Some ramblings on Parkinson’s law and shorter workdays

Parkinson’s law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

If you’re like most people, you probably work 8 to 5, or on some sort of fixed time work week, for a fixed monthly pay. How do you work on your average 8 hour day?

Try this exercise, log how you actually spend your 8 hour workdays in the office for a week. All you need is pen and paper, keep it on your desk and just write down the time and task you’re working on when you start. And when you finish, note down the time and write next to your task a brief summary of how it went, how focused you were, whether you were multi-tasking or doing anything else, and etc.

Disclaimer: This post probably doesn’t apply to workaholics.

You will most probably realize three things. One, you can’t focus very well and keep getting distracted. Two, you don’t actually spend 8 hours working, it’s more like 4, or maybe less if you exclude all those microbreaks in between. And three, you find yourself dreading work and hope time would move faster. In the end, you probably did about 2 hour’s worth of work?

Now suppose you can only work 2 hours a day instead of 8, with the same boatloads of tasks to complete, but after 2 hours, you’re done for the day and free to go. I know, it sounds like a dream and would probably never happen, but if you’re still working remotely, you can totally give this a try.

Try it for a day, you can surely get away with that, and just work for 2 hours and spend the rest of your day off. You’ll find that with only 2 hours to work, you’re more focused and motivated to do things.

The shift in mindset is amazing, 8 hours is a really long time and doesn’t leave you much time for leisure or pursuing your own hobbies. But 2 hours? You can work for 2 hours, it’s really motivating as well since now you’ll have the rest of your day to enjoy. Heck, you might even be surprised to have gotten more done in 2 hours than 8!

The only caveat is that you must not be interrupted during your workday, something that’s extremely common in the office environment. I don’t have an answer to that yet, other than something similar to the academic office hours, and that is probably the single biggest source of frustration among knowledge workers. Random people, random questions, all at their own convenience, sucking away your precious time and attention.

An exercise in time tracking, part 2

It has been 11 days since I started time tracking with Toggl, and the results are in. Well, kinda. Here’s the breakdown of how I spent my time while using my laptop. Out of the 52 hours I’ve logged:

  • 14.5 hours were wasted on distractions.
  • About 14 hours spent on general reading on the internet.
  • 8 hours were spent doing admin stuff, a huge chunk of it went into reading about and experimenting with productivity tools. See previous posts, there’s another productivity tool called Notion that I’m considering writing about, though I haven’t properly used it yet.
  • About 9 hours were spent on writing and journaling.
  • 2.5 hours tinkering with my personal finance (I’m trying to get into the habit of reviewing my personal finance at the end of every month).
  • Another 2.5 hours were spent learning/practicing my ukulele.
  • And the rest were scattered all over.

A quick note, the actual hours wasted on distraction is probably around 16+ hours instead. I don’t always remember to stop my timer and track the actual hours spent and it can get quite annoying. On the flip side, this is telling me I still have a long way to go with monotasking and improving my focus.

I’m also considering whether to track my phone usage and/or time spent in real life, i.e, away from technology, as well but it’s probably not worth the effort. I also don’t want to be a data-freak and get too obsessed with productivity and time spent.

It’s really interesting though, time is the only thing we have in a limited but constant supply, just 24 hours a day every day. It’s not like money where you can save it for a rainy day. With time, you either spend it or waste it, there’s no way of saving it.

And also, consider this. A life expectancy of 80 years means you’ll have about 700,000 hours to spend. If you’re 30 years old, that means you have less than 450,000 hours left, and you’ll never know when you’ll be hit with a sudden time-bankruptcy. It’s as if we’re all just waiting to have regret later on in life.

So why aren’t more people into time-tracking the way they’re into budgeting their finances? Do you know how much time you’re spending vs wasting? Try time-tracking for a bit and see for yourself and prepare to be shocked by how often you get distracted.

Nozbe free vs Todoist free

A quick background, I used Nozbe for a while and found it to be pretty cool. Sadly, the free trial expired and now I’m limited to only 5 projects. Sure, I could pay the $8/month and get back the unlimited projects, and that’s probably what Nozbe intended. Or I could try another free app and see how they compare, and the one I chose was Todoist.

