If we all have 24 hours each day, why can some accomplish so much more than others? On the other hand, why do we sometimes feel like we did absolutely nothing after 10 hours behind the desk?
In my years of researching productivity methodologies, time management hacks, and how people generally work, I came across different methods and time management techniques. I tried almost all of them. Here are some that piqued my interest and are widely used.
Getting Things Done
The first and probably most recognised method is “Getting things done” or “GTD”. You can dive deep into a book with the same title, hire a coach or join a class to learn about this method. However, I believe that is not necessary because GTD has five steps you need to follow. You can learn them from any well-written blog or article. Also, my unpopular opinion; if you need someone to teach you a productivity method, it is definitely too complicated.
Follow the following five steps to get things done:
- Write down everything that crosses your mind. At this point, everything is equally important. You should gather those thoughts in one place – your inbox, any Brain dumb app or, simply, paper. Whatever works best for you.
- Clarify and refine. Go through your Inbox and add more info to your thoughts. At the end of this phase, all items should have action steps. Remember – you can always delete something.
- Organise. Put refined tasks where they belong; to-do lists, calendars, delegates and add a timeline.
- Review. Do a daily revision of your lists. GTD also suggests doing bigger weekly reviews.
- Start working on tasks, repeat the processes and get things done.
While you can hire a certified coach to teach you the GTD method, you can put it to the test yourself.
Personally, I use only the first step of this method since I find other steps to be a bit challenging and time-consuming, yet it might just do wonders for someone else.
The 1-3-5 Rule or 139 Method
Those two are simple. You can only accomplish a few things in one day.
Break it down to:
- 1 big or 1 important task
- 3 medium or 3 semi-important tasks
- 5 or 9 little things or less critical tasks
Though I like this; I think it does not work in the project management world. For example, sometimes you have three big things that you have to finish today, and another day, you have ten equally small things waiting for you to complete.
The method serves its purpose more than the actual work itself.
The Pomodoro Technique
I think we are all familiar with this method and the following steps:
- Choose a task.
- Set the timer to 25 mins.
- Work on the task until the timer rings.
- Take a 5-minute break.
- Repeat steps 1–4 four times.
- Take a long break (15–30 minutes).
I usually set a timer for 50 min. I really like this method, but I do not use it religiously. I forget to set a timer or leave the desk in between. It is an excellent tool for tracking your time. However, I prefer timeboxing my calendar a bit more.
If it worked for the United States president, why not try it?
Dwight Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States. His productivity and time management was exceptional and sustained for decades. He launched programs that directly led to the development and the start of the internet (DARPA) and the exploration of space (NASA). In addition, he was a five-star general responsible for planning and executing invasions of North America, France, and Germany. He also was a President of Columbia University, the first Supreme Commander of NATO, and still found time to enjoy golfing and oil painting.
His most famous productivity method is known as the Eisenhower Box or Matrix. However, if you would like to dig deeper into this method, there is a nice app called Priority Matrix.
Enough about history; here’s how you should organise the tasks based on their priorities:
- Critical and Cannot wait/Urgent and Important: of high importance and time-sensitive (for example, client meetings, crisis on a project)
- Critical, but Can wait/Important but not Urgent: necessary for me to do personally, but okay to set a further end date for completion (backlog refinement, writing user story)
- Not Critical, but Cannot Wait/Urgent but not Important: delegate to someone who can get it done now
- Not Critical and Can wait/Neither Urgent nor Important: let them go; these are time wasters
We all use this method to a certain degree without naming or realising it. If you know what has to be done and what can wait, you do not need to overcomplicate your life. I also don’t believe in getting rid of “non-critical, can wait'' stuff. For example, the new episode of the House of Dragons show is definitely not critical and can wait. However, it will also make me happy.
That is why it is important to find and create the work methodology that works for you. Don’t fall into a rabbit hole and think you must follow a particular productivity/work methodology if your current approach works for you.
If it is not, I do not suggest jumping on the first methodology you find. Instead, do your research. There are so many different ideas on how to work productively out there as people. Keep an open mind that these “methodologies” are more wireframes and should give you some new ideas on optimising your process. Of course, you can follow one exactly as it is explained. It might work for you.
For me, it didn’t, so I googled, researched and tried a lot. After, I figured out I just needed to add and take out some of the steps in my day-to-day work life. The attempt to simplify my life also led me to uninstall many apps that “keep you on a productivity track” and put away numerous “When if not today” notebooks.
What Has Been Working for Me Lately?
