Today, my friend and former colleague Stephanie wrote a great, brief article on productivity, procrastination, and burnout for SuperYesMore entitled “The Law of Reversed Effort.”
I tend to approach all tasks in life exactly as Stephanie describes the simple act of walking across a plank of wood on the ground.
[S]ay I put a long sturdy plank of wood on the ground in front of you and asked you to walk across it. You’d tell me “no problem” as you scurried along it. It’s such a simple task.
Let’s say I need 5 hours to accomplish something in our house. Anything. Blog writing. Exercising. Room cleaning.
I look at that personal work effort like it’s a plank of wood I have to step across. If the board is five times the length of my stride, I need to take five steps. If the work I want to do is 5 hours worth of work effort because that’s how fast I can type, exercise, or clean, I find 5 hours over the span of my week where I can accomplish said thing.
I starting thinking about the thing as already being completed if not for the formality of spending the actual 5 hours of work effort.
That’s not always the case, because work effort does not always equal work duration.
In a professional project management sense, that’s tends to result from a constraint on the schedule of the resource which puts in the effort. If you only have access to the designer on your project for an hour each day, it will take 5 days to do 5 hours of work. The work effort is 5 hours, but the work duration is 5 days.
However, let’s say your designer is available all day, every day. That 5 hours of work can be done in the next 5 hours starting at this very second, right?
Not really. Good professional project managers also understand that when people are resources their time cannot be perfectly maximized to be 100% effort in the way that, say, a printer can print X sheets in Y minutes. For a designer to produce 5 hours of measurable work product it might take them time to set up their physical and digital environment, some amount of drafting and backtracking, time to ask a colleague a question, a few minutes for the printer to warm up to print out their new draft, plus a moment stretch out their hand after it becomes cramped from drawing on their tablet.
Perhaps they really need almost 7 hours to conduct that 5 hours of work. The work effort is 5 hours in a vacuum or performed by a perfectly calibrated machine that doesn’t make mistakes or need bathroom breaks, but the resource’s time efficiency to complete that 5 hours of work is about 75%.
I know this professionally. I would never estimate the amount of time a person needs to do something based solely on how quickly they could do that work while I stood by with a stop watch in my hand. I build “slack time” into work effort. That’s not time for slacking or using Slack, but time for the things that need to happen around the work effort for the work effort to happen.
Systems that don’t account for that slack time fail at efficient scheduling. And, that slack is not always just about time to perform helper tasks like asking questions and stretching. Sometimes you simply need time to make mental space for the task at hand, because you cannot always make yourself walk the plank of a project starting in the very first second.
Stephanie explains why.
[W]hat if I then took that very same board, placed it 30 stories high in the air with each end on a skyscraper and asked you to walk across it again. We both know you can do it; you just demonstrated that on the ground. So why are you suddenly sweating at the thought of walking across that very same board?
Or, as she points out that Aldous Huxley succinctly stated:
The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed.
We account for this when it comes to our formal, professional life. The structure of that world is built around maximizing our work efficiency. Yet, we are human machines, and we cannot be perfectly calibrated and ruthlessly maximized.
Good, sustainable businesses where people like to work understand that human resources are not the same as machine resources – sometimes they need time to mentally prepare to walk the plank.
We look for a business that understands that when we’re seeking a job where we’ll be happy, but so often we don’t ask ourselves to follow the same rules. We think we can make a household repair or lose weight with the same ruthless efficiency we’d employ in building a spreadsheet, but spreadsheet building happens in a ruthlessly perfected digital workflow.
Why, then, don’t we as people give ourselves more slack when it comes to walking our personal planks?
If you ever find yourself asking that question, I suggest you give Stephanie’s essay a read. It’s shorter than this one, but it turns out this is how much time I needed to process her message.