Observing Productivity

posted on 7 Jun 2020

Much has been written and said about personal productivity. The multi-billion dollar self-help Industry is testament to how much we as a civilization care about doing more with our time. And yet, at a personal level, being more productive always feels like a work in progress.

Like many in my industry, I have been working from home for the past few months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though, theoretically, I have more time on my hands, my personal productivity saw a significant drop early on. At first, I attributed it to the overhead associated with adopting a completely new routine, not to mention the stress and anxiety that came with it. Even the simplest of things, like taking out the trash out or doing laundry, took more time, planning and effort now. The adaptation did not come and I was observing a sustained drop week over week.

Now, I have spent most of my professional life working on large scale distributed systems, shaving off latency by X orders of magnitude here, increasing throughput by Y orders of magnitude there. There is a certain joy in making things go faster so people can do more with their time. And here I was, struggling with my own latency and throughput.

Unsure of how to approach the problem, and how much time I could dedicate to it in the first place, I decided to do what I usually do when trying to solve any performance problem - measure it.

It’s a simple idea, and yet, one is surprised by how many human years are wasted in solving problems before actually quantifying them in one way or another. Perhaps even more surprising is how much time is not spent on fixing problems with reasonable first-order approximations. Instead we spend it in search of the perfect solution. No doubt, better measurement usually leads to better insights and hopefully better decisions. However, I think there is merit in applying the Pareto principle to a class of problems where the principle also applies to the trade-off between timeliness and accuracy of solving the problem. More simply put, and anecdotally speaking, for most of the problems we deal with on a day to day basis, it is better to have a healthy bias to action.

So I decided to measure myself. Now usually, this would mean that I spend hours on end looking into the most effective technique to instrument and record data. And naturally, the perfect tool for the job would be both easy to use and flexible, giving me the ability to slice and dice the data in various ways, plot some nice graphs so I can see variations over time, so and so forth. You get the idea.

After spending precisely five seconds on weighing the pros and cons, I made a decision. I was going to use one of the most sophisticated sets of tools produced by humanity yet - pen and paper. The beauty with pen and paper is that I could start immediately. I did not have to incorporate another app into my workflow and I did not have to worry about cross-device syncing, backups, etc. The downside of course is that all data is now analog, which makes it tricky to do all that fancy data analysis. Nevertheless, I resisted the urge to digitize this effort. My reasoning was simple, I wanted to adopt the least friction mechanism of forming this new habit. This primarily came out of necessity, because I was heading towards a burnout, and I did not want to accelerate my journey there. Also, I was fairly skeptical that this will yield any meaningful results. I already know where I spend my time, I thought to myself, I should instead use this time working more efficiently!

So I started jotting down how I was spending my time, from the time I woke up, to the time I went to bed. Every time I picked up another task, I would note down the time and the name of the task next to it. The moment I had to switch focus, say from one project to another at work, or from one chore or another at home, I would write a stop time next to the current task, and add another row for the new one. And so it went, one line at a time.

Three things surprised me the most about this process. First, I thought it would be tedious to keep such a journal. After all, wasn’t the point to reduce the amount of work I had and not increase it? On the contrary, it proved to be remarkably easy. The notebook was right there, at my desk. All I had to do was look at the time and scribble a few words down. It didn’t end up adding much overhead. Initially, I would forget to jot down some entries at a stretch. So I would back-date some entries as best I could. I was only accountable to myself. So I didn’t worry too much about being perfect.

Next, it was alarming to observe the gap between where I thought my time went and where it actually did! I was switching between tasks way more often than anticipated. I was also spending much more time on chores than I realized. I was also taking more frequent breaks. With all the context switching and the daily chores, I was feeling more tired than usual. It started adding up, and stared looking obvious - a tell-tale sign that I was at the precipice of identifying the solution to my personal performance bottleneck.

Lastly, and perhaps most surprisingly, I started seeing an increase in my productivity, just by observing it. I didn’t have to do any significant analysis. I expected to observe meaningful changes only after I had identified some systemic inefficiencies, and spent many weeks trying to correct some poor habits. Instead, I found by being more aware of where my time was spent, I was more mindful of how to spend it and self-corrected as I went along. Naturally, all the data I collected is useful for more micro-optimizations, and there may be more interesting patterns that may emerge still. But Pareto delivered a big win, and I am grateful for it.

You see, an interesting pattern I have observed while fixing performance bottlenecks in software is that the journey to root cause the issue is far more interesting than the fix itself. It is one filled with mystery and intrigue. The fix that follows is usually a simple one, often a few lines or less, and seldom able to evoke the same emotions and excitement as the journey that led to discovering it. Don’t copy that vector here, stop traversing the graph over there, so on and so forth. In fact, the fix is so simple, that if not for war stories commemorating it, there is little left to remember what the fuss was all about in the first place. And so in life.

In writing this, my goal is two-fold, to serve as a reminder to me that sometimes, to be more productive, one simply needs to start observing for it. And second, to share this quirky observation in the hope that it ends up helping someone else.

I am sure one can find a Schrödinger’s cat joke somewhere in all of this, but I’d rather not kill the humor ;-)

Categories:  #productivity