Self Regulation

From the 2007 Archives Productivity #INTROSPECTION 20 Comments

Lately I’ve been feeling that there are a LOT of things that I should be doing, and I’ve tried stepping-up the number of tasks I’ve been taking on at the same time. However, I’m sad t report, the net result has been a feeling of being scatterbrained as I leap clumsily from project to project. “A hah! I just need to make leaps that are EASIER for me!” I told myself, and thus began a series of experiments to find the optimum timeslice for my multi-tasking. This is the period of time that I can get the most work done before switching.

I’ve come to the realization that it’s not so much the duration of the timeslice that’s important—it’s avoiding distractions from other thoughts. Othe surface, the distractions seem at least equally as important compared to the task at hand. For example, I may remember that I need to remind a client to prepare some materials for a deadline. Or, someone will call me and we’ll have a brief but important conversation, from which spawn multiple other tasks. Then of course there’s the daily blog maintainance, ideas for interesting products, and social obligations. The result: I end up multitasking between my main task, and a myriad of subtasks. This is not good.

Coping with Multitasking

Multitasking, as Joel Spolsky and Kathy Sierra have postulated, tend to have a detrimental effect on efficiency. Joel uses a computational task switching model borrowed from computer science, while Kathy uses a more intuitive / zen approach that’s centered around mindfulness. While I can understand what they’re saying intellectually, in my case it’s coping with the pressures to everything done ASAP that’s the problem. The easiest thing to do to cope with a distraction is to let yourself be distracted; it’s an immediate release of the itchy thought. It’s sooooo easy to let yourself be distracted, rationalizing the action as being “responsive to the client”, or “proactive in anticipating a project need”, or “taking the opportunity as it became available.” These are actual values, too, that are valued by people in general. The result, though, is that you spend a lot of time spinning plates and not a lot of time stacking them into usable piles of results.

In a traditional producer / production model, like what you might find in an interactive agency, there are people who handle the interaction between people (producers / account managers) and the people who focus on getting things done (designers and developers). As a freelancer, I have to take on both roles. I’m not even including the new business mode, strategic development, and accounting modes I have to put myself into.

I’ve probably made this more difficult because I’m trying to apply this production model to myself. It is time that I put some hard rules in place to maintain my sanity, though I don’t like any of them:

  • Say No.
  • Be unavailable while you are working
  • Take the work only when you have time to do it
  • Work one one thing at a time until it’s done
  • Accept that variability in production time is unavoidable at this stage
  • Don’t take opportunities as they arise, no matter how tempting they are, until you finish what you’re doing

Each of these principles, if I put them into practice, will likely result in me getting more work done. Each of these principles also violates my sense of customer service, but perhaps I’m looking at it the wrong way. While I’d love to be able to say yes to every project that comes my way, meticulously estimate how long things take, and be able to jump on every opportunity that sashays by, it’s something I may not be able to do at this stage. I feel that I should be able to, but I may be deluding myself.

There are three ways to increase my “output per time-unit”:

  1. I could increase my processing power (hiring people, get smarter or more experienced)
  2. I could focus on higher yield tasks (the Printable CEO™-related forms fall in this category)
  3. I could focus my energy on one task at a time, gaining the productivity yields as Kathy and Joel have mentioned.

I have, to now, tried to implement 1 and 2.

  • As far as increasing processing power, I’ve gotten a little smarter and more experienced, and I’m starting to find people to work with. However, until I am able to manage myself better, adding additional people isn’t likely to help, and there’s a limit to how fast I can get get as a single person. This is, I’m realizing, something of a dead end at the moment.

  • As far as focusing just on the higher yield tasks, this is also impossible because of the number of hats I have to wear. I can perhaps focus on the the benefit-generating tasks more, but there are still many many tasks that have to get done anway. This is what you’d call “overhead” in a business; administration, non-billable business development hours, research, and so on. I actually need to regulate the amount of time I’m spending on this.

  • As far as focusing my energy, this is something that’s been tough. With the multitasking going on, focus is fleeting. I could do some time-shifting so the administrative tasks are in the morning, and I reset to do production at night (bi-phasic sleep, for example). However, a new constraint is the desire to maintain a healthy social life with people in the area, so I’m finding that I’m swinging back toward the 9-5 hours. Learning to be focused in that time period is going to be important.

So it’s time to accept my limits. I’m not a superman, darn it. But I can find out what I am doing, and accept that doing that one thing well is perfectly fine. And sometimes, it’s going take me more time than I would like, and maybe that’s OK too.

Focusing on Personal Benchmarking

So how much can I do anyway? Up to now, I’ve been thinking of myself as a “company of one”, but I haven’t actually defined what that means in raw production numbers. The truth is that I’m a single person trying to get a lot of work done, and while I’m up front about that with my clients, I haven’t been realistic with myself with regards to how quickly I can work. I wish I could maintain an extremely rapid pace of development, but I actually don’t know how fast is fast. It’s time to re-benchmark myself and see how long it REALLY takes me to do things under real-life working conditions, and stop worrying about everyone else.

When you benchmark a computer system to determine how much processing power it has, you generally test one subsystem at a time, and then the system as a whole. If I wanted to find out how long it takes me to build a website, then by Jove I need to be focusing just on that. If I haven’t built a particular type of website before, then the process is going to take longer and I should consider that an initial timing pass. And you know what? I shouldn’t worry about how long it’s going to take. It’s going to take time that I wish it didn’t. That’s going to be the baseline, and hopefully the next run through will be possible.

Focusing on Self Regulation

Just the other day I was catching up on Senia – Positive Psychology Blog and came across these fascinating ideas:

Self-regulation is your personality process to exert control over your thoughts, feelings, and actions.

and

[...] if you do ANYTHING that requires self-regulation, then that makes it EASIER for you to have self-regulation in EVERYTHING.

This is promising. This means if I focus on a single task at a time, I’m not only exercising my “self regulation” muscle, but I’m also building strength for focus on all areas of my life. That’s very encouraging. As I mentioned before, I am feeling that there are many things going on, almost all positive, that needs addressing now! I don’t feel good that they’re not getting done. However, I can take some comfort knowing that if I focus on just getting one of them done, it may pay off for all of them. In other words, by focusing on one thing, I am addressing all of them. It’s a tricky perspective, but I like tricks. The difference is that getting that one thing done is not a trick.

I should pick one thing to focus on for self-regulation habit building, and I think it will be reducing the delay between thought and action. If I think an “I should be doing…” thought, I should immediately move into “do” mode and blot out all other inputs as much as possible, for at least one or two hours. That will be quite a trick if I can do that.

So what am I saying?

  1. There are limits to what I can accomplish in a given amount of time.
  2. So find out just how fast I am through personal benchmarking, and don’t worry about how fast other people are.
  3. Focus on doing one thing at a time, because I’ll get a more accurate picture of how long that one thing takes.
  4. Purposefully regulate myself. This covers both mindful execution of the single task at a time, and in accepting distractions, new tasks, and new goals.
  5. In picking a habit to practice regulating, I will focus on reduce the delay between thought and action.

The image that came to mind as I typed that up was that I was architecting my own continuity as an entity with its own desires and goals. Right now, my continuity is determined largely by what others would like me to do. The combination of Groundhog Day Resolutions and this insight is one that I’ll be thinking and acting on this week.

My gut feeling is that this is going to be really hard for me to do, so we’ll see how it goes. Even a partial success would be quite illuminating.