The need of urgency as a Software Developer to get things done
I learned a big lesson sitting for a few hours one day in the library — something that I wished school had taught.
In the late 2007 on a sunny Monday morning, I once sat down in the comfort of the municipal library — a colossal monument, built during the colonial period, holding thousands of books, newspapers and articles, neatly organised throughout the place — with the aim of revising for my upcoming final year college exams.
I had only brought my copybooks and enough materials so that I could focus on revising. At that time, I had a basic mobile phone that did not even have 3G. Therefore, no social media, online friends or news that I could waste time with. Hours soon passed by before I realised that I had barely glanced a few pages. I hadn’t written anything on my brand new notebook. I was confused. I tried my best on the eve of my exams, yet I did not feel motivated to work.
I felt overwhelmed not knowing what to do next. I just blamed myself for not starting my revision earlier or perhaps not knowing the subjects’ fundamental knowledge, having skimmed through most classes and homeworks to play football and spend time with friends.
I was aware that it was crucial for me to revise the content I had been taught at school or during private tuitions — if I wanted to pass the subjects. I had no other choice. For the few months leading to this day, I had prepared most of my revision materials with the help of a few friends. Yet when it was time for doing the most important work, that is revising, I kept procrastinating in one way or the other.
Instead, as I later reflected on, without having a specific deadline or time box for my revision session, my mind kept wandering around. My eyes hovered all over the place. I kept hearing the most uninteresting thing such as vehicles whooshing around, water dripping from the nearby fountain and a random person playing with his audio device.
Without a sense of urgency, I kept delaying my revision and instead focused on trivial things around me. Finally, I did not even need the exams’ results to know how badly I had worked. I barely flirted with the passing marks while most of my close friends and classmates passed with flying colours.
Nonetheless, that day, I learned an important lesson — that I have since been using in my life to this day, especially for highly important events. Later on reading self help books eventually confirmed this little but significant details.
Without having a clear deadline for a task, you might never complete it. It’s common sense, but so easy to dismiss this idea.
For you to be productive, a degree of urgency is important — otherwise complacency installs itself. When you feel complacent, you do not get things done. Instead, you tempt to procrastinate. You fancy checking notifications and waste time with small things. You prefer spending time gossiping with friends and colleagues in person or in chat. Or do anything apart from serious work, like I did in the municipal library.
However, just like in strength training, you should avoid over working yourself but also have enough time resting and recuperating also called downtime.
I think working in small quick burst or sprint with enough slack time in between — is more productive than working — without any set deadlines. I like breaking down tasks into smaller more manageable units and put them in time boxes of 25 minutes or 1 hour depending on its nature. This gives me a sense of urgency and I know I have to complete the work. Once done, I then spend time doing nothing if possible, have a quick walk around my office building or do low intensity stuff like reading football news or checking my twitter feed.
Eustress, on the other hand, is a word most of you have probably never heard. Eu-, a Greek prefix for “healthy,” is used in the same sense in the word “eupohoria.” Role models who push us to exceed our limits, physical training that removes our spare tires, and risks that expand our sphere of comfortable action are all examples of eustress-stress that is healthful and the stimulus for growth.
Tim Ferris, The Four Hour Work Week, p. 37
As programmers, our work often deal with deep work — work that has not been clearly defined and is not easily reproducible — without knowing exactly what to expect. We do not have an exact procedure to follow. Most of them times, we have to sit down and work on potential solutions. Yet, in this modern age and time, we get easily tempted with the wealth of distraction all around us. If we do not put any artificial deadline or time box our coding session, we might find ourselves lingering around throughout the day checking news feed or playing games.
Moreover, sometimes during coding and while our application compiles, we check the latest weather news — going from our favourite news sites to the trending viral articles on Facebook. Unknowns to us, 20 minutes just evaporates into thin air. Similarly, while waiting for a feedback from our colleague, few hours vanishes as we spend time looking for cute cats and football news on the Internet.
To be really productive as researches point out, we need to have focused time on solving a singular problem. Only then can we stay on course and actually complete it. Having a clear deadline is the best way I’ve found in my experience.
Most often than not, I misses my estimates when assigning deadlines. Sometimes, I complete the work before my deadline, other times much later than I initially thought, and the remaining time, as we developers can attest, part of the task or requirements have changed by the time we are deeply rooted in such work.
Even days I feel good, focused and highly productive — without deadline, I tend to become a perfectionist. Instead of completing a good enough job, I am tempted to do the task as perfectly as possible. I do not procrastinate or waste time with distractions. I keep ploughing my work, one step at a time. But my work does not finish. I put on days of effort without any sight of the horizon. Having a time constraint, enables me to complete my assignment, even if it’s merely acceptable. In my experience, most of the tasks I do, changes one way or the other. Therefore, creating a masterpiece is a waste of my precious time and resource.