Parkinson’s Law: Work expands to fill the time available

The book that I have read for the month of Jun is “How to be a Productivity Ninja” by Graham Allcott. I borrowed this book from the National Library (had to reserve it because it was that popular) after reading some bits of it in Popular Bookshop. I borrowed it last night and read throughout the night. Today, whenever I have breaks during the course, I read it too. I just completed it after reading the last bit at home. I also drew two mind maps!

But the main point of this post isn’t about the book. Rather, it is about this interesting concept which I have learnt from the book. It’s called the Parkinson’s Law and it goes like this: “Work expands to fill the time available”. When I read about this concept, I recognised it instantly because it is true for me. There are certain tasks which could be completed in X number of hours. Yet because I had Y hours to do it, I took my time, got distracted in the middle, and I only completed those tasks in Y hours.

It was a serious waste of time and productivity.

When we know our deadline is not today, but next week, we will tend to procrastinate and take our time to do it. Soon, we have spent too much time on this single task and only manage to hand it up on the deadline and not before.

It is interesting to note that the human mind is a lazy one and will seek to be distracted when you give it opportunities to. Linking it to the concepts I read in “Thinking Fast and Slow”, I realised that this is because the brain does not need to work much when we engage in activities that distract us easily (like Facebook, Twitter, replying messages etc) as opposed to activities that require much thinking and effort to pay attention to.

Looking back on myself, I realised that there were many times which I took my time to do certain things because I didn’t like doing it, whereas for activities that I enjoy doing or see the purpose and hence develop passion for, I find it easier to complete those tasks in a single sitting. The effort for both tasks are the same, yet for the ones I dread, I take many times longer. I could have done it faster and used the remaining time on other task, yet I didn’t because the rest of the tasks weren’t urgent. Yet by the time I completed the original task, these tasks then become urgent and require immediate attention.

As a result, I constantly feel tired and overwhelmed to the point I feel as though I have burnt out.

But need it be like this? No!

The lessons from the book could help me escape this, but I need time to try those out and see how effective it is. Will write another post on it if it is effective. There are a couple of concepts which I had already known but did not diligently do though; these concepts are from David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology. The Productivity Ninja book also gave me an awareness of the Pomodoro concept, which is to have 25 minutes of focused do-time, followed by 5 minutes of rest. I shall explore it and give my verdict in the future. Stay tuned!

Clarity

Clarity is the solution to many problems in a young graduate’s work life. Before a graduate starts work, he is involved mainly in academics. In a day, an undergraduate will have much free time to do as he pleases, to relax and recharge before going for the next lesson. When a young graduate transits to work, this free time would be suddenly robbed from him and there isn’t any time to sort out your thoughts. You just have to continue doing the work that you require to be done.

We get inundated with work and things pile up. Nobody taught us how to deal with these growing piles or to manage this sudden spike in intensity. We lose sight of the things we need to get done and a vicious cycle develops. Because we couldn’t clear the work on time, we end up with having more work and again less times to sort out this growing mess. Less time to prioritise means the wrong things get cleared and the important things become more urgent. And more work piles up and less focus and so on and so forth.

The solution to this entire issue is simple, but not easy. The word is “Clarity”. I’ve searched for “Clarity” throughout the 3 years that I have started working. There are much material online that teaches you various ways of achieving the required focus. Heck, I even bought a book called “Clarity” which I thought would teach me how to become focused. Yet the same book ended up confusing me as it was more of being aware of how we perceive things rather than how to actively sort things out.

I’ve managed to achieve “Clarity” on good days but on bad ones I lose sight again. It isn’t difficult to achieve clarity; it is difficult to sustain it. However, on the days that I manage to get clarity, I end up having an extremely productive day. On days which I lose clarity, I get negative, I feel overwhelmed and I end up thinking, FML.

But what is Clarity.

Clarity is:

  1. Being aware of all the things you need to do
  2. Being in control

There are different ways that one might use to achieve clarity, and the same method might not work for all. Hence, the purpose of writing is merely to share and encourage others to try it. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, well that’s one less method to do.

I manage my clarity through a combination of several mechanisms, but all of which have the same purpose: to be aware of the things I need to do. Here are the things that I do to keep my clarity; I will not go into much depth because that might be a post for another day.

