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Where work happens

April 24, 2018


Where work happens

David Allen, the creator of Getting Things Done, classifies all work into three types of work: 1) pre-defined work (the stuff on your to-do list, like drafting a document, buying diapers, finding an apartment, etc.), 2) ad-hoc work (unexpected stuff that shows up needs to be dealt with immediately, like finding a plumber after the bathroom floods, or dealing with a livesite issue), and 3) defining work (figuring out what needs to be done — which is where your pre-defined work comes from).

All three kinds of work require one thing, though: time. All work requires time. Specifically, free, uncommitted time — in the calendar above, the blank spaces are where the work happens, not the filled-in spaces. Time is the currency you spend to move an item from “to do” to “finished.” (Even if you delegate it, someone, somewhere, spends time to complete it). Move enough of those items to “finished,” and you find yourself crossing the finish line: the novel finished, the album released, the product launched, the degree earned.

If you find yourself wanting to get more done in a day, there are really only two options: 1) Reduce the time cost of each task (i.e. be more efficient), or 2) Increase the amount of time you have to spend (i.e. re-allocate it from somewhere else).

While it’s tempting to think that you can get efficiency gains from “lifehacks” and whatnot, if you’ve read this far, the effect of any additional trick is going to be pretty minor; on an absolute basis the amount of your gains might net you 3-5% at best since you’ve probably fixed all the obvious problems.

By far the easiest and most substantial gains to time come from freeing up more time, which basically means saying no — a lot. While it may feel comforting to see a schedule filled with meeting requests and other commitments, remember that all your real work happens in the blank spaces in your calendar.

The first time Bill Gates met Warren Buffett, he described seeing Buffett’s schedule as a revelation: There was almost nothing on it:

Buffett needs time to think, to read, to learn. So the more uncommitted time, the more he spends on learning, thinking etc. Practiced consistently over decades you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone else who spent more hours thinking about investing. Is it really that surprising he’s remained so good for so long?

So we’re back to prioritization, which starts with being clear about your focus.

One tool I’ve found super useful for this comes from the Toyota Production System. For those that aren’t familiar with it, Toyota pioneered the “lean” manufacturing practices which were largely responsible for its emergence from obscurity in post-World War II Japan to the global giant it is today. It is as much a philosophy as it is a set of practices.

One of TPS’ foundational principles is that any effort that isn’t a direct transformation of raw material into a specific car being driven off the lot by a customer is considered muda, or waste. The goal of the system is simply to eliminate all waste.

In this view, there is always some waste (for instance, quality testing is waste, since it isn’t directly transforming the material) — a 100% waste-free state is impossible — but having a clear, specific definition of value (where everything else is waste) is very useful as a compass.

This lens works wonderfully across domains: for software, this means you would only build exactly the features your customers use. All associated work (meetings, bug reports, etc.) is waste and should be eliminated. Filed a bunch of bugs that don’t get fixed? Waste. Fixed a feature that nobody saw? Waste. Design spec for a feature that got cut? Waste. Tested on browser versions that users don’t use? Waste. Waste, waste, waste.

Classifying what is waste, though, requires understanding what you are trying to deliver. What’s your equivalent of a car being driven off the lot? If you don’t manufacture physical items, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s value and what’s waste.

Figure it out, though, and you have a tool to prune away all the non-essential in order to create more of the empty space you need to move your projects forward.


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