On valuing your time, Maker’s and manager’s schedules

Time and again, my hate for useless meetings seems to keep on drawing me to Paul Graham’s essay “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule”. (And also, I did tell a friend I’ll go share this link with her). Every time I read it, I couldn’t help but agree to a lot of the things he said. So much so that I find it hard to cite just one particular line to quote here in this post. You really just have to read the whole thing yourself.

To me, this essay is a pretty good reminder of what we should all be doing (just in case I’ve lapsed, and have been setting meetings or following up like there’s no tomorrow), and that is to respect my own time and other people’s time. In doing that, you make a more conscious effort to (well, if i can help it):

  • avoid interrupting or disturbing people unnecessarily
  • express gratitude when someone obliges you with their time
  • be present in meetings where your inputs or feedback are actually needed
  • set up meetings with the implicit target of not wasting people’s time
  • decline meetings I’m pretty sure I won’t be engaged in
  • decline meetings when they’re in conflict of personal commitments — Those are just as important (and sometimes even more) as work commitments
  • honor commitments to yourself — Ages ago, I had to block of time just for my lunch or dinner, and I even missed that because of work. That just isn’t healthy. Also when you block off time to work on something, then use that time to be productive.

Discipline on how you manage your time or own your own calendar starts with one’s self. And how badly your time gets mistreated by others (and even by yourself) highly depends on how much you’d allow it. So for your sake, start respecting and managing your time.

TED Talk: Why work doesn’t happen at work


That’s what happens at the office.You don’t have a workday anymore. You have work moments.It’s like the front door of the office is like a Cuisinart, and you walk in and your day is shredded to bits, because you have 15 minutes here and 30 minutes there, and then something else happens and you’re pulled off your work,and you’ve got to do something else, then you have 20 minutes, then it’s lunch. Then you have something else to do. Then you’ve got 15 minutes, and someone pulls you aside and asks you this question,and before you know it, it’s 5 p.m., and you look back on the day, and you realize that you didn’t get anything done.I mean, we’ve all been through this. We probably went through it yesterday, or the day before, or the day before that. You look back on your day, and you’re like, I got nothing done today. I was at work. I sat at my desk. I used my expensive computer. I used the software they told me to use. I went to these meetings I was asked to go to. I did these conference calls. I did all this stuff. But I didn’t actually do anything. I just did tasks. I didn’t actually get meaningful work done.

And what you find is that, especially with creative people –designers, programmers,writers, engineers,thinkers –that people really need long stretches of uninterrupted time to get something done. You cannot ask somebody to be creative in 15 minutes and really think about a problem. You might have a quick idea, but to be in deep thought about a problem and really consider a problem carefully, you need long stretches of uninterrupted time. And even though the workday is typically eight hours, how many people here have ever had eight hours to themselves at the office? How about seven hours? Six? Five? Four? When’s the last time you had three hours to yourself at the office? Two hours? One, maybe? Very, very few people actually have long stretches of uninterrupted time at an office. And this is why people choose to do work at home, or they might go to the office, but they might go to the office really early in the day, or late at night when no one’s around, or they stick around after everyone’s left, or they go in on the weekends, or they get work done on the plane, or they get work done in the car or in the train because there are no distractions.

… Just silence, that’s it. And what you’ll find is that a tremendous amount of work actually gets done when no one talks to each other. This is when people actually get stuff done, is when no one’s bothering them, when no one’s interrupting them. And you can give someone — giving someone four hours of uninterrupted time is the best gift you can give anybody at work. It’s better than a computer. It’s better than a new monitor. It’s better than new software,or whatever people typically use. Giving them four hours of quiet time at the office is going to be incredibly valuable.

