At this moment, at the beginning of the year, I have eight active big rock projects. The following attributes define these projects:
- I am the primary owner and have committed to someone that they will be done at a specific time.
- I am the correct owner of this project. There is no obvious better owner.
- Completing the project will involve many hours or days of focused time where I need to stare at a screen, think, use tools, and produce one or more useful artifacts.
- These projects need to be completed urgently.
I bounced from work a little early before the holidays to tackle one big rock project. It was the development of a headcount plan for 2017 along with a supported budget forecast. The work is familiar, I’ve done it many times. This big rock had been on my list for over a month regularly getting pushed each day I couldn’t find time to make progress. With the relative quiet of the holidays, I told myself, “Headcount and budget. Tuesday morning. I’ll make coffee and knock it out before Noon. Two hours. Three tops.”
I started on schedule in the comfort of the Cave, coffee in hand, fired up the necessary spreadsheets, and eleven hours later I was done. Eleven hours. Aside from a small amount of unexpected side research, and a couple of brief breaks, I was heads-down productively crunching numbers for 10+ hours with the benefit of having a crew of talented humans answering my endless questions throughout the day.
Eleven hours. I wasn’t even close with my original estimate, and this is work I’ve done multiple times before. When I shipped off my completed artifacts in the evening, I reminded myself my original plan was to do this big rock at work. I asked myself, “Given the interruptions, meetings, and other corporate curveballs in the office, how long would this big rock have taken?”
My honest answer was an alarming: I would not have finished.
The Illusion of Productivity
I change my productivity system every year or so. I’m in my second year of using Asana. What started out as a convenient and productive way to track my work became what every single productivity system has become to me: yet another inbox.
At some threshold which is entirely dependent on your working style, an inbox is no longer a useful tool. You can’t admit this to yourself because that inbox contains important things and that aggregate importance must be nurtured with daily attention. It must be curated with filter rules, tags, and sub-folders. The result of this constant maintenance is a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.
You cross the threshold of inbox usefulness when you begin to mistake the act of managing the importance rather than acting on the importance. Speaking as a human who has crossed this uselessness threshold multiple times, I am prepared to declare that I am 100% done with productivity products. There is a better, simpler, and more productive way.
The Mindset of Busy
Let’s go back to my 11-hour headcount project and the assertion that I wouldn’t have finished the work at work. The truth is that I would’ve finished something resembling a headcount plan, but it would’ve looked nothing like what I produced with focused time. In the half-hour slices of time I would’ve found on my calendar to get the work done, I would’ve played the mental game of, “Ok, what can I get done in the next 30 minutes to make me feel as if I’ve made progress?”
This is the Busy Mindset. It is a mindset burdened with a packed scheduled and a long set of tasks, each with a deadline that sure felt reasonable when I committed to them two weeks ago. The Busy Mindset creates a sense of accomplishment by doing the bare minimum to complete a thing. Small or large, important or not, the thing being completed – crossed off the list – is the goal.
There are a great many managers who exist entirely within the Busy Mindset. They tell themselves this state of eternal busy is what a manager does. They’ve convinced themselves that they are leading by example and being seen as busy means the team will better appreciate and internalize the value of busy.
The perceived velocity achieved by being busy is a lie. Velocity is a vector. It is a combination of speed and a given direction provided by strategy. The rapid completion of small tasks might give you speed, but it is a well-defined direction that will give you efficiency, value, and impact. Who cares how quickly you are getting work done if it’s not the right work?
Productivity systems (and most inboxes) weaponize busy. They are designed with as many knobs and dials necessary to provide you with a sense of progression when often all you’ve done is wasted thirty minutes that you could have been spent building.
The Builder’s Mindset
I wrote about the The Builder’s High in early 2014. I talked of the cascading chemical awesomeness provided by your brain when you begin the act of building. Your brain wants to be in this state. It’s designed to be in this state.
When I went back and looked at the work I completed in those 11 hours, I was confused by where all the time went. I had only built two spreadsheets and written a short introductory piece about how to interpret those spreadsheets. The irony is that my original three-hour estimate to get this work done correctly accounted for building two spreadsheets. My estimate was right for just building the final product, but that estimate didn’t account for all the essential pre-work of wandering, researching, and other pre-work activities.
It’s a Silicon Valley joke that you triple all estimates from engineers, but it’s no joke. In fact, it works for any human who provides an estimate for a complex task where any or all of the following conditions are met:
- They have not thought through the complexity of the work. This unseen complexity is often only discovered by starting the work.
- They want to be seen as a team player and helpful, so they give their already under-informed gut feeling estimate a further haircut.
- They want to do this work. It will advance their career. Another haircut.
My headcount and budget project involved a half-dozen warm-up spreadsheets to help me understand what happened in 2016 regarding hiring. There were the development and iteration of models to help me forecast what might happen in 2017. Those models needed to be debugged and tested.
The final simplicity of the two spreadsheets and the clarity of guidance on how to use those tools was the result of asking and answering thousands of small questions for myself, finding and cleaning the data, and ultimately designing a tool useful not only for me, but anyone who wanted to understand our headcount and budget plans. You know, another three hours and it would’ve been really good.
Building quality things of substance takes time.
There is never enough time; you are greatly outnumbered by chaotic, beautiful snowflakes, and there is too much to do and too much to know. This is the status quo of management, and without a clear counter-investment in building, you are going to get lost in the busy.
I have a proposal.
You Get One Thing
Here’s what we’re going to do:
- We’re throwing away your current productivity system.
- We’re going to build a minimalist no-fuss to-do list that can have only ten little rock items on it, and,
- We’re carving off a chunk of dedicated time each week because you only get to work on one big rock a week. One.
