SXSW: Why you aren't done yet

24 March 2010

This is an old post, so may include broken links and/or out-of-date information

Screenshot of the Basecamp web-app by 37 Signals

Screenshot of the Basecamp web-app by 37 Signals

'Why you aren't done yet' was a talk by David Heinemeier Hansson from 37 Signals (the chaps that make the brilliant productivity web apps including Basecamp and Highrise).

The talk was an enlightening look at why we as web developers are not as productive as we should be - although much of what was discussed could be applied to many jobs.

1. Too many distractions

Essentially the main problems we all face is that our working environments are not conducive to getting things done. Problems include distractions around the office, emails, phone, colleges, social-media and the main offender, meetings. Meetings often involve too many irrelevant people, act as an opportunity for one person to broadcast their point of view and generally result in very little productive outcomes (especially given the collective time one meeting can consume). Heinemeier explained the even a one and a half hour meeting in the middle of the afternoon can often wipe out your whole afternoon.

Solutions here include:

  • Working at home to avoid distractions - particularly for highly focused tasks.
  • Be ruthless when it comes to attending meetings - they will cost you more than you think.
  • Mulitasking is un-productive. So close down all of those other applications on your computer and switch off notifications for email and any social media. If you use a Mac, task advantage of 'Spaces' and use different desktops for different tasks.

2. Your estimates 'suck'

Another key offender on productivity is often self-imposed deadlines. Most of the tasks we estimate for we've done tens (if not hundreds) of times before in some shape or form.

Despite this we often give unrealistic deadlines, thinking this time will be different, and this time we'll work that bit longer and be that bit more focused. However, according to Heinemeier, giving realistic deadlines is harder than it sounds. We work in a world that tries to corrupt our minds. Words such as Need, Can't, ASAP, Easy, or Fast are regular culprits when it comes to warping our minds.

He did make a very good point here in saying that very few jobs anybody takes on have a low priority. There's no reason why you can't get your weeks worth of work done within 40 hours. I'm certainly guilty of feeling that the weekend is overflow time for anything that doesn't get done within the working hours.

We're so encouraged either by our employers or our clients to be workaholics. Most employers feel better about those that work late into the night and all hours at weekends, however these are often the least productive people.

Peak moments of productivity are useless - productivity can only be achieved over the long term. Another great observation and another mindset that I feel I'm guilty of. I will often feel that tight deadlines are possible, or I will be highly productive tomorrow morning or next week or late at night.

The reality I guess is that productivity is a bit like riding a bike: gentle rhythm results in higher efficiency. Thrashing around will only be good if you're near the finishing line.

3. You're indecisive

Decisions are progress. Most of the work you're putting off is because a decision needs to be made. Take charge, make the call and carry on. Next!

4 You're a perfectionist

Good enough is usually fine. Stop trying to make everything the perfect article, step back and review the goal. Like a lot of small agencies we like to think we're in it for the love, and as a result a lot of our work is about trying to make projects that best they can be.

This is obviously a great ethos and you won't have to look at to many design agency mission statements to find repeated. However, I do think at times we may be guilty of a little too much experimentation, or too much tweaking and in many instances clients would prefer things just to be turned-around that bit quicker and wouldn't necessarily notice the extra 100 lines of code we hadn't managed to whittle down to 20.

I think the thing here, especially if you're self employed or in a small team with little or no management structure above you, is that it's very easy to lose sight of what you're doing. That may sound ridiculous, but sometimes you just need to step back, look at what you're doing and actually question 'Why am I doing this? Is there an easier or better solution?'.

5. You're flogging a dead horse

Heinemeier also talked about the concept of giving up as a solution to productivity woes. Whilst an incredibly inspired thought, I'm not really sure how this would work in the real world. For 37 signals who create great web apps these may be relatively easy to implement. However I'm not sure how many of our clients would endorse the 'give up' message.

Nice ad for the new book by 37 signals: Rework

37 Signals were at SXSW promoting a new book (trailer above) which I think clearly drove some of the more radical suggestions here. However, all in all it identified brilliantly with the problems of a small agency. It also provided some tangible things to take away; particularly to do with reducing distractions and better time-planning. Overall; a great talk.

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