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Published on November 13, 2017

Setting Deadlines Can Push You to Work Harder, but Not Smarter

Setting Deadlines Can Push You to Work Harder, but Not Smarter

When you start your workday, you may welcome the tasks that arise to fill your time. Work comes to you with no rhyme or reason, but you do it. You tackle things as they come, and you turn everything in by the deadline.

It may seem that you’re successful because you turn in your work on time. The problem is, you don’t know how to effectively plan for a day’s work.

Most people live and die by deadlines

Time is an important factor to consider when you’re completing tasks. Many of us chase deadlines or knock out the easiest tasks first to feel a sense of accomplishment. Sometimes, we spend too long on some tasks, and scramble to do everything else.

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    You may have 10 working hours in a given day, and it’s your job to do as much work as possible in that time. It’s easy to work all day and accomplish very little.

    You have to be intentional about priorities. If you only worry about filling time slots and meeting deadlines, you may neglect more important, high-value tasks.

    But living by deadlines gets you into trouble

    Humans are terrible at guessing how long it takes to complete projects. Guessing is even more challenging when we are developing something new. We’re not machines, and our day-to-day outputs don’t tend to fit into neat algorithms. When we estimate completion date on a project, we don’t take into account the non-project related work that creeps into our schedules. Those emails, meetings, and team member commitments that crop up at the last minute cost time.

    We often associate dates and days with certain emotions. For example, do you find yourself as productive on Friday afternoon as you are on Tuesday? Relative estimation of when you’ll complete a task doesn’t take into consideration how feelings affect work.

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    To top it off, you can give several teams the same task, and they’ll all complete them in a slightly different time frame. Their velocity on work turnaround, calculated in points, will vary along with their time frame. Setting arbitrary times for finishing work makes it impossible to use velocity as a selling point in your team’s effectiveness unless your team performs significantly better than your competitors.

    How to make guesses more accurate

    Instead of relying on deadlines and dates to stay productive, you can take a more objective approach. The management technique known as scrum can help you accomplish this. In the book Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, the Scrum technique allows you to produce better estimates for planning timelines by using a system of points instead of units of time.

    When you’re working to solve complex problems, there are usually several teams involved. It’s impossible to guess how long it will take to complete a project on your own or communicate your team’s needs to other groups. Your role in a project may require little effort, but the teams around you may have to expend considerable effort for their part. You need the input of every team involved to arrive at a reasonable estimation.

    Use story points

    The most productive teams have switched from setting deadlines to deciding how long tasks will take based on a process known as scrum or agile estimation. They use story points (the input of various teams involved) to understand the relative difficulty of each task.[1]

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    Workers rate the degree of difficulty using a Fibonacci-sequence: 0, 0.5, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20. This abstraction pushes the team to make tougher decisions around the difficulty of work.

    They assign numeric value to their respective portion, and play “planning poker.” In planning poker, workers hold up a number that they think represents the level of difficulty for that project.

    Make sure everyone’s on the same page

    When all parties agree about the numbers in planning poker, they know that they are all on the same page about the timeline. If the numbers differ, the teams must discuss how everyone reached their numbers.

    Sometimes, we have no idea what obstacles other teams face. This method opens a dialogue about what it will take to actualize a project. Differing opinions in the difficulty of a project can address whether everyone is working on the same scale.

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    Don’t complicate the points

    It’s best to set an upper limit of 20 story points when you are trying to make a project less complicated. Anything greater than that needs to be broken into smaller attainable steps. Breaking tasks down into smaller steps keeps teams from becoming overwhelmed.

    Hindsight is 20/20

    When you’re trying to give an accurate estimation for how long a project will take, don’t forget to think about past experience. If you’ve done similar jobs, consider how long they took to complete and what pitfalls you experienced. Think about the number of story points that particular aspects cost.

    The more data you can refer back to, the closer you’ll be to landing an accurate estimate. Besides, you may be able to improve on previous methods so that you can complete your work more efficiently.

    Stop being a slave for deadline

    Setting a deadline based on how long you think the task will take can leave you scrambling or turning in substandard work. There’s no reason for you to work harder when you could be working smarter.

    By thinking about your work in the abstract story points system instead of time, you’ll be able to communicate your needs and understand the needs of others much more clearly. You’ll know when you need to break tasks into smaller steps, and you’ll have a more efficient way of thinking about past experiences with similar projects.

    To learn more about effectively planning your next project, read Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time.

    Reference

    More by this author

    Leon Ho

    Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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    Published on July 17, 2018

    How Productive People Compartmentalize Time to Get the Most Done

    How Productive People Compartmentalize Time to Get the Most Done

    I’ve never believed people are born productive or organized. Being organized and productive is a choice.