Perhaps the first difference you’ll notice about Todoist is that you can have up to 80 projects in the free version, how cool is that? It’s really a breath of fresh air compared to the 5 project limitation in Nozbe. The premium and business version of Todoist are a lot cheaper too, at $3/month and $5/month respectively, compared to the $8/month Nozbe Solo account.

Another cool thing about Todoist is that unlike Nozbe, you can actually separate your projects into sections and even create sub-projects inside your projects! Though I’m pretty sure they’ll count towards the 80 project limit. And you can also create sub-tasks in your tasks. In Nozbe, you’re limited to just the projects and their set of tasks, no sub-projects, or sub-tasks available.

And it turns out, this is not a difference in feature but a difference in workflow or philosophy. In Nozbe, the suggested way to manage projects is to apply labels and do things horizontally instead of hierarchically. Though it’s certainly an interesting concept, it might take some getting used to and with a 5 project limitation, it’s not really practical on the free version. More reason to upgrade or migrate it seems.

By now, you might be wondering what’s so good about the free version of Nozbe and why anyone would choose it over the free version of Todoist. Well, everything else it seems. Let’s get one thing straight here, the only difference between the free version of Nozbe and the paid version is the project restriction, everything else is the same between the two.

This means that in the free version of Nozbe, you get to add comments and attachments, put labels and use filters, add tasks via email, view your activity logs for free, set up and use templates, and use the reminder function. None of these are available in the free version of Todoist.

Aside from those, there are also a few other minor differences I want to point out. In Todoist, the reoccurring due dates function is significantly better than Nozbe as you can set custom due dates like “every 11 days” whereas, in Nozbe, you’re limited to what’s available in the dropdown menu.

Another difference is that in Nozbe, you can star tasks and they will appear in the priority tab, along with tasks that are due today. In Todoist, you can mark tasks with priority and they will only appear when filtered, and yes, the free version allows you to label tasks with priority 1/2/3/4 and filter by those four labels, no custom labels or filters allowed.

And that summarizes the difference between Nozbe free and Todoist free. Simply put, Nozbe free is fully-featured but with a 5 project restriction, Todoist free is feature restricted but allows for a lot more projects. Which one would you choose?

I have to say, I quite like Nozbe. The app somehow feels a lot friendlier than Todoist, and I like their green logo a lot more than the red Todoist logo. While I am considering just upgrading to the paid Nozbe Solo, I also really like that sub-task and sub-project feature in Todoist.

So right now, I’m going to stick with Todoist free for a while and see how it goes. I don’t mind missing out on all the extra features, I just want that extra capability to organize and group my projects.

An exercise in time tracking

I recently started time tracking using this simple little tool called Toggl, which is basically a timer to track your time. Simply type in what you’re working on, hit the start button to start the timer, and hit the stop button when you’re done with your task. That’s it.

You can do this to track your hours and get a realistic view of how you actually spend your time versus how you think you spend your time. The first thing I learned was that I side-track a lot. This isn’t news to me but I didn’t know it was this bad.

What normally happens is, I would type in the task I’m working on, say writing this blog post, and get to work. Occasionally, I would switch tabs and go look up some stuff. Sometimes, I would get side-tracked and start reading random stuff. The timer is still ticking and by the time I get back to writing, I remember the timer and cringe when I saw how much time I’ve wasted compared to how much of the task I got done.

So now, I’m trying to get myself into the habit of setting intentions. Whenever I use my computer, I will first open up Toggl and declare what I’m going to do and start the timer. If I ever feel the urge to switch tasks and go down some random rabbit hole, I’ll be sure to stop my timer and change the task. And as a result, I’m starting to get a picture of how I actually spend my time on my computer and my tendencies to switch to distracting tasks.

