Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Putting my Kids in a Box (okay, a Timebox)

Another one of those Work Concepts that has crept into my home life is the timebox. A timebox is just a fixed amount of time you will spend on a task. When the time is up, you quit working and go on to something else.

This has several benefits:
1 - You can fit some progress into whatever windows of time you have in your day. This works for any kind of job that can be stopped and re-started, or one that has Low Hanging Fruit .
2 - It helps you attack those tasks that are never really "done" without feeling overwhelmed.
3 - Because you know you only have so much time to get things done, you are more motivated to get started and stay with the task.

I've found that my kids respond well to this approach. I will tell them that we need to do a "30-minute drill" which means the kitchen timer gets set for 30 minutes (sometimes it's shorter, but longer times are too much at their age) and they work on the job until the time is up. Even though they like to check the time remaining a little too often, seeing the time dwindling away gets them fired up for another burst of productivity.

I have also used this on myself. Whenever I have a new game on the computer, I find it's very easy to lose hours of my time (usually taken from sleep). I've started setting the timer (yes, the same one) for some reasonable length of time and using that as the clue to stop playing for the day.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Sunk Costs -or- Why the $1300 you Just Put in your Car Doesn't Matter

Back in my school days, one of the economic principles they tried to force us to understand was Sunk Costs. The idea is fairly simple, to make a financial decision, you only weigh the costs and benefits going forward, whatever you have already spent should not be a factor.
For example:
You're ready to sell your house. It's currently worth $150k but if you invest $50k in adding an isolation chamber (they're all the rage, Oprah loves hers!), you could sell the house for $190k. Should you do it?
Looking at the numbers, the answer is clearly "no". You would be spending $50k to get an additional $40k for the house. That doesn't make financial sense.
But what if you had already spent $3k on installing some custom lighting that would really highlight the ISO-5000? Should you invest then? Again the numbers don't add up. The $3k is a Sunk Cost. You've paid for the lighting whether or not you get the matching chamber, and you'd still be taking a $10k loss if you make the purchase.
These analysis are usually pretty easy to see when we break down the numbers, but there's an emotional factor that makes it harder to let go of the money that has been spent, even if it's clear that it's a bad financial decision to go ahead. This becomes harder still when politics or reputation is involved. To abandon a half-finished project, even when it is the right economic decision, means to admit failure. Furthermore, if everyone doesn't know or understand the numbers involved, it opens the decision up to further criticism. "We can't stop now, we've already put $5 million into the escalator to nowhere".
Another, painfully non-hypothetical, example is the War in Iraq. I have heard arguments from both sides of the debate that cite casualties suffered or money spent as reasons why we should continue our mission there -or- get out now. The correct question is: what are the future costs, primarily in lives, of staying versus going.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Life Hacking - the blogs

One of the concepts I've found interesting lately is "Life Hacking". Put simply, it's using different tools, techniques, resources, whatever to make life better in some way. In a simpler time, people would call these "helpful hints", but I guess the relabeling makes it relevant.

Two of my favorite blogs out there give (multiple) daily doses of advice. I find myself checking them at least daily.

lifehacker - This site has both technical and lifestyle hacks, with the focus being on technical. If you want to know how to fine tune Firefox or find a utility that does x,y and z in Linux, this is a good starting point. I've found several cool tools on this site that have solved sticky problems or made my life easier in some other way.

lifehack.org - I think of this site as the yin to lifehacker's yang. It covers the same topics, but the focus tends to be more on lifestyle hacks. There's a deep well of career and productivity hacks here, which ironically, can bring my productivity to zero as I start reading through the archives.

Both of these sites are well-written and the advice is usually solid. They also have multiple authors, so you don't see the "work was crazy so I haven't posted in a few weeks" syndrome. I would recommend checking both out.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Low Hanging Fruit - The beginning

With all of the blogs out there, how can I justify one more? Isn't there enough chatter in the Blog-ozone for everyone as it is? Well, in an attempt to justify my blog's existence, let me start with a short story:

One of the neat things I've learned in my career is the concept of Low Hanging Fruit, or LHF for you acronym junkies. The idea behind LHF is simple enough: Start with tasks that are quick and easy to complete and have a significant payoff. The operative question is "If I can only get one hour (day/week/whatever) of work done, what should I spend it on?". I've found that focusing on this concept helps me avoid both over-complex projects that will never see the light of day (not quick and easy) and time-wasting busy work (low payoff).

Fast-forward a few weeks. The kids and I were working on getting the house straightened up to surprise Mom, and one of them had decided it would be a good time to reorganize her crayons. I couldn't correct her for not working on the house, but she wasn't making any progress. In an attempt to redirect her efforts without having to give her step-by-step instructions, I broke out the jargon.

"Why don't you focus on the low-hanging fruit?"
"But there isn't any food to pick up." She can be very literal.
"It's a figure of speech. It means to look for easy things that make a big difference."

She's also very smart, so she got the idea immediately and identified a blanket that needed to be folded as the LHF, this was followed by some toys, clothes, etc. In a (relatively) short amount of time, a lot of the clutter was cleared up and the improvements were immediately obvious.

This modest success made me wonder what else, outside of work, would benefit from a LHF approach. For that matter, what were some other techniques and ideas that I kept in my "Career" tool box and never put to use elsewhere. This blog is simply a collection of my good, bad, and ugly thoughts along those lines. Please feel free to give me any adjusting or affirming feedback you may have*, and your thoughts are always welcome.

*within the bounds of common decency. We're adults here, as long as we act like it..