Reads: How to destroy programmer productivity

Not a programmer, but a lot of what he said somewhat applies.
Whatever I can control, I should control. That means:
  • Turning off notifications on my iPhone (this has the added benefit of  increased battery life)
  • Giving myself a reward for 3 hours of continuous coding [or testing, in my case] (usually in the form  of “internet time” like checking Hacker News or twitter)
  • Working from home when I really, really, need to get something done
  • Scheduling ‘no meeting’ times on my calendar. These are times shown as busy  to everyone else. It’s my work time.
  • Not getting into programmer arguments around the office; people have strong  opinions, and the programmers who have arguments love to argue. If  there’s an actual business problem that needs to be solved, let’s grab a  conference room and come up with the advantages and disadvantages of each  approach. Let’s get some data. Let’s not just argue.
  • Position my desk in such a way that passersby aren’t distracting. [Well, i slouch so that i can’t see passersby. That’s not so healthy but that’s another topic.]
  • Taking a first pass at the problem, and *then* asking another developer to  walk me through the problem so that I can get a better understanding of what to  do. This accomplishes two things: First, it allows me to get the ‘lay of the  land’ so that I’ll at least have a basic understanding of the forces at work.  Second, it allows me to ask more intelligent questions when I ask for  help

Prezi: Outlook 2010 tips

Previously, I created a prezi which I shared during our team meeting on Staying Afloat in Email. I basically tried to cover some ideas and guidelines for managing email. This included the concept of Inbox Zero, the email charter (save our inboxes!), and an outline for a short email.

Just in case I get lined up for another knowledge sharing, I decided to make another prezi for Outlook 2010 tips and tricks. Some might seem pretty basic, but sometimes it’s the basic or the obvious that needs restating.

Just in case the embed code doesn’t work, here’s a link to the prezi.

My first prezi: Staying afloat in email

Yeah, I know, I know, Prezi isn’t exactly so new. But at work, we often have to use MS PowerPoint, and the presentations that I’ve had to prepare needed to have sufficient text so that the audience (well, more of the reader) can go through the material on their own. So anyways, my manager asked me to do some knowledge sharing in our team meeting. I took it as an opportunity to do a presentation using Prezi. That and I worked on it on my home PC which doesn’t have MS Office installed.

My presentation is about managing email, and I used my previous post on staying afloat in email as the reference for its contents. I do wish I had more time to find and add better/more images. But I did manage to sneak in a few pictures of my dog. 😉

Just in case the embed code doesn’t work, here’s a link to the prezi.

Looking into improvement opportunities… Laziness FTW

20120524-095504.jpg I found this bit (screenshot at the left) a couple of days ago as I was going through a Business Analyst reference. It lists some common examples of improvement opportunities that a BA is likely to identify. But I think it extends to any role, after all, continuous improvement can and should be everyone’s business. Sometimes when I’ve got time to kill at the office, instead of visiting Facebook, 9gag or other time sinks, I make it a point to think about my work and my team’s work to reflect on what can still be improved. I try to leverage on “laziness” to look for ways to do things faster or make things simpler. 😉 Looking into the common examples given in the list can be a good starting point.

Automate or simplify the work people perform.
For instance, in a previous project, there were SQL queries or Unix commands that I had to run frequently. What I did was to tie them all together into scripts so I just need to run the script and then review the results afterwards. Another example is the sharing of shortcuts or other quick workarounds to the team during our test team meetings. If there are tedious tasks – especially those that have to be performed repeatedly – these could be something worth reviewing or automating. If you come across a tool that could help you do your work faster, share it.

Improve access to information.
Consolidating references into a repository that is accessible to those who need them is an example. Another example is generating reports from our defect management tool which captured information that we had to focus on (e.g., number of days the bugs remained open). In both cases, you make the relevant information easily available to those who need them. If there are things that are hard to find or hard to retrieve, yet should be available to the team, then this could be an area for improvement.

Reduce complexity of interfaces.
For most of the tools deployed to a previous team, I prepared a README reference to hopefully make it easier for them to use the tool. Another example is creating a view for our defect management tool which displayed only the fields that were relevant. The default view displayed all fields which could look a bit daunting as there were so many columns. If there’s something that looks far more complicated than it should be, then this could be something that needs to be worked on.

