Days like these

Some days it feels like I hit the ground running. Today it felt more like I lost my breath as I chased the ground as it ran off well ahead of me. I never did catch up; and you know, for the first time in my life, I felt like shutting down my computer, waving a white flag, and sitting on the beach sipping a triple venti soy peppermint macchiatto with extra caramel drizzle.

It’s days like these that make me realize I have a tendency to become obsessed with my work because I love the work I do—Fixing stuff. Writing stuff. Hacking code. Teaching methods and principles. Having people listen—This is all good. A close friend of mine told me years ago, Tony, when you find your dream job, you’ll never have to work again for the rest of your life. I’d like to think he’s right.

But even in the dream job, there’s often a lot of work that needs to be done. Often there are competing priorities which just need to be prioritized and then picked off, one by one. Often there are complications when things don’t work out as planned which use up the contingency the project planner factored in for just such possibilities. Issues may even arise that eat into the contingency planned for another project, but that’s a topic best pontificated some other day. Often there are compromises that need to be made in order to get the job done, on time, and under budget.

Even in our dream job, there is often work that we don’t like to do that must be done. My problem, the perfectionist that I am, is leaving well enough alone, and moving on quickly to the next project just because it needs to be done. Also, I enjoy solving the problems and writing a process for later. No sooner do I solve one problem that another one quickly takes over, and the process never gets written.

So, how do we cope, when barraged with a number of different thoughts, activities, and tasks that need to be done, seemingly all at the same time? How do we deal with being overwhelmed by the sheer massiveness of the mammoth task list?

Make a list

The obvious starting point is to understand the subtasks within the mammoth task at hand. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. I remember watching on the Blue Planet DVD series how a group of killer whales drowned and then bit chunks out of a large blue whale calf. The rest of the dead creature sank to the bottom of the ocean, where other scavengers ate its flesh and organs. Eventually small hagfish cleaned out the marrow from within the bones, and small microbes cleaned off the bones themselves. If nature breaks large whale tasks into smaller, manageable chunks, then why don’t we?

Visually map the list

I’m a visual thinker by nature, so I like to play connect the thoughts, drawing my tasks onto paper. Lately I’ve been exploring this free mind mapping tool called Freemind, but using a computer is really counterintuitive to the actual process of planning. However, there has been talk on the DITA Users Yahoo group about converting Freemind map data into a ditamap to link to various topics. Perhaps a computer-generated mind map may eventually work its way into some deliverable some time down the line.

Seeing my thoughts on paper visually helps me to group similar thoughts together, building relationships into what used to be unrelated tasks. I see dependencies where certain tasks need to be completed before attempting to start the next task. Among these dependencies I see which tasks are awaiting response from others. How liberating.

Sample of a hand-drawn map of my current tasks

Sample of a hand-drawn map of my current tasks

Sample of a Freemind map of a website project

Sample of a Freemind map of a website project

Prioritize the list

I don’t do this hardly enough. There is usually never any time to explore other prioritizing methods except randomly applying A, B, and C to all the tasks. I prefer letters. In one of my previous jobs our twit of a general manager listed everything as priority 1. He also mispronounced “nuculus” (he meant “nucleus”), and blasphemed “priorize” (instead of “prioritize”). Figures if he didn’t know the proper word to use, he couldn’t do it either.

When the task list is small, this casual approach is usually all that’s takes. When the task list is massive, and the stakes are higher, a more systematic approach is required. I stumbled upon a November 2004 STC Intercom magazines article entitled, Planning a Web Site Redesign in Six Steps, where the authors used a forced choice chart to help their client decide the top five reasons visitors use their site. (I was only going to link to the STC Intercom front page but this article is virtually impossible to find, even if you were logged in and searched for its title.)

While I hardly have the time to breathe at work, I can see how using this chart to analyze and force myself to decide between tasks of seemingly equivalent priority would provide an objective rationale as to why I chose to work on one project over another. When questioned I could refer to the chart which, at the time, showed specific tasks ranking higher in the list. In the face of my many shifting priorities, I will have to experiment with this and let you know how it goes.

Sample of a forced choice chart

Sample of a forced choice chart from STC Intercom Nov 2004

At the end of the day

It’s nice to know that I wasn’t the only one who had problems today. When the barista at Starbucks made my drink, the cap fell off the caramel squeeze bottle, and plopped right into my soy covered with espresso shots. It’s probably not nice to derive my pleasure from another’s accidents, but it lightened my mood, and I so needed that.

There are all kinds of other strategies that I’ve explored and would like to use more often, but I’m sure you’re sick of hearing me yak. What kind of prioritizing strategy do you use, however formal or informal it may be?