Founder Diary

January 11, 2022

Work leftovers need recipes, too

Work leftovers need recipes, too

Ever thought about those ten-minute chunks of time all over you workday? Maybe you should.

Disoriented hamster holding stacks of paper. Some sheets are seen flying around
Disoriented hamster holding stacks of paper. Some sheets are seen flying around
Disoriented hamster holding stacks of paper. Some sheets are seen flying around
Nikita Kazhin's headshot

Nikita Kazhin

Co-founder at Brick

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If you only had ten minutes to squeeze a task in, what would you rather do: work on a whitepaper or send an email? Most of us would probably pick the email — no surprise there! What’s ten minutes for a major project, right? You won’t get that far and the progress you might make won’t matter too much.

To be plain with you, I'm tempted to just slap a "Wrong!" here to make a big, resounding point, but I think it's not that simple. My own obsession with everything long-term makes me biased, but I don’t believe there's one universal right answer (except, maybe, for a vague "it depends"), but it might be useful to deconstruct and examine how we make such decisions and what biases we might fall prey to. Maybe that'll help us make better decisions. Let's see what's at play here.

How much progress is enough?

Generally, you'd say that a whitepaper is of greater importance and complexity, therefore you have to allocate way more time to deliver a high quality result. Meaning, ten minutes is clearly not enough to put a sizable dent. At the same time, an email is usually quick to write and, in most cases, you're pretty likely to go from zero to complete in those ten minutes. So, the reasoning goes, I'm better off totally crushing a to-do than barely scratching one. But is 100% progress always better than 1%?

Mundane vs. important

What often happens in such situations is you make 100% progress on a mundane task over a 1%, or maybe even 0.1%, progress on your priority. But that's not to say "all emails are unimportant." In some cases, they, too, might make the next thing easier or unnecessary. They may even be a game changer if they yield exciting opportunities like new customers or a career boost. That’s why I think we should consider the impact — or rather the potential impact — of our choice. Progress is about getting closer to your genuine goals. So is email the mundane option? Maybe, or maybe not. You can’t put the same shoe on every foot. The whitepaper may be important, but uninspiring and due in a year. Emails might be short but consequential. What matters is whether we ask the right questions before starting.

Focused vs. shallow

You may argue that to take a meaningful step forward on a complex report, you'll need a fairly decent chunk of time for uninterrupted deep work. Ten minutes is definitely not enough time to really dive in. I totally agree. I believe you should optimize for uninterrupted periods of focus when you have a chance to reach peak performance and tackle the most challenging issues. But in this situation the conundrum boils down to whether ten minutes of work on a big project will make any difference. It just might. Besides, do major initiatives only consist of the hard, intellectually challenging things? Absolutely not.

How much relief will it bring?

Enter the motivational side of the problem. As I argued in the last post, starting now is pretty cool. Thinking about work is way harder than just pulling the trigger and getting it over with right now. The better you feel about what you're doing (or, especially, have done), the easier it is to produce better results. So in this case, I'd say shooting an email doesn't really make waves. Yes, a to-do is done, check it off your list, yay. But after, does it really feel impactful at all? I bet even if it does, it's not lasting.

On the contrary, putting a ten-minute dent in your key report may potentially be worth so much more. Progress toward your true priority, and the feeling of relief from chipping away at a formidable undertaking seems like a better reason to celebrate. Besides, is it just me or does the 100%-progress option sound like instant gratification*?

It all might sound logical, but what if that email is potentially life-changing? Or is it a scary big move that you’ve been putting off forever and now you feel ready to pull the trigger? Then the roles might easily reverse. Opting for the whitepaper suddenly becomes the procrastination option.

Making time

Finally, opportunity cost.** It's fairly easy to make time for an email. You can set apart five to ten minutes at almost any moment. For most emails there’s no need to spend time to really focus on the matter too intensely. But as far as complex work goes, if you wait only for extended time chunks to tackle it, you're likely to have a hard time finding any. You have to consciously make time. And don't forget about distractions and emergencies. Perfectly laid plans for deep work later often go to dust in an instant. What do you get then? More tension, more self-doubt, less meaningful progress and motivation.

But there's also a risk that you'll fail to make any meaningful progress on the big project in those ten minutes. And isn’t it better to make some progress then none? Why not just shoot an email then to be fairly certain you get at least some bang for the buck?

"So do you expect me to use every single minute of my day efficiently?!"

Don't get me wrong, this isn't about ultimate efficiency. Filling your every second with work isn't the idea. You need "inefficiency" (aka slack). But if your day routinely gets fragmented, you might not get nearly as many opportunities to work on your priorities as you'd like. So maybe you should stop treating those "leftover" chunks of time scattered around your workday as negligible. It all comes down to focus — if you keep choosing the mundane over the mission-critical, you shoot yourself in the foot and kill progress on what really matters as unfulfilled priorities weigh over you and poison your attitude.

Isn't that reason enough to ask harder questions of those leftovers?

Well, you’re going to have to be honest with yourself. The choice changes dramatically depending on your angle of view.

So, email or whitepaper: which should you choose? I don't have the recipe. But maybe you will next time, now that you have an idea of the angles from which to view such choices. Maybe you'll at least find tasks that are ripe for elimination or reprioritization. Either way, you win.

Thanks for reading!

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