There are plenty of books, articles, videos, even whole YouTube channels dedicated to time management. This article also discusses this topic. But how many of them are dedicated specifically to working at a software house? With that in mind, as a Web Developer, I decided to look at this issue from a programmers' point of view. But before we talk about time management, I need to talk about the power of multitasking.
Multitasking enables you to finish your tasks in no time. It is attractive and easy to fall in love with. And nowadays it doesn't take much effort to achieve.
Probably many of us listen to music or podcasts while coding, which is understandable. However, during the last few months, I started to question this type of multitasking.
Computers and smartphones are excellent and efficient at multitasking. In addition to that, they simply force us to divide our attention between a variety of tasks. A simple example: there probably were many times when you received a Facebook message while reading an email on your phone. You answered and went back to the email. Even though it wasn’t an important email, you started reading from the previous paragraph because you’ve lost your focus. See what I'm talking about?
Dave Crenshaw's “The Myth of Multitasking" suggests that multitasking brings an incredible cost. All because the human brain can't fully focus on multiple subjects at the same time. Instead, the concentration switches between subjects at an incredible speed. And this obviously brings additional costs - the cost of losing focus and wasted micro-time gaps when your brain was not paying attention to a particular matter.
Okay, we may switch our focus between subjects pretty fast. But the truth is, we are not jugglers. Well, not all of us. We are just simple creatures that are trying to act like jugglers. A study by the University of London suggests that multitasking drops your IQ level about 15 points. This leaves you with an IQ of an 8-year-old child, what is less than ideal when working on intricate web development projects. This IQ drop is what we simply call "being distracted".
Distraction is nothing else but a process of diverting the attention from a desired area of focus and blocking or diminishing the reception of desired information.
According to Ph. D. Alex Pang, distraction is not a single condition. He calls the first type of distraction “hijacked”. For example, your attention while driving can be “hijacked” by a shiny object. Similarly, Twitter notifications on your cell-phone can grab your attention while you use the phone. In this case you are still focused, but on the wrong thing. That means you are not in control of your focus.
Another kind of distraction is “aimless”. It's self-explanatory - instead of directing your attention to an object, your attention is rather random. In this situation, you have a so-called “monkey mind”. With this type of distraction, you will find yourself clicking mindlessly on a variety of articles while trying to read a specific paper about a new technology. You are neither focused, nor in control over your focus.
In addition to those two types of distractions, Alex Pang adds another state of mind, which he described as “mind wandering”. In this “wandering” state, your brain doesn't need to focus, and you can safely let your thoughts go wild. For example, while you are in the middle of some mindless task, such as washing the dishes, looking out of your window, or watching a sunset, you can catch yourself suddenly remembering the fantastic last holiday you went on. Just like in the previous type of distraction, you are unfocused and you don't have control.
It is quite sad that today we are being forced by our computers to multitask, which distracts us and lowers our efficiency. Ok, some may say that it doesn’t affect their productivity. Maybe it is true. But what about the innovative or software development tasks that require a lot of thinking? It is difficult to assume that they can be a product of multitasking rather than an undivided attention.
Enough about distraction and multitasking. At the end of this article, you will find few tips and techniques regarding productivity, but now let’s talk about time management.
Today we live in a world where efficiency is promoted and praised. It is crucial, therefore, to know at least the basics of time management. Let’s start with the most popular time management technique, Pomodoro.
It may have a funny name and even (rightly so) remind us of tomato, but it's well known among software developers thanks to its simplicity. The picture below explains it quite well:
The method is remarkably simple. Each 25-minute session is a pomodoro. When you finish it, you take a 5-minute break before the next one. When you have completed four of them, you take a longer break to rest and recharge.
The Pomodoro Technique was found by (then a student) Francesco Cirillo during 1980s. “Pomodoro” in Italian means tomato. This rather peculiar name comes from a tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo used to track his progress.
