Q: What are Software Engineers?
A: Software Engineers are professionals with 1843590 pending tasks and just enough bandwidth to cover 10 of them.
Sounds familiar? The perpetual mountain of pending tasks is a sight far too common in the world of software engineers. Pending tasks create a lot of unnecessary stress, which affects your ability to perform, thereby reducing productivity and adding to the mountain of work. It’s a vicious cycle, and almost every professional today struggles with it.
In this article, we will detail time management strategies that will help you get your work done more efficiently.
Strategy #1: Plan, Organize, Prioritize
Research shows that planning and productivity are closely related. If you go into a project without a plan, you’re bound to find yourself running around like a headless chicken. Especially if you’re working on an agile model, not having a plan can be the reason why the whole thing fails. But remember to set a time limit to come up with a plan, or you’ll never get beyond the planning phase.
Once you have a plan in place, set some milestones to help you keep track of things. Organize your work into tasks and prioritize the tasks so that you can achieve your milestones on time. Take into consideration the amount of time each task will take, too. That way, you won’t end up having to redo previously finished tasks due to overlaps or bad planning.
You might be surprised by the amount of time and effort you will save if you simply organize and prioritize your tasks.
There are a plethora of tools online that will help you follow this strategy. Two tools that we’d recommend are Asana and Trello. They’re both designed for group as well as personal use and are very easy to understand.
Strategy #2: Master Multitasking
Multitasking can either accelerate or hinder your progress depending on how well you do it. The key to multitasking efficiently is to understand three key things:
For some people, the most effective way of working is to have short bursts, say 20 minutes of intense concentration, followed by 10- to 15-minute breaks. Others do better by focusing on work for 30 to 45 minutes periods, followed by 5 to 10 minutes breaks.
Before you begin multitasking, you need to understand your own internal rhythm and figure out what works for you. Consider using the timer app on your phone to measure the maximum amount of time you can spend focusing on the same task.
When you’re multitasking, one of the biggest threats to your system of work is an imbalanced set of tasks. To focus on multiple tasks at once, you have to be sure that each task takes an equal amount of concentration.
If you’re doing 3 tasks simultaneously and one is much more complicated than the others, it might end up taking most of your attention and time, leaving the other two incomplete. It helps to identify all the tasks you can complete within a day and then work out which of them can be done simultaneously.
You know yourself the best, so you know how often you overestimate your ability to finish things within impossible timeframes. Similarly, you also know how many times you underestimate the difficulty of a task or forget to factor-in things that you can’t control. If you tend to bite off more than you can chew, add an extra 5-6 hours to your estimate, just to be safe. On the other hand, if you tend to be a slacker, shave off a few hours.
Make it a point to list out the amount of time each task will take and the things about it that are beyond your control. That should help you create an objective and realistic frame of reference for multitasking.
Strategy #3: Enhance Focus
Often, the only reason things don’t get done properly is that you can’t bring yourself to focus on work when you need to. Now, the best way to handle this is to train your brain to function the way you need it to.
Trust us, this sounds more complicated than it is. This strategy is based on the simple principle of reinforcement-based learning. Remember that our brains are wired to respond to gratification. We keep repeating things that bring us the highest rewards and avoid things that invite punishment. You can use this fact to manipulate your brain into doing more work, faster.
For example, say you have to finish coding one iteration and it’s going to take you 6 hours to do this. Break the code up so that you have around 6 grossly equal chunks of work to finish. Then make a list of five things you really want to do that day. Install a tool like a timed website blocker-cum-Pomodoro tracker to ensure you can’t do anything but work during the designated time. During each designated break, do one of the five things you’ve listed.
Doing this can train your brain to expect rewards for focusing on a given task for a given period of time. It may be hard the first few times but eventually your brain will learn to adjust so that you are able to perform better, overall.
Strategy #4: Sleep, Eat and Exercise – Stay Healthy
There’s a lot of research that shows how health affects productivity. One of the most overlooked factors when it comes to time management is health. Here’s how your health plays a role in managing your time at work — when you don’t get enough sleep, you come into work the next day exhausted, and your ability to function effectively is cut down in half so you spend more time than you should on certain tasks.
When you don’t eat right, you are at risk for physical ailments when will also hinder your performance at work. Finally, exercise is important for both your physical and mental health. Exercise boosts your energy and allows you to focus more clearly at tasks which helps you complete them quickly.
Strategy #5: Avoid Distraction
Make distractions a thing of the past, if you are to cultivate solid discipline. It takes several minutes to recover from a distraction and get back to the task at hand. This has happened to all of us, and the time it takes to recover is also based on our interest level. If you are only marginally interested in what you’re doing, then at the slightest prompt you will lose your attention. When you’re completely engrossed in what you’re doing, you’ll just shut everything out. Know your triggers. Find out what causes interruptions at work and then deal with them. You can greatly reduce your exposure to things that pull your attention away from work by knowing what they are, firstly. Then put systems and devices in place to cut off the distractions at the source.
Strategy #6: Set Deadlines
It’s always a great practice to set deadlines for important tasks. It requires only two things: commitment and calendar. The process of following a deadline puts the power back in your productivity and helps you avoid last-minute stress. Also setting your own deadlines gives you a cushion to revise what you have done and build on it for new tasks. This keeps you prepared for surprises. Even if you have pulled off all-nighters and been through under-the-wire moments, powered by a rush of adrenaline, to submit your work, it’s not a healthy way to work over a long period of time.
Setting deadlines for yourself helps you finish in a way that is graceful, sustainable, and ultimately productive.
Ironically, time management itself takes time, so be patient and continue working hard keeping these time management tips in mind to increase your productivity. Eventually, what seems like a task, will soon develop into a habit. Carrying around a burden of unfinished work can take a heavy toll on your mental health and sense of job satisfaction. It isn’t particularly difficult to break out of this cycle.
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