Today is only day two of time tracking and I’ve already messed up countless times, both with forgetting to start/stop the timer, having random distractions when I was supposed to be focusing on something, and not having a method to filter out or account for time spent on my phone. So I’m going to continue this time tracking exercise for a while and see what other insights or changes in my behavior I can get from this.

Life in a spaceship – Lockdown productivity

An interesting video on productivity during a lockdown, I like how it was reframed as life in a spaceship.

The main lessons from the video are:

  1. Look after your mental and physical health.
  2. When it doubt or in a rut, improve your physical health first and your mental health will take care of itself.
  3. Create separate spaces to create, play, sleep, and do workouts.
  4. Train yourself to respect the boundaries of those four spaces and don’t overlap.
  5. Ensure a constant amount of time spent on sleep, try to maximize time spent on workouts, minimize time spent on play and avoid going on a video binge, and put the rest of your time into creating stuff.

First thing in the morning

The best time to do it is first thing in the morning. Not only will you not have to worry about setting aside some time to get it done later in the day, you’re also free to do whatever you want and can accommodate any unexpected events or emergencies.

The worst time to do it is at night, right before you sleep. Not only do you risk losing some sleep if you didn’t get it done in time, you’re also stressing yourself out with unnecessary last-minute emergencies.

The only time when it makes sense to do something late at night is either when the timing is fixed, i.e. has to be done at said time, or you’re doing it to prepare for tomorrow morning, or you have backups and can risk not getting it done tonight.

Another benefit of doing things first thing in the morning is Parkinson’s law, work expands to fill the time allocated to complete it. Set the deadline as first thing in the morning, and you’ll get it done much much much sooner. Set the deadline as the end of the day and you’ll procrastinate on it all day long.

It’s the same with sleep, most people wake up not at the time they want, but at the latest time they can get away with while barely arriving to work on time. That’s probably why a lot of people can’t do things first thing in the morning and instead chose to do everything by the end of the day.

So here’s the takeaway, set deadlines in the morning and see what happens. Don’t just say the deadline is the 29th of May, do that and everyone will assume either midnight or EOD or COB, or AoE, and procrastinate by arguing the exact timing instead of doing anything productive.

Busy busy busy

Busy busy busy, that’s what everyone says.

Sorry, I’m too busy for that. Sorry, I don’t have time for that. But what they’re probably saying is: Sorry, that’s not a priority for me right now. Sorry, there are other things I would rather prioritize than that. Because no one is ever too busy for lunch or a bathroom break.

Everyone has the time and we’re all given the same 24 hours a day. It’s just how we chose to spend it that counts, the only thing you can’t do is save it for another day.

What are you giving up just to be busy with your current busyness? What is so important to you right now that it’s worth being busy with? And what will you give up so you can be busy with the right things?

A reminder a day keeps regression away

Our minds aren’t for holding ideas.

Throughout your life, you must have had thousands and thousands of ideas. Some from the movies you’ve watched, the books you’ve read, or the various social interactions you’ve had. I’m sure you’ve also received hundreds and hundreds of advice regarding various things as well.

So, how much of those do you remember?

In a moment’s notice, like right now, you probably can’t recall most of them. Try as you might, you’re not gonna go very far. Our minds just aren’t that great at holding ideas. Sure, you might remember them if there’s a reminder or a prompt of some sort that triggers your memory. But to remember on demand? Probably not.

That’s probably why we write things down and keep reminders, so we can free up our minds from having to hold so many ideas and prevent ourselves from forgetting them at a moment’s notice. It’s also why some people make rules for themselves that they adhere to. This is especially useful when we’re feeling emotional and all rational thinking goes out the window.

To give an example, you might be aware of the idea that less is more and we should be single-tasking, focusing on the important tasks instead of spreading our attention over a bunch of distractions. Do less things, but do them better. A simple advice that would surely help in whatever field you work in.

But wait one week, and you would most probably forget about it and go about your life the exact same way before hearing that advice. You would be multitasking a lot, giving in to distractions, and getting yourself pulled in multiple directions all day long. And chances are, you would probably continue your life in a daze, unaware of the simple advice that would help.

