Heuristics are rules intended to help you solve problems. When a problem is large or complex, and the optimal solution is unclear, applying a heuristic allows you to begin making progress towards a solution even though you can’t visualize the entire path from your starting point.
Suppose your goal is to climb to the peak of a mountain, but there’s no trail to follow. An example of a heuristic would be: Head directly towards the peak until you reach an obstacle you can’t cross. Whenever you reach such an obstacle, follow it around to the right until you’re able to head towards the peak once again. This isn’t the most intelligent or comprehensive heuristic, but in many cases it will work just fine, and you’ll eventually reach the peak.
Heuristics don’t guarantee you’ll find the optimal solution, nor do they generally guarantee a solution at all. But they do a good enough job of solving certain types of problems to be useful.
Their strength is that they break the deadlock of indecision and get you into action. As you take action you begin to explore the solution space, which deepens your understanding of the problem. As you gain knowledge about the problem, you can make course corrections along the way, gradually improving your chances of finding a solution. If you try to solve a problem you don’t initially know how to solve, you’ll often figure out a solution as you go, one you never could have imagined until you started moving. This is especially true with creative work such as software development. Often you don’t even know exactly what you’re trying to build until you start building it.
Heuristics have many practical applications, and one of my favorite areas of application is personal productivity. Productivity heuristics are behavioral rules (some general, some situation-specific) that can help us get things done more efficiently. Here are some of my favorites:
Nuke it! The most efficient way to get through a task is to delete it. If it doesn’t need to be done, get it off your to do list.
Daily goals. Without a clear focus, it’s too easy to succumb to distractions. Set targets for each day in advance. Decide what you’ll do; then do it.
Worst first. To defeat procrastination learn to tackle your most unpleasant task first thing in the morning instead of delaying it until later in the day. This small victory will set the tone for a very productive day.
Peak times. Identify your peak cycles of productivity, and schedule your most important tasks for those times. Work on minor tasks during your non-peak times.
No-comm zones. Allocate uninterruptible blocks of time for solo work where you must concentrate. Schedule light, interruptible tasks for your open-comm periods and more challenging projects for your no-comm periods.
Mini-milestones. When you begin a task, identify the target you must reach before you can stop working. For example, when working on a book, you could decide not to get up until you’ve written at least 1000 words. Hit your target no matter what.
Timeboxing. Give yourself a fixed time period, like 30 minutes, to make a dent in a task. Don’t worry about how far you get. Just put in the time. See Timeboxing for more.
Batching. Batch similar tasks like phone calls or errands into a single chunk, and knock them off in a single session.
Early bird. Get up early in the morning, like at 5am, and go straight to work on your most important task. You can often get more done before 8am than most people do in a day.
Cone of silence.