Acceptable Incompletion

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Spotting in this morning's news feeds (1) a post on productivity tips for academics and (2) a link to a blog premised on the idea of parenting as an experimental endeavor; I was reminded of a realization I had some time ago that others might find useful.

It may not really merit a special name, but I call it "acceptable incompletion". It's all about finding more stopping points than might be obvious for a task, so that it can be completed more easily, or at a more opportune time, or in a more efficient way than simply performing it all at once.

To take a simple example, suppose I notice that the downstairs bathroom needs, say, a new spare roll of toilet paper, but restocking it would require a trip upstairs. There's no hurry to do this immediately and I have no other reason to go upstairs at the moment. Rather than devote a couple of minutes to this task, I spend a few seconds placing the empty roll or some other reminder where I will see it at the foot of the stairs so that the next time I do need to go there, I know to retrieve the new spare. I have saved some time and increased the value of that later trip. Have I replaced the spare? No, but I know I will. (Likewise, I no longer waste twenty minutes every evening getting bottles, pacifiers, and whatnot upstairs for bedtime, thanks to this approach. Generally, these things get spirited up (and counterparts down for washing) over the course of other morning or evening activities.)

I have blogged other examples before (specifically, laundry and multiple tool stashes), but hadn't noticed the unifying characteristic of recognizing "new" steps in a process. Considering Matt Might's advice, to which I refer in the latter link, this method falls within his broader theme of lowering transaction costs -- by becoming better at recognizing transactions. Might, by the way, makes a good point along these lines about starting a new project. Call it "Unseen Step One: Devote a blank document to it", if you will.

Once you know you're going to do something, start on it right away: create a blank document file, create a blank presentation file, start drafting the email (with To: field blank). Then, if at any point in the future, you're moved to work on it, the transaction cost of doing a little more work is near-zero. 
I frequently hear productivity advice -- especially that influenced by David Allen -- warning about "projects in disguise". Depending on your context, what might be a task for most people might well be a project, however simple, for you. Why not take advantage of that fact?

-- CAV

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