4 minute read

You hear it everywhere: ‘if you want something doing well, do it yourself’. Maybe the primary source is beleaguered managers in stagnant organisations where delivering on promises is the exception rather than the rule, who knows.

That message ingrained itself in me as I grew up. When I started managing people and projects it took a huge effort to let go of the critical tasks, and not only to trust people to do the work well, but also to accept that ‘doing it well’ might actually involve doing it differently to how I would have.

As a specialising generalist I’ve forged my career so far by trying to understand everything, and to be able to at least get by in most areas of technology. At home I take pride in being able to fix (just about) anything and hack the physical world to meet our needs. Plus, getting outside and chopping logs or fixing bikes is a nice distraction after a day in front of the computer.

In short, I want to do everything, or at least be involved in everything. I want to understand what’s going on in the world around me, fuelled by curiosity and the feeling that I should be able to do it.

The problem I’ve faced recently, though, is that I don’t have enough time. Or rather, I don’t do enough of the things I really care about. Moving to contract work has opened up a whole new world of things for me to learn and take on: accounting, law, marketing, operations; and all of that happens outside of the 9-to-5, when I’m working with clients.

The Internet is full of answers, though they seem to primarily revolve around sleeping less or cutting out TV. I’m sure getting up earlier works for many, but I like my 8 hours sleep (when I get it) and don’t want to lose productivity later on as it catches up with me.

If I end up in front of the TV it’s usually because I’ve run out of cognitive capacity and need a bit of downtime, so while watching less TV is a good idea, the benefit is in spending more time with the ones I love and getting outside.

I may be painting a bleak picture, but over the past few weeks a couple of things have had a positive impact on how much I ‘get stuff done’:

  1. Delegating as much as possible, and anything that doesn’t get me closer to my goal.
  2. Working through tiny tasks in time that I’d usually just lose.

Delegate it all

How many things do you do because you have to, but which don’t directly contribute to your happiness or professional development? Cleaning, laundry, DIY, fixing the vacuum cleaner. Assuming you live in any reasonably built up area, there’s probably a host of companies specialising in these tasks, waiting to take them off your plate. How much is that 30-60 minutes a day worth to you? Could you swap out these tasks for paid employment for the same amount of time and end up better off, or swap them out for time spent in the countryside or doing something you enjoy?

The problem is that sounds very extravagant, right? I can’t imagine paying someone to clean my house so I don’t have to, and would almost feel ashamed that I wasn’t doing it myself. Yet somehow I don’t have a problem with Jennifer doing most of the cooking when I’ve got a busy stretch.

Second-guessing each thing in my to-do list has been quite helpful, even though it’s hard work for me. Do I really need to learn how to repair wetsuits, research and purchase the best materials for it, then spend a couple of hours painstakingly gluing and stitching it, or could I just send it off to a wetsuit repair company (who’ll certainly do a much better job) for £15 or so?

Making dead time work

I used to spend Saturday mornings working through a list of small, 5-minute jobs I’d built up during the week. Then I realised how many times I pulled out my phone and read BBC News for 5-10 minutes: on the bus, waiting for a meeting. I’d got to a point where anything less than a clear hour free and it didn’t seem worth starting something.

Creating a new to-do list, containing only things that can be done in 5-30 minute bursts, has helped me reclaim this time. Technical podcasts (I thoroughly recommend the Ruby Rogues and Adventures in Angular) replace music while I’m walking around Oxford, expenses and timekeeping get done on the bus ride back into Oxford when I’m not cycling (so when I arrive home my work day is completely finished), and replying to Facebook and Twitter conversations get a few minutes before lunch or a cup of tea. Taking the bus for 20 minutes each morning last week enabled me write 80% of this blog post.

These have helped me reclaim my Saturday mornings, and generally feel like I’m getting more done.

The big caveat

These two approaches have helped me feel like I’m making better progress. If you’ve found this while searching for how to get more done then hopefully it’ll help you too, but it comes with a caveat: there’s only a finite amount of time available to each of us. Perhaps a better, third tip is to learn to say ‘no’, and to try not to take on too much, rather than trying to fit more in. Slowing things down can help you achieve more in the long run. I’m sure there’s a fable about that.