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Soft Skills Part 5 - Improving your Efficiency and Productivity Part I

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Soft Skills Part 5 - Improving your Efficiency and Productivity Part I

The types of roles that use SAS are wide and varied – from people who spend their day to exclusively writing SAS code, to people that use a combination of programming languages, to people like myself who use SAS in a very small portion of their day.  Regardless of how much you use SAS in your day-to-day work, knowing what you have on your plate, and how much effort those tasks will take, are key to being successful.  I admit, when I was in high school time management was a challenge for me; it wasn’t until university and I took a couple of first year tutorials that taught this skill that I finally realised how easy it really is, and how a good plan allows you to be far more efficient than without one. 


The first step in time management is knowing how long a task will take.  This is a key skill and requires you have not only a firm grasp on your skills, but also a solid understanding of the task and the data.

So how you can you easily estimate the time to develop a report?  I always write down the steps I will need to take to accomplish the task, and answer a couple of critical questions:

  • Do I have the data already, or do I need to rely on someone else (either in whole or in part)?
  • Do I have the necessary tools/skills to do the job? For example, if I need to do geospatial analysis using patients’ addresses and plot the data on a map, do I have latitude / longitude data and mapping software?  Do I know how to use that software?
  • Although it seems obvious, you need to know the question that is being asked.

Starting off with a vague, non-specific question will inevitably result in more questions being asked, and potentially cause valuable time to be wasted.  This isn’t to say data mining isn’t useful – it is an extremely useful tool I use all the time.  However, when someone is asking you for a report, they often know what they want but they may not know how to verablise it.  Asking them questions forces them to think about the request, ensuring you are providing them exactly what they require.

A task list is an essential part of my day-to-day activity.  I have a number of different ones at any given moment, but they all have priorities, notes, estimated times, and other features that make my life easier.  This allows me to gauge my day – I’m not going to start a low-priority task that will take me 5 hours at 3pm on a Friday!  On the other hand, if I see I’m getting too many “High” priority tasks, I may consider speaking with my manager about re-prioritizing the list.  Without having them written down in a systematic fashion, I would never know what I had forgotten, what was needing immediate attention, or where I needed to call in additional support, all of which could result in a failed project.


The second step is being organised – and I don’t necessarily mean a ton of file folders and a label maker.  Friends at work always give me a hard time about my desk because I have piles of stuff all over the place – to someone unfamiliar with me, it may look like a hoarder’s house, but in fact it’s a highly organised and well-structured plan.  I use the “concentric circle” plan – things I need frequently are kept with an arms-reach of my chair; the further I have to move to get something, the less important it is to my day-to-day job.  I have two SAS books right beside my computer, a number in the overhead cupboard, and more in the cabinet behind my chair.  This way my desk isn’t cluttered with all the books, and I’m not having to continuously turn around to get the ones I use all the time.  Try different layouts for yourself, and see what works for you; I went through a number of setups before I found the one I like.


The third characteristic, which is seemingly counterintuitive, is take your breaks – it drives my wife nuts, but I buy my lunch most days.  This accomplishes a couple of different goals – it gets me away from my desk; it forces me outside; and it gives me a chance to see friends who I don’t see during the normal course of my day.  This is essential as your brain cannot function for extended periods without a break (although I have gone as long as 12 hours straight writing code, but that ended up in a massive migraine).  (Aside: Have water with your lunch, as you’re probably like me and a fan of caffeine and probably dehydrated most of the time). 


The fourth, which is seemingly counterpoint to taking breaks, is spend some time on the weekends honing your skills.  I spend as much time as I can Saturday and Sunday playing with SAS, learning new languages or developing new skills.  This will allow you to discover new ways of doing tasks you do every day, and chances are good you’ll find a more efficient way of doing something you’ve done for ages. 


The last, and the one that will be the focus of my next post, is explore different apps to use to improve your efficiency.  Even if you don’t have a smartphone or a tablet, there are a lot of options available to you to get you through the day even more effectively.  Don’t be afraid of trying a new program, even if you don’t think it’ll work – after a week, you may find you can’t live without it!


I look forward to hearing your thoughts on how to be a more efficient SAS user!

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