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Best time management techniques

I’ve been working in software development for over 9 years, last 3 years as an iOS Team Lead in Svitla Systems. During my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work as a freelancer and onboard of both, product and outsourcing companies. 

One of the key processes that successful specialists need to have on their arsenal is time management. If you work on a team or as an individual, it’s important to be as effective as possible while juggling other things besides work. Time management importance has grown even more significant during the “quarantine” when almost all companies shifted their employees to work from home.

In this blog post, I will share the time management methods that my colleagues and I have put into practice and found successful. For each company, team, or project, I’ve always developed my own unique system, for while some approaches are universal, there is often a need to try something new.

There are several common methods and theories for organizing your working day, but not all of them work in specific cases or with specific people. Some favor the Pomodoro technique, while others are annoyed by the constant timer notifications because it disrupts their focus.

โฑ๏ธ Working schedule

For many, a clear 9 to 5 work schedule is the typical and reasonable everyday work routine. However, in IT flexible schedule is more common. This flexibility opens up the door to start work at any time and “forget” about the end of the working day.

๐Ÿ’ก Main point: start and end your working day (including lunch) at the same hour.

โž• Plan both your working and your non-working hours. That way, colleagues will know when you are reachable and when to refrain from contacting you, for example after your working day is over. There will be a clear answer to the “When is it convenient to hold a meeting?” question. Your brain will get used to consistent active periods and work in an optimal mode.

โž– Adhere to the regime. Arrive and leave the workplace on time. It may cause distress to other team members because you will be unavailable at specific times.

In particular, I liked this technique when I was working in a product company. I had a flexible schedule but I needed to be available during the main hours (11 to 5). I came in at 8 a.m. and programmed until 11 a.m., just as other colleagues began to arrive. We had our standup meeting, solved issues, and from 1 to 2 p.m. we had lunch. Calls and meetings were scheduled for the afternoon.

In my team’s experience, peers often asked me for advice or invited me to participate in other meetings. While this heightened my sense of self-importance, it was very hard to set aside several hours during the day and not have them conflict with my main duties. Thus, I had to put in extra hours.

When I switched to a more stable morning schedule, I freed my evenings and my colleagues were well aware of the fact that I was unavailable after 5 p.m. There were times where I had to bend my own rules and stay late, but fortunately, I was able to submit those hours as overtime, which granted me additional weekends.

๐Ÿ—‚๏ธ Daily routine

They say you need 21 days to form a habit and 90 days to form a way of thinking. In my opinion, this holds true. The repeated practice of specific actions will contribute to the automation and improvement of their implementation.

๐Ÿ’ก Main point: perform the same rituals at the same time every day.

โž• You perform necessary and important things daily. Approach your work routine with a positive attitude. Reduce stress. Establish communication with the team(s). Reduce the number of additional meetings.

โž– You may feel anxiety when you can’t perform the ritual as usual. Lack of flexibility in meetings.

For me, this practice proved extremely useful when I communicated with other teams. For example, every day, several times a day, I joined developers on their smoking break. I do not smoke but always joined them for these “rituals.”  During the break, we discussed working matters, new implementations, or functionality of an app, which other teams worked on in parallel or separately. It became easy to skip extra meetings and only leave the standup calls active.

There was also a morning coffee break with my colleagues from Sales and the PR department, which helped me stay aware of future events and upcoming releases. I also knew which functionalities customers were waiting for in advance and could make progress on those tasks during sprint planning, avoiding urgent feature requests.

๐Ÿ—บ๏ธ Mind Roadmap

Oftentimes, a complex task can be frightening in scale, which may lead to procrastination. Good ideas come when you least expect it, so it’s recommended that you write them down quickly and structure them later on.
The usual ways or methods to break down your idea may not provide enough visualization resources. In these instances, the Mind roadmap technique comes to the rescue.

๐Ÿ’กMain point: a graphic representation of tasks, ideas, projects, and connections.

โž• Visible connection between visualized thoughts and ideas in a simple way. Ability to trace and display the sequence of actions. There are many online services to create, edit, and distribute Mind roadmaps.

โž–Takes a lot of space.

I began to use this approach during my years as a student when I needed to visualize the work of the student council I led. I had good working results when I prepared materials to train colleagues, making it easy to break down complex tasks. All I needed was a whiteboard and markers. You can use this approach to quickly draw a list of subtasks during the discussion of a complex solution. Here’s a good example: a necessary knowledge for iOS developers.

