Time -- or Milestones? It Depends.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Reviewing my notes on Cal Newport's Deep Work led me to his blog post on the "hybrid approach" he uses to track progress on important, but non-urgent projects. Newport notes that he tends to oscillate between tracking the time he spends working on such projects and his progress, as measured by milestones:

If you're stuck, try your luck with another tracking method. (Image via Pixabay.)
The advantage of tracking milestones, for example, is that the urge to achieve a clear outcome can inspire you to hustle; i.e., drop everything for a couple days and just hammer on the project until it gets where you need it to be. Sometimes my projects fall into a state of stasis where hustle of this type is needed to get unstuck.

The advantage of tracking hours, on the other hand, is that many of the important but non-urgent projects I pursue cannot be forced. I can commit, for example, to finishing a proof in a week, but this doesn't mean I will succeed. Some proofs never come together; some take months (or years); others fall quickly. It's hard to predict. Tracking hours in this context ensures, at the very least, that these projects are getting a good share of my time, even if I can't predict what will finish and when.
He admits that he doesn't know why he oscillates, and is uncomfortable with the apparent lack of simplicity of the approach. His further remarks, as well as the discussion among the commenters there, are thought-provoking. Interestingly, he seems to have decided that the technique is good, despite the messiness, since he specifically mentions the post in the book as an example of keeping a "compelling scoreboard."

I agree, and I think the reason this is such a good idea is due to the nature of the tasks themselves, as I think some of the further discussion indicates: These tasks can be mixtures of exploratory, "un-forceable," tasks of uncertain duration; familiar or non-exploratory tasks one is capable of completing in a given time and amount of effort; and tasks that might be one or a mixture of both of these. Accordingly, it makes perfect sense to track progress according to which type one is dealing with, and to cultivate an awareness of what the work "feels like" at the moment. (For example, if a milestone provokes a desire to procrastinate, that is likely a good indication that there is exploration to do, be it research or simply learning what the task entails.)

I have found Newport's book very helpful in straightening out my thinking on managing many aspects of my work day, and highly recommend it and his blog, which you can find at the blogroll. I have taken the liberty of using his subtitle, "Decoding Patterns of Success," as its title there.

-- CAV

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