Seven Useful Time Management Tips For Developers to Boost Productivity
Take back your workday from distractions to do what is important to you
If you often feel like there’s too much to do and too little time to do it, you are definitely not alone. We are constantly interrupted, and we get distracted from our productive work.
We are continually being asked for greater productivity and more results in a shorter time, but we haven’t really been taught how to manage ourselves better or do self-reflection.
This may sound a little harsh, but we should take responsibility for these things and stop blaming our surroundings. Sure, no workplace is perfect, but it turns out our biggest challenges are more primal and personal.
Our routines, or the lack of them, or the capacity to work proactively rather than reactively, are the things that determine our ability to make things happen.
In this post, we will look at tips that reduce distractions and the inability to concentrate on our work. We will also see how to better plan ahead and find time to do our most important work.
This post is mainly targeted at developers, but I’m sure others will find value in it as well.
🙅♂️ Learn to say no
I’m sure we all have been there: your day is filled with meetings, emails with requests, Teams, or Slack messages, someone walking into the room and requesting something else.
Immediately reacting to anything teaches people that their time is more valuable than yours. There is no distinction between urgent and important. Everything gets thrown into the urgent pile.
The problem with this is that you spend the best part of the day on other people’s priorities. At the end of the day, you find out there was not much room for the work you consider important.
So, learn to say no. You don’t have to do everything you are asked for. You can always politely tell you are busy and ask if the task is genuinely urgent, and if you are the only one able to do it.
📵 Cut out distractions
We live in a world where we are bombarded with new information. We have constant interruptions from various sources. We seem to be in a continuous reactive mode where anything can trigger us to lose our focus.
What information consumes is the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. – Social scientist Herbert Simon, 1971
How can we stop reacting?
One essential skill is noticing the urge to switch tasks and not act on that urge, but just return your attention to the task at hand.
Ignoring distractions is rarely enough because we have limited willpower to do so. It’s actually shown that the act of resisting temptation eats up concentration and mental capacity.
So, instead, we should remove distractions entirely from our field of attention. The only way to remove them is to turn off all notifications, whether it’s email, Slack, Teams, or your phone.
If you still get interrupted, tell them you are busy and will get back to them later. Just be respectful and do it diplomatically.
If they still expect an answer, ask them to wait a few seconds and write down what you were doing before that. This will help you remember what you were working on, so it doesn’t interrupt your flow.
📝 Use a todo list
One of the reasons we feel overwhelmed can be that there are many things to remember, and we don’t have a system to remember everything. Trusting our brain is untrustworthy because our short-term capacity to remember something is limited to approximately seven items.
Instead of trying to remember everything, you should build a system where you capture everything into an inbox as it happens. Whether you are using Outlook tasks, Todoist, personal Trello board, OneNote, plain old Notepad, or even just pen and paper, just get to the habit of using the tool all the time.
Doing a brain dump can be an excellent way to reduce anxiety and stress. Instead of struggling to remember something, you just capture your thoughts in your inbox. It also helps with the mental chatter that keeps on going until you silence it by writing those thoughts down.
Whenever we go through our inboxes, we always choose between four options:
- Do it, if it only takes a minute or two
- Drop it, which means you are not going to do it
- Defer it, which means you are going to do it later
- Delegate it, which just means someone else is going to do it
If you struggle with prioritization, you can use something like Eisenhower Matrix to help you.
You should write down every task that needs to be done at some point. So if you figure out something is required, quickly write it down and forget about it for now.
The same goes for every idea you come up with. Just write it down without going to the rabbit hole of investigating it further.
📆 Plan and prioritize
Before we talk about planning, let’s first look at three different types of work.
- There is planned work, which is basically your most important work. It is what you usually consider being productive.
- Then there is interruptive work, which includes replying to messages, email, and so on.
- Finally, there is defining work, which is the act of planning and is actually something that most people don’t do.
There are many productivity methods designed to help with this, but the simplest one is time blocking. Just open your calendar and start adding some events. You can use the following categorization for your blocks.
You should always start your day with planning and prioritization. It doesn’t have to take long, but it really allows you to set the goal for the day and focus on what you want to.
During your focused work block, you should turn off all notifications. This is the time when you want to get the most important things done. It could include project work, reading some articles, or whatever that needs deep concentration.
To really focus, you should reserve and postpone any reactive work into its own block. For example, you could have a one-hour block during which you reply to all the emails and react to some requests other people might have.
You should also book time for your breaks. How many times has it happened that someone books a meeting at your lunchtime? So you will either have to have an early lunch or impatiently wait for the appointment to end.
Finally, you should also be prepared that something unexpected happens. So it’s a good idea to make sure your calendar is not 100% full.
✉️ Read email once or twice a day
Another thing you can do is start reading email only once or twice a day. This will get rid of the nagging sensation that you should respond to the incoming email immediately.
Don’t read your email first thing in the morning, although some people suggest doing that. It can kick us off into a reactive mode very quickly.
You can use an auto-reply template that tells people about your new habit. It can be something as simple as:
Dear recipient, due to a high workload, I’m currently reading my email once a day.
If you need to reach me sooner, kindly contact me via phone. Please make sure it’s urgent.
Thank you for understanding.
Kind regards, X
I’m pretty sure everyone will appreciate and understand it.
We already talked about allocating time for reactive work when planning your day. This is the time when to read your emails and reply to them.
The goal is to not lose focus. This will also stop wasting time on checking useless emails, like some newsletters.
🍅 Try the Pomodoro technique
If you have long periods of concentrated work, you can schedule micro-breaks, for example, every half an hour. One popular way to do this is to use the Pomodoro technique.
Simply put, you first choose a task, cut out distractions, start the timer, and focus on the task for 25 minutes. Once you have done that, take a 5-minute break. Every four sets (called Pomodoros), you take a longer 15-30 minute break.
Doing a Pomodoro doesn’t mean you have to finish a task in 25 minutes. It just allows you to deeply focus on the task at hand for that time. You can do multiple Pomodoros to complete a task.
It’s really essential to have breaks, as it will renew your mental capacity. Be sure not to sit in front of your computer during your breaks. Don’t reply to emails. Stand up, stretch, take a walk, or grab a cup of coffee.
🔁 Self reflect
Considering that we work 40 hours a week, spending a couple of hours planning and reflecting is not a huge investment. Self-reflection is something we are seldom taught but can help us to see progress and evaluate if we are improving or not.
Doing an end-of-day review allows your brain to relax. There will be no loose ends; you can just trust your system. Also, doing a weekly review will enable you to reflect on your progress.
During your end-of-day review:
- Check your calendar for tomorrow so that there are no surprises
- Write down any unfinished or new tasks
- Process your inboxes, and get them empty
Now you should have a pretty good idea if you could accomplish what you planned for today.
For weekly reviews, allocate one hour slot either on Friday evening or on Monday morning. This will allow you to either close your week or start the next week from fresh. For reflection, write down some bullet points, e.g., in a notebook.
- Process all your inboxes, review deferred items, and review all the ideas
- Check the past week’s calendar to see if there is anything you need to follow up on
- Review the next week’s calendar so that you are aware of any deadlines
- Are you on the right track?
- Is there something that prevented you from doing what you needed to do?
- What can you do to improve next week?
Remember that you don’t always need to super productive. Give yourself credit for what you did accomplish.
In this post, we took a look at some ways to prioritize productive work over interruptive work, to be able to focus and postpone reactions. We discussed ways to plan our time, track our ideas, and review our progress.
Are you using some of these tips yourself? Is there something else that you are doing to keep yourself productive? Please share your ideas in the comments.