  1. Managing my “Baskets”. These are not physical baskets but metaphorical ones. I have baskets where I store my to-do lists and the basket serves to group the task by projects. Some examples include “Things to Research”, “Safety” (because I am the Safety Officer), “Mess” (because of my role in the mess) etc. With these baskets, I know what I need to do.
  2. Managing my “Inbox”. The email inbox can be a daunting mountain to climb. I get an average of 50 emails a day. To fight the email inbox, I try to apply certain techniques (which coincidentally, another blogger had described here) to move through my emails. There are certain things that do not require attention, and there are some which requires more attention. I sort them out into “baskets” based on urgency and at the same time, write them in my project “baskets”. Things that require less than 2 minutes, I do them immediately and for those that require more time, it is off into the sorting hat they go. We have to make it a point to have 0 mail at the end of the day. It is do-able, we just have to believe in it. Things that are good to note for information, I scribble them into a big notebook full of interesting tidbits that help me recall what tasks were done previously but not yet closed.
  3. Making use of the Trusty Moleskine. I just got my first Moleskine, but previously I was using a notebook from Typo. Whatever works. My personal preference are notebooks that open fully at each page, so both Moleskine and Typo filled the job. I learnt a technique from the internet which I use for my Moleskine. I divide the notebook into segments. You must have at least 2 segments: Tasklist and Scribbles. Tasklist are to account for your baskets and scribbles are what you write in meetings, in short, notes. At the end of the day, the tasks that arise from notes must be transferred to the Tasklist. To manage the scribbles, you can paginate each page. This helps when you have scribbles of the same nature but are not running consecutively as perhaps, another meeting took up that page in between. You can then put “transferred to page 5” for example. Yes, if you read correctly, I have two notebooks (point 2 and point 3).
  4. Doing Reviews. Reviewing all the things you have written on a periodic basis is important. Your mind cannot remember everything; that is why you wrote them down. If you didn’t review them, you wouldn’t know what you forgot. Reviewing makes you remember what you need to do. There are 2 reviews that we should do, one on a weekly basis and one on a daily basis. The weekly basis review is to consolidate what has been done or what has to be done to give you an overview. The daily review enables you to plan your day. I use a 1-3-5 method to be discussed in another post.

Now, it does seem like a lot of work to be done for clarity. Doesn’t it contribute to more work? Yes it does, but the productivity gained from clarity would offset it. You don’t need much time for review. A 10 minute period each day to look through your task list would help. What you have to take note is to diligently fill up your baskets and review them so you can lessen the tasks listed inside.

Try it and you will see. It worked for me; it might work for you. What is the more difficult thing is to sustain these actions. Personally, I have yet to find a solution to sustaining this effort. If you know of any solutions, share it with me.

How unnecessary anger destroys your professional image

I had an urge to write about this due to an experience I had this morning. I wanted to write because this comes from the viewpoint of an employee and how an employee feels. In addition, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about setting organisational culture and that culture also helps you retain your people aside from monetary and other welfare benefits.

I was required to send an information dissemination email out to certain groups of people, except that this group was too big and I wasn’t sure of the structure of other business entities. As such, I was advised by a superior to pursue it from a top-down approach, and direct the information to the bosses instead and have the bosses decide whom that information should be sent to.

In the next morning after I sent the mail, I received a phone call from one of the bosses whom I have never seen before or interacted with. The first thing that came over was “Am I a mailbox to you?” And he continued with a barrage of questions designed to hint of my incompetence and how he shouldn’t be doing my job for me. All I could do was apologise and tell him that I will sort it out myself. He hung up the phone without an additional word.

The incident left me feeling unnerved and hugely affected. It was a good morning and he ruined it. I tried hard to control my emotions so other people would not realise and I hoped I would not accidentally ruin other people’s mornings as well.

But what made me upset was that I wasn’t incompetent. I could have tried searching for the relevant personnel on the address book, but that might mean that some would not have gotten the necessary information. In addition, I didn’t have a real chance of explaining myself and I felt wronged.

In the field of Neuro-linguistic Programming, one of the presuppositions that we learn is “The Map is not the Territory”. What it means is, our visual representations of the world around us might not be the reality of what has happened. Briefly speaking, what the boss interpret of my actions was different from what I sought to do. I did not seek to look incompetent; I was advised to approach it this way.

However, I realised that it is too late to repair the damage. I’m not talking about the damage of my reputation in the boss’s eye. Rather, the damage of his representation in my mind. I will only be able to see him as someone who called me over the phone to give me a good scolding without finding out the reasons why I did what I did. The relationship is strained, and I have yet to meet the guy in person. I don’t even know how he looks like!

