You don’t need to be busy to be working

What do I do if I have nothing to do?
I’ve just finished my current task. What should I do now

Chances are you don’t have anything to do right now. Don’t worry. It’s fine.

Industry 1.0 and 2.0 paved the way for people not having to think what to do next. Assembly line workers or people at offices would follow clearly defined procedures and systems. Put a nut into a piece. Put another nut into the next piece. Repeat for 8 hours. Go home. After that, the point was optimizing times and efforts so you could lower costs as much as possible.

But it happened that Lean, Toyota Production System and Theory of Constraints demonstrated that working at 100% (or more!) rate is not beneficial, but decreases productivity.

I was thinking on it last saturday, watching the RTVE Orchestra playing the Star Wars Suite.


An orchestra ensembles dozens of highly trained, highly skilled professionals to accomplish a common goal. They all play together to accomplish it.

They all play together? But then, who are that group of people sitting, silent and still, in the background? There are at least fifty of them. And they haven’t done a thing for the whole first two pieces. They don’t have instruments, by the way.


Are they even part of the orchestra?

In fact, they are. They are the choir. They just remained in the background, for eight minutes and a half, silent, still, not disturbing, maybe relaxing, focusing or doing a mental recap of the notes they are going to be singing for the next piece.

Could they be helping the guy with the drums on his beating. Clearly not.
Would they be of help turning the pages of the score of the man whith the trombone. Of course not.
So they just sit still.

Could they be out of the stage, behind the scenes, chating or having a drink? They always could enter after the end of the second piece.
Yes, they could. But it would not be efficient, nor a nice watch. They would last forever to enter and sit down, ruining the flow of the concert, distracting the crowd in attendance and the performers.

So they just sit still.

Having every people in the orchestra, in the team, busy 100% of the time, is not only bad for morale… it’s highly inefficient.

So whenever you face it, please, think clearly and, if you don’t have anything to do, just wait still, focusing for being ready to start working again the very moment it makes sense.


  • The Toyota Way (Liker): “Toyota management says it is OK to run less than 100% of the time, even when the line is capable of running full-time, yet Toyota is regularly ranked among the most productive plants in the auto industry. Why? Because Toyota learned long ago that solving quality problems at the source saves time and money downstream.”
  • Synchronize your watches (Seth): “The work itself now tells you when to start working on it, as the project is passed from desk to desk, from account to account.”
  • Managing the Unmanageable (Mantle and Litchy): “Prioritize. Sometimes, it is urgent to wait. […] When an unexpected issue comes up, engineers (mostly) tend to want to fix it right away to show their mettle, forgetting their actual priorities. It is actually more difficiult to sit back and wait first to understand the actual priority of the new issue” – Phac Le Tuan

Quote: The magical power behind deadlines


[To write a novel] You need a super-powered, diabolical device that will transform you into a bastion of literary accomplishment. And I’m happy to report that this implement is in the house, and it’s just waiting for you to pick it up.

Without hyperbole, I can say that this tool is the most awesome catalyst that has ever been unleashed on the worlds of art and commerce. Nearly every beautiful and useful thing you’ve ever touched or witnessed was born in its mighty forge. It’s portable, affordable, and nonpolluting. 

[…] What you need to write a novel, of course, is a deadline.

Deadlines are the dynamos of the modern age. They’ve built every city, won every contest, and helped all of us pay our taxes reasonably close to on time for years and years.

Chris Baty. Why deadlines are every writer’s secret weapon

I first published in my school’s newspaper when I was eleven. Since then I started to write a novel at least three times, never achieving more than a dozen pages.

Then NaNoWrimo came to scene, with its gigantic deadline. 50.000 words. 30 days. A novel from start to end, while doing your best to keep up with your life.

NaNoWriMo. A challenging but clear goal in an agreed, achievable time box. I couldn’t do anything but commit.

A deadline is, simply put, optimism in its most ass-kicking form. It’s a potent force that, when wielded with respect, will level any obstacle in its path.

