How to stop overengineering everything
February 14, 2018 4:59 PM   Subscribe

Have you ever gone from being a person who does things "slowly and carefully" to doing things "efficiently"? Please tell me your secrets.

I'm a "slowly and carefully" kind of person, and it is increasingly getting in the way of my daily tasks at work. I'd like to change, but I literally don't know how.

My boss sometimes comments that asking me to do something can easily turn into a "production." I work in construction, so most tasks that I'm asked to do are physical. Like I might need to, say, move some lumber from one side of the room to the other. I'll first put on some gloves so I don't get splinters, then spend a minute or two thinking of a reasonable way to sort and stack the lumber so we can access it later, notice that there is a pile of tools in the way at the new location, spend a minute trying to figure out the best place to put all the wayward tools, move them there, then carefully move the pieces of wood making sure to lift in a healthy way for my back, then spend another minute or two making sure they are stacked nice and straight. Now a 3-minute task has turned into an 10-minute task. I'm obviously overengineering. My coworkers would have just... skipped the gloves, not worried about the tools, put them wherever, and moved the lumber.

Things like this happen all day long. Sometimes, when the task is more complex, the issue is just inexperience. But quite often, as in the "moving pieces of wood from one place to another" example (how much simpler can you get?), it's this misplaced idea that I need to do every task carefully and do a good job, which just turns into "slowly." And the thing is, when it's happening, it doesn't feel like I'm being slow. It just feels like I'm moving pieces of wood (or doing whatever I was asked to do). Even worse, if I try to go faster, I end up thinking about the process even more, and being even slower.

Other examples: I'll take a bit longer to position a ladder so that the feet are perfectly even, where my coworkers would just leave a bit of a wobble (not an unsafe amount, just more than zero) and call it good. I'll take the time to untangle a cord when it doesn't really matter. I'll go to the trouble of making two pieces of wood flush to each other, just because it feels satisfying, even though nothing depends on it and no one will ever see it in the finished product.

How do I stop thinking too much and just start doing?

Things that have helped a bit so far:

- telling myself "don't fix things that don't matter"
- getting stronger, so that I can lift/move things without thinking about it (I'm a woman, fairly strong but not as strong as my coworkers)
- getting more sleep
- (for more complex tasks) asking my boss to do a demonstration so that I can see about how fast he's doing each step and how much slop factor there is
posted by Questolicious to Grab Bag (12 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Dude, it sounds like your workplace doesn't prioritize safety. I don't hear anything you're doing wrong. I get that maybe most construction employers aren't going to be 100% doing everything perfectly, but is there a _chance_ you could find someone better to work for?
posted by amtho at 5:42 PM on February 14, 2018 [9 favorites]

I have the same problem in a different field: I am (or was, anyway) a software developer. When I was young, I'd just charge in and write whatever code seemed like it'd work. Then I got tired of rip-up-and-rewrite, so I tried to Do It Right The First Time. But that usually turns into much less work accomplished, even if you deduct the parts you previously would have had to rip up and redo. (Plus you learn a lot from doing it wrong, and not so much from doing it right.)

Nowadays, I can hardly write any code at all, but that's sort of OK because I became lawyer.

Guess what: lawyers can overengineer too. I think it's a species of procrastination -- if I don't start, I won't waste any time (== do any work that I'll have to undo or redo).

Anyway, I think the happy medium is to Start Right Away, avoid the things you know will cause you more work, and accept that you won't always anticipate those things, so sometimes you'll just have to undo or redo. Perhaps you can track your progress by noting how much undo/redo time you spend, and seeing if it goes down.

"Ask for a demonstration" doesn't sound like a great idea. If you know how to do it, then do it. If you don't know, ask. Work as fast as you can do it right and safely.

Treat your tools well (coil your cords, put away where they belong). Don't do scutwork (e.g. untangle other people's cords) unless the the scutwork is blocking you (e.g. you need to use the tool with the tangled cord.)

Well-crafted code, or briefs, or wood is satisfying to the person who made it, and sometimes to people who know how hard it is to make, but not generally. Most people don't care: if it runs, or wins, or stays standing, it's good enough.

