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Work Productivity: Easy tasks taking longer to finish & how to change that?

June 22, 2020

Person struggling with work productivity

Martin Večeřa, CEO at lumeer.io, discusses work productivity and demystifies the things that make easy tasks harder to complete.

We are about to start our next project. We have done similar projects many times before. So there should not be any surprise, right? Or is there? How many projects are delivered on time and without a compromise on their size, features, properties etc.? 

Fewer than a third of all projects were successfully completed on time and on budget over the past year. And there are even more scary reports on project management.

Fortunately, these troubles can be avoided if we know a few basic facts about our own bodies. Especially, about our brains.

The Future

When we try to estimate a difficulty of a task, we need to imagine a thing that does not exist yet. Something in the future.

Here comes the first issue. People are really bad at thinking about the future

We know what happened. We can perfectly describe the past and existing things. 

FMRI studies show that the future is a complete strangeness to us. When people were tasked to describe the future themselves, their brain did something completely weird.

The brain starts acting like when you describe a completely different person.

The further in time you try to imagine your actions, your personality, the less connected you feel with that person. And not only that. At some point in the future, you even do not care about the person.

Maybe this is just a self-protective mechanism to live with the fact in mind that we are going to die one day.

Nevertheless, when it comes to planning some tasks, why bother feeling all the difficulties it brings when it will be some stranger dealing with the problem?

The Optimism

Second, people tend to be overly optimistic – many people are subject to optimism bias. We are prone to believe that we are less likely to experience a negative event than others. In other words, we view our own risks as less than the risks of others. 

It is mostly seen in extreme cases. Just imagine that, while driving on a highway, we came to a traffic jam and stopped at the end of the queue of cars. So we are now the very last car. 

Suddenly, you noticed something in the rear mirror. Another car approaching the jam. But it seems like the car is not slowing down. Not at all. Still running very fast. And getting closer and closer.

Somewhere in the back of your head, you believe that the car will ultimately stop. Because the optimism tells you so. Why would anything bad happen, right? Crash!

A neverending squeaking of metal sheets. You are being thrown from side to side. Airbags deployment like in slo-mo. Fortunately, you are not injured. 

Optimism bias also happens for positive effects – we tend to believe that we are more likely to win in a lottery than others. However, it is more often observed for the negative effects.

One of the factors causing the optimism bias is a desire for the end state. This means the willingness to complete the project. We can see the benefits of the completed project and we want to be there, no matter what. Nothing can stop us, can it?

In project management, the crashes are not strong and usually not that painful to us. So we tend to keep our positive attitude. 

Last time, it was just a coincidence. It won’t repeat this time. This time, everything will go smooth. We took measures to prevent similar failures.

So we have a task, we made our original optimistic estimate. We did not realize what possible risks are there. We start working on the task.

The 80/20 rule

Now, the Pareto principle kicks in. You have spent 20% of the time, accomplishing 80% of the task. That went well, you think.

However, the remaining 20% of the task seems like a never-ending story. And sooner or later, the deadline is due.

This might easily trigger several reasons for demotivation. We might feel overwhelmed by the goal. We lose a track of the goal and thus the purpose. So there aren’t any reasons to continue any longer.

Some people also put very high demands on themselves. Which often leads them to a belief that they should have accomplished much more by now. This then blocks the progress.

The Denial

And then as we move on with the task, we might start seeing the difficulties, risks, obstacles. However, these new facts are in contradiction to our former beliefs. So next, we become victims of cognitive dissonance.

Simply put, people have an inner need to ensure that their beliefs and behaviours are consistent. Inconsistent or conflicting beliefs lead to disharmony, which people strive to avoid.

There is a small part of our limbic brain called amygdala. It is a very helpful assistant. It protects our lives. When there is an immediate danger that approaches us, we might need to decide in a fraction of a second. Our high-level brain (neocortex) is smart but very slow for that. 

Amygdala can recognize the threat easily, sends a signal to the neocortex “take rest, I have it” (i.e. it blocks higher thinking), and takes action. Like escape for instance.

Unfortunately, the amygdala is very simple. It cannot recognize different types of danger or stress. Is there a tiger getting ready to jump on us? Or is someone threatening our social status? Is someone trying to prove us wrong?

All these situations can lead to an unthinking response. Most people want to hold the belief that they make good choices. If there is a conflict between our perception and reality, we seek explanations. This is a physiological need, like hunger or thirst.

So we started to see that our progress is far from our estimations. We can convince ourselves that we will work harder and the next task will take a shorter time. This is where we’ll get back on track!

Or we can try to blame something outside of our control. Something that we did not count with at the beginning. A brand new risk that just happened to us. We are only poor victims.

I believe it is needless to say that such an approach does not make us good project managers.

How to leverage these factors and work more efficiently?

So how to avoid these difficulties? Or even better, how to turn them into our advantages?

Fine-grained planning

Nikola Tesla described his great imagination that saved him a lot of time, work, and money by first visualising things in his memory. And then turning them into reality. 

It might sound too good to be true. Whether we believe his descriptions completely, or not, one thing is for sure. He used imagination to analyze the projects before building them. This is definitely a good way to follow.

Spend the time thinking about the task before you start working on it. Use your imagination! Imagine that you really do it. What happens? What are the outcomes?

Only during a detailed thinking process, we realize what we were missing.

And of course, use a good planning tool. Find the most fine-grained subtasks. Put them all on a board, provide estimates. Review and update everything regularly. Feel free to use the board for project tracking.

Focus on the journey

The optimism bias can be dismantled, if we push our team to focus more on the individual steps. This is easier in agile project management, where our desired end state is a completed sprint. A set of tasks for a 2-week-long sprint can be estimated more precisely.

If you do not follow agile methodologies, we always recommend to set several top priority tasks for the next week or so and focus the team on them. We need to build short term desires. But never forget the big picture.

Create synergies

The fine-grained planning also partially solves the 80/20 problem. If the tasks are small enough, they are easier to complete. However, some tasks contain more unknown variables, some less. It is good to know our team well. What types of persons do we have in our team?

Some people are more creative by nature. They like new things, prefer to kick things off and lose interest when they figure out a working proof of concept.

On the other hand, there are people who like to work on things with exactly defined conditions and borders. Unknown things introduce stress to them. 

When you manage to create synergies between complementary personalities in your team, you can achieve better results. This is also described in the famous book of The 7 habits of highly efficient people.

Company culture

The cognitive dissonance is probably the most difficult attribute to deal with. Nobody wants to look bad. A project manager does not want to report that their project is heading towards a disaster. Individual team members do not want to admit that they are not able to manage their tasks.

You can definitely look out for some warning signs that your project is not on the right track.

However, the best approach is to have a company culture where values like transparency, collaboration, and accountability are reworded. A culture where an honest constructive feedback is not punished but rather seriously considered. 

Then anyone in the team should be encouraged to speak up and point out the elephant in the room. Or you can easily ask for an independent review from your peer or a different team.

How to give realistic estimates?

The solution to many project planning problems is anchored deep in our minds, and in company values. Like usually, there is no single quick panacea. It takes courage and commitments. You can take the first step today and plan your project in detail.

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