Counting the time required to do a good job

I noted in my previous entry that it requires time to do things properly, in reference to how long the working week might need to be in order for workers to perform their jobs to an acceptable level of quality. The same issue can also be considered from the other direction: only a certain number of things can be done to an acceptable level of quality within a given period of time (assuming that one’s capacity to do work doesn’t change over the period). When I’m faced with a mountain of marking, debugging a large computer program, or editing a complex document, it can be easy to wish that it would all just go away, and tempting to do only a sloppy job so that it will go away in quick time.

I try to coax myself out of such thinking by attacking the work in stages. A first round of debugging or editing might deal with the worst of the problems, then a second round knock off the worst of the remaining ones, and so on, until I have a suitably polished program or document. For marking it’s more a matter of taking a few submissions at a time, with a rest between each block, until the thing is done. In extremis, when time limits the number of rounds or number of blocks that I can actually do, I try to determine what is the best and most even-handed job I can do in the time available (so as not to spend an hour grading the first submission, say, then have to rush through the rest at ten minutes each to make the time).

All of this is true not just of paid work but also of whatever else one decides to do with one’s time: being engaged in the community requires time, trying something new requires time, keeping the house clean requires time, and so on. Long ago I realised that I was never going to be a very good musician unless I put as much time and effort into learning to play my instrument as I did into writing computer programs—but I never did that and so today I am a very bad guitar player.

Since working part-time I’ve had a lot of power to choose how much time I spend on each activity and, by implication, to what level of quality I want to do it. I’ve tended to do a greater variety of things rather than spend more time doing any one of them better, except insofar as doing things at all constitutes doing them “better” as compared to not doing them. I probably do keep the house a little bit cleaner, and I’ve been able to work harder on my fiction writing, but I haven’t been turning out better computer programs or better classes. In part that’s simply because no one has actually given me much programming or teaching to do, and neither of these activities make very much sense without any software users or students to do them for. And I’m still a very bad guitar player.

Part of the experiment, I suppose, is to find out what it takes to do a quality job of things I haven’t done before. I already have a good idea of how long it takes to write computer programs or prepare and run classes, based on many years of doing these things. But I’m still struggling with how much time and effort my business will require of me, and how long it might take me to write a long story or novel. The best I can say at the moment is that I intend to find out.

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