Themed Work Weeks: The 21-Day Summary

It’s been 10 days since I last posted an update for the Themed Work Week experiment, which tests the hypothesis that I can be more “sustainably productive” by focusing on a single main project per week instead of “three tasks from three projects” every day.

After 21 days, I’ve gone through three different project theme weeks, and I can report that the experience has been very positive so far, in ways both expected and surprising.

Recap of the past 14 Days: The Work

When evaluating the effectiveness of a new habit or process, I know from experience that it takes at least 3 weeks for me to form an impression of what’s really happening. That’s because the first week is ALWAYS exciting since it’s NEW, and this energizing novelty tends to make the experience rosier because it hasn’t had time to get BORING yet. The first week is good for setting down a methodology to stick to. The second week is when the novelty starts to wear off, and by the third week I’m working with an “average” level of enthusiasm. It’s around this time I can start to draw some conclusions about what’s working, and what is not, though it takes at least six weeks to see what is really worth keeping.

So, let’s look at the first three weeks. For context, let me describe first the work that got done:

  • WEEK 1 was BLOGGING WEEK, and I did get a lot of blogging done. What I didn’t get done was the hard technical stuff that would have helped me launch my website. From this, I drew the conclusion that I should tackle the “hard stuff” earlier in the week so I can build up momentum by mid-week.

  • WEEK 2 was CLIENT WORK WEEK, for a specific client that I’ve been working with for the past several years, largely doing WordPress-related stuff. From the previous week experience, I was itching to do some hard-core development right away, but the week instead was devoted to getting some preliminary design thinking unstuck on a project. I swapped mental hats, trading “programmer” for “information architect / design critic”, and did a lot of thinking and wireframing. By the end of the week, we had made good progress, enough to get unstuck. While no working code was produced, thoughts were captured in wireframe form, and some technical choices were made. As for maintaining the single-project focus: it felt nice to think about the same thing—making a website better—every day, not worrying about other major projects. It almost was too nice, like I was somehow cheating by not feeling stresed out.

  • WEEK 3 was INQUIRIUM WEEK, dedicated to adding capabilities to the interactive activity engine we’re developing for a NSF-funded educational project with a UCLA research team. Summer progress had stalled due to some mis-steps I took on trying to refit new features into an old engine, and my work partner Ben suggested assigning two distraction-free weeks in July and August to get unstuck. It was this that was the initial impetus for trying “themed work weeks” int he first place.
    This project puts me in more of a “software engineering lead” role, and it uses a completely different programming language and environment than the WordPress stuff I do for the other client. This project pushes my abilities to the very limit, so I saw this week as an opportunity to regroup and rethink our development methodology to remain positive.
    Mindful of the lessons of Week 1, I tackled the hard stuff right away, figuring if I could get into the coding mindset by mid-week I would be firmly planted in the zone. It turns out that the “hard stuff” was something else: I needed/required more developer-to-developer collaboration), and on Monday-Tuesday we established a new approach where we were both talking code and code design at the same time. It really seemed to work, and by Wednesday and Thursday things seemed to be well on their way toward a satisfying Friday delivery of new code features. However, Friday morning was the day a software update broke our development toolchain so we couldn’t do any work at all until it was fixed. It took all day. While I found the day frustrating, I also know this kind of thing happens from time to time, so I let go of the negative emotional just got on with my weekend.

Observations

In no particular order, here’s some general observations from the past three weeks:

  • Being productive, I believe, is as much about feeling productive as it is getting things done. My feeling of productivity was, as far as the work was concerned, pretty positive. While I suspect the actual number of “tasks” that got done might have been lower, I was able to get into “the zone” and finish chains of related tasks in the single-project-per-week context. I think these “task chains” mean more to me than just checking tasks off a list. By task chain, I mean a sequence of tasks that provides meaning or resolution to a critical question that has risen while making something. I think the notion of task chains is what’s missing for me in many GTD systems, because the mere act of getting a task off my task list doesn’t excite me, especially if they seem like stupid tasks. An efficient system for dealing with “dumb tasks” is about as appealing to me as becoming a really good toilet technician; I don’t like dealing with poop, no matter how shiny the tubes are.

  • Poop aside, I think there’s also something working about having fewer projects. Early I had tweeted, half-jokingly, that I was procrastinating on just one project instead of three as a comment on so-called “improvement”. As the days rolled by, however, I came to see the seed of truth embedded within the snark: the burden of worrying about multiple projects at once increases my stress. To have the luxury of doing a piece of work without that feeling of being “behind” is really a kind of blessing. This didn’t come for free: I could experience this freedom because I had protected my “alone time” through firm scheduling, ensuring that I would not have two of them per week. Meetings are a huge drainer of energy for me.

