Recently, I was working on a CommCare Excel dashboard for an Ebola project in Sierra Leone. Not being an expert at Excel, I found myself looking up lots of complex formulas and spending time trying to wrap my head around the right approach to take (array formulas). As one would expect, trying to make progress learning something complex while also multi-tasking with skype, email, or other activities didn’t work well. I generally know and understand this. Whether I act appropriately with this knowledge is a different question. I soon realized that trying to do a learning or design task while multi-tasking with normal activities was not only non-productive; it was also harmful. Every time I got distracted from the dashboard, I lost focus and stopped progressing. I became less inclined to attempt to focus on the dashboard again later due to my frustration by my lack of progress the time before.
Eventually, it became apparent to me that the problem was more than inefficiency and distractions. The real problem was that my inefficiency caused frustration and dissatisfaction with the project in general. I’m surprised I never fully realized this much more negative consequence quite as clearly before. The less I progressed, the more I began to tell myself that I was being too slow. Feeling like I was progressing too slowly caused me to avoid the task. The very act of knowingly avoiding a task caused me to feel unbalanced in my work.
I’ve been giving several people advice to make sure to explicitly schedule a block of time in their calendar to do larger tasks that they are finding hard to make progress on. Sometimes with larger tasks, a component of the work is learning or figuring out the appropriate solution. Allowing yourself the time to focus specifically on that task gives you time to figure things out, and as you allow yourself time to progress and learn, you become more and more satisfied with the work and the progress you are making.
I had a two hour block on a Saturday where I could work on the dashboard completely uninterrupted, and finally had time to read enough examples on the web to wrap my head around what to do. This got me over the hump. I started to feel productive and happy working on the dashboard and eventually it became fun, as I felt like I was learning some useful excel skills. I then spent another 4 hours on Sunday over-engineering polishing the dashboard with lots of new features I read about because the task had become fun rather than something to avoid.
Not only do I believe that scheduling dedicated time is a good time management trick, but I also think that for some people on some tasks, scheduling dedicated, uninterrupted tasks is critical to increasing satisfaction with the task. I often tell our team that if they are feeling discouraged on certain tasks that are important to them, this might be something to consider. If it feels like a downward trend of interest in the activity due to lack of progress, it might be beneficial to schedule some dedicated time and explicitly not try to make progress on it until then. It worked for me.
Jonathan Jackson is the CEO of Dimagi, a leading ICT4D company and makers of CommCare – the most widely adopted, technically advanced, evidence based mobile platform for low-resource settings. In his new blog series, “Dimagineering”, he shares his experiences while leading a social enterprise that values “Impact, Team Satisfaction, and Profit – in that order!” Follow Jon on Twitter @jonathanleej and learn more about Dimagi and CommCare at www.dimagi.com.