Time management is time sensitivity

Ryan James Spencer

Time management advice tends to devolve into the treating time as an expendable resource (it is) that must be cost-analysed (it should), but when people look up "time management tips" I want to propose that they aren't looking for the how or what of time expenditure, but rather are looking to become better aware of time. I base this argument on the fact that those working in jobs that are conducive to "flow" state can lead to time loss. Sure, losing four hours to solving a problem is good, right? But what if those four hours could have been compressed to one, or if the pursuit lost value after a particular threshold?

Philip Johnston talks about the driver for estimation; we estimate because it aligns team members by exposing information in our heads in a public forum, allowing us to discuss risks, possibilities, and so on. But if we are terribly insensitive to time, our estimations won't be of much help. Of course, we can always improve our estimations through practice, requiring us to record and reflect on our estimates, determining the factors that went out and how things shifted from our original guess.

In the last couple of years I've come in close contact to two ways of developing better time sensitivity. Albeit far from perfect, it has helped me refine estimates, improve my ability to focus on things that matter, and avoid a certain level of strategic myopia that crops us.

The first way is known as time boxing. You determine a task, set a period of time you suspect it will take, or that you are willing to allow, and commit to abandoning the task within that period. Doing this properly means learning to include the ramp down in the time frame, otherwise one is left with work strewn everywhere. This is helpful in revisiting purpose or change. The intent isn't to merely abandon tasks where the outcome may no longer be relevant or as high a priority as initially determined, but moreso to get a higher standing and evaluate lessons learned. At a microscopic scale, programming can be broken into 30-60secs feedback loops which, after the box edge is hit, involves reverting back to a prior state, only to restart again, often with new knowledge that can fuel simpler approaches. It is said that Joe Armstrong of Erlang fame told many of this approach at conventions, whereby he would recommend throwing out your work at the end of the day that wasn't finished. I'm not sure if he intended only the parts that were incomplete, or if he meant the whole design, and if someone could clarify that to me I would be grateful. The best I can find is various anectdotes about Joe from around the internet.. To splice in a quote from sadisticsystems (spacejam):

#rememberingjoe Once I had an opportunity to ask Joe a few questions in-person about workflow and managing complexity. He said he would throw code away that he couldn't complete in a day of work. This felt wrong to me then, but over time I've grown to appreciate it

It's a razor that forces rewrites of code likely to have been warped to adapt to incorrect guesses when starting the task. It also forces a limit on the complexity of the implementation. You also notice and avoid many bugs that crept in during the failed first pass

Since then I've met people who have taken similar ideas to the extreme. @yoshuawuyts said that when writing http://choo.io he would sometimes do a full-rewrite in one sitting. The result was craftsmanship and not just a code dump

This is excellent advice, as it means you are consistently exploring alternative paths, which sharpens your divergent thinking and simplification skills. Can you summarise your problem, as well as curate the research that went into it? What variations were explored, either before you set to writing code, but as well as when you started smashing the keys?

The second way is simply being highly conscious of time through simple analogue means. A practical means of accomplishing this is wearing a non-smart watch. I have a collection of casio watches I've collected over the years that I've taken to wearing again, as the context switch and distraction-inducing nature of phones means I'm more focused on the act of handling my phone than I am of becoming conscious of how much time has elapsed since I last made note. As I mentioned before, when lost in a flow state, we can lose awareness of external stimuli. Although this can be fantastic for compressing work into smaller spaces, it can also mean flow states where you are ignorant to the fact that four hours has been lost solving the wrong problem. Part of the process of becoming "more senior" in software engineering is bigger picture thinking; big picture thinking involves understanding long-term and knock-on consequences but it is also about understanding the context and specifics of a problem at hand. Like the time boxing approach, this is intended to make you aware of how long things actually take, at a finer resolution than you may be used to, again prompting reviews of your work. Sure, doing that refactor in an hour made sense when you thought you could do it, but it's now a little over two hours; do you keep pushing or do you stop and take stock of where you are at? I'd say the latter is to be preferred, as the "why" to our outcomes should always trump the cardinality of our outcomes.

Lastly, there is an experiment I am doing with my calendar, which I suspect people who have physical planners already benefit from, which is to spend a lot of time on the yearly and monthly views rather than the weekly or daily. This shoves my attention into a larger scale, meaning I am more conscious to think about tasks extending out into weeks or months and the consequences of that extension, rather than to focus on merely getting through what's immediately in front of me for this week. This isn't solely identifying problematic upcoming events, but again is about becoming sensitive to how time drags on, and revisiting the question of whether or not the value of me or others dedicating X amount of time on an initiative, or some part of those initiative, makes sense, or if the flashlight of focus needs shifting.

Ultimately, despite what I've said in the past about software estimates, I think the approximate value of estimation is valuable, but it requires thinking about estimates on a real time scale, and not a BS scale such as t-shirt sizes or other intangible metrics that are vague to others, and, worse yet, yourself! Since writing that article, I've come to learn more estimation techniques, but estimation functions within the notion that what we are working on can matter less or become completely pointless as time advances. The pitting of efficiency against effectiveness is a classic dichotomy to this point; we can be highly efficient, focusing moreso on cardinality of outcomes, rather than effective, where the the outcomes have impact. In the efficient sense, we are managing time by cutting the cost of evaluation out. But we aren't machines where we spend extra cycles doing extra work and choosing after the fact. The output we have available to us is limited, and easily put of course by even the slightest of factors, hence we need to be wary of how we spend time, and we don't get that awareness unless we have practice honing our sensitivity to time. Surely we can be effective, and after that efficient, but focusing squarely on efficiency misses the point of time management.