Chris Baty. Why deadlines are every writer’s secret weapon

Optimistic ass-kicked as I was, I won. Four times. Thanks to the magical power of deadlines.

Related: How to make deadlines actually work, Jason Fried at
Related: Why deadlines are every writer secret weapon, Chris Baty at
Related: About NaNoWriMo at
Related: Quotes on planning, Quotes on time pressure

Gimli, son of Gloin, on software development

How to measure the productivity of a software developer has been an ongoing debate for years.

They studied professional programmers with an average of 7 years’ experience and found that the ratio of initial coding time between the best and worst programmers was about 20 to 1; the ratio of debugging times over 25 to 1; of program size 5 to 1; and of program execution speed about 10 to 1. They found no relationship between a programmer’s amount of experience and code quality or productivity. (Steve McConnell, Rapid Development)

Imagen de Legolas y Gimli en la peli de 1978

Gimli le explica a Legolas la vida del programador

From the number of lines of code written to assigning function points to each part of the code depending on complexity, there is a whole set of proposals out there.

Consider both points above together – your coworker codes 25 function points in one day, but they’re all simple validations (if text box “a” is not a date, throw an error…)

In the same day, you stared at the screen for six hours, whiteboarded a lot, then rewrote one line and deleted fifteen other lines, making a major part of the data processing engine faster by two orders of magnitude.

So he wrote 650 lines and 25 function points, you wrote *negative* fourteen lines of code and no new function points.

Who’s “better” ? (Joel On Software Forum)

J.R.R. Tolkien, in The Lord of the Rings,  was so kind as to take some time to explain, through the words of Gimli the dwarf, the most complex and marvellous part of a software developer’s work.

We would tend these glades of flowering stone, not quarry them. With cautious skill, tap by tap – a small chip of rock and no more, perhaps, in a whole anxious day – so we could work, and as the years went by, we should open up new ways, and display far chambers that are still dark, glimpsed only as a void beyond fissures in the rock.

Beppo Roadsweeper and the state of flow

You see, Momo,’ he [Beppo Roadsweeper] told her one day, ‘it’s like this. Sometimes, when you’ve a very long street ahead of you, you think how terribly long it is and feel sure you’ll never get it swept.’
He gazed silently into space before continuing. ‘And then you start to hurry,’ he went on. ‘You work faster and faster, and every time you look up there seems to be just as much left to sweep as before, and you try even harder, and you panic, and in the end you’re out of breath and have to stop – and still the street stretches away in front of you. That’s not the way to do it.’

When there is too much work to be done, you don’t need to hurry up. You need to slow down. You don’t want to arrive late because of the shortcut you tried.

[…]’You must never think of the whole street at once, understand? You must only concentrate on the next step, the next breath, the next stroke of the broom, and the next, and the next. Nothing else.’
Again he paused for thought before adding, ‘That way you enjoy your work, which is important, because then you make a good job of it. And that’s how it ought to be.’

A focused work is enjoyable.

[…]’And all at once, before you know it, you find you’ve swept the whole street clean, bit by bit. What’s more, you aren’t out of breath.’ He nodded to himself. ‘That’s important, too,’ he concluded.”

Finally, a focus work is productive in the short run and even more productive in the long run.

When you are trapped by tons of work to be done, divide the task, prioritize, let you fall into the state of flow, and do and celebrate on each step. And then repeat.



Why are you doing what you are doing (2)?

Matlab, the computing environment, had quite a nice sense of humor while presenting examples of applications to do with it. From drawing a penny to simulate the flushing flux of a toilet, a list of hidden commands will give you some interesting hints about how to use the environment.

But my favorite was always the why funcion. I could imagine a pair of mathematicians implementing the environment, reaching a dead-end on a development or failing to find the origin of a bug on the software. They both ask why the system is failing. Why they can’t find the error. Why do they need to implement this part of the system in the first place. Why. Why! WHYYYY!!!

And then, one told the other, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if there where an automatic way for finding it out?”. And the other one smiled. “Let’s work on it”.

