Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Use front-loading to get high priority work done on time

Amy (not her real name), is an early career tenure-track faculty member in a science discipline, and is one of my coaching clients.

In a recent Monday session, she wanted help figuring out how to complete the institutional review board application for her newest research project. (This committee has to approve scientific studies that involve human subjects before the study can start.)

The application was due the following Monday, but she had been putting it off and had the entire proposal to write.  

Her bigger concern was that she was not spending enough time on writing and research because of other demands on her time, such as teaching. 
She was discouraged.
I suggested that we begin by making a plan for this application:
  1. We made a list of the specific tasks required.
  2. I asked her to schedule time on her calendar to do the work (a.k.a. "time blocks").
Her plan looked like this:   (I have removed all of her other appointment for clarity).

At that point, I said, "Stop!"  (In the nicest possible way...)

I asked her to instead add a block for today in the first time slot available.

We then looked at each of the remaining days to see what time was available for this project.  When we got to the weekend, I learned that she had plans to be out of town and could not use it to work. This reinforced the need to try to finish by Friday.

Once we had the big picture, we added more blocks. 

The revised plan looked like this:

This plan had several key differences from the first one:
  • We added a deadline notice, in red, on the following Monday
  • We blocked out the weekend by setting an all-day event shown as "out-of-office." (Outlook). This created a visual reminder that the time was not available.
  • You may have noticed that the total amount of time blocked was nearly the same in the two plans. Six hours in the first and 7 hours in the revision. 
  • The distribution of the time, however, was quite different.  Half of the time was in the next two days in the new version.

At our meeting the following week,  Amy reported that she had submitted the application on time, and, experienced no stress when doing the work.

She told me that both things I had recommended, the detailed task list and scheduled time blocks, helped.

But the most important thing was getting a big chunk of the work done at the beginning of the week:
  • She had time to deal with the questions that came up as she drafted the methods
  • When the IRB website had a glitch there was time to get it fixed.
  • She was prepared when she met with her collaborator to finalize the application. 
  • She was asked to take on an extra teaching assignment late in the week because of the illness of a colleague. She was able to do this without panicking because the application was nearly done at that point.

The Free Dictionary defines front-loading as to "distribute or allocate (costs, effort, etc.) unevenly, with the greater proportion at the beginning of the enterprise or process."  

A very rough schematic sketch....

And that was what we did for Amy's IRB application work.  In fact, we used a  double dose of front loading in Amy's IRB work plan. We front-loaded the week, with half of the planned time in the first two days, and each day by scheduling the blocks as early as possible.

Like Amy, you can benefit from front-loading too.

You will get more time to come up with ideas and transform them into a final product. When glitches arise, as they will, you will have more time to fix them. If that weren't enough, you have much less pre-deadline stress.

But, you may be thinking, doesn't this just induce procrastination?  (You know how that goes, "I have plenty of time so I can put it off to another day."  Not that I have ever had that kind of thought...)

Actually, used properly, front-loading can actually prevent procrastination! 

For me, "properly" means starting work on a project "early," defined as "before I think I need to start." 

Starting early, for me, removes the pressure to get it right the first time.  Ideas and words flow more freely when I know I have plenty of time.


What kind of work should I front-load?
  • Of course, you can front-load any kind of work.  But, I recommend reserving it for important projects that will take a lot of time, and that you are likely to put off.
What time intervals should I front load?
  • Over the entire time project period. Schedule time to get started as soon you add a front-loadable candidate project to your list.
  • At the beginning of regular calendar interval planning.
    • For long projects, consider the year, quarter, and/or month.
    • Always front-load the week and each day. You should do it when making your regular weekly and daily plans. (😉😊)
How many projects should I front-load at a time?
  • You need to be choosy.  Pick the work that is highest in impact, especially if it has a hard deadline. Maybe one or two projects at most.
  • This is not incompatible with working on multiple projects simultaneously. Putting in a big chunk of time early often means you can keep the project moving forward later in smaller amounts of time. Writing a paper is a good example. If you can get a first draft done quickly, you can do the revising in smaller time blocks.
  • In practice, this means you will often have one project in the front-loading stage and the rest in "regular time" mode.
What if I am always fully scheduled at the beginning of the week or every morning? (For example, teaching, client meetings, patient care, or group meetings that you can't change.)
  • Try choosing a different day or hour the beginning of your planning interval.  Instead of Monday, use Wednesday (or the first day with open time). Instead of 8:00 am, block the first time that is available that day.