Fighting the ticking clock in your head


I have this weird character flaw — I have a clock in my head that’s always ticking. It’s a mechanism I’ve built up over the years because I hate wasting time.

In some ways this internal ticking clock is a really handy tool to have. It gives me a healthy respect for time, which means I’m rarely late, I’m generally pretty productive, and ship work in a timely manner.

And when it comes to shipping work, that mental clock can be really handy too. I always have a sense of how far along I am in my time budget — it sharpens focus and is an excellent tool for hammering scope. It’s a perfect way to find out if I can get 80% of the feature for 20% of the work.

On the flip side, the problem with the internal ticking clock is when things don’t go as planned. Sometimes I’ll spend a couple days of a two-week cycle exploring solutions for a problem, only to find that none of them work. All of a sudden I’m 20% into my time budget and no closer to a working solution or shipping the feature.

At that point my internal clock starts yelling, “you’re wasting time!” It starts getting louder and louder in the back of my head. It can become a major distraction unless I quiet it down.


Knock out the clock by shifting your perspective

If you’re like me, you’ll never be able to turn your internal clock off completely. You can’t just pull the battery on your brain. The best thing you can do is just knock it out for a while. 👊⏰

When my internal clock starts getting loud, there’s one thing that has consistently helped me: I temporarily shift my perspective on how I’m measuring progress. Instead of focusing on feature completion, I focus on the other value my work is creating.

This is helpful because it actively moves you away from the idea that value can only be measured by how much of a feature is working. It’s certainly important to ship features in a timely manner, but there are so many other subtle dimensions of work that are valuable uses of your time. 0% functionality after a day of work sounds rough, but a 100% better understanding of a handful of APIs sounds like a good deal, right?

To help me focus on the other valuable aspects of my work, I’ll usually take a minute to ask myself these kinds of questions:

  • Am I learning anything new? Almost certainly. Every new piece of work through my entire career has been opportunity to learn. If you leave any piece of work saying “I knew it all, I got it totally right”, then you’ve probably missed some key learning moments.
  • Has this been valuable, productive time with my team? “Productive” and “valuable” can mean a lot of things. Maybe by talking with your team you came up a clever new solution nobody has ever done. Or maybe you never solved the problem, but you had a ton of fun working with your team. All of those count as valuable and productive in my book.
  • Have I had at least one sharable, teachable moment? If you’re learning regularly, you’ve probably found at least one thing you can share. It doesn’t matter what scale you share at — at your own company, on Twitter, or at a conference talk. Getting out there and sharing is another way for you to learn and reinforce the importance of your daily challenges.
  • Am I identifying any weaknesses I can work on? Even if I’m not producing a finished feature, I’m almost always finding things to improve. It might be a UI tweak, code clarity, or new tooling. Or maybe I’ve identified a weakness in my own knowledge base that I need to improve. It doesn’t matter what it is, if you’re improving anything, it’s time well spent.
  • Am I prioritizing quality? Quality is a broad term, but we take it seriously at Basecamp. If I ever feel rushed by my internal clock, I always make it a point to stop and consider this. Some level of time pressure is healthy for shipping, but not at the expense of quality.

At the end of the day, shipping a feature a few days later is rarely going to have a significant impact in the long run. So if your internal clock is getting on your nerves and causing you to rush, take a breath and put it aside. Consider all the other value you’re creating with your time — I bet it’s a lot more than you might think. 🤘


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