“It seems like, the more I work, the more behind I get”.
I have been in that kind of position, and it starts to get scary sometimes. I would compare it to falling into a lake while wearing jeans and shoes. It is very hard to swim like that, and if you don’t know how to handle it, you quickly become concerned that you might drown.
When I get dropped into a situation like this. There is a process that I follow to get out of it.
First of all: don’t panic. Try to keep your cool, and focus on the right thing to do. Your first instinct is not the right one. You will feel like thrashing harder and making things worse. You will get yourself worked-up and that will cause you to focus on the condition that you are in, instead of the steps that you must follow to resolve this problem.
The key to getting out of this situation, is to focus on where your hours are leaking. It will seem like they are leaking everywhere. Every time the phone rings and you pick it up, you seem to leak time. That is a symptom, but it is not the root cause. The real root cause, is the thing that has prompted someone to call you. Your thrashing comes from each time that you break your concentration to pick up the phone instead of fixing the problem. This is one leak. Well, actually it is several leaks that combine to make one large leak.
Here are the steps to turn things around:
- Get someone, other than you, to answer the phone, so you can concentrate on solving this problem. Unless of course, someone else is going to fix it. Then you need to keep everyone away from that person. DO NOT have the person/people who are solving the problems, answer phones or triage incoming bugs/errors.
- Determine what is the minimum effort that is necessary to get the phone to stop ringing. If your server melted, it might take two days to buy and install a new one. You don’t want the phone ringing for two days. So, plug-in a laptop that displays a page that says “This site is down. We are working on it. We expect to have it back within 1 day” (which is half of the full restoration time). The phone will stop ringing and you can now concentrate on completing this work.
- Determine what is the next major step that you can perform to get a stop-gap solution in place. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be better than an “Under construction” web page. Take a few minutes to think this one over, so you don’t waste time on redoing lots of incremental solutions.
- Determine the real ETA day/time and post that message, so everybody knows and doesn’t have to ask you.
Now, I started-out by talking about a situation where there is not just ONE problem to fix, but rather multiple. I’m talking about something more like a lake of technical debt that you were dropped into, or perhaps the volume of work has gradually risen up around you, like rising flood waters.
The strategy for tackling this is to apply the process above, but doing it judiciously. You need to pick a list of threats (ie. Problems that are leaking hours out of your day). Take a few minutes to assess all of the things that are leaking your time, and think about two specific groups
- Which ones are leaking the most time? (is there one or two big ones, that will take a lot of effort to resolve) Put those on a back burner. Yes, I know. You have probably been focusing on them because they are big things and once they are done, your schedule will be very open to deal with all of the small things. Unfortunately, those big things won’t be done very soon. Therefore, this strategy is ultimately the cause for your sinking condition. Put it on a back-burner.
- Which ones are small, and will not take much time to resolve? Out of those, which ones seem to be overly irritating people? Yes, I know. These don’t seem like a BFD. People will live. They really should just chill and let you do your work. You will get to them. Except nobody else seems to get it. So you need to pick a few battles to win. The wins need to be decisive and visible. Earn those wins and you will earn some breathing room and it will also justify your choice from step 1.
From this list, I know that you will really feel like you should concentrate on #1. Right? Sorry, the correct answer is to tell everyone that #1 is going to be done 25% later than you REALLY think that it will be done. Then stop working on #1 and get a major portion of that #2 queue cleared-out.
When the #2 queue gets a bunch of progress, people will see that things are getting done. It will actually seem like more-than half of your work is cleared-out. It is just a perception, but it matters.
Afterwards, you will be left with several larger tasks. Focus on getting one of them done. Pick the one that you are confident that you can complete. Follow the triage steps that I mentioned above (1-4). This will show frequent progress and earn you some quiet time so you can focus on completing stuff.
Do not work on more than one big task at a time. Working on simultaneous big projects is an “anti-pattern”. It slows the progress on both/all tasks and leaks so many hours without showing much progress for either. You are better-off breaking each large task into phases and then focus on completing one phase of one task. Again, this shows clear incremental progress, and it keeps people off of your back.
Apply the techniques that I have identified here, and you will plug the leaks. After you gain some momentum, re-evaluate and prepare to shift this strategy. Keep in mind that This is not meant to be a long-term strategy. It is meant to regain the hours that you have been leaking.
In part 2, I will talk about the steps that lead up to this condition and how to reverse the trend.