But why you should use Pomodoro in web development? Why does it work? After all, it may seem counterintuitive to take many breaks. However, the research shows that taking frequent breaks can actually prevent depletion of your attention resources. Also, it can create a need to focus only on the task during the pomodoro sessions, which increases your efficiency. Lastly, it removes the extra work of tracking the time in your heads.
Personally, I use and recommend Goodtime productivity timer for Android. It is a super useful app which helps me during the development process.
Pomodoro obviously is not the only way to increase the productivity of web developers. Another resource for people with many tasks to finish is the “Even or odd” technique. It's yet another helpful time management tool for people who have upcoming deadlines for both important tasks and many trivial ones.
Even or Odd Technique
It's not as well known as Pomodoro, but it for sure can help you get your time and tasks in order.
Its premise is based on separating working day into slices. Let’s say you work eight hours a day. You divide it into eight pieces, each representing an hour. When your watch shows an even hour (e.g. 8 a.m. - 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. - 2 p.m.), you work on the most urgent tasks. When it is an odd hour (e. g. 9 a.mm - 11 a.m. - 1 p.m. - 3 p.m.), it's time to work on all of the less important or postponed duties that are waiting to be finished.
It may sound complex, but it's all about making yourself fully concentrated on an urgent or important task for a specific amount of time. What's more, you can combine it with the Pomodoro technique.
GTD (Getting Things Done) Technique
A productivity consultant David Allen described this technique in a book called "Getting Things Done". It's based on the idea of recording planned tasks so that they will be out of your mind. Afterwards, you split those written tasks into smaller pieces to manage them more easily. This allows your brain to strip itself from the heavy load of keeping details of every single task that you’ll have to do this (or next) week. Instead, you can focus on the task that you must do at the moment.
GTD was meant to be a method of stress reduction. D. Allen claims that putting reminders about all the approaching tasks into a reliable system, which is other than your brain, can reduce stress and thus increase the productivity. This is heavily related to decreasing the amount of “open-loops” or “incompletes” stored in the brain. By placing them in an external system, you reduce the heavy load clouding your mind.
GTD workflow is quite simple. Firstly, you have to collect ideas for your “inbox” list. For example, a task your boss gave you or feeding a cat. The main point is that you must add everything to the list. When you first start to use GTD, it should take about an hour to write down all the things you want and/or have to do. With that, every unfinished task needs to end up on the list. Don’t be afraid that it'll take you a long time; you are spending it to empty your brain.
After writing tasks down, you have to process them. To process a task, you must ask whether it's actionable. If the answer is NO, based on your needs, either throw this task away, keep it as a reference, or save it for later. If you want to take care of it in the future, you must put it on your calendar. With that, when the time comes, it will come back to you.
If the task is “actionable”, (i.e. something can be done about it) then you need to follow the flowchart. Simply ask yourself what is the next action for this task. The answer must be a physical and visible action, such as “Go to a hairdresser” instead of “Do something about your hair”. By choosing the next step, you make your action list physical and visible, thanks to what you'll be a step closer to finishing the whole task. I think this is the strongest point of GTD Technique. In the end, you obtain a list of doable actions.
But it's not over yet. When you define the next steps, you have to ask yourself whether the task you're going to do takes less than two minutes. If so, you need to do it right away. If it needs more time, you can either delegate this task to someone or add it to your “next actions” list (which will store anything you will need to do as soon as you have time).
If you delegate a task to someone else or are waiting for something without which you are unable to finish it, you must place the task in your “waiting for” list.
For better management of the “next actions” list, GTD wants you to label your tasks for a specific context, based on the environment or the equipment they require (e.g. “home”, “work”, or “ the project mars”). You can even create multiple “next actions” lists based on those factors.
If you realise that some tasks in your “next actions” list are there for too long and you cannot find the time or motivation to do them, they should be moved to the “maybe/someday" list. With that, your “next actions” list will be clear and actual. David Allen’s book strongly suggests doing weekly reviews. After all, we are not machines, and after some time things will start to slip. Therefore it is crucial to review your work to keep things under control.