When you're running your own business, you can demand precision of your workers (or you might find that you can't afford to do that, as your boss perhaps has found.)
posted by spacewrench at 5:44 PM on February 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

How do I stop thinking too much and just start doing?

Be aware that your question reads very much like "How do I best overthink how to stop overthinking?". You're applying the same methodology!

I have perfectionist tendencies, but with a time limited field like I am in, I have stopped being frustrated with not being able to pursue that to the maximum by focussing less on perfecting the task, but more on perfecting the processes. If I am doing something once, I trust my instincts and do the job as well as I can. If I am doing a job more than once (or am likely to) I let myself overthink the first time to get a mental procedure so I can do it the best way, and the same way every time from then on. Crucially, though. I do it while I am working on the first time, not standing staring at it. So I allow my perfectionism to show on the 2nd, 3rd time and onwards, I don't worry about it the first time. Everyone gets to screw up once, and being ok with a mistake as long as I have given it my best shot works for me. But I expect to learn, eradicate the mistake and produce consistent good results from then. Because I now have a procedure I have worked out, I can rattle through the next ones much faster.

People notice the two minutes thinking about the job. They see you standing there. They see inaction, not diligence. They don't remember you screwing up the first one if you do the next 10 rapidly and consistently. Focussing on procedures and templates helps me keep things organised, and it may help you stop seeing each problem as a new one to be analysed all over again. Use templates. This allows your brain to focus on something while not slowing the job down.
posted by Brockles at 5:54 PM on February 14, 2018 [16 favorites]

Hi, I'm also a woman in construction (I'm a recently-promoted carpenter foreman so I rarely swing a hammer nowadays but I'm out in the field; I work on large commerical projects for a GC). Honestly, it just sounds to me like you're inexperienced. I used to be just like you in so much of what you describe, but have learned to scale back on the perfectionism and focus on the things that matter. I'd say, just give it a couple of years.

Are you new in the trades? From reading your question, I gather that your aren't really being given "big picture" types of tasks, so you focus on owning insignificant things. Can you step up and ask for more responsibility? You'll stop sweating the small stuff really quickly once you are held personally accountable for getting stuff done.

I'm getting the impression that you think you're doing things in a way that somehow requires more decision-making than the way your colleagues approach tasks. It doesn't. They're facing all the same challenges that you are facing. They also need to come up with solutions at every stage, they need to make all the decisions and calculations that you need to make, but they just do it (a) WAY faster, because they've done it a million times, and (b) they know when details matter and when they don't.

It could also be that you just need to physically move faster? I've an apprentice who is smart, capable, takes initiative and does great work despite being new at construction but damn, she moves like molasses. We all want to get the job done and go home. Given how expensive union overtime wages are, how can I justify that what historically has taken my crew two hours to complete takes three hours whenever she is my partner? Hustle!

Ladders wobble. They're perfectly safe tools even when they have "non-zero" wobble. You'll get used to it.
posted by halogen at 6:58 PM on February 14, 2018 [17 favorites]

A lot of this is experience. Unless it’s an unusual situation, construction people will usually be in the same page, so not much conversation or planning is needed.

It sounds as if this is just new to you and you are not up to speed yet.
posted by Vaike at 7:01 PM on February 14, 2018

I've experienced something similar, and it's absolutely not a safety issue. Your workplace wants safety to happen faster/more efficiently.
posted by danceswithlight at 7:22 PM on February 14, 2018

(disclaimer: not in construction)

So I try to be goal-oriented about my over-engineering, and focus those goals on what's acceptable rather than what's perfect.

