• Joe Vandervest

High Focus Work: Effort vs. Elapsed Time

Updated: Jun 8, 2021

Last week I attended a Leaders Must Lead workshop in Ann Arbor. One of the topics we covered in the workshop was time management and tips to improve it. Dan MacPherson introduced the idea of scheduling flex and talked about a realistic assessment of the true number of productive focused hours available to each of us during the day.

A team of us from the Blue Water Area went as a group to Ann Arbor from the Thumb. On the way back we debriefed about the workshop and our individual takeaways. During this ride, our conversation turned to the frustration and uncertainty of quoting projects and jobs within the creative and technical arenas.

Creative and technical projects are often defined by one common characteristic: uncertainty. That uncertainty is often clothed in superficial, generic specifications presented as firm and final requirements.

What does this mean?

It means that you often face the task of quoting a solution to client for a problem or a need that may not be well defined and whose definition only unfolds as you do the work.

Because of that working on these types of projects requires sustained focus.

As we saw in the workshop, in today’s connected workplace, the ability to focus and sustain work on any one thing are as rare and as precious as dilithium crystals.

So in that circumstance how do you quote and schedule high focus projects?

The modern workplace is full of distractions, interruptions, and changing priorities. Most of these are outside our control. Based on research, an interruption results in about 20 minutes of lost time as one struggles to get refocused and back on track with the task at hand. At the end of the day, you are lucky if you have 2 or 3 hours per day to work on high focus tasks.

Implications of Effort vs. Elapsed Time

So, in those discussions on the ride home, one of the things we talked about was the distinction between Effort and Elapsed time. “Effort” is the amount of labor and effort it takes to get a job done. “Elapsed time” is the duration between the start and end of applying your “effort”. Due to workplace interruptions and loss of focus instances - elapsed time needed to complete a job is often not anywhere near the effort you apply to a high focus job.

Implications of Effort vs. Elapsed Time

If you accept the fact that in a normal day, we can usually get 3 or so hours of focused work done, there are some important implications:

Duration / time to complete is going to be some multiple of the hours of effort required. Thus a two hour job might take all day. Effort = 2, Duration = 8. That’ s a x4 multiple.

Limiting distractions and interruptions can have a profound impact on your ability to focus, but a more important impact is that your overall productivity goes up because you start reducing the duration multiple.

Workplace design, scheduling, office layout, temperature, etc. all impact your ability to focus.

When you couple the reality that much creative and technical work involves doing things that are unique to the situation or are things you never saw before -- stuff gets more complicated.

Implications on Quoting and Estimating

Added to the idea of effort/elapsed time and the fact that needs are usually uncovered through the doing rather than analysis beforehand, quoting and scheduling this kind of work is fraught with uncertainty and risk.

We all have experiences at work in which we provided quotes and estimates of effort based on a misplaced ideas that:

  • We and the client actually know what the deliverable is

  • We believe we have identified and defined all the impacting variables

  • We have seen enough of this kind of work to make a high certainty estimate

  • We control the flow of interruptions and therefore can promise a delivery date that is based on effort, not elapsed time to complete.


With that in mind, here are some suggestions:

Know your effort:elapsed time multiple and use it to estimated promise dates.

  • Create an environment and make process improvements intended to reduce your multiple. Think about the specific needs of your human and businesses processes - need for free form person:person interaction, private high-focus spaces, communication tools, and timing thresholds.

  • Accept that discovery and understanding client needs is uncertain. Be sure to do as much discussion, discovery, mental walk-throughs, or detailed wire-framing as possible. Each minute you spend defining, modeling, understanding, and getting agreement on intent and details will be worth an hour of change effort later. (Just remember, at some point discussion has diminishing returns -- discovery through doing also has value and must be expected.)

Field Trip Bonus

More than the workshop, I found the ride home and the discussions, revelations we all shared during that ride showed the benefit of free form, trusted communication between business leaders from different organizations and different disciplines.