This post is about working on and finishing personal tasks and why getting them done on time is so hard. For the time starved, the lesson here is:

Create Self-Imposed Deadlines. With Punishment for Failure.

The longer version:

Many of you have commented about the lack of frequency in my recent postings. This is something I acknowledge to struggling with a bit! Trust me, it isn’t because of a lack of motivation or anything like that, because writing on this blog is something I would really like to keep going.

What’s wrong with Time Boxing?

I know I’ve been writing about Time Boxing, but it seems the strategies there alone aren’t sufficient to help me Get Things Done.

I don’t think there is any inherent flaw with the Time Boxing strategy. After all, if you want to finish something, you first need to allocate time to it, then work on it for a fixed period and finally judge if it is finished or not. The boxing aspect allows us to focus on the “time” or “duration” component of the task, without which we may aimlessly prod along without being conscious of how long something is taking.

The problem with Time Boxing however, especially for personal tasks, is there is no tangible effect from a delay. There is no accountability and no punishment for going over-time. Writing on this blog is a hobby, so if I don’t publish an article for another week or month, what’s the penalty?

Nothing. Nada. Zip.

In contrast, this is totally opposite when dealing with work related matters. We do it all the time. Homework is due next Monday, so let’s get to it now. The client demands a modification to a site or we don’t get paid, so let’s get cracking. Our boss is waiting for the status report, so we’d better launch the word processor and start typing.

The two biggest problems with doing personal tasks

I realised the other day, I don’t have well defined goals for blogging. This stems from the realisation that the two biggest problems with finishing personal tasks (like writing on a blog) are:

  • The absence of a hard deadline
  • The absence of punishment when failing to deliver

Seems obvious! Why hadn’t I thought of it before? Without a concrete deadline, how can I judge if I’m behind or not? Also, how can I plan my time to ensure I meet it? Also, if there are no real consequences for not making a deadline, what’s going to stop me from playing on my Xbox? And, what’s to prevent me from procrastinating time and time again?

Nothing. Nada. Zip.

Treating work and non-work tasks the same way

The lesson here is that we need to treat our hobbies and personal projects exactly the same way we deal with work and other important things in our life. If we don’t, then it’ll always play second fiddle and we won’t get the great results we hope or expect.

This means we have to elevate personal hobbies, tasks and projects to the same level as our work. Yes, they may not be life-sustaining activities (ie doesn’t pay the bills), but if we want the same kind of results we get from our work, then we have to treat them the same.

Make yourself accountable in your startup

This applies to all you aspiring Entrepreneurs out there.

Are you having trouble launching your latest startup? Is it taking longer than you thought? Are you spending enough time on it? Is time being spent on a piece of code which won’t matter for another year? Are you working on the right things?

If any of this sounds familiar, then you’d do well to head my words.

Make yourself accountable for everything in your business. Every action and delay must be defined and quatified. How long will it take? What’s the benefit? What’s the cost? Who will be affected?

If you don’t have anyone you are accountable to (eg no investors and customers), then you have to make something up. For example, perhaps donate $100 to a worthwhile charity for every week you are late. Now, that’s going to hurt. Are you feeling more motivated now?

With great pleasure, I can now say Mobiusly is back on track. I deviated a little over the last couple of months, but it’s all good now especially since I committed to a deadline and understood the consequences of being late. I’m hoping to launch the first product in 1-2 weeks time, depending on how well beta testing goes. I’ll post more details here or via Mobiusly’s official blog, so make sure you subscribe to it too if you’re interested in seeing what’s being cooked up.

In the meantime, examine your own lives. Are you getting things done?

UPDATE: A healthy discussion is emerging at Hacker News about the disadvantages of focusing on the negative as motivators. More about it here.

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14 Responses to “Why Getting Personal Stuff Done Is Hard”

  1. Jon Cram says:

    I can’t agree more about the need to set yourself deadlines in order to get things done.

    I launched my first startup last October. The project was developed in spare time whilst studying for an undergraduate degree.

    I knew I needed to get something out there before returning for my final year. I needed to run a long beta stage to be fully sure that everything is stable prior to marketing and promotion. If I hadn’t, the project would probably have languished in a state of limbo for another 8-9 months and then progressed slowly until it was ‘done’.

    Setting myself a deadline for launching really helped me prioritise and get the most important pieces completed. I was returning to university at the start of October and would have no time for the project from then onwards. Feature after feature was cut or left incomplete (and missing from the GUI so that users didn’t notice) so that at least something workable was ready on time.

    I launched at the end of September. The service didn’t contain all the features I originally envisaged. My ability to control misuse has massive holes in it. But it doesn’t matter!

    Everything works, the service is being used by real paying people (not just friends and family) and when I finish my final exams in three weeks I’ll be in a great position to commence promotion whilst continuing development.

  2. Dave Cheong says:

    A healthy discussion is emerging on Hacker News regarding the merits of a negative focus on motivation. Thanks guys for taking the time to read and comment.

    http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=577101

    I’ll stress as I did there that there is a place for positive and negative reinforcements. Don’t underestimate the power of the negative and fear, as they are great motivators and enduring. Building a business on sheer passion alone is insufficient, as desire and passion are fleeting. They come and go. What then would happen to your business if the passion goes away or dips for a little while? Can you sustain that desire and passion 3am in the morning trying to fix an obscure bug?