๐Ÿ… The Pomodoro technique

The Pomodoro technique is based on the use of a conventional timer to measure segments of hard work and rest. With this approach, you can stop your tasks and take them up again every half hour.

๐Ÿ’ก Main point: 25-minute intervals with small 5-min breaks in between and one large 60-minute break

โž•There are several programs to set intervals and write down tasks. You can download these apps to your smartphone with little effort. This approach will fit into any working day.

โž– This technique doesn’t work well in a fast-changing environment or if you get easily sidetracked to interact with other people.

For me, this technique was ideal for programming, when you concentrate on a task and no one distracts you. Many developers, including myself, focus on a “scientific” method when you make a small change and watch if it works after each iteration. In this setting, the approach works but it can be difficult to step out of the chain of ongoing small changes and builds.

Based on the Pomodoro method, you should take a break from every task every 25 minutes. This break allows you to think carefully about decisions or problems, and come up with new ways to make changes. Like in other jobs, programmers deal with “hazards” like sitting for long periods of time, too much screen time, or long working hours. The 5-minute breaks this technique promotes let you stand up, walk a bit, rest your eyes, move around, and reset your mindset. 

๐ŸŽฏ Global goals

How do you see yourself in 5 years? When asked by HR specialists on interviews, many of us don’t have a crystal clear answer. This question is personal and professional at the same time and one that you should constantly ask yourself.

๐Ÿ’ก Main point: list of global goals with annual, monthly, weekly, and daily steps to achieve them.

โž• Makes you accountable and helps you keep a perspective of the “big picture”. It keeps you on track and helps you prioritize or cut off unnecessary tasks that don’t contribute to your global development.

โž–Demotivates to perform tasks that are not consistent with the global goal.

The technique is simple and meshes well with the Mind Roadmap: write on a piece of paper what you would like to achieve in the next 5 years and what steps you need to take to make it happen. It’s important to understand the particular steps you’re taking to achieve your goals every day and whether your steps contribute to your goals.

For example, I set myself to achieve the goal of holding a Team Lead position since I had been doing it unofficially for most of my career. Anytime I was asked to do something or to give my opinion on a work-related item, I would ask myself “does this contribute to my global goal of becoming a Team Lead? If the answer was yes, I would spend extra time on it.

Not all goals have to be that ambitious. If you feel like you are an expert in a specific technology, apply for related job openings every chance you get. This works especially well when there are more experienced people in the team who can check your work or give you advice. This way, I was able to gain experience in writing unit tests.

๐Ÿ“ General list

Another simple and seemingly obvious technique is to create a general list. As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's character Sherlock Holmes said: “The head is like an attic where you can put anything. Stupid does. But in my head, I have just the tools I need, but they are in perfect order and always at hand!” The character is fictional, but the advice is very much real and useful.

๐Ÿ’กMain point: transfer all tasks from head to paper so you can prioritize accordingly.

โž• Removes the background load that stems from a large number of tasks. It helps you see the connections between different tasks and identify if one is part of a broader task.

โž– Further work may be needed since it’s not always enough to just write down tasks. You might need extra effort to understand all the moving pieces of a task.

Recently, I realized that, for many years, I hadn’t written anything longer than a page of text. Instead, I typed most of my ideas. Over the last few years, writing on an actual piece of paper has grown less relevant, and typing quickly on your preferred device has become the norm. 

Nonetheless, writing something on a piece of paper has its advantages. When you are writing something, you must critically analyze which words to use to keep the text small and think through the wording to formulate your task effectively.

The main point is the "complete dump" of all tasks from head to paper. When the first iteration is over, be sure to dig deeper into the search for background tasks that are not obvious, but require resources. 

Although we are talking about professional efficiency, the general list should include everything, even personal items. If you can not remember at least one more task for over 5 minutes, the list can be considered complete and you can use other techniques in this article to manage it.

๐Ÿธ Eat a frog

By bringing all your tasks into a common list, you may discover one or maybe more tasks that you find unpleasant. Talking to an annoying team member, responding to an email where someone asks you to do something beyond your scope of work or paying taxes. All of these are “frog” tasks. If you start your day with a solution for one of these tasks, you will find that everything will go more smoothly.

