Part the Third –
Advanced Schedules and Deadlines
Schedules and Deadlines.
God, that’s like the most boring-est version of Dungeons & Dragons ever. “You’ve been attacked by the Gelatinous Cubicle! Your sword is +4 against spreadsheets! Wade into the Temple of Excelemental Evil!”
Even though this week’s Cried But Did The Thing Anyway was going to be titled Playing Office (do try and contain your excitement), I decided there’s something else I want to talk about (do try and contain your disappointment). Scheduling. Maybe this choice of subject has something to do with my being at the start of a month-long translation project, waiting for responses to three money-making opportunities and two novel submissions, and, since four days ago, officially into Book Two of my novel series (3,000 words down and going steady).
So, without further ado, get out your dice, and let’s play…
How Do I Deadline?
Come closer, young one, and let me impart onto you my knowledge of the Dead Line, the mystical border separating today and tomorrow, success and failure, fame and disgrace. Anyone who wishes to cross the Dead Line with their life and sanity intact must first master the ancient art of Ske-Duel.
Ske-Duel is, in some ways, pure power, because, just like power, it is created when work is divided by time. Many eons ago, this world possessed a legendary artifact known as the Ring of Ske-Duel. Anyone in control of that Ring could see the true measure of work and the real value of time, and with that knowledge, make plans of such astounding precision that others, in their ignorance, would think the bearer to be a time-traveling demigod.
Sadly, the Ring has been lost for generations, and the art of Ske-Duel all but forgotten. Now, with Dead Lines looming around every corner, it is up to YOU to stop our fragile world from spiraling into utter chaos.
…And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why you shouldn’t let me write heroic fantasy.
Still, a lot of what I said up there is true (except the bit about the ring; or so I’d rather have you think…). If you take the amount of work you need to do and divide by the time you’ve got to do it in, you’ll have a schedule. And, most likely, a disaster, because few inexperienced schedulers can determine either the size of workload or the length of usable time realistically.
To illustrate how this happens, let me tell you a fun story of how I bombed on both these counts. This one is actually 100% true.
Walking the Extra Mile… or Eight
In the autumn of 2012, my fellow artist Emmi Bat and I decided to walk from Liverpool to Manchester, for no reason except that it seemed like a fun thing to do. Now, the distance between these two cities (or, to be precise, my house and our target, the Rain Bar in Manchester), as the crow flies, is 29 miles. Average human walking speed is 3 miles per hour. Can you guess what we did with that data?
Divide 29 by 3, that’s just under ten, which means we can cover the whole journey in one day, whoo! …Okay, fine, we weren’t that stupid. We did use a map, which suggested that the route we wanted to walk is about 33 miles long. And we did acknowledge that we – not quite couch potatoes, but definitely desk zucchinis – would not handle more than six-seven hours of purposeful, no-nonsense walking in one day.
With that in mind, we planned for a two-day trip, with a stopover in Warrington, perfectly positioned roughly halfway through our route – 17 miles in. And we set out.
The first major landmark on our journey was a little town called Rainhill (if by now you’re wondering whether this journey had a theme… Yes, it did.), some nine miles away. We made excellent time there, and felt very inspired by the fact that we covered over half of the first day’s walking almost effortlessly. We’d be in Warrington by early evening at that rate.
Now, here’s a fun fact that didn’t seem very relevant at the time. I’ve walked to Rainhill once before. I haven’t been past it – at least not on foot, bike, horse, car, or anything else that would give me an idea of the road between Rainhill and Warrington.
If you’re wondering if we could’ve just walked over the fields – no, not without getting in trouble with a bunch of angry farmers.
Looking for a walkable detour added a full hour of wandering to our journey, and when we finally found a footpath leading in the right direction, we had to face two miles of grassy “sidewalk” between a road and a field hedge, only wide enough to walk in single file. It is true that you never fully appreciate something until you lose it – and on that day, the thing we rediscovered our love for was pavement.
The rest of our walk that day was less stressful, but, suffice to say, it was very late evening by the time we got to Warrington. In the hotel, armed with the presence of mind and a smart phone, we investigated the next day’s leg of the journey with a critical eye, and found that the only ways to Manchester were still the M62 or the accursed A57 (our hotel was located by the side of it, next to a sign that helpfully pointed towards Liverpool; we were not amused). We worked out an alternative route, which involved walking as far as we could get on foot, then taking a train to the next town, over five miles of, well, this.
That was exactly what we did the following day, and around 10 pm, after a roughly twelve-hour walk with several pit stops, we crawled into Manchester. Later, at home, I plotted our actual route on the map and found that we covered a total of FORTY miles instead of the planned thirty-two – that is, a whole quarter more than we set out to. And it’s not like we walked the extra distance for kicks. Those eight additional miles were a forced necessity, something we had to do, or fail the whole undertaking. The time we took to walk that distance was also longer than we’d expected. In the mornings, on good road, and, in one case, on a familiar route, we made good time. Towards evenings, on bad road, with our heads busy working out the right way and our feet throbbing, our pace dropped like a stone.
