Deep Habits: Should You Track Hours or Milestones?March 23rd, 2014 · 49 comments
Some of you have been requesting to hear more about my own struggles to live deeply in a distracted world. In this spirit, I want discuss strategies for completing important but non-urgent projects. In my experience, there are two useful things to track with respect to this type of work:
- Specific milestones: for example, the number of book chapters completed or mathematical results proved.
- Hours spent working deeply toward milestones: for example, you can keep a tally of the hours spent writing or working without distraction on an important proof.
In my own work life, I find myself oscillating between these two types of metrics somewhat erratically, and I’m not sure why.
A Hybrid Approach
Part of my confusion is that both approaches have pros and cons.
The advantage of tracking milestones, for example, is that the urge to achieve a clear outcome can inspire you to hustle; i.e., drop everything for a couple days and just hammer on the project until it gets where you need it to be. Sometimes my projects fall into a state of stasis where hustle of this type is needed to get unstuck.
The advantage of tracking hours, on the other hand, is that many of the important but non-urgent projects I pursue cannot be forced. I can commit, for example, to finishing a proof in a week, but this doesn’t mean I will succeed. Some proofs never come together; some take months (or years); others fall quickly. It’s hard to predict. Tracking hours in this context ensures, at the very least, that these projects are getting a good share of my time, even if I can’t predict what will finish and when.
When it comes to productivity, I’m a big believer in simplicity. My oscillation between the different styles of methods described above strikes me as non-simple.
At the current moment, for example, I’m tracking deep hours on my key research projects (see the image above), but I also have a milestone plan for this work that seems to be almost completely useless. I think I maintain the latter because of an ill-defined sense that I need to add more hustle into the mix here.
When it comes to writing, I’m currently working on a big project (more on this later). I tried, but then quickly abandoned, an hour tracking approach to this work. Right now I’m having much more success hustling to hit carefully chosen milestones; probably because this work is more predictable.
I’m left, in other words, with a relatively confused jumble of approaches to keeping myself on track with big projects. I’m happy with the rate at which I’m producing, but I can’t help but wonder if: (1) I could be producing even more with my (well-defined and contained) working hours; or (2) if the scheduling and tracking of this production could be greatly simplified, and, in turn, simplify my life.
This is something I’m thinking a lot about recently. I’d be interested to know if you are too, and if so, what you’ve discovered works (or does not).