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Covington on Time Management

I’m short on time today (and will be for probably the next week or two) so it’s appropriate to point you to Dr. Michael Covington’s post on how he teaches time management to graduate students. Much gold to be dug here, and most of what he says applies to writing a book as well as writing a doctorial thesis. Never let a day go by without progress is one of the toughest goals to meet, but also one of the most important. Life intrudes, especially for freelance writers who have houses, spouses, kids, dogs, and day jobs. Still, you should try. Take too many “days off” and you will waste time recovering context when you return to the task. This happened to me several times while I was writing Assembly Language Step By Step, Third Edition, and the deeper the subject, the more subtle the context, and therefore the easier it is to lose. (We had several family crises in Chicago while the writing was underway, and such things are impossible to avoid. I got better at context recovery through practice, but it’s still time lost that you’ll never have again.)

Another thing that Michael alludes to is that you can’t split up a difficult writing task into widely-scattered one-hour bursts. One hour is not like every other hour, except for well-defined rotework. More to the point, there is something I call “flow,” which means that I’ve goosed my subconscious into a state of high activity, and it’s spitting words up from the depths almost exactly as quickly as I can write them down. This is more common in fiction than nonfiction, but I did find that there were moments when I was blasting away at 100 wpm+ on things like passing parameters to libc functions, because I knew the material well and had had a good night’s sleep. But once you’re in flow, it’s best to keep going until it stops, or until you run out of evening, energy, or both. If you think recovering context is hard, just try to get back into flow after any interruption more involving than a bathroom break.

And finally, the Big One, which Michael does not place in bold but which in fact should be in dayglow colors: Productive people know what not to spend time on. In other words, half the trick of time management is interruption management. When I know that a flow attack is imminent and I have a free afternoon, I turn off Skype and my cell phone, clear all the toys out of my taskbar (including email) and do absolutely nothing but make tracks on the project. Without that discipline, I would not have finished ALSBS3E; in fact, without that discipline, I’m not sure I would ever finish anything.You don’t see me post as often on Contra these days as I used to because I’m feeling better and getting more done in other areas. But that’s also the reason I gather short items into Odd Lots entries: It’s less disruptive to bookmark something and gather bookmarks into a list later on than to be constantly formatting and posting one-liners.

Assuming that you have at least basic literacy in the topic at hand, success consists of focus plus debris. Really. And so on that note, back to work.


  1. Tom R. says:


    Good post and also a good one from Michael Covington who I found through you and also read most days.

    In large organizations, however, time management is complicated by a manager. They often have very different ideas of how time should be managed and unfortunately they often think ANY task can be broken down into a bunch of fifteen minute slots. I think the essay by Paul Graham is one of the best I have seen on this.

    Unfortunately it was not written until AFTER I retired and I could not show it to MY Manager!

  2. Darrin Chandler says:

    These ideas aren’t new, and the concept of flow has been noted, discussed, and studied. It seems to have been named “flow” in the literature as well. I suspect many people reading this will think, “ah, that’s it exactly!”

    The idea of flow, and needing contiguous, uninterrupted blocks of work time is not at all new. Yet it’s very uncommon to find in the workplace, even when the company makes its living from endeavors that need it most.

    The excellent book Peopleware ( by DeMarco & Lister covers a lot of this, citing studies as they go. The ideas in the book resonate very strongly with anyone who’s done work requiring concentration and focus. Tom DeMarco reported that his project management consulting business took a nosedive after Peopleware came out. Ain’t that interesting?

    Management has a problem with these ideas. The kind of deeply rooted problem that causes them to stick fingers in their ears and sing, “la, la, la, la,” if your bring any of this up. So don’t count on management buy-in on this.

    Nevertheless, it’s still imperative to know how and when you get actual work done even if management will try to stop it. It’s one reason software developers often show up late to work and stay after other people have gone home: it’s the only way they can actually get anything done.

    1. The issue isn’t that these concepts are new; the issue is that they aren’t more widely understood or God knows, applied in the workplace. One reason Coriolis was successful is that we kept meetings to a minimum and stressed “focus time” for staffers. We treated kibitzing as a courtesy issue: Be aware of when your colleagues are on deadline and leave them alone when they are. Sometimes people would stretch Scotch Tape across their cube entrance to indicate “leave me alone” and people respected that. (The cost of the tape was minimal and we encouraged it!) We made time for interaction (and had things like Halloween parties on company time) but we also understood that some jobs just need peace, quiet, and solitude. It helped a great deal that Keith and I had both done this sort of work for years, and we knew what skills were required and what conditions encouraged the best results. And man, once we hit critical mass as an organization, we kicked ass.

  3. Darrin Chandler says:

    > The issue isn’t that these concepts are new; the issue is that they aren’t more widely understood or God knows, applied in the workplace.

    Yes, that’s the point I was dancing around. That, and the reason being typical management’s resistance to the concepts. Kudos to you and Keith for creating a productive environment. It’s rare enough, even for those who know how that sort of work gets done.

    In addition to Tom R.’s link to Paul Graham above I’ll leave a quote from Graham’s What Business Can Learn from Open Source (

    “So for big companies I propose the following experiment. Set aside one day where meetings are forbidden– where everyone has to sit at their desk all day and work without interruption on things they can do without talking to anyone else. Some amount of communication is necessary in most jobs, but I’m sure many employees could find eight hours worth of stuff they could do by themselves. You could call it ‘Work Day.'”

  4. Darrin Chandler says:

    The link above picked up the trailing paren and therefore won’t work. This one should.

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