A weekly review must take around 30 minutes, during which you look at everything on your lists. You make sure that each task on your “next actions” list is something that you want/need to do or you will have time for it in the upcoming week. If not, you must move them to other lists or remove them completely. Also, check your “maybe/someday” list to see whether some tasks can be moved to “next actions”.
GTD technique is much more sophisticated than the other two methods. Thus, it may need further reading or explanation. I recommend reading Allen's book or searching for some Internet sources that will explain it in a more detailed way. But, once you start using GTD, you will track your tasks and organise your life better than ever.
Before I talk about my organising tips, I will be honest with you. I know that all of these methods are easy on paper. But you can't forget that we're only human and sometimes lack motivation. We may be lazy, or it can be the “Monday” type of day. It's all understandable, but with a little motivation, we can do more. There are few tips that can have a positive influence on our work. Let’s start with the Kanban Boards.
Most of us are already familiar with the Jira's Kanban Boards. They are a clean way to manage tickets and a truly beautiful feature. But Kanban is not only a fancy name; it's also a tradition.
Kanban literally means “billboard” or “board” in Japanese and Chinese languages. It was discovered in Toyota factory to help with time management. It suggests to write down all tasks (maybe on colourful post-its) and place them on a board that's split into few categories based on the task status. It also limits you to have as little tickets as possible in the “in progress” section.
Its usefulness comes from displaying in the plain light all the tasks that are waiting to be done, in progress, or already finished. Also, nowadays additional statuses are used for the better management and progress tracking. Kanban also limits the number of tasks that web developers can have at the time. That means it aims to make them focus on a particular assignment rather than multitask.
There is another aspect of Kanban Board that you might’ve overlooked. It's the aspect of satisfaction. As I've already told you, it visualizes your tasks, which means that they, in some way, take a physical shape. They become entities that your brain can percept in a simpler, more primitive way. Once you are done with them, they are moved to the “Done” section on the board. And since you’ve done something physical with them, it gives you more satisfaction than other unphysical achievements. You simply play tricks with your mind!
Since all the emotions are a chemical reaction, your satisfaction and happiness mean the same thing for the brain. Physical achievements lead to the production of dopamine and then serotonin, which is highly related to happiness (which helps you to stay motivated). It can even make you feel happy about your work! ;)
The last method I want to talk about is the old Eisenhower Decision Matrix.
The name comes after the US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Before his presidency, he served as a General during II. World War. After the war, he also served as the NATO’s first supreme commander. With that resume you know he must've had few tricks up in his sleeve!Dealing with constant tough conundrums led him to the invention of the decision matrix, which suggests splitting your tasks into four categories with different priorities.
As you can see, his main focus was on important and urgent tasks. They had the highest priority. After that, there were tasks that he could schedule for some other time. Those tasks were also important, but not as urgent. Then he asked other people to do his less important (but still urgent) tasks; he wasn’t bothered with tasks that are neither urgent nor important.
This decision matrix gave him the time he needed for getting his tasks done. Seems quite doable, right? Well, it turns out that most people are actually abiding the rules of Eisenhower Matrix without even realising it. For example, buying bread can be important, but it's not extremely urgent, so you know that you can just buy it later. Or you can be flexible when it comes to scheduling an appointment with your dentist. After all, your teeth won’t fall out the next day, so you can choose any date and time that will suit your needs and crucial tasks best.
Which method should you choose?
That is basically it when it comes to my take on time management. Remember, no method is perfect and should be used by anyone. You are your own manager and all decisions about how to manage your time depend on you. But don’t worry, no one is perfect, and we definitely are not like precise machines. But we can work on getting better, adding precision to our planning, and becoming more efficient in our work.
I hope my article helped you to find a way of managing your work better. Maybe you're already using one of the described methods? Let me know what you think about them!