Search This Blog

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Your Fifteen Minutes of ... Productivity?

[Also available as a Podcast]

Fifteen minutes of Fame - we all seem to want it, and according to some we are all due our fifteen minutes in the limelight. Well, maybe, or maybe not. I am sure that the law of averages has something to say about that, and more likely some celebrity out there is using up a whole lot of other people's 15 minutes. I am sure mine has already been used up somewhere, maybe yours too. Who knows?

We all day-dream about what might be. However, instead of making the dreams a reality, we often squander countless minutes musing about a possible future - while instead we could have been doing something more productive towards that (or any other) goal. 

Other times, we are either delaying work on an unpleasant task, trying to put off the inevitable, or simply waiting until we "have enough time" to get the task done.

The truth is that it is far more rewarding (and practical) to apply those extra minutes towards the things that you need to get done. Even better, apply the time towards the things you need to get done, and you will find you have more time to do the things you want to do.

For some, this seems hard to do, particularly if the task is difficult or unpleasant, or you are simply procrastinating. We all procrastinate - some more than others, and I will admit I have had my fair share over the years. Usually, it just takes some butt-in-seat glue to stay and get focused on the task, and it gradually starts to take shape - and soon enough you find the task completed.


Perhaps the problem is focus. There is so much to do at any one time, how can we get anything done, or know which thing to get done? We can easily become deadlocked trying to figure out what we should do - and the clock keeps ticking. 


What to do....what to do...which task to work on...? 


Then suddenly, your problem is solved for you.


You have now run out of time - because you now have to go to the 2pm meeting. Saved by the bell! You won't have to worry about which thing to do first until after this 2-hour meeting, and then, well, it's getting close enough to 5pm, so after the 5 minutes getting back to your desk, why bother starting on that task if you have less than an hour left in your day...and there's always tomorrow, right?

...yeah, right! Another day lost with tasks incomplete. You may not even enjoy your evening at home or time out with friends, because in the back of your mind you are still worrying about the many little things you have left unfinished at work.

Not a pleasant place to be...but perhaps some numbers will bring some perspective that will help us better focus on the tasks at hand.


If you live to the ripe old age of 85, this is the number of minutes you will have on this earth. No matter how many long weekends you take, how many "extra" hours you work at the office, the amount of time is the same. If you over-work yourself, however, the actual number may be lower - so take care of yourself, OK? We don't want to see a premature exit. It's not like you can transfer your "unused minutes" to another person's plan. Those minutes are yours and yours alone, non-transferable and no refunds.


By the age of 20, having spent a carefree childhood followed by school, University/College and the first year or so of your new career, you suddenly wake up to find you only have about 3/4 of your minutes left. Here you are, just getting warmed up with your first real job, and you are already behind the eight-ball.


If you retire at age 65, you have roughly 10,512,000 minutes left, assuming you live to age 85. This is the same amount of time you took to get all grown up and start out in the workforce. Enjoy these remaining minutes - you have definitely earned them. Make sure to do something fun with them!

(34,164,000 - 10,512,000) = 23,652,000

These are all the minutes you have to "get stuff done" during your working career.

Well, not quite. We need to deduct sleep, roughly 8hr/ you have, say, 15,768,000 minutes while wide awake to focus on activities.

Oops, sorry, we forgot weekends; we need to deduct those too. (And you had better, if you work yourself like a dog, your upper limit on minutes may be suddenly shortened, so use weekends for other things like relaxing, mowing the lawn, golfing and cleaning out the garage).

So, if we take off the weekends, that makes it...11,262,857 minutes left.

Ah, best take off the non-working holiday days each year, roughly 12 or so of those depending on the country you live in, and say, 4 weeks of vacation a year if you can stay working in one place for a 46,080 minutes of "holiday" per year, or 2,073,600 minutes in your working years.

We'll leave out sick days for now, as they are more variable, and some do try to work when they are sick anyway. That leaves us...


These are the minutes left, Monday-Friday to get stuff done. Work, sports, school, dinner, kids, friends, social activities, all that stuff between waking up and collapsing back into bed.

Better just focus on work, I suppose...and optimistically say only 8 hours of work per day, though many of you will do more...that leaves us:


These are all the minutes we have left to be in the office, Monday-Friday, 8-5, allowing an hour for lunch.

Where did all the time go? This is only 10.3% of your average total time on the planet to get your "work" stuff done.

Feeling any pressure yet? Well, hopefully you are still reading this and not lying down with a blood pressure cuff on your arm. If you are taking a short break, rest up - we will still be here when you get back.

But do come back, because we have a lot of work to do, and there is some exciting news coming up next...!

The Meeting Hour Myth

A long time ago, there was no accurate division of time. Days were longer or shorter depending on the season, and many people worked by the sun, getting up when the sun rose and going to bed when it got dark. People started work, stopped when they were hungry or thirsty (or when a neighbor dropped by), and then they would start working again while they had daylight. Eventually, however, some clever folk came along and decided to invent light bulbs and divide up the day into 24 hours (why not 10 or 20, we may never know).

The problem with all this division of time is that once you actually start to measure something, people will start to use that system for everything. 

The other problem is that people usually use the system of time measurement badly.

How long are your average meetings? What is the default meeting duration in your calendar program? I am willing to guess that the answer is almost universally the same - one hour. Sometimes multiples, like 2, 3 or 4 hours. 60 whole minutes eaten up, or 120, 180 - even 240 minutes at a stretch.

Less commonly will you see 30 minute meetings in people's calendars.

But why one hour for a meeting? Why does a 30 minute meeting seem "incomplete", like it is not really worthwhile, and not a "whole" thing? What about a nice, short 15 minute meeting?

I think the problem here is granularity - people are looking at the "big" picture, but losing sight of the trees for the forest.

