Thursday, January 07, 2010

Avoiding Black Holes

My mother calls it the Black Hole of the Internet. Because I'm on the internet a lot as part of my work, it's not like I can avoid it altogether. And frankly, more of my trouble has to do with getting lost specifically in research or worse, in problem-solving. The only cure I know is to put a time limit on it.

I set a timer for 15 minutes, 20 min, an hour, or whatever makes sense for the task at hand. I try to factor in my schedule and the other tasks on my list when I decide how much time to spend. By setting a time limit, though, I have a much better chance of staying on the friendlier side of the event horizon. I expect you'll find like I do that it makes it much easier to be able to tear yourself away before you totally get sucked into your own personal black hole.

You know what it feels like to be sucked past the event horizon on your black hole tasks. There is a sense that you must be finished before you can move on or time simply disappears on you and before you realize it, hours have gone by. Some tasks are more like the proverbial tar baby than like black holes. You know what the tar baby tasks in your life look like: you tell yourself, "Just one more thing, and then I'll be done!"

If you've got one of those on your hands, then there is an adaptation to the strict time limit approach that I find works pretty well. Do the timer thing, then if you're still not done enough to feel like you can walk away from the task for real, spend 15 minutes (or more) on one or more other tasks on your list, then come back to the problem task and set the timer again.

You'll still be making forward progress overall, and if you're stuck on an intractable problem, you'll give your brain a chance to process any new information, recover from any frustration that's built up, and get creative about what to do next. In the meantime, the rest of your task list isn't held hostage to the one thing that's taking up all of your time.

Go ahead and try it for a week or two and see if it doesn't help make you more productive all the way around. And let me know how it works for you - or doesn't - I always like to know!

What life-enriching task(s) do you love to lose yourself in and how do you balance that with the rest of your life?