Yesterday, I talked a little about balancing short and long-term effort at a startup. Today, I want to discuss “cranking,” which I’ll define as a short-run effort to achieve an extremely important short-term goal.
How hard can people possibly crank? For a sufficiently motivating goal, people can work well in excess of 70 hours per week for months. With occasional short “vacations” that normal people would call a “weekend,” this level of effort can be productively sustained for much longer, although not indefinitely. I know this for a fact because I’ve done it, and I’ve seen it done.
Just because this is possible does not imply it is the best course of action in many (or, in fact any) cases. We ought not to plan on effort levels greater than what we are likely to be able to achieve. Planning on working 160 hours per week for even one week is nothing but foolish bravado.
I’m going to use a personal story to illustrate my point. This isn’t a typical startup, but it exemplifies maximum short-term effort. Moreover, I happen to have good contemporaneous estimates of my and other people’s effort, that are well documented in government reports and this article from Wired magazine.
In 1994, I worked as a programmer for the South African election commission during that county’s historic elections. I was one of the last people added to the organization, 20 days before the election. In the following 25 days, I worked approximately 400 hours (an average of 16 hours a day). This level of effort was not universal, but it was typical in many departments. Some people had been working at this level of effort with brief 2- or 3-day breaks for several months. The organization was only five months old, and a few people had been working pretty fiercely that whole time.
The hours were not just long, they were hard. To illustrate, consider my diet. I ate three big meals a day, and consumed an additional 1000 calories a day in soft drinks and snacks. Over the course of the project, I still managed to lose five pounds. The only explanation I have is that I was thinking that hard. I was also consuming about half a gram a day of caffeine, which significantly increases … Next Page »
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