An hour is actually a very long time - just try talking in front of a group for that long on one topic and you will see what I mean. (I don't mean training, where you may spend the whole day or weeks on end in front of a class teaching on a topic. That's different.) Imagine yourself having to engage hundreds of your peers on a technical topic, or explain why a project is delayed in front of the senior executive and CEO of your organization - for 60 (or 120) whole minutes.

Suddenly that little old hour seems a lot bigger, doesn't it?

It really comes down to a matter of perspective and mental conditioning.

Fifteen Minutes of Productivity

You can get a lot done in fifteen minutes (900 seconds). 900 heart-beats, 450 breaths...
I am not kidding- you really can get a lot done when you get into the practice of using up those small chunks of "leftover" time.

In Agile methodology, the daily morning stand-up Scrum meeting is typically 15 minutes long, and a lot can (and does) get done in that time. Plenty of quick discussion, key decisions made - and then off the teams go to get the work done during the remaining 7 hours 45 minutes of the work day.

If we wait for a big enough chunk of time to concentrate on getting a particular task done, most of us will be waiting a very long time. Sure, you can schedule your week so your calendar shows nice blocks of time for you to sit down for 2-3 hours at a time to concentrate.

However, this is the real world, and phone calls, drop-ins from colleagues and urgent tasks from your boss can shoot holes all through your schedule. Suddenly all those carefully planned blocks of time are gone. All you have left is 20 minutes here, 15 minutes there...45 minutes at a stretch if you are lucky. <Sigh> What's the point? Might as well get started on it next week because you don't have enough time left today or later this week...right?

...Not so fast. You have a mountain of work still to get done this week - and it simply has to get done - but how?

The same way you eat an Elephant: a bite at a time.

When you start to sit down and focus on your tasks in the time you have left before your next meeting, maybe only 10 or 15 minutes, you can get quite a lot done. Three or maybe even five short phone calls. A page or two of the report for your boss. Review part of a document. Check the numbers on a spreadsheet. Write a page and a half of code. The list goes on. 

With practice, you will find that you will be better able to focus in small bursts of time, and get more done. Need a couple hours to work on a report? With 15 minutes after coffee, 30 minutes gained after a shorter-than-planned meeting, 45 minutes after lunch and another 15 minutes at the end of the day, you may find it is all done and dusted before you head home on time. If you had waited for that precious block of 2 hours, you would still be waiting...and waiting... as your schedule filled up with interruptions and shards of "leftover" time.

Sure, there are definitely times where you must block out larger blocks of time to really dig into complex tasks - but for many things, you will find that you can easily work on them in small chunks. You will often find that the results will be just as good, or sometimes even better than if you had a single larger block of time. Allowing time to reflect between bursts of activity can let your subconscious work away on those "in progress" tasks while you are focused on your current meeting.

Food for thought!

However, let's check the numbers to see what we gained. 

In your 40 hour week, you may be lucky to allocate 20 hours of "non-meeting" desk time to get your work done. For some this may be only 10 hours. However, let's go with 20 nicely carved out hours in big long chunks.

Then you get started on your tasks, but you get phone calls, emails to respond to...and your 2 hour block of time is nearly used up. 30 minutes left before a meeting. Your manager assigns you an urgent task during another block - 15 minutes left. Say this is a common pattern, and out of your nice hour or multi-hour blocks of time, you only have 15 minutes left from each reserved hour. The rest was all "work stuff" (of course) - on your tasks or helping others. On the plus side, a meeting may finish early, so you may gain some extra time.

Say on average you have 4-5 small chunks of time left per day between meetings, or from completing one task a few minutes early. Even if it adds up to 60 minutes a day, it makes a big difference what you do with those minutes. Maybe you won't have nice long 15 minute chunks, but 5 minutes is enough to catch up on some emails or make that important call.


If you manage to productively use the leftover chunks and slivers of time, even an hour a day, this is how many minutes you will add to your productivity during your working life, vs doing nothing in particular with those small bits of leftover time (12.5% of your work day)


Days of productivity can be "recovered" by using those bits of "leftover" time effectively, or 239 weeks of productivity gained instead of lost - nearly 6 years regained out of your average 45 working years.

With that much increased productivity, you must be in line for a raise - or at least some bonus time off!

If you are not feeling that you you have to "finish up" some bits of work at home after the kids go to bed because you managed to complete it at the office, you will find you have more relaxed time to spend with family. 

You may also find you have some "extra" time to start a new hobby, spend more time on one you enjoy, or volunteer for a worthy cause.

Six years is a lot of time!

One thing you can be sure of is those 6 years of "non-work" time slivers will be somewhat less than restful if you are spending them at the office worrying about getting your To-Do list done - and not doing it.


OK, OK, maybe you aren't so excited about being more productive. Everyone needs a break, right? Yes - that is true, we do need our regular, small breaks.However, this is about better using those small chunks of time - 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes - when we could get something done, and we already had our coffee break. Often, people choose not to use those minutes to get started on a task or make it progress - and that's a waste.

Unconvinced? well, how about this number:


This is the number of nights you could have better sleep, knowing you had used your working time more effectively to get the small tasks done - and made forward progress on larger tasks - with those small bits of "leftover" time. In the grand scheme of things, this means that you may have less work following you home, or nagging you during your "off-work" hours. Barring babies, sick kids and the occasional (major) project worry, that is nearly every night of your working life that you could be resting better, knowing you did the best you could with your available time.

Now, that's time well spent.

As for my own "15 minutes of fame" - it may still be out there waiting. But when I really think hard about it, Fame is fleeting, and I would rather use that "extra" time for fun stuff - like writing.

Good luck with your projects, and use your time wisely (and effectively) in whatever you do.

Gary Nelson, PMP

No comments:

Post a Comment