Part 3: A polite way to say no - and why there are times when it doesn’t work.

2010-09-07 23:05
After having shared my thoughts on how to improve focus and how to track tasks eating up time this post will explain how to keep time invested at a more or less constant level. The goal of this exercise is to keep obligations at a reasonable level - be it at work or during ones spare time.

In recent time I have collected a small set of techniques to reduce what gets to my desk - I don't claim this list to be exhaustive. However some of it did help me organise conference and still have a life besides that.

Sharing and delegating tasks

Sharing and delegating are actually two different ways of integrating other people: Sharing for me means working together on a topic. That could be as easy as setting up a CMS or it could be more involved as in publishing articles on Lucene in some magazine. The advantage is that both of you can contribute to the task, possible even learn from each other: When I was doing the article series on Lucene together with Uwe it also was a great learning experience for me to have someone take the time to explain to me - well, not only to me - what flexible indexing, local search and numeric range queries are really all about, as in technically implemented. So it was not only an enormous time-saver for me, as the alternative would have been me reading through documentation, code and mailing lists to get up to date. But it also gave me the unique opportunity to learn from the very developers of these features about how they work and how they are meant to be used.

The disadvantage of sharing is that part of the work still remains on your desk. That's where delegation helps: Take the task, find someone who is capable and willing to solve it and give it to them. There are two problems here: First you have to trust people to actually work on the task. Second you probably cannot avoid checking back from time to time to see if there is progress, if there are any impediments etc. So it means less work than with sharing. But there is more risk in not getting your results and more work to be done for co-ordination. However it is a very powerful technique if applied correctly to scale what can be achieved: Telling people what you need help with and letting them take over some of that work does scale way better than micro-managing people or even trying to be part of every piece of a project. It means giving up some of your control, in return you can turn to other potentially more involved tasks. Note to self: Need to build up more trust in that area.

Both concepts however are not actually about saying no but about being able to say yes even if you already have just very few time left.


Prioritising tasks can be done on a scale from zero to any arbitrarily large number. Obviously it helps with deciding whom to say no to: It's going to be those projects rated very low. That is those you could easily do without That's the simplest case as it is easiest to explain. The strategy I usually use is to be honest with people: If there are conflicting conferences, it's easy to reject invitations. If some publication does not pay for you, it's easiest to be open and honest with people and tell them. Usually they will understand.

A second reason for a rating of zero is that the task is one of those "Does not belong on my desk" tasks. My advice for those would be to get rid of them as quickly as possible: They draw away your energy without giving back any value. This issue plays nicely with the "patches welcome" theme from open source: People working on open source projects are most successful if they are driven by their own needs. So if you want something implemented, either implement and submit it yourself - or find someone you can pay to do so. People will not work for you. You can jump up and down, complain on the mailing lists - but if the feature you would like to see is something that no-one else in the existing community needs, it won't get done until someone needs it.

Introduce barriers

A nice way of rejecting favours that works at least sometimes is to raise the barrier. The example here would be getting an invitation to give an introductory talk for a closed audience. So what I tried was to raise the bar by asking for funding for travel and accommodation.

Keep in mind though that there is the risk that the one inviting you actually accepts your conditions - no matter how high you think you have set them. Especially the example given above has the problem of being too low a bar in most cases. So be prepared to have to keep your promise. As a result the conditions you set really should lead to the task turning into something that is fun to do.

Cut off early

Imaging you have committed to some task. Later on you realise you won't actually make it: You have no time, priorities have changed, the task is too involved or any other reason you could potentially imaging.

The important way to reduce the load on your desk is to communicate this issue as early as possible. It's clear that people will be more disappointed the later they learn that something they probably depend on won't arrive in time or will never happen: They'll never be extremely happy, however the sooner they learn the more time they have on their part to react. And actually, most people don't react that disappointed at all, simply because they may have counted some risk into the equation when giving you the task - which is not to say you should lower the reliability of your commitments, simply because no-one is expecting you to meet your goals anyway. However usually the amount of trouble expected is way higher than what actually happens. Second note to self: Don't forget about this option.

