It never takes 5 minutes

Often I get requests from people for assistance. Colleagues, friends, acquaintances, past clients, and everyone else. Some of these requests are special. They sound very simple. And even if they aren’t simple for someone else, the asker makes it look like a simple task for me. Oftentimes, they are. The request is usually accompanied by “It only takes you a few minutes”.

Let me get this straight. It never takes 5 minutes. Even something as simple as edit this file to add a fullstop at the end. For a text file I’ll just echo . >> file and it takes a few seconds maybe. But it involves context switching from what I’ve been doing, and back, which can be very expensive.

I quite haven’t figured out how my memory works. A few things, I remember well and can recollect and reference with ease, but more often than not, my memory is very unreliable. My short term working memory is, I suspect, worse than average for daily tasks.

All in all, the obviously-less-than-5-minute task ends up taking about half an hour on average. And it only worsens when I have multiple tasks waiting, many of which “should” take just 5 minutes.

When I don’t do your 5-minute work, it’s very likely due to one of the following:

  • There are more 5-minute tasks pending, and this will have to wait for its turn.
  • There’s a longer task that I can not afford to interrupt.
  • There is more important work. It can include entertainment. If I take just a one hour break a day, that break will most likely be more important to me and my sanity than anything you may need.

If it isn’t covered by the above, I may not be interested. Just because I can do something doesn’t mean I like to do it or I will. Nothing personal, though. When someone receives a lot of requests they have to draw a line somewhere or risk compromising productivity, rest, health, sanity and/or worse.

If you need something done fast, bump it up my priority list. If I owe you one, your requests get bumped up. If you pay me, your requests get bumped above non-paying ones, or ones that pay less. Unless there were promises made. If doing it now saves me more effort later, and I see that clearly, and I’m being rational, I’ll bump that up. If it requires a compromise to my existing obligations, rest, or causes stress, and I’m being rational, it will be pushed down. For those who think they perform better under stress, I have this desk under a hanging sword. Be my guest.

Until recently, I had a bad habit of quoting time estimates assuming I do the task and nothing else, without interruptions. It resulted in some quite ridiculous estimates of a few hours where others have quoted a few months. And at times, it resulted in me being in some very uncomfortable situations, where I take weeks for the few hours’ work.

Turns out ten tasks each taking an hour can not be completed in an hour. Or ten hours, for that matter. Depending on the task, my efficiency varies wildly. There will be interruptions. My physical and mental health may just go for a ride, all of a sudden. All pending tasks don’t come to mind when planning for one. Daily chores like eating and shitting also take time. I may get a call from someone after long, and the call can take long. Something may get stuck in my head and take time to get off. Often, I get nerd sniped by a good article, issue, or whatever and go off on a tangent.  Yada yada yada..

Though this was known to me since long, it’s only recently I’ve begun taking care to consider this when planning my work. Accumulated work shoots my productivity through the floor. I guess there’s a positive feedback loop, and I have to work against it. For a lot of things in life, actually. More on that later.