    You choose to keep your stuff organized or you don’t. You choose to get on with your work and ignore distractions or you don’t.

    But one skill very productive people appear to have that is not a choice is the ability to compartmentalize. And that takes skill and practice.

    What is compartmentalization

    To compartmentalize means you have the ability to shut out all distractions and other work except for the work in front of you. Nothing gets past your barriers.

    In psychology, compartmentalization is a defence mechanism our brains use to shut out traumatic events. We close down all thoughts about the traumatic event. This can lead to serious mental-health problems such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) if not dealt with properly.

    However, compartmentalization can be used in positive ways to help us become more productive and allow us to focus on the things that are important to us.

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    Robin Sharma, the renowned leadership coach, calls it his Tight Bubble of Total Focus Strategy. This is where he shuts out all distractions, turns off his phone and goes to a quiet place where no one will disturb him and does the work he wants to focus on. He allows nothing to come between himself and the work he is working on and prides himself on being almost uncontactable.

    Others call it deep work. When I want to focus on a specific piece of work, I turn everything off, turn on my favourite music podcast The Anjunadeep Edition (soft, eclectic electronic music) and focus on the content I intend to work on. It works, and it allows me to get massive amounts of content produced every week.

    The main point about compartmentalization is that no matter what else is going on in your life — you could be going through a difficult time in your relationships, your business could be sinking into bankruptcy or you just had a fight with your colleague; you can shut those things out of your mind and focus totally on the work that needs doing.

    Your mind sees things as separate rooms with closable doors, so you can enter a mental room, close the door and have complete focus on whatever it is you want to focus on. Your mind does not wander.

    Being able to achieve this state can seriously boost your productivity. You get a lot more quality work done and you find you have a lot more time to do the things you want to do. It is a skill worth mastering for the benefits it will bring you.

    How to develop the skill of compartmentalization

    The simplest way to develop this skill is to use your calendar.

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    Your calendar is the most powerful tool you have in your productivity toolbox. It allows you to block time out, and it can focus you on the work that needs doing.

    My calendar allows me to block time out so I can remove everything else out of my mind to focus on one thing. When I have scheduled time for writing, I know what I want to write about and I sit down and my mind completely focuses on the writing.

    Nothing comes between me, my thoughts and the keyboard. I am in my writing compartment and that is where I want to be. Anything going on around me, such as a problem with a student, a difficulty with an area of my business or an argument with my wife is blocked out.

    Understand that sometimes there’s nothing you can do about an issue

    One of the ways to do this is to understand there are times when there is nothing you can do about an issue or an area of your life. For example, if I have a student with a problem, unless I am able to communicate with that student at that specific time, there is nothing I can do about it.

    If I can help the student, I would schedule a meeting with the student to help them. But between now and the scheduled meeting there is nothing I can do. So, I block it out.

    The meeting is scheduled on my calendar and I will be there. Until then, there is nothing I can do about it.

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    Ask yourself the question “Is there anything I can do about it right now?”

    This is a very powerful way to help you compartmentalize these issues.

    If there is, focus all your attention on it to the exclusion of everything else until you have a workable solution. If not, then block it out, schedule time when you can do something about it and move on to the next piece of work you need to work on.

    Being able to compartmentalize helps with productivity in another way. It reduces the amount of time you spend worrying.

    Worrying about something is a huge waste of energy that never solves anything. Being able to block out issues you cannot deal with stops you from worrying about things and allows you to focus on the things you can do something about.

    Reframe the problem as a question

    Reframing the problem as a question such as “what do I have to do to solve this problem?” takes your mind away from a worried state into a solution state, where you begin searching for solutions.

    One of the reasons David Allen’s Getting Things Done book has endured is because it focuses on contexts. This is a form of compartmentalization where you only do work you can work on.

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    For instance, if a piece of work needs a computer, you would only look at the work when you were in front of a computer. If you were driving, you cannot do that work, so you would not be looking at it.

    Choose one thing to focus on

    To get better at compartmentalizing, look around your environment and seek out places where you can do specific types of work.

    Taking your dog for a walk could be the time you focus solely on solving project problems, commuting to and from work could be the time you spend reading and developing your skills and the time between 10 am and 12 pm could be the time you spend on the phone sorting out client issues.

    Once you make the decision about when and where you will do the different types of work, make it stick. Schedule it. Once it becomes a habit, you are well on your way to using the power of compartmentalization to become more productive.

    Comparmentalization saves you stress

    Compartmentalization is a skill that gives you time to deal with issues and work to the exclusion of all other distractions.

    This means you get more work done in less time and this allows you to spend more time with the people you want to spend more time with, doing the things you want to spend more time doing.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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