Making the most of time

Here are some tips for how to use time to your advantage when working on projects.

Time is often the enemy of a project, but I believe that's because most people do a poor job managing their time and effort.  The lessons below are ones I've learned by approaching time management through the lens of cognitive science.  Use them to help you make the most of your time, no matter how big or small the task.

Uninterrupted

To maximize your productivity, you need to avoid all interruptions to your work.  Interruptions cost the time it takes to handle the interruption plus much more.

When you start working on something, it takes a good fifteen minutes to become fully absorbed in that task.  Once you're in that flow, any kind of interruption -- such as talking to someone or checking your email  -- takes you out of that zone.  After you handle the interruption, you lose another good fifteen minutes re-absorbing yourself back into your work.

That's why it's essential to make your work environment as interrupt-free as possible.  Close your email, your IM clients, and your web browsers.  Put on your headphones.  Move into a conference room.  Do whatever it takes to get away -- far away -- from the interruptions and impediments keeping you from concentrating on the work at hand.

Evenly spaced deadlines

The best way to use deadlines is to spread them evenly over time because it maximizes the quality of your effort and likelihood that you'll finish on time.  Committing to any deadline improves your chances of getting a task done on time and done right;  to improve those odds further, give your self several deadlines with regular intervals.

This observation comes from science.  A 2002 study researched the effectiveness of deadlines.  Three groups were asked to complete a task using one of three strategies: use a single end deadline, use three evenly spaced deadlines, or set your own deadlines.  Of the three groups, the evenly spaced deadline group had the fewest delays in completing the task and also submitted the best quality work.

If your project only has a single deadline, break it up into shorter deadlines for yourself.  And if your project is large enough to have several deadlines, spread them out as evenly as possible.  That way you're maximizing your chances to create quality work and hit your deadline.

Impossibly short timeframe

If you want to try something a little bit different, reel in your deadline to a timeframe that you feel is unrealistically short.  The brevity of the timeframe keeps you focused on the essential parts of your work.

Plenty of great works have been created in amazingly short periods of time.  For example, Gershwin wrote Rhapsody in Blue in less than one month.*  Check out the awesomeness of Beck's Record Club; each album is recorded within 24 hours.  Similarly, a friend of mine wrote a 50,000 word novel in 30 days for National Novel Writing Month.

When you work with strict constraints like this, don't expect your effort to be fully polished.  Gershwin finished writing Rhapsody after its first performance; he improvised the piano solo at the premiere.  Beck's recordings are really rough, yet it's the roughness that makes them fun.  Also, my friend's novel needs some editing work :)  You can create great things in a short time; time becomes a healthy constraint on your effort, making you focus on the parts that matter.

In short

Give these a try sometime, especially that last one. Find a task that you can't quite get off the ground, then give yourself an unrealistic deadline for finishing a rough version of it.  Or if you're more of the planner type, set up a project plan with several deadlines along the way.  And always, always remove any distractions that might get in your way.  I bet you'll be amazed at the quality of your output.

*Rhapsody usually takes about fifteen minutes to perform.  My favorite recording of the piece, made in 1927 with Gershwin at the piano, was stripped down to nine minutes so it would fit on a single record (the longest recording medium of the time).  IMO, it sounds much more joyful and lively than the best modern recordings.

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