This system is not for everyone. This system will be more useful to manager-types who have a deep sense of productivity doom. If you keep asking at the end of the day, “What did I do today?” this system might work. If you aggressively keep your to-do list tidy and regularly updated, but never feel like you’re ahead, I might be able to help.
Please note: This is going to hurt and you are going to get mad at some point. Sorry.
First, you are still going to need a list for your little rock projects, and I highly recommend starting with your favorite text editor. Go through your soon-to-be-obsolete productivity system and write down any small to-dos that you need to remember. These are small projects that you can’t do right now that you need to complete in the next week or two.
You only get ten little rocks on this list. Yeah, 10.
Most of you are like me and have way more than ten items on their list. Like 5x more? Some of those are very important, which means you’ve tagged them IMPORTANT and highlighted them in RED. You have ignored the fact that that this IMPORTANT RED thing has been deferred for two weeks. It is neither important nor red. It exists here because it costs you absolutely nothing to add a thing to your to-do list.
“I can do it! I just need more time!” is the rallying cry of a new manager trying to dig themselves out of a productivity hole. Yes, you can stay late or work weekends, but creating more hours is fixing the wrong part of the equation. You, the leader, signed up for too much and that’s either bad judgment or a lack of strategy. Your time is a finite resource, and unless you value that time correctly, you’re going to invest it poorly.
By constraining the list to 10 little rocks, I am asking you to make hard trade-off decisions regarding what you can and can’t do within a finite list of items. When the list is five times the size, this prioritization is an impossible task because you can’t keep relative priority of 49 other items in your head.
But Rands, that’s why I have this tagging system. I filter by tag first and then I…
Stop stop stop. You are one human being with finite time who can only complete one thing at a time. Your time is immensely precious, and these ten items likely represent at least a week’s work and do not account for the fact that who knows what is going to change in the next 24 hours. Ten items. That’s it.
If you’re having trouble getting to ten, I have suggestions:
- Who can you delegate this to? Yes, there is a good chance the person you delegate this task will have a different take on it. They might only half-do the task, but both of these scenarios is better than no progress at all.
- How long has this been on your list? More than two weeks? There is no way this is urgent. Drop it. Delete it. It’ll come back, I promise. (This is hard.)
- If this is a task someone else is waiting for, what would happen if you told them tomorrow, “I can’t do this.” If you can’t predict their response, why not just say it to see what data you find?
I had my fair share of angst as I was culling my list, but in the weeks that I’ve been using this system I’ve realized how many systems surround me that remind me of tasks and commitments. Two inboxes (work and personal), weekly 1:1 meetings with my staff, agenda for all meetings, and every single document where I am listed as an owner of a task.
A natural and usually healthy byproduct of a group of humans working together is process and a defining characteristic of process is to make sure everything knows what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and who is doing what. It turns out there are inboxes everywhere.
Big Rock Projects
With the little rocks culled from your former productivity system, we are left with the big rock projects. These are not to-dos, but large and complex projects like “Fix marketing.” These items don’t belong here because of the size and complexity. They are buckets of tasks unto themselves. As we learned at the beginning of this piece, I currently have eight of these beasts on my plate.
For the big rock projects, you need to apply the same critical analysis that you performed on the small rocks: can I delegate? How long has it been around? Is it important? Once you’ve done that, here’s the power move: you only get to actively work on one of these a week. There are two major consequences with this approach:
First, for every big rock project that isn’t “the one,” you need to stack rank prioritize the order that you’re going to attack the remaining projects. Next, you need to realign any expectations with external parties regarding those remaining rocks For example, if each of those eight big rock projects on my plate takes a week, the last one on my prioritized list is getting very little attention for at least two months. Pro tip: The act of telling humans your new priorities might reveal new data that will trigger big rock reprioritization.
Second, each week you need to carve off at least five hours to work on this big rock project with sessions no smaller than one hour. This is on your calendar protected time that you can’t reschedule. It’s as important as your 1:1s and your staff meeting. You are going to love this.
An Antidote for Busy
The mindset that emerges from long quiet swaths of vacation is one removed from constant interruptions, endless meetings, cluttered noisy inboxes, and that human who just needs a minute of your time. It is a mindset capable of deeply considered thought, digesting complexity, and building strategy. There are humans who are capable of keeping this mindset while busy, but I am not one of those humans.
However, my job is full of interruptions. I work hard to attend the right meetings and make sure they are valuable for everyone. I am a leader, so I have minutes for everyone. I do not have time for busy, I see little value in being busy, and I most certainly don’t want my team to believe that a busy lifestyle is aspirational.
A common question I get is, should managers still code? A better question is, should managers still build? “Yes”. It doesn’t need to be code and it can happen entirely through the delegation to others, but every manager should have work on their plate that involves long periods of thinking as a daily antidote for busy. We need to be reminded of the healthy mindset that accompanies the act of building.
There’s a valid argument that I’ve just replaced one productivity system with another, but let’s do the math. If we assume that the act of scrubbing your simple little rock list takes an hour for the entire week and that you run with my five hours per week big rock project schedule, then we’re talking six hours per week. That’s 15% of your week devoted to big rock and to-do triage. You’ve still got 85% of your week to fill with little rocks and… whatever it is you do all day.
Think of it like this. Assume the average big rock task takes a week. That seems fair? Some will be longer, others will be shorter. If we carve off two weeks for holidays and assume you complete 80% of your tasks, that means 40 big rock projects came to completion in the next year. Is that more or less big rock projects than what you completed last year? Your answer, like mine, is, “I don’t know, but I was sure busy.”
One big rock project at a time and 10 little rock projects. That’s it. Of course, there is more you need to do, but don’t worry because there are people and inboxes everywhere that are going to remind you of this work. Meanwhile, this approach gives you the gift of focus and it is only when you focus that you truly build.