Increase consistency of behavior.
In my old team, there was a tendency for meetings to start late – so folks who actually come in on time end up penalized since it’s their time that gets wasted the most. This wasn’t the consistency I wanted though. What I did was I took ownership of the test team meetings and made it a point to start on time and with a prepared agenda. Another example is preparing a set of standard test cases for checks that are needed across certain applications. Without this in place, the tendency is tester X tends to miss out on some stuff, while tester Y covers them but misses out on other stuff. If there’s something that has to be done consistently, support it by reinforcing the behavior behind it or by providing some structure to reinforce it.

Eliminate redundancy.
In one project, a colleague and I did a review on test cases and we managed to eliminate some overlaps. There was tester X who worked on A, B, C; and tester Y who worked on C, D, E. They might not have been aware that they were working on C had it not been for the more holistic review. Another example is we had a couple of scripts that functioned quite similarly. One summed up a couple of fields from a text file, while another did the same thing but with the ability to do groupings. I asked a volunteer to merge them so that there’ll be only one script to use and maintain. If two folks are working on the same thing, then that might be a waste of effort; their energies could be diverted into something more useful or worthwhile. If you have more than one working solution, it could be worth examining whether the cost of maintaining them all outweighs the benefit.

Staying afloat in email

One of the things I’ve noticed when folks share their screens and they happen to toggle over to their email client is there’s a lot of email folder names in bold. They’ve got these unbelievable piles of unread mail. With the volume of unread mail, they tend to miss out on replying to some items, so the original sender sends a follow-up email, and so they end up with more unread mail. I guess email management isn’t exactly something that’s taught by our parents or in school. What I would like to share with younger folks is that they don’t have to work like this — drowning in email, dreading having to open their email, griping that they’ve got so much mail. These are stuff that works for me, or things that I would like to develop and encourage more with respect to email.

Inbox zero

With inbox zero, you don’t just check your email. You process it or convert it to actionable items. For any thing that comes into your inbox, there are 5 possible things you can do with it.

  • Delete (or archive) – especially if it’s just spam or you know it has no relevance to what you’re working on
  • Delegate – if it’s something that has to be addressed by someone else, go send it to the appropriate person. You might also want to have some system for following up.
  • Respond – if it’s something you can respond to right there and then, go ahead and send your 1- or 2-line response
  • Defer – this is for stuff that’ll take some time to respond to e.g., if you need to gather info first, or if it’s something that requires more thoughtful writing
  • Do – if it’s going to take just a minute or two, then go right ahead and do the action needed in the mail

A thing to remember is that your inbox is not your calendar; not your address book; not a task list; not your bug list. Keep it tidy so that you’ll be able to respond more promptly, and you don’t end up feeling overwhelmed. The author of the inbox zero idea has a video explaining this much better. Around 30 minutes of the video goes to the explanation, the rest is for the Q&A.

Email charter

This site – emailcharter.org – lists 10 rules for saving our inboxes:

  1. Respect recipients’ time – the fundamental rule
  2. Short or slow is not rude – being terse doesn’t mean you’re cold, angry, rude. You’re just using fewer words.
  3. Celebrate clarity – this also includes having a subject that clearly correlates to the content. Don’t you just hate that long “Re: Hi!” email thread.
  4. Quash open-ended questions
  5. Slash surplus cc’s
  6. Tighten the thread – sometimes the email thread has gone for so long, the original questions or concerns have been buried and overlooked.
  7. Attack attachments – don’t you just hate it when someone sends you an excel file for a little table that could’ve been copy-pasted onto the email body itself
  8. Give these gifts: EOM, NNTR – add as needed to the subject line. EOM = End of message, so that the recipient won’t have to open the actual message anymore. NNTR = No need to respond, sometimes you don’t need the email response just saying “Noted, thanks.”
  9. Cut contentless responses – you don’t have to reply to each and every mail especially if it’s just a “Yeah”, “Great”, “Wow, thanks”. They provide no additional value.
  10. Disconnect – less time on email would mean less email. You don’t have to check your mail every minute (unless that’s what you’re actually paid to do).