If you’re lucky, you might get a wake-up call and realize the situation you’ve gotten yourself in. Then, you would start reflecting or look online for ways to solve your problem. Most likely, you would be trying to solve your problem from scratch and it will take you a while to remember the idea of single-tasking and doing less.

The solution? It’s easy, just set daily/weekly/monthly reminders on all the ideas you’ve found helpful or impactful. That’s it! Perhaps you might also consider setting up a few rules to follow, in the case of the above example, something like turning off your phone or then internet when writing your report would likely help.

And yes, this is something like a reminder to myself for setting my own reminders. It’s already the end of April and I’ve missed quite a lot of my goals. After a bit of reflecting, I found that I’ve been through all this before and have previously devised a working solution, which, unfortunately, I’ve forgotten all about.

A device purely for writing

Today, I discovered Freewrite, a device that retails for about $600 and is the equivalent of a modern-day typewriter. It features a mechanical keyboard and a small E-ink screen, it lets you do one thing and one thing only. Write.

And I want it so badly.

Not so badly as to buy one on impulse right now, but I do desire something like it.

There’s also a smaller and more portable version called Traveler for roughly the same price. Except, there’s a significant discount on it right now. The crowdfunding campaign ended late 2018 and the Traveler was supposed to ship mid-2019, but due to issues and whatnot, it’s been delayed until mid-2020 or so.

Am I drooling over it? Yes, and did I mention it comes with Colemak support? But will I buy it any time soon? Probably not. For one thing, it’s not the only product on the market. There’s the Pomera DM30 which I’m also drooling over, and if I do get it, I’ll probably get the Japanese version. And also, some of Alphasmart’s discontinued digital typewriters are still available online, though they probably don’t support Colemak.

But the reason I’m not buying them is probably because I already have a device purely for writing, and it’s probably not what you think. Actually, it might just be what you’re thinking. A notebook and fountain pen combo. While there are plenty of things I love about it, there are a few crucial downsides that still makes it difficult for me to use full time and you’ve guessed it, it’s not digital.

So, I’m planning on hacking away my own device purely for writing and I have several candidates in mind. The first is to take an old laptop, format the whole thing and install Tiny Core Linux, or an equivalent lightweight and bare bone OS, along with a word processor. It should be a fun weekend project I reckon.

My second option is to take an old phone, install a word processor app, and pair it up with a Bluetooth keyboard. While this might sound easy, the hard part is in stripping down the OS so it’s a lot more distraction-free. Perhaps rooting it, install an open-source OS, and tweak the system somehow. But Androids can be a bit finicky, especially since the OS builds are phone-specific.

My third option is to just install a distraction-free word processor on my laptop and somehow limit distraction. To be honest, I’ve tried it before and it doesn’t really work. For some reason, my mind just won’t stay put and I’ve found that it’s much more effective to just go pen and paper. Which is why it’s my current device purely for writing, with the drawback that I’d have to type everything up if I want it in digital form.

In the end, am I going to change or try anything different? Probably not. This is my current setup, and it’s fine. It’s not perfect, but it’s mine. But someday, I might try hacking away my own device. Someday.

Procrastination and laziness

As a general rule, the later you start, the worse you will feel. Finish something first thing in the morning, and you’ll feel a sense of freedom throughout the day. Waiting until the end of the day before starting and you’ll hate yourself for not doing it earlier.

It’s called procrastination, and we all know it way too well. It creeps up on us from time to time, especially when there’s something we know we’re supposed to do but don’t really feel like doing it, for whatever reasons.

It’s amazing that we can spend hours doing things like cleaning and reading stuff we normally wouldn’t read, all just to avoid doing what we’re supposed to do. Compared to that task we’re dreading, something like exercise and fitness can suddenly sound very appealing even though we rarely workout in our daily lives.

When we have all the time in the world, we squander it. It’s only when the deadline draws near do we put in the effort. Isn’t that the biggest pandemic worldwide?

Like what Richard Turner said:

“You know what I consider the worst disability of all? Procrastination and laziness. Give me blindness over that any day of the week.”