Time Management: Everyday we have certain things we need to achieve. Yet we often allow the details to get in the way.
This article is not about giving 90% effort. It is not about doing only 90% of the job. This is about time management, getting the most of your time and resources to accomplish your tasks. It is part of the Lessons Learned series.
Give It All You Got
It is built into our nation’s psyche that when you do anything, you give it 100%. I ran track and played football and those two sports were often a battle within myself as to what I had inside me. Giving 110% was when you discovered you could push yourself harder. That is part of the drama and the fun of athletics. But, alas, not everyone is an athlete. I worked on farms and “giving 100%” was simply getting the hay bailed and stacked before it rained. In fact, rain measured everything. We worked at nights if a storm was on its way. Failure was not an option.
But life, in general, is not made of such drama. For someone who is borderline obsessive compulsive and definitely ADHD, I had no problem diving into a problem and digging and digging until I solved it. IT was the perfect field for that. It is exactly this sort of mentality that makes for hackers and innovators. We see something, it gets our attention and then we pursue it until we have met the challenge. Yet that was the problem. An IT professional rarely exists in such a universe unless you work for the NSA or high tech. For most of us, we have to juggle priorities with limited resources and limited time.
My first career job was as a grain trader and that job was rather regimented because the markets were active from 9 till 1 PM Central Time, with an 11 AM cut off for barge trading contracts. Our contracts were cleared and printed for review by 3 PM. The rest of day was spent communicating with clients and managing contracts. It was a fun job, but one where I made few decisions on what I was going to do, when and how.
Not so when you run your own business. I started an IT business and it would eventually evolve to the point where I knew that orders had to be compiled by 2 PM so I could complete my purchases by 3 PM. But outside of those time limits, I was challenged to better manage my time. One thing I began to notice was that I much preferred going down rabbit holes working on projects I liked or exploring new things, something ADHD folks are prone to do. Then you suddenly realize that you neglected an important project or you forgot to call a customer. Worse, you realize all that time and effort did not contribute to maintaining or growing the business. Focusing on a task was not my problem. It was the problem. I needed to un-focus. I had to learn how to use my time more productively. I had to start each day, stand back and look over the entire landscape, set priorities and commit myself toward meeting them. I really struggled. It was not as much fun. But it would enable me to be more successful.
It took a while for me to allow for this, but I discovered a working technique that I called “The 90% Rule.” I found the 90% Rule especially effective for my last job as a performance analyst for a cloud center. As you can imagine, looking at performance metrics from 3000 servers is sort of like herding cats. Where do you begin? You begin with the problem areas that are most apparent and you attack. I began to see definite patterns of performance issues. For a time it was CPU alerts on Windows systems. At other times, filesystem alerts. Rather than trying to resolve all the problems, I focused on a significant problem. In effect, solving that problem would usually resolve 90% of the issues. Yet many of the problems I had to deal with required considerable time in study. I was tempted to travel down that path, but you begin to realize that you still need to do your job. I had to organize every day committed to getting 90% of my work done. That meant doing the jobs with the most immediate, predictable results. It meant organizing your day, your week and the month so that expected assignments were fulfilled and reports submitted in a timely manner. I almost always had adequate time to get to the other 10%.
No aspect of this time management conundrum was more tested than when I was trapping malware. Wow, talk about fun! Back in the late 90’s the Internet was just emerging and security vulnerabilities were exposed everywhere. There were usually 10-14 days between virus discovery and malware protection updates. So I was obviously concerned about blocking malware activity or at least mitigating the risks. Unfortunately, trapping malware was not in my job description (In fact, in those days, it was hardly in anyone’s job description). I realized that researching a malware alert could absorb most of the day. While this was critical work, and fun to do, I still had to do my job running a network. Each morning I focused on getting 90% of the support work done as quickly as possible. I avoided rabbit holes. What I discovered was that I usually got all the support tasks completed. This left time during the day to explore more deeply how malware events were occurring and what were the tell-tale signs they left on our computer systems. One of my primary support tasks was deploying operating system patches and software updates. I would eventually deploy techniques that would trap these malware events and integrate those solutions into my routine work.
IT work is quite enjoyable because you are always confronted with new challenges which require mastering new techniques and training. I discovered that focusing on getting 90% of the work done enabled me to actually get 100% of the work completed, leaving time for self-education, research and experimentation at the end of the day. Personally, I would have much preferred it being the other way around where all I did all day was “play” with IT stuff.
Time Management: Painting
This tendency toward “perfection” was also evident in my other activities. I never hired paint contractors until recently because I wanted painters like me – and I was so slow and meticulous that it was obvious I could not afford to pay for a painter like myself. Being a part time DIY craftsman meant having to cram a lot of work into a few weekends. I discovered I was too focused on important, but time-consuming tasks. The solution was to get the big projects done first. Then go over it a second time in detail. Over the lifetime of home ownership, the circle of tasks got smaller and smaller, yet the 90% Rule was applied each time. The “90% Rule” in this case was attacking this old house we bought bedecked with a ragged coloring that I affectionately called “mildew green.” It began with cleaning the surface of gypsum tile (love that stuff), then priming it. If I ran out of time, I would put the finish coat on the next month or even the following year. Judging from my previous experiences, I knew that this would not be enough. Two finish coats of paint would be required. And the trim was in beastly condition. As it turned out, I had replaced broken tiles, retapped loosened nails, bleached, primed and applied the first coat of paint within a year. That was a big accomplishment for someone who did things in his “spare time.” But the 10% I didn’t do was the trim and the second coat of paint. Anyone who has painted a house can tell you that trim work is 90% of the time. I worked with old houses. I had to sometimes replace the trim, custom mill the trim patterns, clean and calk, repair glasswork, and reglaze glass panels. I pulled back to doing the “25% Rule,” where I focused on only one side of the house each year. The result was high quality work that would last for years. All this to point out that we tend to focus on too many details without realizing we can get 90% of the work completed.
Consider if I “went by the book.” I was taught to repair the trim first, prep the surface, then finish the entire house. Hmm. It took me four years to do the trim. That would have meant living in a house that was colored “mildew green” for four years. No thanks.
The purpose of the 90% Rule is to get the largest portion of a job completed in as short of time possible. It does not mean giving 90% effort, or leaving a job undone. It is a decision on how best to use your time and energy. You will discover that it may be more boring, but the results will be improved performance. Hope this helps.
© Copyright 2023 to Eric Niewoehner