Friday, October 17, 2003

How to Get Things Done

by Asim Jalis

Here is a technique for getting things done, that I have been using for some time now. Here are the main elements: 1. Physical Exercise. I know this seems irrelevant to getting things done, but it has this effect of making me extremely proactive, and not passive. When I tell my brain or my body to do something it just does it. In my passive state it analyzes and perceives and postpones action, which is disastrous for getting things done. 2. 30-Minute Tasks. Here are the main points of this approach: (a) I break the work day down into 30-minute chunks. I am now in the 8:00 to 8:30 chunk. I keep them in phase with the hours of the day to keep the arithmetic easy. (b) I work on a task for 25 minutes and then take a 5 minute break in which I walk around the building and reflect on what I did and what I am going to do next. (c) Every 30 minutes I switch tasks. Usually I have 3 or 4 different things I am working on and I cycle through them every 2 hours. At the end of the day I have put about 2 hours into each task. (d) I know all the arguments against task-switching. Context switching is expensive. You don't get into flow. Etc. These are all valid. Task-switching still works because there are other things it enables which more than compensate for the costs. 3. Here are the things task switching enables: (a) It allows you to do 4 things at the same time. If you get too engaged with one task then you will only get one thing done at the end of the day. Frequently, it is important to get more than one thing done. (b) It allows the subconscious mind to work on the tasks. I frequently come up with my best solutions after disengagement. It lets me step back and prevents me from getting stuck in a rut. This happens to me so often that I believe that by task-switching I actually solve problems faster than if I stay engaged. (c) It forces me to nibble at tasks and take on things that I can do in 25 minutes or less. I am forced to work faster, to cut corners. This way I get done. Later I can put more sessions into a task to improve the quality if I am not satisfied with it. This approach forces me to iterate. (d) It allows me to get into new or unpleasant tasks. I don't want to do bills today. But I don't mind spending 25 minutes on bills. That's a hard deadline. At the end of the 25 minutes I force myself to stop. (e) It prevents me from getting engaged in tasks that can easily consume the whole day. For example, It is now 8:12. I know I must wrap up this thought in about 13 minutes. 4. There might be other tweaks and variations on this that make it work even better. 5. In graduate school I used to work in 45 minute chunks with 15 minute breaks. This worked really well because I was usually working on at most 2 tasks at once. But now that I have to juggle 4, 5 or more tasks at once, I have split up the time into smaller chunks. 6. An interesting experiment would be to split it up even further, into 10 minute chunks with 5 minutes break. 7. The main reason this works is because disengagement allows the unconscious mind to solve the problem. It allows me to look at the problem in a new way. It allows me to see serendipitous connections and to have insights. If you have experienced this then this will immediately make sense. Otherwise it will seem like a ridiculous way to work. The context-switching will look really wasteful.