We all like to think that we have plenty of time. Yet, while it constantly keeps ticking away (more times faster than slower), that little procrastination bug inside us keeps prevailing over common sense. We lie to ourselves that we work best under pressure or that the task is so simple it’ll just take a minute. And, my personal favorite, we say to ourselves, ‘my schedule is empty tomorrow – I’ll have time to do it then.’ Yeah right. Creating a good and effective schedule, sticking to it, and even switching it up if needed, takes commitment. Ironically, it also takes time.
Time management is of high importance in every person’s life. More so in developers one. Constant updates, technological and creative advancements, daily meetings or syncs, and critical thinking make about 100 things to consider at once. It can quickly feel overwhelming, especially having a full-time job and juggling all other responsibilities at the same time.
Having your priorities straight will help improve your productivity, be more focused, meet your deadlines, stop procrastinating (or at least lower the level of your procrastination), and have some time for yourself.
To successfully manage your time, you need to master some core skills:
- organizational and planning skills
- prioritization skills
- focus skills
- people skills
- delegation skills
Therefore, here are five time-management tips we put together, especially for engineers, to ensure you can master those skills and manage your time effectively.
Tip 1: Identify Your Most Time-consuming Tasks and Time-wasters
Before you can start planning your work, you need to know what you’re dealing with. If you’re not already, start time-tracking your work. It will help you identify your most time-consuming tasks. With this in mind, you will be able to create a better schedule for yourself and identify areas where you might:
- benefit from additional training
- change how you tackle specific tasks
- realize some tasks are redundant
However, when you start tracking your time, you must track all of it. It’s effortless to get sidetracked while working, like standing up to stretch your legs or answering a Slack message your co-worker just sent you. It doesn’t matter. Even if the distraction is work-related, it still interrupts the train of thought and work. Did you know it takes us five or more minutes to get back on track?
So, mark your distractions. Keep them in mind when creating your work schedule because even though they are time-wasters, they will surely be a part of your day.
It might be helpful to ask yourself the following questions daily or at least once a week:
- What activities took up my day?
- What kind of tasks took the majority of my time?
- What did I accomplish?
- How much time did I waste?
- Am I any closer to my goals?
Tip 2: Set Your Goals and Prioritize
The next step is to set your goals. They will equip you with a dose of motivation and determination to achieve them. Although setting goals may sound like an easy thing, it needs to be done correctly. If not, achieving them will take even more time, which we’re trying to avoid here, right?
We suggest that you stick to the SMART method, where the goals should be:
Here you should keep in mind that having your goals written down makes you more likely to remember them and plan all your activities around them.
Once you’ve set your goals and identified your time-consuming tasks and time-wasters, you can start to prioritize and conquer. To do so, either follow the ‘Eat the Frog’ principle or the ‘MIT’ one. Whichever you choose, the end purpose is to prioritize the most important and intimidating tasks first.
In the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey popularized the ‘Time Management Matrix, which helps you not manage time per se but manage where to focus at any particular time.
Remember, something is important when it influences and contributes to your medium and long-term goals. To use the matrix approach, divide your tasks into four quadrants:
- Quadrant 1 is where the tasks that should catch your immediate attention are. Make sure you evaluate what is essential. You should be careful not to place tasks here only because you just feel like it or because the task is easy, popular, or funny. How? See if it has an impact on your goals or not.
- Quadrant 2 is where the important but not urgent tasks should be. Once you set your priorities, it should be easy to recognize them. Just be proactive and don’t ignore the important but not urgent tasks. At some point, if they’re left on the sidelines for too long, they might become urgent as well. The heart of effective personal management is acting preventively and seizing opportunities.
- Quadrants 3 & 4 are where everything else belongs. Tasks from these two quadrants have low priority. At least for your work at the moment.
Yet, to be truly effective, you can decrease the time spent in Quadrant 1 as much as possible, spend more time in Quadrant 2, and try to clear our tasks from Quadrants 3 & 4 quickly and effectively.
