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Fresh Work 80/15/5
If you’re doing what you’re told to do, they are paying you too much.
New thing you’re excited about or familiar thing you’re good at?
Doing things that are new keeps you energized and interested. Doing things that are new ensures that you’ll still have a job after your current activities become routine or passé. Doing things that are new gives you the chance to accomplish more than you expect of yourself. But doing things you’re already good at ensures you accomplish goals other people care about.
How do you balance risk, novelty, production, growth, short-term certainty, and long-term viability? I learned a simple rule that has been useful to me and is often cited by my students as a key lesson from coaching.
80% of your time goes to low-risk/reasonable-reward work
15% of your time goes to related high-risk/high-reward work
5% of your time goes to satisfying your own curiosity with no thought of reward
The sequence goes like this. You’re doing your 80% work. You notice things you could do to improve the process/tools/documentation/structure or apply your work to a new problem, but this is out of scope of your immediate goals. You put these ideas on a list. (This is my famous Fun List & it’s an actual index card on my desk.)
Every once in a while you try one of these larger-scale improvements. (~6 hours a week). Most won’t work and you’ll abandon them. Every once in a while one will show promise. You’ll start doing it as your new 80%.
Also, while you’re doing your 80% task you’re gradually teaching the next generation of your team to take that task over.
About the time you’ve found a 15% task to become your new 80%, your successor is ready to take over your previous 80% task. You can roll off without worrying about a responsibility dropping.
This is the opposite of job security. If you want to keep doing the same thing until retirement, don’t do this. But that’s not me.
Another benefit of teaching your previous 80% task is that you understand it better. You squeeze the lessons from it so you are better prepared for whatever comes next.
Geek Joy: the 5%
That’s only 95%. Because you’re a geek, you’re naturally curious. You see a tool or a language or an algorithm or a data structure and you think, “What’s up with that?” Spend 5% of your time (~2 hours a week) just farting around. Even less frequently than the 15%ers, 5%ers will turn into your next 80% job, but when they do they’ll take you in an entirely new direction.
15% tasks have some plausible path to value. The 5% tasks don’t have to. Pick them because they scratch that itch that got you into technology in the first place.
Isn’t this a waste of time? No. Your curiosity is your pattern matcher working in the depths. I can’t tell you how many times I read an article about whatever, activity-based costing, & on arrival at the client discovered that the job involved activity-based costing. “Oh sure, I know about that…”
The skill to 5% tasks is doing them in little nibbles. Spend 5 minutes. Then half an hour. Then 2 hours, but timebox it because, well, you know what happens.
The proportions are about right. 32 hours a week on your day job, 6 hours a week on making your day job better, 2 hours a week on pure exploration. Not every week needs the same proportions, but if you have long stretches of weeks with no 15’s and no 5’s, something needs to change.
Fear sometimes keeps me from the 15’s and the 5’s. “What about my performance evaluation?” If you get a good evaluation for working 100%, you’ll still likely get a good evaluation for working 80%. Since the expected value of the 15% tasks is higher than the expected value of the 80% tasks, you will likely get a better evaluation. You have nothing to lose and to gain? A lifetime career of exploration, stimulus, learning & growth.