Mastering the short email

This lifehack article shares a quote that I like and an outline for a 5-sentence email. First, the quote:

“I apologize that this letter is so long. I did not have the time to make it short.” – Blaise Pascal

It actually takes more effort to come up with lean, coherent content than to ramble on. But it saves more time especially if there are a lot of recipients.

Now, an outline you can use for your 5-sentence email:

  1. Who are you? This might be skipped if you already have a relationship with the recipient; otherwise, in as little space as possible, explain the relevant facts about yourself.
  2. What do you want? Explain why you’re writing the email, what you expect your recipient to do about it, and any relevant information they need to respond with the appropriate action.
  3. Why should you get it? Or, more to the point, why should they bother? Explain why your request is important, and if relevant, what’s in it for them.
  4. When do you need them to act? Open-ended requests get open-ended responses – that is, they get responded to whenever the recipient gets around to it. Be as specific as possible, so that your recipient a) has a sense of urgency, b) feels that their response is important to you, and c) feels inspired to act.

Googled: work-life balance productivity

I googled “work-life balance productivity” and checked out some of the first 10 links.

Firms say work-life balance boosts productivity

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Far from jeopardizing productivity, flexible working arrangements and other measures to improve work-life balance motivate staff and boost efficiency, corporate executives told a seminar in Hong Kong on Wednesday… In Hong Kong, a survey by local non-profit organization Community Business, found that employees work an average 51 hours a week — 25 percent higher than the maximum working hours set by the International Labour organization. A third of respondents said their productivity was being affected by long hours while 31 percent said long hours were causing health problems. Companies that don’t provide a more attractive work environment will lose out, executives said.

“In Hong Kong there’s a cultural challenge because people believe that if they’re working long hours they’re working hard,” he said. Executives said that was true of Asia generally. In any country work-life balance policies had a better chance of success if senior management took the lead, they said.

Work-Life: Is Productivity in the Balance?

Many organizations regard work-life benefits as an investment designed, among other things, to attract and retain talent. How do such benefits affect productivity for the individuals, the company, and society?

Management Practices, Work-Life Balance and Productivity: A Review of Some Recent Evidence (only the Abstract is free for this though)

First, WLB outcomes are significantly associated with better management, so that well-run firms are both more productive and offer better conditions for their employees. Second, tougher competition increases average management quality but does not negatively affect employees’ working environment. As with many other studies, better WLB practices are associated with significantly higher productivity. This relationship disappears, however, after controlling for the overall quality of management.

From the conclusion of Work-life balance, employee engagement and discretionary effort: A review of the evidence (haven’t read the entire 34-page document though)

This report argues that organisations which encourage work-life balance in principle and in practice will reap the benefits of increased employee engagement, discretionary effort and therefore productivity. A strategy to encourage work-life balance or a series of work-life initiatives is not sufficient to increase discretionary effort and employee engagement. Work-life balance must be supported and encouraged at all levels of the organisation, including senior management, line managers and all staff.

Building an organisational culture which supports work-life balance is a long-term process for large organisations. It involves changing the way people think and talk about their work and about work-life balance so that using flexible working options and other work-life initiatives becomes accepted and normal for everyone regardless of their gender, seniority within the organisation or personal commitments.

Work-Life Benefits Improve Productivity, Research Shows: Survey Finds Employees With Good Work-Life Benefits Work Harder, Stay Put

Only 16 percent of employees are satisfied with their organization’s work-life practices. Nearly a third of workers are skimping on work to meet personal commitments.

And speaking of skimping… Most employees who call in “sick” are lying. In the survey conducted, two-thirds of U.S. who call in sick aren’t actually sick.

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Far from jeopardizing productivity, flexible working arrangements and other measures to improve work-life balance motivate staff and boost efficiency, corporate executives told a seminar in Hong Kong on Wednesday.