Say No

The Magic Word

It seems to happen every year. I have goals in mind. I set them out on a piece of paper with the best of intentions and plot a rough course (a coarse course?) of how I’ll get there, how long it will be including interruptions, and how much I need to get done each day to do it. Sounds great, right? It is, and it works. Kind of. Sometimes. Almost never, in fact.

It used to work. For a while I was hitting those self-imposed deadlines. Then, little by little, things started slipping away. Frustratingly, I know I can do what needs to be done in the time allotted. It’s not like I’m stuck or anything. It’s that, honestly, other stuff gets in the way. Other stuff that needs attention, that sucks out the mentally awake time available so that after the mess has cleared, I’m flat out on the couch wondering what happened to the day.

It got me thinking that it’s a lot like Software Development. Back when I was first starting, my time management was all over the shop. This was mostly because I was inexperienced with how things worked. Then, as I figured it out, I got my cadence going and with each year I lengthened my stride. After some time, responsibilities were lumped onto my shoulders. Lo! The work that I could do in a day started taking two days. Then three.

Was I working slower? No. Was I lazier? Hardly! If anything, I was getting more done than ever, just not the things I considered to be important. The tangible, you see, was being overshadowed by the non-tangible. Those tasks I performed to keep things ticking. Those sessions where I’d stop and help out to guide someone away from the bad path. The distractions of every little thing coming at me… OK, that’s where the problem lies.

In Software Engineering, you need to focus on what you’re doing. Multi-tasking is fraught with peril. Yes, I can do it, but things get missed. Commits get dropped. Emails don’t get sent. My brain says, ‘yeah, I’ll do that in a second…’ but another crisis comes along and the follow up task goes out the window. I used to make checklists (I still do) to help, but there was something missing. Something crucial that I had forgotten about.

That missing thing was the word ‘No’. It’s a magic word. It sounds so negative, yet it yields such positivity. I’ll explain with an example: “Hey Jez, are you available for a quick chat to look at these logs files?” A classic. Sure, examining the logs would only take about 5 minutes, maybe 10. Maybe 15 if there’s something odd, make it 20 to explain a side issue, heck, blow it out to 30 to run through a test case and demonstrate how a feature works. That’s 30 minutes right there for what really could be a 5 minute task. But, even if it’s 5 minutes, it’s not 5 minutes. There’s the time to ‘context switch’. Especially when you’ve got a heavy task, it can take a while to get out of ‘the zone’ and then, once you’ve finished dealing with the interruption, it’s an even longer time to get back into ‘the zone’.

So what’s the solution? No. No, no, no. That’s not very helpful, I know, but bear with me. No can mean, ‘Not right now’. No can mean, ‘I can help, but so can someone else, and they’ll probably do a better job’. No can mean, ‘I’ve committed to another task and cannot leave it unless it’s bloody urgent’. And, of course, No can mean, ‘Seriously? No’.

And that’s what I’ve been doing at work: Planning out my day in my calendar and blocking out sections for things that must be done. If something arises, I insist on triaging it. Is it urgent? Can it wait half an hour? Can someone else do it? Please make an appointment. Those blocks in my calendar act like mini ‘Nos’. The change of mindset from ‘see ball, kick ball’ to a triaging has weeded out the important and urgent from the non-important and non-urgent.

This approach has worked wonders. I still do the extra things, of course, but the number of times I have to context switch has gone down. I’m still not where I’d like to be, but it’s definitely improving. So, what about my personal life? It’s not like I’ve got a calendar handy. The principle, I’m sure, still applies. I just need to figure out what it means to say No. It’s one thing to deny a meeting request, it’s another thing to skip out making a costume for Book Week.

Maybe it’s not so much that I need to say no more. Maybe I need to evaluate what’s important, turn the intangible into tangible and celebrate that as a success. I’m still working on that. If I figure it out, I’ll let you know.