Engineers Beware the Ultimate Productivity Killer: Nerd Sniping

 

nerd_sniping

Comic from XKCD

It’s mid-lunchtime on Tuesday and I’m trying to sneak in 30 minutes of design work on a personal project when my coworker leans over and says, “I wonder if you can attach a Dremel tool to your Printrbot to make it into a CNC PCB mill? I know you’ve been wanting one of those.”1

And just like that, FOOOM! All forward progress on my project is halted because I have to google this awesome new idea immediately. Add one point to the scoreboard, jerk.

While it sounds like a joke, nerd sniping is kind of a serious problem for some folks. Engineers in particular are highly susceptible because of our natural curiosity and fondness for creative problem solving. It’s not difficult to find something that will draw our attention away from the current task at hand and replace it with a new problem to figure out.

3d printed transmission

Pssst…Have you seen this 3D printed 5 speed Transmission? I wonder if you could calculate the ultimate strength of those 3D printed gears… 2   

Of course I can see the humor when I get sniped at work and waste half an hour; but it’s not funny at all when I’ve sniped myself so bad that I have nothing to show for a week’s work. Noticing that this issue clearly has the power to severely derail my working schedule, I thought it worth a bit of investigating.

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A good snipe is worse than a typical distraction. If you’re looking at Facebook when you should be working then at least you understand that you’re not going to accomplish anything. A snipe, on the other hand, is disguised as productive activity. When you come across a new and interesting project that you simply must work on immediately, you do so at the cost of anything else you could be doing with your limited resources. While it still feels like you are making progress on your to-do list, in reality you are no better off than when you started.

The problem is that we tend to get caught up in the new ideas we hear about or come up with. Fascinated by the new idea, we forget about the current idea we’re working on and pretty soon it’s been weeks since we’ve made any progress.

It’s like inception or addictive drugs; all of a sudden your priorities have changed and you’re running in a different direction than you were this morning. Rather than being able to focus on making the most of your first idea, your efforts are now diffused. Even worse, because beyond a low threshold the more projects you take on the less you will be able to get done overall.

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So what’s to be done?

Less breadth, more depth. There truly are more advantages to doing just one thing at a time. Take for example that 3D printed 5 speed transmission I mentioned above, created by ‘EricthePoolBoy’ and shared on Thingiverse on March 9th. Since he didn’t release anything between then and Jan 22nd, it’s reasonable to assume that he was focusing his efforts on that one project. Over that same time span I was able to complete and share six cool mini-projects on Thingiverse. As of this writing the cumulative stats on my projects is 133 likes, 203 collects, and 4 comments; compared to his 429 likes, 391 collects, and 27 comments on that one project. If we’re using attention garnered as a metric for successful work then focusing on one big thing was definitively better than doing six little things.

Working on multiple little things is pretty typical for me. I’ve trained my brain for creative thought so I come up with lots of ideas all the time. The downside of doing so is that concentrating on one idea long enough to see it through without sniping myself can be challenging. I’ll be working on developing my ability to focus with my upcoming blog series on testing 3d printed objects, but for now I will share the few tricks I currently use to stay focused:

*Actively try to recognize when you are being sniped. If you find yourself working hard on a project that you just discovered today… that’s a dead giveaway. Similarly, you might be headed for trouble if you’re about to say something like “I’m almost done with this other thing I’ve been working on, but damn, this new idea is dynamite”.

*Of course you don’t want to throw away all those good ideas you have just because you can’t work on them right now. I like to save them using a technique from David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done” and make a ‘someday/maybe list’. It is simply a single place where you keep those ideas you would like to pursue more at some indefinite time in the future. Keeping it all in one place ensures that you won’t lose those ideas, allowing you to comfortably forget about them for the time being. His book actually has somewhat of a cult following because it is so focused on providing a practical approach to organization, rather than filling pages with useless inspirational bullshit. It’s definitely worth a read if you want to improve your organization skills.

*I’m also fond of a couple idea’s from Scott Belsky’s book “Making Ideas Happen”. Such as considering everything that consumes your time as a project. Doing so helps you decide whether or not to devote any time to seeing it through and reduces the chance that you will underestimate the effort necessary to finish it. His other piece of advice: Approach every occasion of creativity with a dose of skepticism and a bias toward action. (The rest of his book was admittedly just OK, just borrow this one from the library.)

*Force yourself to finish things by taking a step of no return. I fuddled around with the idea of building a 3D printer for a few months before I realized that the only way I was going to get it done was to just sit down and order a bunch of expensive stuff, knowing that my devotion to frugality would help me ensure that my money was not wasted. (Obviously, you need to be careful when putting this one into practice.)

*Understand that you can never do everything that you want to do. Getting things done always takes longer than you think it will and there are literally not enough hours in the day to pursue every idea that occurs to you. The only reasonable course of action then is to filter your ideas by the impact that they will have compared to the effort required to enact them. Practice Pareto’s Principle (the 80–20 rule) by only working on a few projects that will produce the most results for the least effort.

*Along that line of thought you can determine where your time is best spent by using the “Fire Bullets, then Cannonballs” technique I’ve discussed before. That is, run small experiments to help you make data driven decisions before devoting yourself to something big. Just be careful not to run too many side experiments or let them take precedence before they have proven themselves worthy.

neo dodging bullets

That’s my list for avoiding nerd sniping. What are your best techniques for staying focused?

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Notes:

  1. The result of my lunchtime efforts: Technically you could attach a Dremel tool to your 3D printer to make it into a CNC printed circuit board mill, but it would definitely be better to buy/build a devoted machine for the task. 3D printers are designed for fast movements and very light loads (really, only the inertia of the print head), while a pcb mill requires much more rigidity and more specific machine tooling than is reasonable to want to add to a 3D printer. That’s all forgoing the new software you’d have to setup as well, so for all that work you might as well have a separate machine. If I was going to buy a devoted pcb mill my choice would probably be The OtherMill.
  2. Let me know if someone runs a calculation to find the strength of 3D printed gears so I can add 100 points to my score.
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5 comments

  1. HA! As an engineer, I can 100% relate.

    Here’s where I’m at:
    I was tinkering with my robot at home, when I decided that I should build a PCB router to make the circuits a little neater and more professional. I then decided to not spend any money on the router, so I started focusing on scrounging second hand parts (mostly discarded printers) to build the router out of (using my 3D printer and parts I had laying around to make the majority of the the other parts). I then decided that if I needed to write a Gear Calculator for the drive mechanisms: “no sense in using standard gear tooth profiles when I can print any profile I want, thus matching my materials and endurance requirements precisely”. but of course it doesn’t make sense to generate the profiles without checking the specific sliding and strength of the teeth… and here I am, reading my old textbooks on gear strength and specific sliding, trying to figure out how to apply it to 3D printed gears…

    I’ll let you know how I go, unless I get distracted by some shiny new project…

    Liked by 1 person

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