    I believe in both positive and negative motivators. As I wrote in a previous article, to motivate ourselves, we can either increase the pleasure/reward when we accomplish something or increase the pain/punishment when we fail.

    Read more about it here:

    http://www.davecheong.com/2006/09/13/how-to-overcome-distractions-anytime/

    Thanks all for commenting and keep the comments flowing.

    dave

  3. Dave Cheong says:

    Hi Jon,

    Thank you for taking the time to comment and I applaud your efforts and results! Your astute insight and balance of priorities meant you actually managed to ship something out the door. From your comment, it also sounds like you’re enjoying some fruits of your labour.

    Good job!

    dave

  4. links for 2009-04-24 « My Weblog says:

    [...] Why Getting Personal Stuff Done Is Hard (tags: productivity) [...]

  5. Luke says:

    One thing I have to say is that some people have full blow passion for their blogs and other activities outside of work and that gives them the reward..Because it’s almost a punishment for them to sit at home bored.

    I’m quite the same as you, I’m pretty good when i’ve got the passion, I’ll write up a list of features for a project and everything i want out of it, And never execute it.

    Same with my site too, Love having a domain..Never get round to design :)

  6. Jag says:

    “make sure you subscribe to it too if you’re interested in seeing what’s being cooked up.”

    There is no RSS syndication on business blog.

    Thank You,
    Jag

  7. Dave Cheong says:

    Hi Jag,

    The RSS link to the Mobiusly blog is:

    http://mobiusly.com/feed/

    Just point your favourite reader to it and it should work.

    thanks,
    dave

  8. J.D. Meier says:

    At the end of the day, we’re good at getting things that MUST be done, done … but not so good at getting things that SHOULD or COULD be done. I agree – escalate your personal tasks to MUSTs.

  9. Jamie says:

    You should write a post about why Engineers are inherently bad entrepreneurs.

    Key points

    – They try to do the development themselves
    – They have little to no marketing skills
    – The call being busy reading about new technologies rather than driving sales
    – They are engineers

    For an engineer to be a successful entrepreneur they need to use their old skills only as ammo in the meeting room, not in the terminal. Every minute spent coding is a minute which should be spent selling or telling someone else what to code.

    Once the business is successful, engineers can return to the “fun” work of engineering the product, if not it will always just be a hobby which may, but most likely will not catch a lucky break.

    Dave m8, your company website still says Products announcing Jan 2009. I hope that’s because you are in the meeting room selling and have no time for updating hobbies.

  10. Fede-lasse says:

    Hi. What you describe in your article is a serious problem to me as well. I tend to get distracted and bored very often.

    I have a project going on, which I put on hold a few weeks ago. The main reason was that I just got bored, mainly because of the coding (FYI, it’s ActionScript 3.0). I haven’t worked on it much since. However, I have a good reason to finish it, because:
    1. I’m probably going to need it in the near future as a programmer (or anything related to that).
    2. I can use it as well for making other hobby projects because of the experience I get in the making.

    I hope to continue it someday, if I get the motivation back. Regarding concentration issues, I do everything I can to optimize myself, like sleeping well, drinking lots of water, eating a good lunch, etc. I don’t want to change my sleeping hours because I’m a sleepy person. No joke. Since I’m so unmotivated, what am I doing wrong?

    PS: Your blog is somewhat an inspiration to me for continuing my home project. You seem to write a lot about concentration problems, which I don’t exactly counter well.

  11. carol says:

    ahh, deadlines. they totally freak me out! i think this is my single most devastating stressor to date and it’s really horrible. I always need to remind myself that everything will not fall apart even if I rest for a while and try to recoup my energy.

  12. Ralph says:

    I like the idea of treating non work tasks the same way. I think that it is all about creating successful habits and carrying those habits into the work that you do. Great post!

  13. Irene Suwarno says:

    I agree with this sentence: “The problem with Time Boxing however, especially for personal tasks, is there is no tangible effect from a delay. There is no
    accountability and no punishment for going over-time.”

    But by having ourselves to make something up like donating $100 to a worthwhile charity for every week we are late is not going to be effective either.

    What I think is important when you want to get your personal stuff done is to let someone like your friend or sibling know that you are going to do what you’ve said you wanted to do, repeatedly. Then this person must always asking about your progress so far within or before the time frame you’ve set. I think this is quite effective because we don’t want to be seemed like a person who only talk but never execute the plan. It’s more about being a reliable person especially if you have others know that you are a reliable, trustworthy person…isn’t it going to make you proud about yourself?

  14. Dave Cheong says:

    Hi Irene,

    Thanks for the comment. Using a trust worthy friend to help keep you accountable is a great idea. And it works. It’s a technique I’ve used to great success in the past.

    However, it’s not *the* only way and donating $100 or other equally “painful” incentive also works. The added benefit of the self-imposed incentive is you don’t need anyone else to make it work.

    dave

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