Time Management Tips
I spend a lot of time mentoring or trying to help other developers. I have also been around the same organization long enough that a lot of people have noticed I exist, for better or worse. This means that A) I have a lot of time management challenges, and B) I have had several people ask me for time management tips.
This article is my attempt to help those like-minded folks who want to be productive despite the constant flow of workplace interruptions and the competing and increasing demands on your time that seem to be one of the more ironic rewards for success in most organizations.
Systems are better than goals: I picked this up from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits.
“Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.” – James Clear
Another author I got this from is Scott Adams of Dilbert fame in his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, (there is also an Inc article discussing this).
Everyone has goals. Not everyone is successful or effective. Having even a mediocre system will usually help you more than even an amazing goal. Goals are part of planning. A quote often attributed to Eisenhower about planning and heard in the US Army sometimes is “Planning is everything. The plan is nothing.” The real quote, as best I can tell, shows up in an Eisenhower speech worded somewhat differently (ref. quoteinvestigator.com article). This means that preparedness is critical, but the details go out the window very quickly when the plan meets reality. Another military saying, attributed to Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, is (paraphrased) “No plan survives contact with the enemy”.
But my very favorite quote about plans is “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” by Mike Tyson. But I digress. I will stop with the quotes since this article is about time management after all.
In order to help myself focus on the most important things despite interruptions and other chaos or distraction that comes along, I try to write down my top priority for the next day the day beforehand. When I haven’t done that, I do it first thing in the morning.
Say no when you should: A related tip I picked up from several different places lost to my memory is to have a “To Don’t” list(ref HBR article) where you commit to what you will not do to keep from being pulled away from your intended focus.
Many of us have trouble with being direct about saying no to someone that is asking for help. We find meaning in being helpful, saying no is socially awkward, and sometimes you have to say no to people in your management chain or important peers who will write feedback for your performance review. So it helps to have some means of saying no politely in ways you are comfortable with doing.
One way I have done this is when asked to do some large, randomizing task by my manager, I will ask which of the things I have already committed to they want me to drop, delegate, or postpone so that I can do the new task.
Another way is to focus on phrasing it softly by letting the person know first that you would like to help them but you aren’t able. You can follow that by suggesting someone who may have more bandwidth, or sometimes even more expertise or details, related to the request.
You can also defer. For example, “when do you need this by, if you need it before X day I won’t be able to do it because of Y and Z other commitments”. If they can wait you may need to do it, so don’t use this to bluff, but if it is urgent it will help both of you find a better person to take it on.
Expect what you inspect: Periodically audit where you spent your time to see what proportion of your time you spent where you intended to keep yourself honest about your priorities. If it was your top priority but a minority of your time, for example, then you need to reduce your other commitments or distractions.
It’s also useful to audit meetings you attended, especially recurring ones. If you spend all your time in meetings or too much time in meetings that don’t line up with your priorities or deliverables then things will go sideways easily.
Being able to tell what you worked on means having some notes or a calendar or other log of some time for how you spent your time.
Plan when to focus or not: Schedule breaks. To be effective you need to be able to concentrate and think clearly. Your mind needs breaks to do that. When I have meetings discussing technical things without breaks between them it makes it harder for me to internalize and remember the details and also harder to think about how to act on new information. Most of the actual thinking happens in what people call breaks. I have often worked all day on troubleshooting something or coming up with an effective idea for a hard problem then had the actual solution come to me while commuting, walking, running, or showering. The subconscious part of your mind also helps you come up with solutions, and it only works when you are in a diffuse mode rather than a focused mode.
Set times you look at email, and times when you don’t. Take breaks from notifications on Slack or other messaging platforms. It is helpful to categorize blocks of time as focus time versus interrupt time. For focus time you want to be able to get into a flow state, but for interrupt time you want to focus on the throughput of small tasks so you can get them out of the way while batching them to reduce the number of interruptions to longer tasks.
Some strategies that can work for this are blocking a day without meetings, and blocking certain times of the day.
