Time Management – by the hour or by the job?

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We wanted to get our house cleaning done before leaving on vacation.  It’s actually really nice to come home to a clean house – it just feels so much more relaxing, especially after a long trip home.  To get this done, I used the time I normally set aside for writing each morning, so I knew how much time I had each day to do housework.

First, let me say this: cleaning house can be hard work.  At the end of each period of house cleaning I was sweating almost as much as I was earlier in the week when I was moving gravel and top soil in the yard!  Anybody who stays at home and keeps the house clean and the kids in line truly works hard.  But as I was wrapping up day one, I started thinking about how I managed the task of getting the house clean and the timeframe I had to complete it.  When I compared my housecleaning style to my wife’s, I  realized there are two distinctly different time and task management styles we use, and I see the same types in business.  I’m sure there are many other ways too, but I’ll compare the two styles we use, which I’ll call managing “by the hour” and “by the job.”

So first is how I manage tasks, both at home and at work.  When I have a task to do, I try to break it down into components.  Some people call this “eating the elephant.”  Why?  The old question or joke about big tasks is “How do you eat an elephant?”  And the answer:  “One bite at a time.”  For the task of cleaning the house, I break it down by rooms.  Next, I sequence the tasks, so for house cleaning I think about which order to do them in.  Then I look for commonalities.  For example, when running the vacuum, I do all the rooms of a group at once, making sure I pick a central location for the electrical outlet to allow this.  I do the same with cleaning toilets and windows.

Now I have a strategy, of sorts.  I wouldn’t treat a business problem any differently than this.  But next comes the time management part.  I knew I had three blocks of time at 90 minutes each.  I estimated what I thought I could get done at each block. Drawing from my sequence of activities, I wanted to get through to the point of having the Master Bedroom cleaned on day 1, The Dining Room on Day 2, and the Den on Day 3.

So what does this have to do with time management?  Well, now that I have tasks, a sequence, and expected completion deadlines, I can effectively manage my time.  On day one, I start cleaning and I push hard, working at a steady pace with no interruptions.  I work up a sweat – especially in bathrooms and vacuuming steps.  For me, music helps.  Since my mind wanders, when an idea pops into my head, I jot it down and keep working.  This blog post was one of those periods of mental spacewalking.  Grabbing a roll of black & white film to shoot some old buildings in my hometown was another.  But I try to stay focused on the tasks at hand.

The key difference is this: I don’t stop when I get to the end of the task I wanted to complete.  I stop at the end of the time allotted.  I actually completed my housework in two 90 minute sessions.  I then used the third session to go to the grocery store and the bank prior to leaving on vacation – both tasks my wife had planned on doing.  This is “managing by the hour.”

The other way I see is managing time “by the task”.  Often, when managing by the task, the planning steps are the same, and they probably should be.  But the difference is in the time management.  My wife will keep working util she gets the expected task complete.  She doesn’t seem to feel the pressure of time.  She also has no problem working longer, and she’ll delay following tasks if necessary to get the current tasks complete.  I see this in business too.  Development teams will keep working on one task and let others slide, with seemingly no concern over the time it is taking.

I think in some ways it comes down to the mental payback of the work.  Just like some people get paid by the hour and others get paid by the job for their wages, I think some people gain satisfaction for completing a specific, expected group of tasks.  Only when it’s all done can they get paid mentally for their work.  Only at completion do they get the reward of feeling like a job was well done.  They need to get paid by the job.

Others are fine getting paid by the hour.  For my housecleaning, it was “hey, I got two extra rooms done today.”  When moving gravel, even though the pile wasn’t gone, I could say “I moved about 3/4 ton of gravel tonight”.  For my wife it was “when are you going to finish moving that gravel?”  It’s almost like she felt bad for me – working that hard and not getting it finished.  But for me, my 2 hours was up, and it was time to move onto the next task.

Having this self-imposed time constraint also helps me in a couple few ways from a productivity standpoint.  First, I don’t let the task expand to the allotted time – a.k.a. Parkinson’s Law.  In manufacturing I call this “pacing your work.”  My Pap would call it “lolly-gagging”.  He’d say “Quit’cher lolly-gagging and get that work done!”  or “Don’t be lolly-gagging on your way home.”  If I give myself a day to get housework done, it can take me all day – and it still isn’t finished.  Just like if I give a team a week to get something done, I don’t usually see it until the end of that time period.

The second way it helps is that having the time constraint often helps me be more efficient and effective.  I get focused on the one task, and can pull my attention back to that task for the remaining time allotment once I get distracted.  Plus, I get the bonus mental break when I complete a task early.  I rarely jump onto the next task.  If I’ve got 5 or 15 minutes left, I do something I enjoy.  It’s the only way I know to effectively multi-task: Single-task in several different chunks each day.

I guess there’s a third benefit too.  Every day, I can reflect and see what I got done; what I created.  Even if nothing was fully completed, I can get satisfaction out of the tasks that I worked on for each segment of the day.  Which leads to a fourth benefit – “backburner creativity”.  Which is probably an entire blog post in itself, but basically it’s why some people get good ideas a weird times, like solving a problem in a dream or in the shower.

Because of the possible psychology of the mental payback stuff, I don’t know if people can change the way they derive satisfaction from task completion.  But I think it’s worth a try.  Every day, I get little internal boosts of motivation by looking at work completed.  For those that think “by the job”, they can go days or weeks without feeling like they “got anything done”.  I think by changing their mindset to focus on “eating the elephant” and then remembering to look at the empty plate from each meal, they might get a little more satisfaction from their efforts.

Give it a try some day – even on something as routine as your chores around the house.  You might find it works for you and actually find extra time in your day, and eventually have less things you didn’t have time to do.

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