And I think it is really sad that someone you do not know holds such an image of you. Such torn relationships can never be easily mended, and your impression in the eyes of your subordinates will stay bad for some time. All you will appear to be is someone who didn’t care for others, whose ego is bigger than his compassion; someone who was rude.

The question is, why would we want to end up like this? If we did not assume, and approach the person in a different way, we might even gain some respect. For example, calling the person up and telling him “I will help you disseminate the information, but perhaps in the future you can do it this way…”. The subordinate would feel grateful for the advice and your help. He would have respect for you even if the both of you have not met.

Look at the vast difference..feelings of positivity vs negativity.

Also, let it be known that positive emotions are the building blocks of high performing teams. As we seek to become more productive and do more with less, you need all the high performing teams that you can get.

That said, I am also suddenly aware that my own actions can have the same consequences towards my subordinates. It has also given me more control over things I might choose to say and I can effect changes I want to see in the organisation through my sphere of influence. So thank you, that particular boss, for ruining my perfect morning.

Learning More When I Was Younger; Should Have

When I was younger, I sat in the back of the passenger car watching the world go by. There were trees, buildings, schools, clouds and many other fascinating things. Now, I drive and all I see is the road in front of me. Occasionally, I look through the rearview mirror and I can see the car right behind me. Compared to the good old days, the viewpoint sure isn’t much.

And I am quite convinced that this is the kind of life that we are leading once we start work. The analogy was used to point out how we know better now that we should have appreciate the times in the past more as we have lost the time to enjoy the scenery. But really, I thought, if only I could have learnt more when I was younger, or paid more attention to specific subjects.

Before I entered my workplace proper, there was a period of training. Those days were fun where life was good and all we had to do was study. When we started working, you realise that there will be a pile of work for you to do, on the assumption that you knew what you were taught. However we soon know that all we did remember was the awareness that such a topic exists, and we have to re-learn everything again, and on our own time, no less.

But we could have just paid more attention right at the beginning so that we remember more and hence spend less time training for what we should have learnt from the past. The time spent could be used to tackle the future or preparing for what is to come.

I hope that people who are on their training courses would gain some insight from this post and place more emphasis so as to not make the mistakes that I did. In future I might blog more about how to learn better and focus more..but that’s a post for another day.

Spirit of Competition

Recently at my workplace we had an inaugural competition among the various operational squadrons as a way to test our proficiency. Being the maintenance team, my colleagues and I were split to join the operational squadrons which we work for. At the beginning, it feels as though the competition was a distraction from the work that we have to do. We are already so busy, yet there is a competition to distract us. As per usual, once we reserve our judgement, we actually found out that it was better than expected.

Mid-way into the competition, the camaraderie built up between my maintenance team and the operational squadron. We worked together for a common goal and accepted responsibility for the outcome of the tests that we had to undertake. It was fun to see everyone work hard together and the joy we had when we learnt that we were consistently ranked second and hence was in the running for the champions.

At the same time, I was delighted to see that my team felt disappointed in losing certain categories of the competition which we were responsible for (we got 2nd). I saw the personal pride in my team and every member actually owns the competition instead of labeling it as someone else’s responsibility to win it. This ownership is commendable and wouldn’t be brought out under normal circumstance. In the spirit of competition lies the desire to improve and excel. This is what will make future competitions even more exciting and bring up our capabilities.

In the end we got 2nd. All of us were disappointed I guess, especially when we heard we lost by a narrow margin. However, there was no finger pointing. Everyone was in the team and as a team. Instead, each party took it upon themselves that they could have done better and thus win the championship. I feel extremely proud to be in this team where everyone is responsible and have a good fighting spirit.

On the other hand, there were comments (disclaimer: hearsay) from other units that the competition mechanism was “kelong” and that since they are organising it next year, they will structure it to win it. I put a disclaimer because I did not hear it myself, but I chose to talk about this as I wanted to talk about the words as a whole and not put blame on any party. In any competition, there will definitely be teams who lose. However, what matters is to lose graciously. Somehow, at every competition, there will be sore losers who blame others instead of themselves. They are living in denial. For starters, competition rules have been set and agreed upon by all parties, so we should respect that.

People who live by blaming themselves before others will tend to find success. This is because they recognise their fault in any matter and hence will take active steps to change themselves for the better. People who blame the system will continue their path as they do not see where they have gone wrong. It is the system’s fault and not their own, hence there is no requirement to change what they have been doing.

This is termed as living “at effect” as opposed to living “at cause” which refers to accepting responsibility for our results. This is one of the things I have learnt from an NLP book that I was reading for my April book.

Are you living “at effect” or “at cause”?