Out of Overload

A Guide for Technical Managers

Chapter 6
Working Cycles

Daily Cycles
Daily Tasks

A Perfect World

Discipline
No Effort
Desire

Most likely, you have different levels of energy during the day. At times youíre sharp and focused; at other times youíre thoughtful; and sometimes youíre flat tired. Similarly, tasks vary in intensity level. Some chores are dead boring; others require intense concentration; and others have a relaxed pace.

If you can match your tasks with your energy level, your ability to produce results will skyrocket. The large gains come from eliminating mismatches -- those times when your mind just doesnít seem to engage.

Daily Cycles

The first step towards optimizing your activities involves identifying your personal cycles. List your daily attention and concentration levels. The following descriptions are common, but feel free to add your own variations.

Common daily cycles descriptions:

- Good concentration.
- Need a break.
- Need to stretch.
- Need exercise.
- Like to socialize.
- Starting to tire, medium concentration.
- Very tired.

Next, list out your daily schedule by the hour and match your cycles to the times.

For example:

8 - 9:00 - Good concentration.
9 - 10:00 - Good concentration.
10 - 11:00 - Good concentration.
11 - 12:00 - Need to stretch.

12 - 1:00 - Need a break.

- Need exercise.
1 - 2:00 - Medium concentration.
2 - 3:00 - Good concentration.
3 - 4:00 - Good concentration.
4 - 5:00 - Starting to tire, medium concentration.
- Like to socialize.
- Need to stretch.

5 - 6:00 - Like to exercise.
7 - 8:00 - Medium concentration.
8 - 9:00 - Medium concentration.
9 - 10:00 - Starting to tire, medium concentration.
10 - 11:00 - Tired.

The above listing points out several periods for concentrated work during the day and a slow down in the evening. This seems like a common profile, although some people donít focus well in the morning but love to work well into the night.

Daily Tasks

Tasks fall into categories based on their focus level.

Again, possible task categories:

- Requires heavy concentration.
- Needs moderate concentration.
- Needs quick action.
- Short, light tasks.
- Involves socializing.
- Requires extended, regular effort.
- Needs vision and foresight.
- Boring, mindless tasks.

For each category, list specific activities from your regular work day.

For example:

Requires heavy concentration:

- New product design.
- Tracking intermittent bugs.

Need moderate concentration:
- Writing documentation.
- Writing code.
- More sensitive e-mail.

Needs quick action:
- Project adjustments.
- Customer issues.

Short, light tasks:
- Filing.
- Responding to e-mail.
- Filling out misc. forms.

Involves socializing:
- Project status and coordination.
- Answering questions.
- Training.

Requires extended, regular effort:
- Learning new database tools.

Needs vision and foresight:
- Product planning.
- Implementation/training.
- Strategic issues.

Boring, mindless tasks:
- Answering some e-mail.

A Perfect World

In a perfect world, the tasks would automatically fit into their matching spots, and you'd work at your highest efficiency. That may well be possible in the long term, after youíve had a chance to train the rest of the organization to your schedule. More likely, youíll find it difficult to change your colleagueís habits.

Not only will others resist your changes, but youíre in overload and donít have much leeway in moving your schedule around. In fact, fitting the right task to the perfect time of day may seem impossible. There are too many intervening factors; too many things already up in the air; and too many habits set in place.

Donít worry. There are alternatives to wholesale change. Letís say, for example, you have ten types of tasks you would like to rearrange in your daily cycle. From that list, pick two that are important. If you could do these two better and easier, life would improve.

Ignore the others, and work the top two into your day. If a particular event disrupts your task, find a way to eliminate it.

For example:

Anne wanted to handle her method for answering questions differently. Right now people would stop by throughout the day, and it destroyed most concentration times. She decided to make the rounds at 8:45.

The morning rounds seemed to help, but there were still too many afternoon interruptions. Anne added a 3:45 round. To her surprise, her drop-in traffic disappeared (down from 20 in the morning to 1). In addition, it seemed like issues were being surfaced earlier, and as a group, they were more proactive.

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Lou had 14 designs to review and needed undisturbed time. He figured the door was his key to concentration periods. Resisting the urge to shut it for the whole day, he closed the door for two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon. In the beginning there were some interruptions, but once the staff got a feel for how long it was shut, they seemed to adjust. Lou let his annoyance show through if someone did push through the closed door.

-----

Tony stopped doing any administration paperwork until 4:00.

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Linda realized she was efficient in the early evening. She reserved two hours for study of the new operating system calls, rain or shine.

If two items are too many, focus on one concentration task.

