Getting Stuff Done - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity



Personal Finance

Getting Stuff Done


Some people seem to get lots of things done. Others struggle to accomplish anything.

Of course some of this is raw competence. If, say, you don't know anything about auto mechanics, it's going to take you a long time to fix your car, if you get it done at all. This kind of competence depends on the specific area you're working on. You could be the greatest auto mechanic in the world and that won't help you much if the task is to cook shrimp scampi. But there are also some general principles to getting things done. For example:

Don't complain, do

When you run into a problem, work on solving the problem instead of just whining about it. Maybe this sounds obvious when I say it, but I've seen many occasions where someone runs into some obstacle and instead of doing anything to solve it, they just cry about it.

I often see this with schedules. Someone will be assigned a task and given a certain amount of time to do it. They then complain that this isn't enough time. Instead of digging in and working hard trying to get it done, they waste time complaining to the boss that that isn't enough time, complaining to co-workers that they were given this task without enough time, and calling their friends to complain they were given a job without enough time.

Or for a different kind of example, once I shared an office with another employee who was a manager. One day he called a woman into his office to assign her her next job task: Write a user manual for a new software product that the company had developed. He gave her a copy of the program to play with, some notes that the programmers had written, and the names and phone numbers of the programmers to call with any questions. The next day she came back and said that the task was impossible: There wasn't enough information in the notes to write the user manual. The boss said, yes, I know. If we already had a complete user manual, we wouldn't be asking you to write one. Take the information in the notes. Play with the software and try to figure things out. When you get stuck, call the programmers. She left. She came back again the next day to again say that it was impossible because the notes were incomplete. At that point the boss gave up and assigned someone else to do it. (And by the way, he then tasked her with editing some other document that had already been written. She flatly refused, saying, "I'm not a scretary". After she left, the boss said to me, "So every job is either too hard or beneath her dignity.")

When I was a little boy, I remember many times when my mother would give me some chore to do, and I would whine and complain that it was too hard and it wasn't fair that I had to do this and so on. I recall many times that after a while of me complaining my mother would say, "If you had just done it instead of complaining, you'd be finished now."

Perhaps I should make clear: There are times when you have a problem that your boss or the client or someone else could solve or help you solve. Like if you say, "In order to do this job, it would be very helpful if I had the manufacturing requirements planning files, but my account doesn't give me access to those files." If you talked to your boss maybe he could quickly give you access to the files. There's a difference between whining about problems instead of solving them, and asking for reasonable help when you need it.

Set priorities

Don't get distracted by lower priority tasks.

Many people fall into this trap: They need to accomplish high priority task X. They start working on X and then low priority task Y comes to their attention. So they stop working on X and start working on Y. Then they don't get X done on time because they wasted time working on Y.

This often happens because they see the other task and they say to themselves, Is this a good and valuable thing to do? If the answer is yes, they do it. But that's the wrong question. The right question is, Is this the most important thing for me to work on right now? Do you see the difference? The other job may well be worth doing ... but not right now. It can wait.

Let me give an example from my personal life. Picking on my wife, namely. I think I'll get away with it because she probably won't ever read this. My wife has a real problem getting to events or appointments on time. She takes too long getting ready. One big reason why she takes too long getting ready is because she is easily distracted by other tasks. For example, one Sunday morning we were going to church. I told her we had to leave in an hour. She complained that this wasn't enough time for her to get ready. I said something about trying to move quickly. Then ten minutes later she was washing dishes. I asked her why she was spending time washing dishes when she had just complained that she didn't have enough time to get ready to go to church. She said, "What do you want me to do? Never wash dishes?" I said, "No, but the dishes could wait until we get home this afternoon." She ignored me and finished washing the dishes. A few minutes later I saw she was re-arranging boxes of food in the cabinets. I didn't even bother to say anything as it would only result in an argument. Was organizing the cabinets a good and useful thing to do? Maybe so. Was it something she should do at that moment, when she was supposedly rushing to get ready to get to church on time? No.

Don't spend more time on a task than it's worth

Some tasks are essentially open-ended. You could keep working on them indefinitely. You have to judge when you have spent enough time and you should now just stop.

I'll use my wife as the example again. She regularly takes literally half an hour to an hour to wash her face. I haven't done a scientific study on this, but I'd guess most people take maybe 2 or 3 minutes. Does she get her face cleaner by working on it for 30 minutes than someone does who only works on it for 5 minutes? Maybe so. But is it worth the effort? No. As with many jobs, it's a matter of dimishing returns. Suppose you have 100 units of dirt or gunk on your face. In two minutes you can remove about 90 units. Another 2 or 3 minutes and you can remove another 5 units. After than you're spending several minutes per unit. Is it better to remove 99 units than 90? Yes. Is it worth spending an additional half hour? No.

And before someone says it ... Yes, there are times when your face is super dirty and it might take half an hour to clean it. Like if you were just working on an oil rig and you are covered in oil, grease, and grime. There may be times when an extra level of cleanliness is worth the effort. Like if you are about to perform surgery. (But surgeons do not normally spend half an hour washing before they perform surgery, so even that example is questionable.)

Some tasks are repetitive, so you can say, I've reached the limit of the time this task is worth. I should now just stop. Other tasks are more linear and you can't just quit in the middle. Life if you're changing the oil on a car, you can't just say, Okay, I've spent enough time on this, and stop before you've put clean oil in. For such linear tasks, if you're taking too long, you have to figure out what part of the task is taking too long and why. It's more complicated. But the same principle applies. If you're taking 4 hours to change the oil in a car, you're doing something wrong.

© 2024 by Jay Johansen


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