Having spent nearly three months with Learn Ruby the Hard Way (and now being ever so close to finishing it 🙂 ), I’ve come to a simple conclusion; long deadlines are evil. No, I’m not serious, but I find that, if I have a deadline that’s a day away, I will meet it. Likely just in time, but I’ll make it. If I have two days or three days, same deal. When I get into trouble is when I have a week worth of work to do on something and I have a week to do it. Suddenly, life feels like it’s wide open and I have all the time in the world, and I relax… and you all know where I’m going with this, don’t you ;)?

Let’s consider what I think is a fairly typical reality:

– A week is 168 hours.

– Take out a healthy 56 hours for sleep, and that leaves 112 hours… and if you say “aw, I can get by on less sleep than that”, check out the number of naps you take during the course of a week outside of your sleep schedule, or necessary mellow/down time needed. I’m willing to bet that you’ll be pretty close to 56 hours all told.

– A work day is 8 hours a day, plus various commute related times (for me at least) and that equals about 9.5 hours a day, or 45 hours, and that gives us 67 hours.

– My family would like to have me spend some conscious time with them each day, and all told, if I’m generous, that’s about 2 hours on a given day, probably averaging out to an hour and a half realistically, so that’s 10.5 hours, which brings us to 56.5 hours.

– I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I shower, shave, and do all the stuff I need to do to keep myself looking human and not offend the sensibilities of everyone I come in contact with, I average about 45 minutes on a given day, so that’s about 5.25 hours, bringing us down to about 50 hours a week.

– We spend on average about an hour a day eating when all is said and done, so we’re down to 43 hours.

– My kids have activities that require me to spend some dedicated time throughout the week, so that works out to about an hour per day when averaged out, and that brings us down to 36 hours.

– If we count the miscellaneous trips to a store, or getting gas or a doctors appointment, we may have another 10 hours per week siphoned off, so we’re down to 26 hours in a week.

All told, under the best of circumstances, and if there’s nothing getting in the way of what I’m doing (and not counting any other potential commitments I might have made) that means that I have 3 hours and 45 minutes in a given day at the maximum to dedicate to a goal like learning to code, writing a blog, planning for weekend testing, producing a podcast or [fill in the blank]. Note, that’s if I am 100% Spartan with my time and don’t include things like phone calls, visiting with friends, watching television or surfing the web, which, quite frankly, I do all of those things at times.

My point with this is that a week is really very little time to accomplish a big goal. It goes very fast, because in reality, we don’t have 168 hours to accomplish a goal, we have maybe 26 hours if we’re disciplined, and probably a whole lot less if we are not. Thus what often happens is that optimized time often gets compressed later in the week, our anxiety levels rise; and one of two things happens. Either we get hyper intense and start marathon-ing on our goal, maybe resulting in inspired work, but often being scattered and unfocused; or we find ourselves paring down our expectations and focusing on a smaller goal.

One thing I love about the TWiST podcast is that I have a hard deliverable, and I cannot be late with it. I’m expected to deliver at a given time so others can review it, set up the space and publish it at the expected time. if I’m late, they’re late, and that’s not cool. This has a galvanizing effect on me; I don’t delay podcasting stuff, I get right to it, because I know how long it takes to do it. The nebulous goal, or the one that is self driven without any real external pressures, are much tougher to handle the same way, because they feel so distant, and there’s little in the way of accountability to cause you to get focused and determined.

That’s why I liked the early going of LRtHW. Every exercise was easily done in an hour or two, and having a post a day was easy to accomplish. When the instructions say “I expect you to spend a week on this”… now we’re entering danger territory! The long tail allows me to get complacent and relax… I have such a long time to do this. In reality, I don’t, but it’s hard to shake that thinking. So what can I do?

For me, I find that, if I do get myself into this situation, it’s best to take a goal and chop it up into much smaller pieces. Sometimes I even focus on just dealing with a single task, and I allocate 10 minutes for that task. For me, I find that 10 minutes is a solid amount of time where I can emphasize on and focus on, well, anything. Given a block of an hour, I’ll find some way to distract myself, even if I don’t really want to be distracted (this is especially true when it comes to “yak shaving” activities, or things that are just plain tedious). My favorite way to deal with this is to use Merlin Mann’s “Procrastination Hack“, or the (10+2)*5 approach to project management. The idea is to work for ten minutes on a given task with your entire energy, then take a two minute break, and then repeat the process five times in an hour. This gives you 50 minutes of solid work and effort, and 10 minutes of break time. This may sound squirrely, but I can attest to how well it works. Granted, for things you are in a groove doing, this isn’t such a big deal; there have been times I’ve gone three hours on a tear, and when that happens, well, let it!

If, like me, you find yourself feeling like you have a long, out of focus goal that could take weeks, or even months, to complete, don’t let the long tail fool you. Figure out what you need to be doing, and then figure out how to carve it into small atomic pieces. From there, chip away at each little area on a per day, or per hour, or even per minute basis. Do that, and the Long tail won’t kill you :).