For me, relaxing is the most stressful thing. Time passes, and nothing gets done. With an attitude like that, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I’m interested in personal productivity. Well… I have some data inclinations too, and some charts to show you.
The above is my first full year (January to December) as a civil servant. I started in the bottom left corner on week one and some tasks in my backlog and progressed steadily through the year to the top right corner in week 51. Of course, there are some variations from week to week, but the thicker lines show that things are surprisingly constant on (six week) average.
It also shows me there is a limit of things I can do per week. In weeks 1-13 and 19-26, I managed ten tasks a week. In April, week 14, I tried harder, got up to seventeen, but that fizzled out by mid-May, week 19.
Looking at this graph before my first job anniversary in July, I realised the blue and green lines were pretty straight and divergent. It meant I was always putting more on my backlog than I could accomplish, so that was not sustainable. So I decided to try harder. Once more, I reached deep into my bag of personal productivity hacks to up my performance.
You can see that from July, I managed sixteen tasks per day, 160% of my earlier norm, but still, it wasn’t enough to match the demand, and so in mid-August, I started being more selective in the commitments I took on. Finally, the blue and green gap started to narrow down and things were going well until December!
Why is it so hard?
Ultimately, my commitment to commit to less work made a real difference to the length of my backlog. It was obvious, and yet it was the last thing I tried. Why?
I find it difficult to say no to opportunities to help others or to collaborate. Believe it or not (and I know with my occasionally blunt demeanour, it might take a leap of faith), I get out of bed to make a difference. And the only way to do it at scale is by collaborating and helping each other. And so I say, “yes, I will help” you more often than I should.
But despite that, the second list of the most stressful things people say to me, just after “relax”, is starting conversations with “I know you are very busy, but…”. How many opportunities to collaborate have I lost, because people think I’m too busy to talk? Too busy, or worse, too important, to see if their problem is something I can help with or not? Every communication that starts with “I know you are very busy” reminds me of all forever-lost opportunities to collaborate. And so I respond, as calmly as I can, that I will always find the time for a chat, even if I cannot help.
I’ll have to do something about it next year, but first, let’s go back to the data to see what else we can learn. My ambition for 2023 is to bend that green line up a bit more and find a way to do even more.
The view above – weekly snapshots – shows more clearly that last summer’s effort to reduce the number of new commitments was working well until the beginning of December. What happened there? We had our internal conference. I had three days of in-person meetings that inspired me to take on ridiculous amounts of new things.
What the two views we looked at so far don’t show well is what really matters: how many things I can do a week, and how many things I start but cannot complete – the Waiting category. Those are the things I start, but hit a wall. I have to meet with somebody, get somebody’s opinion, get approval and so on. Every item like that means context switching and so lost effort and time.
Now, after excluding the things that are in the backlog, the picture is more compelling. We can clearly see the two weeks when I decided to do more. In April, week 14, it lasted a few weeks.
During Weeks 22-23, I was off and then, after coming back, had a lot of requests to do things which I tried to start as quickly as possible. This resulted in a lot of tasks in progress and a lot of waiting, but not much was done. That is what led to frustration and yet another attempt to increase productivity in June – weeks 27 and 28.
I worked hard on reducing the work in progress and the tasks in waiting. Still, I managed the reasonably constant level of tasks completed. But then, in the fourth quarter, I tried to do even more, but the only thing I achieved was the waiting queue going past sixty.
Sixty tasks I have started but cannot complete. I’m waiting for somebody else, but still, they are my responsibility. They still take my time, even if just to check if I can progress them or not!
It’s an unbelievable waste of time.
My plan for 2023? To change it and do even more with less effort. Achieve more with less strain.
But first a couple of days in the mountains to… relax! Scary! Although, I’m sure I’ll find something to do, not to relax properly. That would be too stressful. I’ll do some reading, some thinking, and hopefully something to find the much-needed new energy for civil servicing in 2023 at never before seen levels of productivity.
Happy New Year!