Saturday 12 November 2011

Time Management

We all want to be in the state of mind that has us at peak productivity. It’s a relentless powerhouse that tames the hardest of tasks into loyal pets and leaves us feeling like no job is too big. There are a few ways that I’m able hold this frame of mind and I present them to you in order of preference

1 - Turn off interruptions and don’t interrupt yourself.

This one seems obvious but it’s the best thing you can do to boost your productivity. When you’re working close your email client, close your twitter client, logout of Facebook (not a problem for me because I don’t use it the vile beast that is fb), stay away from Reddit, HN and don’t fool yourself that you can watch a tv stream and work - you can’t.

If you find yourself about to break any of the above rules then tell yourself no and get back to it. It boils down to having some discipline, but I’ll talk more about this in little while.

2 - Todo lists.

The Hit List was my first experience of using a todo list and I was able to get into a serious groove using it. However I wasn’t very good at writing todo items. If you’re new to productivity then you might not be aware that you’re also not very good at writing todo items either. Not being able to properly define tasks is one of the most common reasons that we all fail with todo lists.

Defining Tasks

For example, I used to have tasks defined as “start client X proposal” or “fix bug in client Y site”. These two examples don’t seem too bad on first glance, but they’re not great because they don’t state a task, they state a conclusion. What does start actually mean? and where do you draw the line between the start and middle? “Fix bug in client Y site” is just as tacit. A better way to define the “Fix bug in client Y site” todo item it would be like this

Fix bug in client Y site
  1. Reproduce bug
  2. Write a test to ensure bug is fixed.
  3. Amend code to make the test pass
  4. Commit to code repository
  5. Deploy new version
  6. Reply to the support ticket
  7. Close the support ticket

Once you’re good with tasks defining tasks then you’ll notice yourself getting into the productivity peak mindset more often than not. You don’t even need software based todo lists - a notepad would be just as good.

3 - Time Management Techniques.

Early on in my MA I had identified that I was a getting a little sloppy in the productivity department. In a move to get back on track I started experimenting with working in 45 minute periods. I called these periods “sprints”. They were intended to be focused on a specific set of explicit tasks - not implicit outcomes. I worked with this technique for a number of weeks before coming to realise that I had re-invented a rudimentary form of Time Boxing.

About this time I had also read and implemented Getting Things Done into my daily workflow. If you don’t own a copy of this, you should. Implementing the strategies in it will help you immensely. As long as you’ve got a system you can trust, then you’ll learn to forget about everything except the thing you’re working on. If you’re crazy busy then you’ll not regret it.

As I write this post I’m experimenting with the Pomodoro Technique, (I’ve got 11 minutes left). My intention with my flirtation with the Pomodoro Technique is that I can maximise the amount of focused time that I can spend each day, over a number of tasks. For the next 8 weeks this is going to be essential in hitting client deadlines and academic deadlines.

4 - Work On Something That You Really Want To Work On.

Lastly, I find that when I’m working on something that I want to work on, I lose track of all time. I tend not to look up until I reach a point that I consider something to be done. I’ve lost entire days to this frame of mind, but there are a few problems with this approach to productivity.

The most obvious problem is that the thing that you want to work on, is very rarely the thing you should be working on. Procrastination is a sneaky mistress and she will do anything to make something seem interesting in order to divert your attention from what you should be working on.

The second problem is that it’s easy to loose focus on the other tasks that need to be done. I think that it’s better to complete five tasks to an acceptable level than to do one perfectly at the expense of leaving four unfinished. So for this reason I’ve put this technique last. However, when I’m feeling utterly unproductive it’s good to break this one out to give me some win.

So that’s my best ways to get to the peak, let’s have a look at what people fear - the productivity trough.

The Trough

Chances are you know this state of mind well. At some point you will wind up being in the trough. But don’t give yourself a hard time when you find yourself in a trough. No guilt is allowed. A trough is the response to a peak and it’s a part of a natural cycle - day & night, bitter & sweet, yin & yang etc etc. You might think you can operate on full steam permanently but you can’t. In order to be productive, you have to spend some time being unproductive.

I find that after a period of hardcore productivity, I enter into an amount of time being not as productive as I was. The trick is to get back into your groove as fast as possible. When I do find myself in the trough I get back unto my groove using some of the techniques I’ve mentioned above. Right now the Pomodoro technique is new and shiny to me, so that’s my favourite.

Forget motivation.

Motivation will let you down when you need it most. It will not be there when you need it. The absence of motivation will make you feel unable to get up and get stuff done. For these reasons forget motivation.

Instead put your faith in Dedication. It’s something you control and it doesn’t depend on any external influence. Dedication is getting up when you want to stay down. Dedication creates discipline and the more you push yourself, the better you’ll get at it.

Before you can master time, you have to master yourself.