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Managing Your Life Projects

Surprise! You’re Making Dinner Tonight

by Johanna Rothman

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  The same techniques that make you effective on the job can save you time at home and enrich your daily life.  

I’ll bet that at some time on a job you’ve been told you need to “do more with less.” Or to “work smarter, not harder.” Or—one that irritates me no end—“be more productive.”

Well, I don’t try to be less productive! In fact, over the years I’ve learned a few things about how I work, and how to be as effective as I can be. And while it’s no fun being told to be more productive, there is a lot of satisfaction in learning techniques to help yourself do more with less, work smarter, and be more productive.

But you don’t have to leave your productivity insights behind when you get up from the keyboard. As you’ll see, the tips I’ll share here are just as useful in tasks I perform outside of my profession, saving me time and even making the tasks more fun. I hope you’ll find that they make your life a little more productive and more enjoyable, too.

Know What You Have to Do

Here’s a simple rule that, consistently applied, saves me all sorts of grief. I write everything down that I have to do. All of it. On a list. Just that. I may use cards or stickies to get started, but I make sure everything is one place. As you collect it, merge everything into one list. That’s one list. Having everything in one place is necessary—not several todo lists, several backlogs, several stickies. Just as an agile project can have only one product backlog, you need one todo list.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. If you’re one of those people whose todo list is longer than both arms and legs, don’t worry. Just start writing things down, all in one place. When you’re done writing things down, for the moment, stop. If you remember something later—dentist appointments are always the thing I forget to write down—add it then, when you remember it.

You Can’t Multitask

You can’t multitask. You think you can, you think you do, but really, you can’t. Handle one project at a time. Forget the idea of multitasking on several projects at once. You can’t do it. At least, you can’t work on several projects and still be effective. You can, however, have several tasks in service for one project. The smaller those tasks are, the easier it is to finish one and decide which piece of work to pick up next. The key is finishing a piece of work before you move to another piece of work. You can’t multitask.

This is why you need that one list. Once you know what you have to do, you can select one project to work on.

For example, if you make dinner, you have one project: get all the food on the table at the appropriate temperature at the same time. If you make chicken, rice, a salad, and green beans, you will have to start and stop the different tasks to make sure that what you end up with is dinner and not dining disaster. However, if you have a large enough kitchen and several people on your dinner team, you can assign each a piece of the project, and start each individual task depending on how long it will take.

Although I claim you’re not multitasking, each member of the team will probably have to handle several small tasks, focusing on one task until that task is done enough. For example, the chicken has to be cooked for longer than the the other parts of the meal. That means Daughter #1 can start and finish the “prep the chicken and stick it in the oven” task, even though that doesn’t mean she’s finished cooking the chicken. She may have some basting to do later, but she can do that between making the salad, setting the table, and maybe even buying flowers for the centerpiece. The key is to start and finish a small piece of work before you move to another piece.

Work Until You Get to a Wait State

Once you have these small chunks of work, you’re able to work on one of them until you get to a wait state. Sometimes, that means you have to rethink how small a chunk you’re working on.

In the dinner example, if you want to have a salad of lettuce, red cabbage, black olives, artichoke hearts, celery stalks, sliced tomatoes, carrots, and cucumbers, Daughter #2 has a lot of cutting ahead of her. Instead, if you have very small tasks such as:

  • Get all veggies for salad out of the refrigerator

  • Get all cans for salad out of the pantry

  • Cut cucumbers, integrate

  • Cut lettuce, integrate

  • Cut red cabbage, integrate

  • Cut celery, integrate

  • ...

I started doing this when my children were very young, because we had predictable nightly crises while I was trying to cook dinner. With small tasks, it was easy to know where I was. Later, when the children were older, I could put these practices into play as I put the children to work. And whether or not the predictable crisis materializes, I have much more predictability in how long I will need to finish making the salad.

Back to your dinner prep: If you do have other people available to help make the salad, you can ask for help. I’ll ask, “Patty, can you cut the cucumbers? Sue, can you cut the red cabbage? Don, can you chop the celery?” As each person finishes his or her tasks, it’s easy to see what tasks are left. If Patty, Sue, or Don has time to do more, she or he can.

Working until you get to a wait state requires very small atomic tasks. The task isn’t “make dinner” or even “make salad.” Instead, the task is cutting a particular vegetable and integrating it into the salad. Yes, continuous integration works for salad just as well as for code.

Refactor What to Work On

The nice thing about setting small tasks and completing them is that you get to choose what to work on next. You can scan your list (a la Mark Forster’s Autofocus system), and see which tasks to start—and complete—next.

If you have the chicken cooking away and the salad cut up, you have some choices about the rice, the vegetable, the salad dressing, maybe even dessert. Maybe you’ll take the time to baste the chicken now. But you get to choose. You’ve bought that for yourself.

Other Techniques I Use

You may not have much experience with collecting your work or creating small, atomic tasks. That’s OK. Just use a timebox to practice.

What’s a timebox? It’s this: You say “I’ll work on this task until that specific end time” and then you stop at that time. Timeboxes provide you with a focus and a way to look back at what you’ve been doing to see if you’ve been successful.

Timeboxes can help you succeed with something new where you’re not sure if you really know what you’re doing. They’re also great if you dislike the task you want to complete. Sometimes, if you just commit to it for a timebox, the task is easier to complete, and then it’s off your list. For example, I hate cleaning my office. But every so often, it’s messy enough that I need to reorganize. Because I hate spending time on this task, I timebox it to an hour at a time. Once my time is up, I get to choose again if I want to spend more time on it, or if I’ve had enough. You are always, when it comes to getting the job done, your own boss, because only you can make you do it. You can decide whether to hire yourself by the hour or by the task.

Did That Help?

Here’s a recap of the tips:

  • Collect all your work. Capture all the outstanding work in one place, written down. I prefer list form.

  • Work until you get to a wait state. Create small chunks of work, and complete one of those before you move to another.

  • Create small, atomic, independent tasks. Finish one before you move to another.

  • Use timeboxes to practice new approaches. Learning something new is not easy. It’s easier when you try it for a little while and look back and see how you’ve done.

Do you need to be more productive in life? I’ll bet you do. I know I do. I like knowing that I can be productive and efficient in tasks like cooking dinner, so as to free me up to do other more interesting things, such as reading or ballroom dancing. Or writing. I hope these simple techniques help you as much as they help me.

Jolt Productivity Award-winning author Johanna Rothman helps leaders solve problems and seize opportunities. She consults, speaks, and writes on managing high-technology product development. She enables managers, teams, and organizations to become more effective by applying her pragmatic approaches to the issues of project management, risk management, and people management. Johanna publishes The Pragmatic Manager, a monthly email newsletter and podcast, and writes two blogs: “Managing Product Development” and “Hiring Technical People.” She is the author of several Pragmatic Bookshelf books, including the forthcoming Manage Your Project Portfolio: Increase Your Capacity and Finish More Projects.