  • I was a bit concerned that having a whole week to focus on a single project would not create the sense of urgency to work, as work has the propensity to expand to fill the available allocated time. This did not prove to be the case during the week, and in fact I experience a bit of the OPPOSITE reaction. A by-product of using “theme weeks” is that they induce a strong desire to get something done by Friday in me. It might be because I know it’ll be at least 7 days before I can get back to it, and the thought that I’ve wasted a whole week producing nothing **makes me want to work toward having something to show for it.

  • In comparing my previous “three important tasks a day” with the current “themed weeks” experiment, I can see that there was a major flaw in the former approach. Doing three important tasks in a day, as I implemented it, generally meant doing three tasks from three very different projects. Even the programming projects are quite different, using substantially different languages and development approaches, with completely different applications and intended audiences. I might be able to handle the different languages and development methodology if they were both applied to shipping the SAME product on multiple platforms, but the reality was that I’m not agile enough to handle multiple projects of a high level of complexity very well. The experience is, perhaps, like having to quick-change between vastly different personas, from “drill sergeant” to “kindergarten teacher” to “content strategist” to “diagnostic auto mechanic”, in the space of about 4 hours. It’s too many hats for my head at one time…I’m just not mentally adept enough to do it and not be exhausted. That’s fine…it’s a limit I can work with and try to expand through practice. More heartening is the realization that I do like a variety of work, so the “week-long” project focus might be the way I can manage that variety for myself.

  • An interesting side-effect I’ve noticed is that my weekends have turned into binge consumption sessions, and my theory is that this is because I need to ERASE the imprint of the previous week from my head to clear it. I don’t know what that precisely means, but it describes the impulse to veg-out and binge on media over the weekend. This is the first time that I can recall doing the binge for therapeutic reasons. In the past, the binges seemed to come from the forces of procrastination/avoidance of unpleasant work, not from replenishment. Intriguing.

Sp overall, positive! More weeks of experimentation are called for, and that’s what I’ll continue to do through August 2014.

The Other Things that Got Done

While the “themed work weeks” are ostensibly about reducing the amount of hat-changing I have to do to gain greater productivity, they also addresse the necessity of dealing with non-work demands during the week. I have been more diligent than usual about not over-scheduling my weeks with non-work stuff, but the past two weeks have still been full of “time stealing” unbillable meetings. Let me recap the non-work from past 14 days to give you an idea of what I’m talking about:

Week 2 (Client Week – Information Architecture)

  • Recorded podcast with buddy Sid, followed by post-podcast lunch.
  • Finished dealing with car repairs ($1800) that depleted my living room cafe budget. Bah.
  • Handled the first really negative comment I’ve gotten on the blog in over 7 years of writing, in a principled manner that invites discourse instead of escalating into personal attack.
  • Also related to negative comment, renewed thoughts about the nature of my public writing focus and its audience.
  • Caught up with two friends and their business development adventures.
  • Read Becky Cloonan’s recent self-published book, By Chance or Providence, which was eye-opening as a brilliant piece of graphic storytelling. Gushed about it for a while to my friends.
  • Attended two NPO committee meetings: website/infrastructure and organization culture.

Week 3 (Inquirium Week – Programming)

  • Recorded another podcast, followed by post-podcast lunch.
  • Investigated and fixed broken comments on Sid’s website, also installing a caching plugin.
  • Vacuumed, mopped, and tidied-up the downstairs living area for visiting guests, so they wouldn’t be grossed out.
  • Changed the cat litter in the automatic litter box, a noisome operation.
  • Loaded the car with a huge pile of stuff to take to the nearest Goodwill donation center.
  • Set-up a tabletop photo shooting rig for my friend Teresa’s marketing needs.
  • Redesigning a single-page flyer for Teresa’s book marketing effort at an upcoming convention.
  • Created a webcam recording rig and process for the “UX Stories to Tell in the Dark” video series my friend Kelley is doing. This included recording my contributions.
  • Contemplated Eureka #2: “the meaning of stuff” and its implication for my writing focus, keeping notes in Scrivener.
  • Read part of Neil Gaiman’s DEATH deluxe hardback collection, as part of some character research I am doing on the side.
  • Hosted our regular “Business Dinner Summit”, which entails cleanup and preparing dinner for guests.

Each of these tasks, which took place during the 5-day work week, took at least an hour. I’d say the average was about 90 minutes.