Make sure you turn off notifications and interruptions so people don’t accidentally(or intentionally) undermine your focus time.
My backup strategy when other things aren’t working is to silence everything I can and use a Pomodoro timer for 25 minutes at a go. It’s just enough to make meaningful progress on most tasks that need concentration without inducing too much anxiety about the notifications you are ignoring. It’s also a short enough time that it does not feel impossible when you are having trouble focusing.
Track your commitments so you know when to say no: When I promise someone to do something, I try to block it on my calendar immediately. If I have to move it, then I can do that proactively but at least it is on the schedule somewhere, and I can tell when I am getting over-committed. This helps you stay focused and realize when you need to embrace the awkwardness to say no. It also helps you deliver what you promised and earn and keep the trust of others when you leave a meeting with an action item or tell your manager you will do a task or a peer that you will help with something.
I keep what was called Snippets at Google even though I don’t publish them to anyone where I work now because it helps me tell where I spent my time, keep track of points of contact, and keep points to links for documents I reviewed, wrote, or meeting notes, etc. This is similar to what some people call a done list. It also provides some data to plan for how much time you need available for unplanned tasks and interruptions.
Set your focus deliberately:
What can only you do? Just because something is important or urgent or both, does not mean that you need to be the specific person working on it.
What can you delegate? What are you comfortable giving to someone else? Will it be a stretch for them? Is it okay for them to risk failing at it to learn? Is the risk worth the reward in terms of their growth and your ability to delegate in the future?
Put your own oxygen mask on first: Are you spending enough time on work you enjoy doing and find meaningful? If not, you need to fix, it or else you will become a flight risk for another job or you will be doing things you do not find important or joyful, which long term will be bad for you and your employer when you eventually bail or your performance suffers because you are demotivated.
Do you have enough maker time? Even managers and independent contributors in leadership roles need time to work heads down without interrupting to make progress on larger tasks that require deeper thought.
Are you completely out of your comfort zone? Are you too comfortable? You should work on projects and tasks that make you feel stretched but not to the point of breaking.
Warning! The rest of this article is about to take a hard turn into a much more philosophical direction.
Find meaning: Viktor Frankl, a famous psychologist who survived imprisonment in concentration camps during WWII noted in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, the difference in survival and resilience of people who had found a meaning versus those who had not. He identified three paths to meaning. (A nice article summarizing this is at:https://charles.io/mans-search-for-meaning/)
- By our actions doing something significant in work, performing a deed, or creating something
- Through love, by caring for others
- By experiencing suffering, and our attitude towards it.
As an aside regarding the third point, my Stoic philosophical internalization of this is that we control our attitude and response to events, but not the events themselves. In other words, the Dichotomy of Control.
What does this have to do with time management? Maybe it doesn’t directly, but I think finding meaning in our daily lives, including and maybe, especially our work, helps us say no to distractions and focus on the priorities we have chosen.
Focusing deeply requires being able to let go, at least temporarily, of our anxieties about the future to be in the present. Flow state comes from this, and it is a state that many people find very tranquil. For some of us, it is actually the joy of the work, Frankl’s taking action to find meaning, that is one of our intrinsic motivations to do the work. There is an expression in various phrasings of “You have the right to work, but not to the outcome”. This goes back at least to the Bhagavad Gita as “You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working.” (Okay, I snuck in one more quote after all.)
Less positively, suffering does lead to meaning as well. Living through stressful experiences and environments together is well-established as one of the prime ways of bonding with others. My friendships over the years have often been formed during Army deployments, oncall operational disasters, or looming software product deadlines
Caring for others to find meaning also relates to work. Feeling that I have at least tried and sometimes even succeeded at helping others gives me meaning as a developer, especially now that I have passed the part of my career where I get to spend hours on end coding most days. I think that the gratitude and respect of others are some of the primary sources of intrinsic motivation for work.
Thanks! If you have read this far, I hope you have found something useful or at least encouraging with the time you invested.