/ Management

0% Productivity Tip #1

How you can get the most uselessness out of your day!

I quit my job. There were many reasons for doing so, but gridlock due to poor processes was a big one. Before I quit, I started listing out habits we had as a company that caused the greatest harm in regards to getting work done. I call this my "0% Productivity" list, otherwise knows as "How you can get the most uselessness out of your day".

From this list, I hope to build out details for each item and really explain what I mean by them. I don’t mean to burn bridges with my previous employer or call anyone out by name. We all have habits that slow each other down and the best way to overcome them is to speak honestly and openly about ways to improve.

So far I have 19 ideas, and it may be that since I’m no longer at my previous workplace, I’ve lost my muse, so to say. But I think we all struggle with productivity, so there’s always room to improve. Therefore, there’s always room for more blog posts.

To start things off, I want to talk about my first bad habit. From a list of 19, it was hard to chose just one to talk about, especially the first one to talk about. I chose this one because it’s something we can all be caught doing. It’s not specific to a certain company or certain person. Therefore I think it’s a good start that hopefully we can all relate to.

Tip #1: Treat work in a Last in, First out queue

So what does it mean to treat work like a Last in, First out stack? Programmers may be familiar with this phrase, but for those of you who aren’t, let me give a simple example to show what I mean.

Imagine you have stack of pancakes next to a cook whose churning out a pancake every minute. Your goal is to eat as many pancakes as you can. Now, it takes you an average of 90 seconds to eat a pancake. Obviously it’s a losing battle, as for every two pancakes you eat, three more are
made.

Our work is often like this. We have this big stack of todo items that never seems to get smaller. And that’s fine in it’s own way. Work takes time and were never going to get to do everything we want to (or everything everyone else wants us to do).

The key to this game is not about eating all the pancakes, but eating as many as you can. I use that wording for a specific purpose. My previous employer was a huge company, and work came at me from all directions. There was simply no way to fulfill the requests of 90 different teams in the 40+ hours a week I had to work. Instead, I had to prioritize my todo list so that I got the most important things done that I could, and left the rest behind.

This worked, except when we started treating everyone’s request as top priority. This caused a terrible loop. Thinking back to the pancake analogy, it’s as if every time I got 2/3rds the way through a pancake, a new pancake was put on the stack and I had to start eating the new one.

After 10 minutes, I’d be left with a stack of partially eaten pancakes. I’ll have done a lot of eating, but I wouldn’t have finished any of my food. This is what I mean by "Last In, First Out" (or
LIFO). The last pancake to be added to the stack is the first pancake to be taken off the stack.

This LIFO process was the way things were with much of my work. I would get halfway done with my last task, a different team would make a new request (usually accompanied by a phone call or IM) and I’d have to switch my work from the old request to the new one. And then usually by the time I was 3/4ths the way done with the new task, I’d get another request and have to stop work on this last one, leaving me with two unfinished tasks.

Now not all tasks were big, and sometimes I’d finish something before new work came in, but I was never able to complete really big items because I was always focused on that "last item in".

To solve this you have to work as a team, even if it’s a team of 90 different teams. People need to respect how you have prioritized your work. They also need to respect that sometimes there’s too much work in the queue and an item may not get done. That said, in the end, more work will get done if you allow your teammates and co-workers the freedom to prioritize their work and finish what they’re doing before they get to your request.

Now, all that said, this doesn’t mean that some pancakes shouldn’t take priority over other pancakes. It’s definitely true that there are real emergencies sometimes, and an production outage or defect definitely should interrupt some small feature that is nice but not business critical. But those should be the exceptions.

And next time you’re about to send a request to someone for help, include details about priority (and be honest about those details) and timeline. Can it wait a week before being done? Does it really need to be done right this moment? What happens if it doesn’t get done? You have to trust the other person to put in their best effort, but I guarantee next time you have an urgent item and go to them saying, "I REALLY REALLY need this to get done ASAP", they’re much more likely to take you seriously and will help in any way they can.

And on the other side, if you’re in the spot where you’re constantly being bombarded with work, focus on prioritizing in-progress items over new items. It is fun to switch to new things, especially when you’re having trouble with your current task, but in the end you’re going to end up with a stack of uneaten pancakes. Try prioritizing completing tasks versus starting new ones.

But do make sure you let the new request know how long it may be until their request gets completed. This can be as simple as an e-mail response saying, "Hey, just wanted to let you know that I received your request and have added it to my todo list. I did want to let you know that I’m in the middle of a really important task, so it may be a few days before I can complete anything else. Let me know if this is something urgent and we can find someone who has the time right now to help out."

This lets the person know that their request was received and gives them a rough estimate for when it can be completed. This is important, because a lot of times you personally don’t have to complete every task, and if it’s going to take some time, the person may want to ask someone else who has more availability. There are a lot of benefits that can come from a very simple e-mail. Namely, you get to focus on your current work, and new work disappears from your plate without you doing anything.