The Tempo of Work

Whenever you fully immerse yourself in something, you begin to see patterns and make connections that you wouldn’t otherwise make. This is why everyone who’s ever become really good at pickup has dropped everything and immersed himself in it for a period of time. These days, I’m fully immersed in work, and I’ve begun to see patterns here as well.

If we simplify work into three types, we could say that there’s easy work, medium work, and hard work. Easy work is stuff that you’re so good at that it’s just busy work. For me this is menial programming stuff like building a new dialog box or making a function to get something from the database. Medium work is the good stuff– it’s where you’re challenged and engaged, but within your zone of expertise. Optimizing stuff (one of my favorite parts of building SETT) is something that I’d consider medium. Then there’s hard work– stuff you’re not good at, but have to do anyways. The other day I had to write a small plugin in C for Varnish, a front end cache. I don’t know C and was just learning about Varnish, so this was a very frustrating and difficult piece of work for me.

Completing easy work is just a matter of ignoring distraction. The work itself isn’t very engaging, so I’ve noticed that while doing it I’m prone to distraction. Just noticing this is generally enough to keep my on track. Medium work is the fun stuff. When I have a day of medium work, I generally have a killer day where I make tons of progress and feel really good about it. Hard work is the real threat to productivity, though, because it can stop you in your tracks.

I’ve been working on a novel. Once every two or three weeks I set aside half a day, and I just pound out writing. This is a new project, so I’ve only done this three times. The first session, I wrote out an outline for the book and started attacking it. I wrote seven thousand words and then stopped in the middle of a really interesting scene. Medium work. A couple weeks later I spent another half day writing and knocked out another seven thousand words. I got back to the project a week or two later and was stuck. The next scene was going to be very difficult to write. I fought through a paragraph or two, wasn’t happy with the writing, and then gave up and went back to working on SETT.

For over a month, I didn’t write anything else in the book. I’d think about it, remember how tough that scene was going to be, and then decide not to work on it.

I finally decided to get back at it. I sat down and struggled through the hard part. The irony? It was only hard for about fifteen minutes. I then spent the next four or five hours writing, and knocked out another eight thousand words.

This clearly illustrated a pattern I’d been noticing recently: the hard parts don’t really last long, but they do the most damage to our work. I could be another twenty thousand words or so forward in the book if I had just battled it out weeks earlier for fifteen minutes. That’s a big deal! How often do we encounter something that looks tough, overestimate how bad it’s going to be, and then just give up before we really sink our teeth in?

A much better pattern, which I’ve started to follow, is to decide to give a hard problem half an hour of focused work. This makes it a lot less intimidating. Try to write this tough part for half an hour, and if it’s not coming, just give up. It’s a trick on your brain, mostly, because you almost never give up. Instead, you’ll often find that you set your alarm for half an hour, and you’ve already pushed through and moved on to easy or medium work before the alarm rings.

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Photo is a sculpture of Thomas Jefferson. That was probably obvious.

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