Monday, January 16, 2012

On Effort Reuse

When starting on preparing a new set of presentation slides, we often have 2 choices:

  1. To start with an empty set, and add old slides conservatively
  2. Twick an old set of slides to create a new one.

More and more, I find the first option a better one. Ideally, every presentation we make is essentially different from all its predecessors. If that doesn't happen to be the case with a particular presentation we intend to make, we should strongly review the justifiability of making it in the first place. So, once we decide on making the presentation, we should start with that point of novelty and build outward from it and add material as required. In the process, we may prefer to use material from earlier presentations.

The second option gives a feeling that we are reusing our earlier effort. But it puts severe mindblocks in thinking afresh. I inadvertantly tend to forcefit the new story into the old one. In the process, I sometimes completely lose track of the central point of the new presentation. And the worst thing to happen is when on stage I suddenly stumble on a slide I didn't expect to be there. The body language that moment speaks of the speaker's insincerity more than anything else. The audience doesn't view a presentation as a mass produced content from an intellectual factory. Every presentation should have an appearance of being hand-crafted for that particular audience.

The same holds for writeups and computer programs, to some extent.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Two Lessons Learned This Year

In my 2011 Balance Sheet Article, I have listed two lessons learned. I wish to explain a bit about them here.

Everything has cost
It's been a long standing issue with me to over-promise myself with too many things to do, and not being able to do many of them eventually. One of the reasons I have identified is my inability to schedule my tasks, i.e. apportion appropriate amount of time to all the intended tasks and then decide when to do them. I have a tendency not to accept that certain things, particularly those which I do not find very interesting or central to my interest, also need time. When we shift from one significant bit of task to another, there are many little things to be done. Take, for instance, the following scenario: I am deep into writing a report at, say, 4.45 PM. At 5 PM, I am supposed be in a meeting in which I am supposed to make a presentation to a remotely located audience. At 4.57 PM, I pull myself out of my reverie and rush to the meeting room. I, then, realise that I need to locate the set of slides to be shared on my computer. The desktop sharing application takes a while to come up. I realise that I also need to locate the conference line number and access code to start the call. When I eventually succeed in locating it, it takes a few number of attempts to establish the call. The projector and network connection also act bratty today. By the time the meeting gets going, it's well past 5.10 PM. Not an insignificant slippage considering that I had a mere half hour slot to present my stuff. Obviously, I rush through my slides, since I had kept ready material worth 40 minutes, and wanted others to know this too. Eventually, when I finish my presentation, not without encroaching into the next slot by a few minutes, I am frizzled and frustrated. No one asks me any question. Not so much much because they had understood everything, as because they are already getting impatient and eager about the next presentation. I missed an opportunity of making an effective presentation, even though I was thorough in my material and preparation.

My undoing was, as you may readily be able to see, in not accounting for the time it takes to wrap one task up and get into another. Preferably, I would have forced myself to close my report writing at some minimal logical point, somewhere around 4.50 PM. That way, I would not only have been physically ready to start my presentation punctually, I would also have felt mentally warmed up for the upcoming activity. That quality implication of the same aren't quite measurable, but definitely significant. The other thing I could have done was to prepare for 20-25 minutes. I could have comfortably glided through my slides, could have had time to take questions, and could have still been left with a couple of minutes for the co-ordinator to facilitate the transition into the next session.

Like in the above scenario, our day to day life is filled with these tasks which we consider as main or bonafide tasks; and there are those we consider as chores, often as distraction. For example, a researcher often considers paper-writing, making presentations, travels etc. as distraction to his main activity of research. The idea of prioritisation underlies this mentality, which is good. However, often it transforms into a wishful thinking wherein we assume that these tasks will somehow be done without our having to do them mindfully. Eventually, we end up allocating insufficient time to them. When we unwillingly get down to do them, the real magnitude and complexity of the task grows upon us like an avalanche. The chore ends up encroaching into the time we had mentally allocated to something more significant.

The biggest loss in such cases is the loss in the quality of the whole experience.

The first step towards correcting this habit lies in the topic of this section: to realise that everything has a cost, whether you like it or not. It wise to accept that there are certain activities that must somehow be done, and hence, must also be accounted for in the time budget.


Progress matters more than completion

Another distressing thing related to inability to achieve goals has been that no work ever seems to get over in time unless trivial. Time management principles teach you to break down the work into manageable tiny pieces. Firstly, this task by itself isn't trivial. And secondly, often, the number of these tiny pieces of tasks often starts multiplying like bacteria. In no time they go out of hand. No to-do lists seem to work in such cases. In all such cases, I have found it helpful -- at least in keeping stress down if not in really finishing the work -- to simply decide to progress a bit everytime I sit down to do the task. I try never to think about the end goal in the midst of those sessions. I just concentrate on making a progress.

The biggest advantage of this approach is that it has reduced the resistance to start.

There doesn't seem to be any disadvantage of this thinking. However, it appears that it works well only in cases where the task is such that every bit put into it amounts to a progress. This doesn't encompass the complete set of things we usually do. Particularly, in tasks involving creativity, e.g. research or artwork, which pretty much comprises almost the complete set of things I do, just sitting down to work doesn't mean there will be progress. The most important condition to progress is concentration, which takes time to build. If we break down a job involving 3 hours of work into fragments of half hour each, the number of fragments needed to finish the work would be much larger than 6. In fact, the number may even be infinite. That will be the case with tasks the size of whose atoms is 3 hours, no less. You can't break these activities into anything smaller. The buildup time of concentration in such task could be something like half an hour or an hour. If the individual times are half an hour, you are out of time by the time your concentration builds up. And then you close, and next time you start, you start all over again. It doesn't work!