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Working Smarter, Not Harder

I have always been fond of the phrase 'work smarter, not harder', so I enjoyed my recent read of the book Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency by Tom DeMarco. The main premise of the book is that being 100% busy (totally efficient) provides no capacity for dealing with change. When change does happen, you will either miss the opportunity it presents, or be forced to react to it, rather than anticipating it. Slack time is necessary in order to deal with change effectively - ideally proactively- instead of in a reactionary mode where you typically are the victim of change rather than the driver. Slack time also provides the opportunity to reflect on your current course of action and make corrections. If you are too busy working harder that you don't take the time to reflect, you may end up taking suboptimal actions because you have no time to think, just do. DeMarco makes the analogy of driving a car: efficient is going as fast as possible, while flexibility / adaptability is ensuring you are going in the right direction. Which would you rather have?

The same concept is discussed in the book First Things First by Stephen Covey, which I highly recommend reading. In First Things First tasks are classified according to two dimensions: importance and urgency. Covey says that we should spend our time on the important tasks before addressing the unimportant. This seems obvious, but he explains that the natural tendency is to address the urgent tasks, whether or not they are important, which leaves one with no time for the non-urgent yet important tasks. Part of the difficulty is determining which tasks are truly important: this is aided by having a clear set of goals.

Of course, thinking about goals and the importance of tasks takes time. And if you are 100% busy with urgent tasks (i.e. always fighting fires), then you probably feel like you can't afford to spend this time. In reality, if you are that busy, then you can't afford to not do this, or else you risk never completing some (all?) of the important tasks. I view the time spent thinking about goals, objectives and task importance as a planning component of time management. Planning is usually considered a management activity, and everyone needs to manage their time. So if you aren't doing any planning at all of how you spend your time, it probably is not well managed.

I think that the points DeMarco and Covey make mesh together quite well. You need to regularly review and update your goals and objectives based on changing circumstances, both internally (i.e. completing some objectives) and externally (i.e. new technology, new competitors, new market). You also need to reflect on your work - the importance of your tasks, how you work, and improvements that can be made. However, I really don't like calling this slack time - I consider it an integral part of professional software development.

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6 Comments on “Working Smarter, Not Harder”

  1. Brian Vandegriend says:

    While I find that “First Things First” is a great book for the high-level principles of time managment, “Getting Things Done” by David Allen presents more a useful guide for personal organization – i.e. how to handle multiple projects with large amounts of information, how to increase productivity by getting all the loose ends out of your mind and onto paper, etc. This is a must read book in my opinion for all professionals.

  2. Thanks for the book suggestion. I’ll add it to my reading list and check it out.

  3. Dwayne says:

    It always amuses me how little of this type of skill is taught in school. It seems like every generation/crop of professionals is expected to learn it on their own. The “tyranny of the urgent” is a time-management issue going back seemingly forever, yet its not taught, except perhaps implicitly via workload. Same goes for controlling your response to modern (in)conveniences, such as e-mail and cell-phones, which have a false urgency all their own.

    You should also check out Gerald Weinberg’s writings on the cost of task-switching. If I recall correctly, trying to switch among even 3 tasks makes you lose 40% of your productivity, and the loss goes up more-or-less exponentially with the number of tasks.

  4. Matt Morgan says:

    ‘First Things First’ is about personal leadership. ‘Getting Things Done’ is about personal management. If you think about the whole schema of Covey’s 7 Habits, ‘First Things First’ is habit three. Getting Things Done falls within this ‘habit’ as a rubber-hits-the-road management tool once you have your priorities.

  5. Thanks for the great book suggestion. I’m just in the process of finishing to read his other book Peopleware which is also very good.

    Stephane Grenier

  6. Yes, I’ve read Peopleware as well – it is quite good.

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