Working on the right task and managing energy levels

  Friday, January 1, 2021

Over the last couple of years I’ve often heard that somebody shouldn’t spend time doing X, but rather focus on doing Y. Here I explore three reasons that may explain why people work on the “wrong” tasks.

Time as a limited resource

A mixture of perceived value, time being a limited resource and a persons particular skill set can lead to somebody telling someone that they should rather focus on X instead of Y. People should spend their time on the tasks that have the biggest impact. If you have a lot of experience you should work on the more difficult problems that only you can solve. Leave the easier problems to the people with less experience.

This sounds like a rational train of thought, but it is based on an assumption: That time spent on a task X can be freely exchanged with time spent on task Y. But that is rarely the case. You may be able to walk twenty minutes, but it’s unlikely that you could exchange a twenty minute walk with twenty minutes of non-stop push-ups. (In case you can, kudos to you, you’re 💪)

Time is not the only resource we’ve to manage. We’ve several additional energy bars. Ever felt restless, yet at the same time too tired to do any activity that requires a lot of mental effort? Ever felt physically tired, but still had plenty of energy to solve a puzzle or read a book on a complex topic?

There are many variables that go into the function that determines our productivity. Assuming that time is the only variable is a mistake. Personally, after spending longer periods on challenging tasks - or tasks with little visible outcome - I like doing a simple task. It makes me feel more productive and helps recover my energy levels.

Similar to how athletes do recovery exercises after exhausting training sessions, mental workers need to recover too.

Inspiration and flow

Sometimes you read or see something that triggers you. You start connecting some dots and a picture forms in your mind. A vision of how you could solve a problem that has been in the back of your mind for a while. Do do use this vision, mold it into something concrete to solve a challenging problem, or do you let it pass to work on the problem assigned to you?

We cannot go through life following each and every whim as it occurs. We need to apply some discipline, but sometimes going with the moment and embracing a flow of inspiration is the right thing to do. If you know that you’ll need to solve the problem eventually anyhow, then using the inspiration as it takes hold of you is often more productive than to let it slip by, even if it means that you have to postpone another important task.

You may need to be prepared to explain why you haven’t finished an assigned task, but it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission, especially if you have something else to show for it.

Context switching

Multi-tasking is bad, constant context switching is bad. Over the years there have been many attempts to put a price to a context switch. A 40% productivity loss or 30 minutes lost per switch? There are different numbers floating around.

What’s less often talked about is that not every context switch costs the same. If I have a meeting in twenty minutes, I may not bother to start working on a new feature or to fix a bug, knowing that by the time I’m focused on the subject, I’ll be ripped out again. But I may answer some questions, write replies to some emails or do some other organizational work.

In my experience, the cost of a context switch is related to the mental effort of the task you’re switching to or away from. Because of that, I may answer simple questions, while ignoring more difficult questions. The former doesn’t take my focus away, the latter would disturb me too much.

You cannot always avoid context switching, but you can try to manage them to minimize their impact. You can batch certain kind of tasks. You can set aside “easy to do” things as gap fillers for when you’re waiting for a longish test run to complete. The key part is to try to control the switches, instead of letting interruptions control them for you.

This may result in people working on seemingly less important problems while having some minutes to spare. That’s okay. It is better than suffering from major context switches and getting nothing done.

P.S.: Some people say that anything that follows a “In my experience, …” is worthless. There’s some truth to that. Your mileage may vary.