In the latter, only avoid tasks that are not directly influencing your colleagues’ ability to get things done. For example, shooting a short message instead of having a long call can be a good idea if it will get the same message across. On the other side, skipping a meeting where your input is necessary so other team members can move the project to the next stage is not.
Here, the most crucial step of all is that you have to learn and know when to say no. No to other activities and people. In the end, as soon as you identify which requests are truly urgent and important, saying no should be a piece of cake.
Tip 3: Block Your Time
Having a daily schedule creates structure in your day. It automatically eliminates your worries about what you’ll do next. However, while it sounds easy, planning and scheduling your tasks can quickly become overwhelming.
Take regular breaks. They’re vital to keeping your productivity on top. No one can work with a complete focus for ten hours straight. So working in short bursts, with a quick break in between, boosts your mind and keeps you focused. To achieve that, you can use time-blocking techniques.
Time-blocking is a strategy that makes you think of your time. You should acknowledge how and where you spend it if you are making the most out of it, and if are you truly working with maximum capability. It also forces you to dedicate your undivided attention to the task at hand and consequently helps you prioritize.
While the task of time-blocking is relatively simple, don’t forget to consider your free time as well. Work-life balance is important. Otherwise, your time-blocked schedule might quickly fall apart.
Here’s what you NEED to consider when time-blocking your schedule:
- Don’t underestimate the tasks.
- Don’t forget about breaks and personal time.
- Don’t be too general with your time blocks.
- Schedule everything, even the most minor tasks, such as replying to emails or other administrative tasks.
Time-blocking will help you organize your time better and allow you to achieve multiple goals simultaneously and identify time-wasters. Just remember, what works for others, may not work for you and vice versa. You’re the one who knows best what your priorities are and which tasks are essential. While you may encounter some hurdles along the way, learn from them and apply them moving forward. Take time to make time.
Tip 4: The ABCD Method
For some, creating a schedule is more challenging than for others. Schedules that are set with specific timelines and time-sensitive tasks work better with strict programs. However, they can create as many problems as they solve. This can happen due to:
- a lack of details
- underestimating specific tasks
- not taking the plan too seriously
- not being able to estimate the time needed to finish realistically
Routine is a series of events that happen regularly. Mostly you just do them without thinking. It’s a repeated formula that’s not necessarily tied to a clock. Routines usually cover the most basic tasks, may they be everyday personal grooming tasks or everyday business tasks. For them, a to-do list is usually enough.
However, it lacks a priority system. So for them, you could use the ABCD method. It’s similar to the time management matrix mentioned before.
Here, you group your tasks into 5 categories:
A – Tasks with the most impact. They are the most important ones you need to do first.
B – Tasks that have minor consequences if not done. You need to do them after A tasks.
C – Tasks that have no consequences if not done. You need to do them after the A and B tasks are finished.
D – Tasks that you have to delegate.
E – Tasks that you need to eliminate.
Tip 5: Postpone to Tomorrow?
Did you know that procrastination affects around 20% of adults and 50% of college students? It is the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions. It’s usually a bad thing since procrastination can lead to increased stress and is associated with various issues.
However, sometimes you may decide to make a purposeful delay, and that’s not the same as procrastination. Instead, intentional delay involves rational and strategic postponement of tasks.
For example, when creating a schedule for a new task or project, you need to plan your planning. Keep in mind that at the beginning you will need to learn everything there is to know about it. Only then you will be able to prioritize your development and identify all the dependencies and possible unknowns.
You need to consider the allocation of resources for all the stages that are a part of your work, such as environment set-up, coding, testing, etc. Until you’re done with that, you should not start coding. If that means postponing it to tomorrow, so be it. Of course, try to avoid any delays, but if you’re not feeling confident even before the start of the work, your schedule might go downwards quickly anyways.
(Bonus) Tip 6: Your End Prize
There’s also one bonus tip that we’d like to share. It is possibly the most important one of all.
Don’t forget to reward yourself when you’re done with a challenging task or finish a time-consuming task. Get some fresh air, open up a cold one, take a nap or do something else you love that will fill up your energy levels.