Patches welcome

At least in open source: If it's nothing that helps make your world better - there are other people out there to help out. Patches being welcome may seem obvious. However in some areas it really is not: If someone asks the project member to be present at some conference, he may himself not consider himself capable of representing the project or even just making an impact by talking to people about it. That is the point where to encourage people that any input is welcome - not only code, but also documentation, communication and marketing work.

Of course as with any Pattern there are boundaries when not to apply it or when applying it would mean too much effort or loss. If that is the case and you have committed and cannot step back, than you should think about what could be a great reward if you went through the tasks: What would it take to make you happily comply and still gain energy through what you are doing? Basically it isn't about doing what you like but about loving what you do (L. Tolstoi).

There is also valuable advice on managing ones energy from the Apache Software Foundation that is specially targeted at new committers. If you have not done so yet take the time to read it.

Part 2: Tracking tasks, or - Where the hack did my time go to last week?

2010-09-03 18:22
After summarising some strategies for not loosing track of tasks, meetings and conferences in the last post, this one is going to focus on the retrospect on achievements. If at some point in time you have asked yourself "Where the hack did time go to?" - maybe after two busy weeks of work this article might have a few techniques for you.

Usually when that happens to me it's either a sign that I've been on vacation (where that is totally fine) or that too many different, sometimes small but numerous tasks have sneaked into my schedule.

Together with Thilo I have found a few techniques helpful in dealing with these kind of problems. The goals in applying them (at least for me) have been:

  • Configure the planned work load to a manageable amount.
  • Make transparent and trackable (to oneself and others) which and how many tasks have been finished.
  • Track over time any changes in number of tasks accomplished per time slot.

After hearing about Scrum and its way of planning tasks I thought about using it not only for software development but for task planning in general. Scrum comprises some techniques that help achieving the goals described above:

  1. In Scrum, development is split into sprints: Iterations of focussed software development that are confined to a fixed length. Each sprint is filled up with tasks. The number of tasks put into one sprint is defined by the so-called velocity of the team.
  2. Tasks are ordered by priority by the product owner. Priority here is influenced by factors like risk (riskier tasks should be attacked earlier than safe ones), ROI (those tasks that promise to increase ROI most should of course be done and launched first) and a few more. After priorisation, tasks are estimated in order - that way those tasks most important to the product owner are guaranteed to have an estimated complexity defined even if there was not enough time to estimate all items.
  3. Complexity here does not mean "amount of time to implement a feature" - it's more like how much time do we need, how much communication overhead is involved, how complex is the feature. A workable way to come up with reasonably sensible numbers is to chose one base item, assing complexity of one to it and estimate all coming items in terms of "is as complex as the base item", "has double the complexity" - and so on - according to the fibonacci series. Fibonacci is well suited for that task as do not increase linearly - similarly humans are better at estimating small things (be it distances or complexities). As soon as items get too big, estimation also tends to be way off the real number.
  4. To come up with a reasonable estimate of what can be done in any week, I usually just look back to past weeks and use that as an estimate. That technique is close enough to the real number to be a working approach.

To track what got done during the past week, we use a whiteboard as Scrum Board. Putting tasks into the known categories of todo, checked out and done. That way when resetting the board after one week and adding tasks for the following week it is pretty obvious which actions ate up most of the time. The amount of work that goes onto the board is restricted to not be larger than what got accomplished during the past week.

So what goes onto the whiteboard? Basically anything that we cannot track as working hours: The Hadoop Get Together can be found just next to doing the laundry. Writing and sending out the long deferred e-mail is put right next to going out for dinner with potential sponsors for free software courses at university.

Now that weekly time tracking is set-up - is there a way to also come up with a nice longer term measure? Turns out, there are actually three:

First and most obviously the whiteboard itself provides an easy measure: By tracking weekly velocity and plotting that against time it is easy to identify weeks with more or less freetime. As a second source of information a quick look into ones calendar quickly shows how many meetings and conferences one attended over the course of a year. Last but not least it helps to track talks given on a separate webpage.

It helps to look back from time to time: To evaluate the benefit of the respective activities, to not loose track of the tasks accomplished, to prioritise and maybe re-order stuff on the ToDo list. Would be great if you'd share some of your techniques of tracking and tracing time and tasks - either in the comments or as a separate blog post.