People say that in college, you can only pick two out of the following three: social life, sleep, grades.
When it comes to work, I think there’s something similar going on. The three options when it comes to work are time spent, stress, and result. You cannot fix all three — that is to say, you can’t determine how much time, how much stress, and the result when you do a task — but you can fix one or two of the options.
Under this model, there are six different ways to approach a task. We’ll go through the three salient approaches and discuss the benefits and drawbacks of each.
Approach 1: Fixing the Result
Fixing the result means that the end result is predetermined to be of a certain quality or specification but the time the person spends and amount of stress they experience while doing the task is flexible. If it takes fewer hours and less stress, great, but they’re willing to put in more hours and/or experience more stress in order to achieve the end result.
This sort of approach is often used when the end result is important to the person and there’s a still a significant stretch of time before the deadline. This approach is often used when doing school assignments or job tasks.
The upside to this approach is that the person almost always gets the result they want and, in the process, learn about what they are capable of, putting time and stress aside.
The downside to this approach is that it becomes difficult to schedule activities for the future because of the person doesn’t know ahead of time how much time they will be spending on the task.
Approach 2: Fixing Result and Time Spent
Fixing both the result and time you spend on a task leaves your stress levels as the only variable. This sort of approach is often used in “mission-critical” situations where time is short and the result is important. Examples include taking an exam, cramming for an exam, and driving your wife to the hospital right before she’s about to give birth.
The upside to this approach is that you get the best performance possible for the short period of time when you’re doing the task. If the deadline was known ahead of time, you won’t need to reschedule any future activities since you already knew when the task would end.
The downside to this approach is the significant spike in stress levels you’ll experience. (For some people, this may be an upside.) This approach only works in the short term, and you apply it too much, you’ll likely burn out.
Approach 3: Fixing Time Spent and Stress Level
Fixing time spent and stress level means that all variance is transferred to the result. This approach is often used for situations where your presence is required, but the end result is not important to you. A classic example would be “running out the clock” at a 9–5.
The upsides to this approach include the low stress levels and ability to schedule around the time you spend on the task (or job). If you take this approach over a significant period of time and record the result at the end of regular time intervals, you’ll actually get good at predicting how much work you can finish in a given time period. This is a huge upside in situations where you set your own deadlines (or are asked to give time estimates) since you’ll be able to give an accurate estimate that will yield the desired result 95% of the time, which is the closest you’ll get to fixing the result, time spent, and stress.
The downside to this approach is that you have little idea what you’ll end up getting done, especially if you don’t record your performance over regular periods. If your performance is not correlated to your compensation, like in many corporate jobs, then this is the best approach to take.
The holy grail here is being able to control the result, time spent, and stress related to doing tasks. This is strictly impossible because of the uncertain nature of life, but it is possible to achieve a close approximation.
I imagine most people use Approach 1 (Fixing Result) and Approach 2 (Fixing Result + Time Spent) for most tasks in their life. Both approaches allow for high variance in stress levels, which is unpleasant in the short run and increases your likelihood of burning out in the long run.
The key insight here is to start using Approach 3 (Fixing Time Spent +Stress) in lieu of Approach 1 (Fixing Result ) as much as possible, and making sure to use Approach 2 (Fixing Result + Time Spent) only when necessary (this means not procrastinating on important tasks). When you start using Approach 3 (Fixing Time Spent + Stress) and make a habit of recording performance over regular time periods, you’ll start improving your ability to estimate how much time a task will take, with a confidence interval. Once you get good enough, you’ll be able to give estimates that are sufficient 95% of the time, essentially minimizing the result variability of Approach 3.
Here’s a concrete example: let’s say your boss wants you to finish a report by this Friday. You could take Approach 1 (Fixing Result) and accept that you may need to stay overtime to complete the report. If you had already developed an accurate enough model from Approach 3 (Fixing Time Spent + Stress), you’d be able to come up with a 95% confidence interval for how much time it would take you to finish the report at a given level of stress.
Let’s say the report will take you 5 hours to finish at a fixed, low level of stress and your 95% confidence interval goes from 3 to 6 hours. You’d budget out 6 hours for the report, not have to worry about working overtime, and accept that there’s a 5% chance you don’t get the report in on time.
If you took Approach 1 (Fixing Result), you’d have no idea how to schedule the rest of your week since you don’t have a fixed amount of time allocated to working on the report. The uncertainty here compounds the more tasks you have to do that week and adds to your mental overhead since you won’t know if you’ll ever have to stay late and cancel plans to finish the report.
Approach 3 is very similar to what they teach in Operations Management courses. A more sophisticated version of Approach 3 is used for construction site scheduling and other complex processes that require coordination, deadline, and a budget.