In the past, having this many additional tasks would have stressed me out. I would have felt burdened and behind schedule even if there wasn’t any obligation or deadline. I would have felt resentful, and would have had to remind myself not to be so negative. Every one of those tasks would have weighed on me heavily, and I would move very slowly if I even started them. For the past two weeks, however, I found that meetings, chores, and interactions did NOT generate the same stress. Why? I think it’s because instead of RESTARTING one of several possible project afterwards, I was RESUMING a single project. There is much less energy required to resume. Social interactions tend to drain me of energy, making it more difficult for me to do detailed work. The single project continuity, however, was easier to remember. When I was doing the “three tasks a day” model before before, I would schedule these kind of tasks between other project tasks, which meant that coming back to work after a side activity meant starting from scratch to ramp-up with a new set of activities. That requires much more energy and prep work, and when I’m not in the mood for it after a social interaction, it makes it 10 times harder to start.

Another side effect is that for the first time in quite a while, I felt balanced in my work and personal life. Perhaps what I’ve done is create a workload that is more within my capabilities to self-manage, reducing the amount of “reactive” work I have to do, which I can recognize now thanks to my previous [production to consumption ratio][prc] experiment.

Working Principles

To finish off this post, here’s some helpful methods I’ve used to hold everything together.

  • The ability to replace my reactive, emotional center with a principle-driven mindfulness was extremely helpful when getting unstuck. Until about five years ago, I was ruled by reason, but then I wanted to develop greater empathy through self-knowledge, I gave the decision-making reins to my emotional centers. It’s only recently that I realized that this was a problem when it came to motivations. Now, instead of succumbing to “I don’t want to get up, because work is dumb”, I can just stop listening to it and invoke a principle (it has to be a principle that I believe in) like, “you can get up and do some work for a few minutes, because it’s the right thing to do.” I am somewhat surprised that this even works, but then again I have always chosen principles over emotion when a difficult situation calls for both. What’s new is applying the methodology to my own inner voice; the tendency is for one to believe what their inner voice is telling them, because why would I lie to myself? A little reflection will tell you that it lies, unintentionally, when the negative emotions are the loudest voices talking. Injecting a little principled reason goes a long way to calming things down.

  • Constant writing is a reasonable substitute for having people in the room with me working on the same project, the preferred way I prefer to work on design or do programming. I find that the process of writing (and particularly rewriting) very “sticky” in its ability to hold my focus. Therefore, it is one of my most powerful tools for keeping my attention on a topic. There was a time once when I thought that all the writing I was doing was necessary-but-undesirable overhead, a crutch that I needed to keep my distraction-prone brain from wandering. These past few weeks, though, have led me to regard it as a strenth that no one can take away. All this writing makes me a better thinker, which in turn makes me a better designer and programmer. There is a time, of course, when I have to get out of “writing about” mode and into “doing stuff” mode, and that continues to be a challenge (see “getting unstuck by just starting” below), but in general I’ve been working writing into every aspect of my day. I write thousands of words every day on what I’m doing, and it paradoxically all that writing helps to simplify and sharpen my thoughts. Having these tracks available makes it easier to “resume” a frozen project track, because I can replay my train of thought to establish the important context.

  • Getting unstuck, for me, is bypassing my broken starter. This is a thought that I had during week 2, a eureka moment that gave me the insight was that no matter what the cause was of form my difficulty in starting, what ultimately was broken was just that impulse to start. Rather than heap a lot more emotional soul searching on top of it, I could treat the difficulty as a mechanical problem and work around it. There is no need for recrimination, guilt, or self-loathing…my starter is just defective. By accepting this as a fact of the universe, like there is a sun in the sky and when it rains I will get wet, a lot of the burden of carrying those stuck projects is lightened considerably! As has been suggested to me, there’s the possibility that drug treatments for Adult ADD may have a gainful effect, but if I can beat this with a change in my own attitude and simple time management tricks, that would be ideal.

  • Collecting data is part of my everyday process. I’m curious about how the world works, and how well it works given a particular context. Building on this insight, I’ve found that when there’s something I don’t want to do, I can devise a data collection experiment that gives me renewed energy and focus. For example, if I’m not feeling like dealing with changing the little in the cat box, or processing my paper mail, I can ask myself, “I wonder just how long it will take? Less than 10 minutes?” I like exercising my intuition, so estimating how long activities take or guessing how a process works based on the principles I know about the universe is a kind of game for me. Combine this with the knowledge that I have a broken starter circuit plus a place to write about my findings, and I have a pretty effective substitute starter mechanism! This is Dave-style gamification!

What’s Next?

The week of August 4 through 10 is a weird open week, in which I haven’t defined a particular project focus. I’m not sure what will happen, or if I should even define a focus. I can sense a little anxiety within myself, concerned that I will “blow it” somehow without a focus to cling to, but that’s just the emotional side being fretful. We got this.

So that’s the report so far. I hope it’s been interesting for those of you who are following. It’s certainly been illuminating for me.