To break down your example of moving lumber:

I'll first put on some gloves so I don't get splinters: this sounds reasonable to me

then spend a minute or two thinking of a reasonable way to sort and stack the lumber so we can access it later: This would be a good idea if simply replicating however it's currently stacked is somehow unacceptable or prohibitively hard (like, is it haphazardly dumped in a heap? are the large pieces all at the bottom, which makes sense for storage but means you can't easily copy that?). If not, just copy whatever the current setup is.

notice that there is a pile of tools in the way at the new location, spend a minute trying to figure out the best place to put all the wayward tools, move them there: This is a good idea in general, but a bad idea to do FIRST because your task was to move the lumber, not the tools -- this couple-of-minutes side trip delays whoever might have needed the lumber in the new location. Or it might be completely unnecessary, if your boss (or whoever else needs those tools next) disagrees with your 'best place' decision. I would shove the tools out of the way and then maybe move them elsewhere after moving the lumber.

then carefully move the pieces of wood making sure to lift in a healthy way for my back: This sounds totally reasonable, just like the gloves.

spend another minute or two making sure they are stacked nice and straight: in general this is kind of a could-go-either-way thing, because tidy stacks are a good thing, but I'm guessing you're the kind of person who would have stacked them fairly tidily as you were moving them, and so straightening the stack isn't necessary.
posted by Xany at 9:42 PM on February 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

OK, honestly, your excessive cautiousness reads to me like inexperience coupled with anxiety. I also agree that as your responsibilities increase you'll have less time to worry about these things which no one else notices and which make no difference to the final product. But it really does sound to me like it must be frustrating for your co-workers to see you taking 10 minutes about a simple task when presumably they have to wait till it's done before they can take the next step.

My suggestion is to remember why you're doing a thing. What management speak would call 'the big picture'. If you've been asked to transport some lumber to another place, it's because it's required there. All the other stuff, like whether the pile is stacked nicely, is really not that important. If no one's going to see that the pieces of wood are flush with each other, and if that is not a requirement of the task, don't do it. What you see as 'getting things perfectly right' reads as 'wasting time doing irrelevant things' in a busy workplace.

But stay safe.
posted by Ziggy500 at 1:46 AM on February 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

It helped me a lot in my work to really meditate on the idea that "the perfect is the enemy of the good". Doing everything perfectly is not actually the goal. It is not my employer's goal: they want me to do the task to a reasonable standard so I can do more work in the same amount of time. So to be the best employee I can be, I have to accept I will not do everything right. It's a counter-intuitive mind-shift. I spend a lot of time during my day reminding myself of this so I don't get stuck in perfectionist procrastination blackholes.

Also, I had to let go of the idea that there is a single best answer to everything. I used to delay the start of the task because I wrongly believed that if I thought about it enough I would come up with the "right" way to do something, when there is no "right" way. There's almost always a range of reasonable ways to do something. So now I just try to let go, aim for the middle of the target range and plow ahead, even if it means I make mistakes. As Spacewrench noted, you learn from making those mistakes, more than you do thinking abstractly about the problem and not actually doing the work.

This is an interesting statement: "I'll take the time to untangle a cord when it doesn't really matter". If it doesn't matter, why do you do it? What satisfaction does it provide for you? Does making it tidy give you a feeling of control that you don't get from the tasks you actually have to do, that do matter? is that because you lack confidence in your ability to complete those tasks adequately, so this is a substitute activity? Spend some time thinking through that (on your own time!) to see if you can let go of whatever is driving you to focus on the small stuff.
posted by girlpublisher at 6:49 AM on February 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

Neither here nor there, but I've done official ladder positioning and climbing training to be a telephone linesman, and it's seriously a 5 minute job to safely place and tie off a ladder if you are inexperienced at tying the knots and placing the safety devices.

Not saying that your work does all the same things when placing ladders - just saying that inexperience can make some tasks take a while. Cutting corners is not the answer - repetition and getting faster is just what is needed.

Not unlike playing guitar - the calluses and experience make make gloves unncessary at some point.
posted by The_Vegetables at 10:45 AM on February 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Instead of don’t fix things that don’t matter I’d suggest fix only the things that matter most.
posted by space_cookie at 5:48 PM on February 15, 2018

I work with a very safety-minded company that manages construction work among other things, and pre-planning a task with identification of foreseeable risks is definitely a critical part of our culture. I hear you using gloves to mitigate splinters and wonder if you really need a ladder or if there's a different way to perform that task.

halogen makes some great points about experience level leading to comfort. If you can remain observant about your surroundings to avoid complacency and keep looking several steps ahead in your tasks, you'll be valuable as a foreman/superintendent as you grow.
posted by a halcyon day at 1:01 PM on February 16, 2018

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