15 Comments

Summary:

According to Rules of Thumb.org (a site where you can waste a dangerous amount of time) a rule of thumb is “a homemade recipe for making guess.” I tend to think of them more as little bits of random knowledge that I pull out when I don’t actually want to think about things in detail. Whatever definition you subscribe to, web workers can benefit from rules of thumb just like anyone else. Here are some of the ones that I depend on.

According to Rules of Thumb.org (a site where you can waste a dangerous amount of time) a rule of thumb is “a homemade recipe for making guess.” I tend to think of them more as little bits of random knowledge that I pull out when I don’t actually want to think about things in detail. Whatever definition you subscribe to, web workers can benefit from rules of thumb just like anyone else. Here are some of the ones that I depend on.

When estimating a task, take your first estimate, double it, and add 50%. I learned this one clear back in engineering school, and it’s proved embarrassingly accurate over time. Just about everyone is an optimist when thinking about how long it will take to do something in their area of expertise. This is a good one to remember when customers want off-the-cuff ideas about how long their next project will take. If you have problems with estimates, take a look at our Web Worker 101 article on the topic.

The 90-9-1 Rule. This one was popularized by Jakob Nielsen (though he credits prior research) as “In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.” If you work involves any sort of community-building, you need to keep this in mind; you simply never will get everyone involved. But look back at Nielsen’s article for some practical tips of changing the ratio.

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80-20 rule). In economist Vilfredo Pareto’s original research, the observation was that 80% of the income in Italy went to 20% of the population. But similar distributions occur in many places: for example, in designing software it’s usually safe to assume that 80% of your users’ time will be spent with 20% of the features (identifying and building that 20% first is one of the guiding principles of rapid development). On the other hand, 80% of your customer support time is likely to go to 20% of your clients.

The best developers are 10 times more productive than the worst ones. This one dates back to the classic Peopleware. Though it’s been argued whether the ratio is 10 or 5 or 28 or whatever, no one challenges the notion that there are superstars out there. If you’re hiring for a small outfit, it’s worth taking the extra effort to look for a superstar. It’s also worth concentrating on your own professional development so that you, too, can be a superstar.

2 interruptions cost you 1 hour of work. This is another one that dates back to my engineering-school days, though certainly there is much research on the topic, ranging from the discussion of flow in Peopleware to Linda Stone’s work with continuous partial attention. If you’re trying to get serious work done on a tricky project, then phone calls and your email program popping up “toast” notices and incoming Twitter and instant messages are your enemies. You can alleviate some of these factors by batching your workflow.

What rules of thumb do you rely on in your own web work?

  1. Don’t promise you can do something you have never done before. – If asked to attempt something new, consider very carefully how long it may take to finish. Sometimes the task that looks ‘easy’ at first glance can turn out to be a project killer.

    Share
  2. “How hard can it be?” are the five most dangerous words in my lexicon.

    They’re tasty, too. I’ve eaten them many, many times.

    Share
  3. About interruptions. I’d say it’s not productive to do too much in one go, as your creativity and stamina rapidly decreases over time (actually you’re most productive for the first 15 minutes). So plan scheduled interruptions or just drop what you’re doing when you first feel that you’re not doing any progress. And switch to something completely different, like a peek outside window or a short walk. Also check out Time Budgeting.

    Share
  4. About interruptions: being a manager or executive it can be very disturbing if your employees feel the urge to constantly share every little detail of their work with you. With this I mean that it’s not necessary to give your superior a report every time you receive or send an email… :)

    Share
  5. Finish.

    It is common for me to have lots of things that I COULD BE working. I sometimes find myself working a little bit on all these things.

    Finish something every (day, week, month – whatever works for you), but finish something.

    Share
  6. Margi, I’ve found that like so many things, they go well with ketchup.

    Share
  7. A wise man once said:
    “Never say no; just tell them what the price is.”

    Share
  8. The estimation rule is extremely useful. I have never been satisfied with my own quotes later in the process. Always overcharge and you’ll still end up not charging enough.

    Share
  9. Similar to Chris, my #1 rule for web development is to NEVER take on (or even consider) a job/task that you’re not already 100% competent at being able to deliver. Whatever rationales you use to justify taking on such work, it will be nothing but headaches down the road–I promise!

    Especially if it’s something you have little to no experience with, there’s no way you can begin to estimate the ACTUAL time it will take to figure out, troubleshoot, tweak, redo, etc. every little part of that job. Just don’t do it!

    Share
  10. Thanks for the tips! Being a web worker, it’s very difficult to stay on task sometimes. I’m constantly alternating tasks in order to keep focus and stay away from the useless internet functions which are distracting wastes of time. I often check my mail or do a few tasks and then jump to one of my “dummies” books to continue learning a new task or keeping up on my field.

    Jake
    NoteScribe: Premier Note Software

    Share
  11. I disagree with those who say don’t take on what you are not already competent in. I started saying I could do things and having to learn them on the spot. It was a great way to learn. As long as you follow the 1st rule you will be fine, and in the end your experience will be more well-rounded than everyone else’s.

    Share
  12. Multi-tasking is a myth! (Thanks Twitter for this interesting piece!)

    Best.
    alain

    Share
  13. Thank you for posting this. It is great information.

    – Bryan Entzminger

    Share
  14. These are all very useful tips, thanks for them. And especially #5 – that one costed me an hour of work quite a few times already :)

    Share
  15. Nice tips. I have to aggre with them completly. 90-9-1 is so true. Hell, maybe even those 9% is a bit optimistic.

    Share

Comments have been disabled for this post