๐Ÿ’ก  Main point: start the day with the most unpleasant short task, and you will find that everything will be much easier.

โž• Motivates you to do unpleasant but necessary things. It sets the tone for the “winner” mood.

โž– Sometimes there is an unpleasant task that can’t be completed in 5 minutes. If you can't solve it, your mood may be spoiled.

I constantly put this technique into action. I respond to non-urgent messages and get it over with quickly. For example, if I have to give an unpleasant assessment, I prepare feedback in the morning which gives me time to analyze post-interview the performance of a new person and can turn into actionable calls to action. 

If you don’t have “frog” tasks at work, you may take on a personal issue that fits the “frog” definition. If I’m working on a big task, I sometimes take on something simple and small to distract myself and get a sense of completeness and victory after I complete it.

๐Ÿ”  Eisenhower matrix

The concept is very popular among business coaches, mostly because it’s effective. It works with the general list as a prioritization tool. Urgent and important matters need to be done immediately, urgent and unimportant ones need to be delegated, non-urgent and important ones need to be planned, and non-urgent and unimportant ones need to be ignored.

๐Ÿ’กMain point: task classification on the basis of urgency and importance helps with effective processing.

โž•  Allows you to discard tasks that don’t need to be performed at all. It’s a good tool for delegation. It helps you deal with a lot of accumulated tasks or overcome a crisis. It’s well viewed as a coordination system.

โž– Doesn’t always work well with work and personal matters, because efficiency is not equivalent to happiness.

I can't say that I often practice this method, but it seems very effective. Especially when you need to determine what tasks can or should be delegated, and this helps you deal with the problem of: “if you want to do it well, do it yourself." 

More often than not, we think that someone else will not perform as well as you will in a specific task. But this isn’t always the case. It’s important to remember that you can’t do everything on your own and that help is a good thing.

While applying the Eisenhower matrix, you may find that some tasks that you consider important and urgent, are in fact not so important and urgent.

๐Ÿ“” Notebook

The notebook practice helps you analyze experiences and evaluate tasks once they’ve been performed.

๐Ÿ’ก Main point: Don’t keep ideas or important information stored only in your mind. Write them down for future use.

โž• You can always keep a notebook with you. Record information as conveniently as possible, whether it’s a text, a drawing, a diagram, or an icon. Write it down.

โž– This can take time to keep a good record. If the notebook is lost, the information will be difficult to recover.

Developers do a lot of mental work, and ideas are crucial to implementing a particular customer’s request. Having a notebook on hand is a useful practice that will help you put ideas on paper quickly. By writing down tasks and the time you have spent on them can lead to interesting evaluations of similar development requests. There are many techniques you can use to make visual notations to help you build associative links in the information or restore an idea. For example, if you are taking a workshop, you can use your notebook to write down an idea while staying focused and listening actively.

It’s easy to flip through the pages of your notebook and see your ideas, objectives, and approaches in condensed form. I recommend A5 notebooks because of their size.

๐Ÿ“… Monthly challenges

From experience, several of my friends create a list of monthly challenges and get extraordinary results.

๐Ÿ’ก  Main point: create a list of monthly "challenges" for yourself and mark their fulfillment or non-fulfillment on a daily basis.

โž•  Stimulates improvements every day. Helps you achieve long-term goals and when applied in a team setting, it promotes a healthy spirit of competition.

โž– Needs visualization.

I am beginning to put this approach into practice, but I can already tell some of its benefits. It works well when the month-long challenges are placed on a large sheet of paper or whiteboard for other people to see. It stimulates performance and creates a healthy spirit of competition.

Some interesting topics for work challenges include reading a piece of literature for N minutes a day, back, neck, or eye exercises, N performance during standup meetings, leave work on time, write documentation, fix a bug, etc. There are lots of challenges for you to create! In my experience, holding standup meetings in English was helpful as it motivated me to develop my language skills, formulate ideas more clearly, and be more confident in meetings.

Overall, each of these practices or approaches has its advantages. Some of them work better when combined with others—I would advise you to try each of them and see which ones work best with your routines. Keep in mind that efficiency is not the key to happiness, but if you manage to complete your work tasks successfully and on time, your personal life will remain strong and balanced.

by Kostiantyn Bilyk
November 26, 2020

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