with that team is still producing tens of millions of savings for taxpayers every year. That leverage came from helping the team invest in a system designed to build productivity into the way work would be done for the next few decades.
When it comes to personal productivity, there are investments you can make that will reap benefits over the rest of your life.
You talk about the importance of looking at time as an asset with the possibility of appreciating. You say “when it comes to what you spend your money on you should focus on things that appreciate instead of things that depreciate. For example, if you buy a house for a fair price, it will generally be worth more in 15 years than what you paid for it. If you purchase a sports car, it will generally be worth less. When it comes to how you spend your time, you have to think in the same way.” Some activities produce no lasting benefit while others have lasting benefit. There are obviously countless examples to list here, but let’s focus on time investment as it relates to entrepreneurship. What are three marketing activities that you see have the ability to appreciate in value over time?
a. I feel that the articles I’ve written online have been an appreciating investment. Many years ago a department of the US government was having a background check done on me as part of the process of giving me a security clearance. They had been going through the process of interviewing people who knew me etc. but when they got to the place where they started looking for me on the Internet, I got a call from the person who was managing the process. He said that my results were kind of unusual because they were finding things everywhere about me. They found articles I had written on a blog at Harvard about using Agile for software development. They found essays from Leadership501 on different styles of management, announcements about an online seminar about personal productivity I had done for Intuit, an article I wrote about public/private key encryption, troubleshooting steps for Apache Tomcat, and much much more. His question was how I had done so much in so many different areas. This investment in having a broad online presence has been very useful because it isn’t something that is easy to just churn out overnight. It represents decades of thoughtfully trying to produce things that people will find valuable and tends to create something of a snowball effect. For example, I’m assuming Humanic.tech reached out to me because you found me online.
b. In the past few years I’ve started making a focused effort to produce short training cartoons and videos about Agile since most of my consulting is in that space. These videos have been very valuable to me because they have enabled me to meet people I never would have crossed paths with otherwise. I got an email from someone at Wells Fargo saying they are using the videos as part of their in-house Agile training. I was speaking at a conference and someone from Bloomberg came up and told me that one of my videos was being sent out to all of their employees who work in software development. What seems to make them successful is that I’m trying to focus them on being useful–not on being marketing.
c. The last marketing activity that has been extremely effective for me is writing a book. My first book Productivity is a collection of articles about personal productivity that I wrote as part of blogging at Productivity501.com. My second book Starting Agile is an introduction to using Agile principles for developing software more effectively. I mostly give the Agile book away to clients and attendees at my talks. Some people invest in fancy business cards. I invest in giving people a book to remember me by.
I was recently speaking at a conference and had some books left over after my talk. I was chatting with one of the organizers and she mentioned that there was a group of people who might like my book, so I gave her the ones I had left and she went and handed them out. A few hours later I was talking to someone fairly well known in the region. He didn’t really know me and I was mostly asking him about what type or work he did. While we were talking 3 or 4 people came by with copies of my book, noticed that I was the real live version of the picture on the back, and asked for an autograph. As we finished up our conversation and he walked away I heard him say to himself, “I need to write a book.”
A reasonable percentage of the people I hand my book out to aren’t going to read it. I wish they would because I think it would really help them with implementing Agile. However, whether they read it or not, it establishes me as an authority in my area of expertise in a way that helps me stand out. Imagine me talking to a new potential client about how I can help their organization. I mention the cartoon training and their face lights up. “That was your video? I saw that when a coworker forwarded it to me!” Then as we wrap up our conversation, I leave them with a copy of my book. These types of interactions create a level of trust that is hard to beat because, while you can try to fake being an expert in something, it is hard to fake getting a co-worker to forward on a valuable video to just the right person who will decide to hire you. It is hard to fake being an expert by writing a book that they can read that helps show them how to approach their problems.
Marketing that gives people something valuable is always going to be dramatically more efficient than trying to convince people you have something valuable simply by telling them it is so.
(I also give people a keycode for a free download of my Agile book from LeanPub if they sign up for my mailing list. Feel free to check it out if you are interested here.)
Prioritization is a big part of effective time management. As you mention on your blog “good time management has an arch enemy. It isn’t interruptions or even procrastination. The big foe to good time management is indecision.” As you mention on your site, planning and prioritization help with indecision. How do you personally approach the prioritization of tasks within a day?
I’m a big fan of forced ranking. The old Franklin Planner approach was to write down everything you think you want to do today, then label them A, B, and C for priority. Then go through and number them in the order you want to do them trying to put lower numbers on the highest priorities.
I recently switched back to using a Franklin Planner, but for collaborative tasks, I really like a tool like Kanbanize, LeanKit, or even just sticky notes on a wall that can be reordered to make sure they reflect our current understanding of priority. When you are physically moving a note up and down and deciding if it is more or less important than every other note, it is hard to get any better clarity as to what is important.
Lastly, what is the best book about time, or time management you have read to date?
I would have to say that the novel The Goal is the book I most recommend. It is about optimizing the flow in a factory, but it is entirely relevant to the way we think about getting things done in every area of life. If you don’t have the time to read the novel, there is a graphic novel version as well that quite well done. You will have to dig below the surface to see how the lessons from the factory floor apply to your work, but I’ve never found an area where they don’t apply. I’d also recommend my book on Productivity: Making the Difference.
Thank you greatly for taking the time to chat with our blog readers today Mark. This has been a truly insightful interview. There are a many actioanable takeaways in your responses above. To our audience, if you’d like to learn more about Mark and the work he does you can follow him on Twitter or head over to his website here.
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