Matlab’s why function is just a random generator of answers to this typical question. Things like “Because she asked some system manager” or “Because Bill wanted it this way”.

The funny idea and the random answers don’t hide the fact that we need to know why. Besides, we need to ask why. We need to know if we’re doing what we should be doing.

If you’re not doing it because of this, maybe you should stop doing it. And start doing the right thing you only can do.

In fact, one of the randomly-generated answers to Matlab’s why function is “Don’t you have something better to do?”

Finding Focus, and Pride, and Satisfaction

For a knowledge worker, being able to focus is the most efficient productivity tool he can ever achieve.

Here’s the trouble. We all know that knowledge workers work best by getting into “flow”, also known as being “in the zone”, where they are fully concentrated on their work and fully tuned out of their environment. They lose track of time and produce great stuff through absolute concentration. (Joel Spolsky)

Interruptions are productivity serial killers.

Programmers cannot work effectively in an interrupt-driven environment. Make sure your working environment protects your programmers’ flow state, otherwise they’ll waste most of their time bouncing back and forth between distractions. (Jeff Attwood, The Programmers Bill of Rights)

Being productive at work requires focus. By definition, you can’t focus on more than one thing at a time.

This mental juggling act is one of the most difficult aspects of programming and is the reason programming requires more concentration than other activities. It’s the reason programmers get upset about ‘ quick interruptions’ – such interruptions are tantamount to asking a juggler to keep three balls in the air and hold your groceries at the same time. (Steve McConnel, Code Complete)

But focusing is not privative for programmers or IT workers and it’s not a recent invention. Tolstoi’s novel Anna Karenina, tells us about Constantine Levin, who decides helping his peasants laboring his fields. His lack of practice doesn’t let him work well, nor enjoy the task.

The grass was short close to the road, and Levin, who had not done any mowing for a long while, and was disconcerted by the eyes fastened upon him, cut badly for the first moments, though he swung his scythe vigorously. […]He felt as he swung his scythe that he was at the very end of his strength, and was making up his mind to ask Tit to stop.

After the firsts clumsy efforts, Levi doesn’t give up, and keeps mowing and thinking how to make his technique get better.

His pleasure was only disturbed by his row not being well cut. “I will swing less with my arm and more with my whole body,” he thought.

Finally, he suddenly starts working well, he is fully focused. He doesn’t care about no other thing than his scythe, the field in front of him and himself.

He thought of nothing, wished for nothing, but not to be left behind the peasants, and to do his work as well as possible. He heard nothing but the swish of scythes, and saw before him Tit’s upright figure mowing away, the crescent-shaped curve of the cut grass, the grass and flower heads slowly and rhythmically falling before the blade of his scythe, and ahead of him the end of the row, where would come the rest.

He has reached “the flow”. He is working “in the zone”. This is important because his work is better. But also for a more important reason.

Another row, and yet another row, followed–long rows and short rows, with good grass and with poor grass. Levin lost all sense of time, and could not have told whether it was late or early now. A change began to come over his work, which gave him immense satisfaction.
Anna Karenina (vol I, 3rd part, chapter 4)

Reach the flow. Get into the zone. Work better. Enjoy your work.

Related: Interruption, communication and rubber ducks

Why are you doing what you are doing?

Batman: It’s just something I have to do.
Vicky Vale: Why?
Batman: Because nobody else can.

Bruce Wayne: People are dying, Alfred. What would you have me do?
Alfred: Endure, Master Wayne. […] that’s the point of Batman, he can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make, the right choice.

Why are you doing what you are doing?

  • You aren’t doing it because they told you to do it.
  • You aren’t doing it because you think you should.
  • You aren’t doing it because they’re paying you to do it.
  • You aren’t doing it because you think it needs to be done.

You are doing it because you know it’s the right thing to do, and because if you didn’t do it, nobody else would.

If you’re not doing it because of that, maybe you should stop doing it. And start doing the right thing you only can do.