In case you’re wondering why I went into excruciating detail of our glorious failures along the way, let me remind you what I introduced this story with: estimating the amount of work to do and the amount of time allocated for it. And bombing on both counts.
Now, while the whole two-day walk to Manchester wasn’t a complete failure, it IS a wonderful case study of scheduling done optimistically – which is one of the worst ideas ever. And I, being an enthusiastic person who frequently overestimates her capabilities, know what I’m talking about. Trust me when I say: optimistic scheduling is one the worst things you can do to yourself.
Because of Murphy. Let’s talk about that bastard Murphy.
Managing the Murphy
Few people haven’t already heard of Murphy’s Law, which, in the original form, states:
Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
(Depressing? Yes. Familiar? Sigh.)
Applying this law to scheduling, I would like to propose two corollaries, for each half of the schedule formula: the Work Corollary, and the Time Corollary.
Murphy’s Law, the Work Corollary: Whatever amount of work you think you need to do on a project, it will end up requiring more.
When I planned to walk 32 miles in two days, I ended up walking 40, or a quarter more. Interestingly enough, that’s the approximate amount of contingency that project managers are told to budget in their project plans. And just the fact that it’s likely a convenient coincidence doesn’t invalidate my point. Here’s what you need to consider when determining how much work your next project will require of you.
1) Do you know how to do this kind of work?
2) Is this a type of work you’ve actually done before? Fairly recently? In similar amounts? At similar rates? With similar tools? In similar conditions (alone / as part of a team / at home / at another base)?
(I certainly know how to walk and I’ve been walking all my life, sometimes quite a lot, but I can honestly say that before my little adventure, I’ve never walked twenty miles a day for two days.)
3) How much preparation/practice do you need before you can start? (Strongly related from your answers to the questions in (2).)
4) Do you need any extra resources/supplies for the project? (A shopping trip may not harm a month-long project, but can throw a day-long one right out of the window.)
5) Important: How high is the risk of the project swelling in size because of positive internal factors – i.e. your interest and dedication?
Starting my first novel, I thought I was going to end up with a 40-thousand word novella. Two years and two novels later, I know that when I set out to tell a long-form story, my first drafts end up around 100k, and gain about 20-25% more weight in editing. Oh, and the ‘novella’ became book number four in a series of six, pending review once I’ve written volumes two and three.
An important thing about this last point is that such project procreation is essentially GOOD, stemming from your own passion for your work rather than external obstacles. What you need to keep in mind is whether you can afford that particular project to balloon at this time. (For example, you may notice that these blogs are getting longer every week, and I already decided that this one is going to have a second chapter; but, much as I’m tempted, I’m not going to try and write a whole book about time and project management… for now).
To put my money where my mouth is, I’ll wrap up this list and move on to:
Murphy’s Law, the Time Corollary: However long you think you have to complete a project, you will have less.
You know the saying that life is something that happens while you’re busy making other plans? Personally, I think that whoever said that either wasn’t trying hard enough or spent too long planning. However, just because you’d rather the rest of the world stopped and kept quiet while you get your work done, it doesn’t mean it’ll stop spinning. You can plan your best and work your hardest, but life will keep throwing stuff at you.
Here is a list that represents a tiny fraction of things that can happen between the start and finish lines of your project, depending on how far apart these lines are:
– house moves;
– transport strikes;
– volcanic eruptions;
– cinema premieres;
– hospital visits;
– music festivals;
– computer crashes;
– family holidays;
– car trouble;
– Days When You Just Can’t;
– and more!
Some of these things you can predict, expect, avoid or plan for. Some will drop on your head out of the blue. The time you allocated for work gets lost in transit while you’re catching a trans-Atlantic flight, thrown up during that nasty bout of flu, left in a box you forget to bring from your old house, or munched up by the relatives you can’t duck without incurring a family curse. This is where you find how much your schedule can take before it crashes around you. For someone working 5-day weeks / 20-day months, 20-25% of extra budgeted time allows for either one day-long disaster every week, or one week-long tragedy every month. Short of traumatic events of life-altering scale, or a long streak of the worst luck in the world, that should give you enough wiggle room to pull and tuck and tie things together, back into a workable state.
Bottom line – even if you don’t have a life, plan as if you do, because chance and universe will try to force one on you anyway. And if you ever feel like you’ve thought of everything, remember this: if you can think of four ways that something can go wrong, it will go wrong in a fifth way. Yup. Murphy, baby.
On the bright side, if you budget for disasters that don’t come to pass, you will finish your project much earlier! That is, if you keep to your deadlines, of course… But that is a conversation for the next blog.