On Taking Action

Shifting your tasks to fit the best time requires you to take action. That in itself is not always easy. Knowing you should do something is different than actually doing it.

For that reason, itís worth turning to psychology for insight. Motivation theory and behavior modification boils down to the following common sense terms.

Stated simply, people take action for three reasons:

1. Theyíre disciplined.
2. It takes no effort.
3. They have a desire.

Each of these has both benefits and a negative side.

For example:

1. Discipline will push you through the hard times, but itís difficult to maintain.

2. No Effort is...well, effortless, but it can be overlooked. (Thatís a pretty weak negative.)

3. Desire is a real force, but itís easy to lose sight of your visions in the midst of day-to-day chaos.

Finding the best way to stir yourself to action may well determine the success of your efforts.

1. Discipline

The traditional path to change requires discipline. Itís the old "no pain, no gain" system. Getting up at 4:30 every morning to train for the swim team, or changing eating habits after years of following the same diet are examples. They would take discipline.

Discipline is the act of forcing yourself to overcome an urge to take another path of action. It requires strength of will to resolve the conflict between options. It might be whether to get up when the alarm rings, or get another half hour of sleep; it might be whether to watch the ball game, or finish the chapter on inverse matrices. Discipline is the personal act of will that carries you through less than pleasant acts.

Typically, discipline comes from a mix of training, commitment, and desire. It would be easy to say: "Make a commitment to these methods and show some discipline. Just do it." Unfortunately, the "strength of will path" offers a high risk of failure. If you have a bad week and your emotional strength is low, your resolve may slip. When you rely on discipline to pull you through, your chances of success drop.

For example:

Tony passed the donut shop every morning. Since it was before eight, there were plenty of seats. Their coffee was excellent, and the cinnamon donuts were exactly the way he liked. Two donuts and a medium coffee was the perfect amount. For the last three weeks, Tony resisted and walked by the shop.

So far Tonyís discipline was holding, but it was on precarious ground.

2. No Effort

When something requires no effort, you can just do it. If there is a leaf on the car hood, you just brush it off; if a pencil fell out of the jar, you just put it back. There is always some step you can take that requires no effort.

The effort needed for a given action can change depending on the circumstance. Letís say you had left your pencil on the other side of the room. Now that would take some effort -- to get up, go over, and pick it up. But if you picked it up the next time you came into the office, that would be no effort.

Taking advantage of No Effort involves altering your target actions to eliminate effort.

It becomes a matter of shaping situations into actions that arenít difficult. Making something into No Effort is nothing but a big setup. Itís a trick. The goal is to break difficult tasks into segments that can happen naturally.

Getting up at 4:30 AM to swim laps is a strain. However, if you went to sleep at 8:00, youíd be tossing and turning at 4:00. By 4:30 youíd be happy to get out of bed. It may be that turning in at 8:00 has its own set of difficulties, but it shows there is nothing inherently difficult about getting up at 4:30. Most hard-to-do tasks are not difficult in themselves, itís a matter of how you structure them.

For example:

Lou hated filing. So he worked out these steps. He would place the to-be-filed info in a neat pile. That didnít bother him. It was no effort. Sometime during the early afternoon he would place empty file folders nearby. At four oíclock Lou would take one item from the stack and put it in a file. He could handle one item. That was no effort. With one done, he could stop at any time. He usually kept going for 10 minutes.

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Anne wanted to get some early morning studying done, but hated getting out of the warm bed. She cleared away all the other issues and focused on her desire not to be cold. Anne purchased a fleece winter ski liner with pants, jacket, and hat. Within seconds after getting up, she was cooking in her pile of fleece. It was perfect. Getting up became a simple matter of having enough sleep, which was much easier for her to regulate.

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Tony knew that he should avoid the donut shop. He figured that changing his route wouldn't take much effort. His plan involved turning off a block before the shop. The new block was lined with clothing and book stores, and a jacket sale or a display for the latest best seller usually caught his attention. Tony collected a few new sweaters, but he stopped thinking about the donuts. It was no effort.

3. Desire

The ideal is to be driven by an urge that you canít resist. This type of motivation gives you that bounce out of bed each morning. With the right desire, projects engulf you, and every chore deepens the embrace. If you encounter this enthusiasm, capture it the best you can. Remember the point of view and the vision. With luck, you can ride the energy for years.

These visions are dulled by overload and daily conflicts, but there is hope. Pull yourself out of overload, and the old thrill can return.

Ride desire whenever you can. Use discipline if you must. And make everything else effortless. That is the path to action.


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