The “Inbox” Idea
On my to-do list, I have a designated space where I put everything that crosses my mind while working. Most of the things are work and projects related, but I also write down book titles, quotes, podcasts, and jokes. Once it is there, I can safely forget about it. I don’t have a designated time when I empty the list. However, it will happen eventually once a day.
In the "Today" column are only the tasks I plan to work on today. Each task has a “project tag” to know to which one it relates and a checkbox for that “I did it” moment. I prioritize my task from most important at the top to less critical at the bottom. I do not always follow that order.
The most important thing here is not to overpack the column. You’ll only overwhelm yourself before you even start your day. Be honest with yourself. You cannot finish 15 big tasks in one day.
After “Today”, I usually have an additional one to three columns, depending on how many projects I am working on. Here each task has a due date and a tag “Important”, “Urgent”, “This week”, or “Next week”. I will move a task to the “Today” column close or on the due date.
I believe in “all info in one place”. If my task has only a title and the due date is next month, I will definitely forget some essential pieces of information. This is why I try to specify tasks as soon as they appear or while I still remember them. Also, I like to have all the resources needed to complete this task in one place. If I have to search for some information, I will get caught up in something else or find another thing I must finish first.
“General” and Personal” Columns
In the “general” column, I keep everything that is work but not explicitly project-related.
While you might like to split Work and Personal life, I don’t. Fewer clicks, more visibility.
And now, the most important part.
- Do I use this every day? Yes, most of the days.
- Do I sometimes have a week when I only open my “to-do list” twice? It definitely happens.
Tips You Already Knew, But Which Work?
Besides all of the above, I also use some other practices, especially when I struggle to be productive. And let's be honest, we all have those days.
- It sounds cliche, but I hide my phone. Even putting it behind my second screen helps. As long as it is not in my eyesight, it is good. I do the same with books and a TV remote when working from home.
- I keep a stash of healthy snacks somewhere close and try not to complicate my life with food. It will overcomplicate my life if it's not easy, quick, and healthy.
- I listen to instrumental music or “productivity frequencies” (no idea if there is some science behind it, yet it works for me). My all-time favourites are Batman theme songs from Hans Zimmer and anything from Ludovico Einaudi.
My three go-to “productivity frequencies”:
- 40hz 6hz gamma waves for focus
- Deep focus music
- Effective beta waves
- I try to keep things in one place (links, useful info, ideas, screenshots, video recordings, important dates) as mentioned before. The Internet is a deep dark place where I love getting lost, so I ensure I do not wander off the path.
- I fight multitasking as a plague. A famous Latin writer said, “To do two things at once is to do neither”. While you, especially if you are a woman, believe you thrive at multitasking, you don't. End of story.
- The quicker you learn the difference between important and urgent, the easier your life will be. While the Eisenhower matrix is an excellent example, remember what he said: “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important”.
- When I catch myself procrastinating, I accept it and take some time off. I tried fighting it for many years, but it only worsened. My tip is to acknowledge it, accept it, step away from what you are doing, relax, and get back to work. And don't beat yourself up for it.
- I stay active in my time off. I love running and fitness and I noticed with less training, I have a more challenging time concentrating and finishing what I've started.
- Reward yourself. Does it sound silly since you are not a kid anymore? You kind of still are. We all love a little reward after we do something. Did you successfully finish a project, finally write that blog you were putting off or run your first 5k? It sounds like a new book, new running gear, or little cake time to me!
As I said, I’ve always felt like I failed when a new method did not work for me. The truth is:
- it took too much time to follow it;
- it did not work for me intuitively;
- I had to put too much effort into it.
Therefore, I stopped using it after some time, no matter which one I tried.
On the one hand, discipline has a lot to do with this. On another, we are still humans. We cannot be equally productive all year round. Society and hustle mentality may have tried to teach us so, but it is not true. You cannot wake up every day and expect to perform the same as yesterday.
Now don't get me wrong, there are times when you really have to push yourself, work overtime and just deliver. However, that should not be the majority of your life.
The sooner you accept productivity flows like a river, sometimes crashing down on you, other times dragging across those rocks of life, the sooner you’ll be happier. Putting constant pressure on ourselves is overwhelming and silent stress is the cruellest killer.
Give yourself some credit. Breath. Enjoy the process.
While the article tackles different productivity methods for project managers, there are some that might work better if you are in software development. Check out a related article titled “Tomorrow – A Mystical Land Where an Engineer’s Productivity is Stored” here.