Time Management Tips

The best way to get the most out of your day is to take your time seriously.  I’ve already talked about the importance of tracking your time and reducing the time-thievery of meetings, but here are some additional things that I have found help me to maximize the time in a day.

  • Keep a to-do list.  There are three key elements to this.  First, capture everything that needs attention so that nothing slips between the cracks.  Second, scope the tasks; a rough ballpark will do.  Third, prioritize.  It’s fine to pick one or two small tasks to cherry-pick and get done, but if you’re breaking your own prioritization regularly, you need to dig into why you’re avoiding the bigger tasks.  I always re-visit my to-do list first thing in the morning (often a good time to scrap the old version and re-write a cleaner one) and last thing at night, with periodic updates as needed throughout the day.  This helps tremendously with focus, as well as providing a sense of accomplishment for abstract work; it always feels good to look at a list of crossed-off items at the end of a day.
  • Attack e-mail strategically. It’s easy to get constantly interrupted by e-mail, just like it’s easy to let meetings take over your life, particularly if you are intersecting with multiple teams and leading a project.  A lot of times, being responsive to issues raised in e-mail is a key part of leadership.  However, this does not mean you are doomed.  I do a thorough clean-up of my e-mail first thing in the morning and last thing at night (funny that), and in between, I do a lot of sorting.  Items that need a response stay in the inbox; everything else gets deleted or filed into an appropriate folder.  This means that anything in my inbox needs attention; when I have a few free minutes between other tasks, I try to knock a few of these off.  Staying diligent about this process can be challenging, but over time, it becomes a habit, and that’s powerful.
  • Work your calendar.  This is a life-saver, particularly when you’re constantly overbooked.  Every meeting goes into my calendar, no matter how short.  If I can see it coming, I document it.  Every event in the calendar also has an appropriate reminder warning; usually, this is 15 minutes for meetings, but it can be 12 hours or more for events I need to prepare for the day before.  Again, you need to do this for a while until it becomes a habit; once you hit that point, all of those mental cycles you spent reminding yourself that something is coming up or that you need to prepare for something can be reclaimed.  Your brain is free to work on other things.  Pro-tip: when you’ve got something you really need uninterrupted time to work on, book time for it in your calendar.  If you’ve trained your team to look for conflicts when scheduling, this is very effective.  You can also put reminders into your calendar (set as not busy) to follow up on various issues or commitments from the team.  If you are diligent about working your calendar, you can see at a glance in the morning how much time you’re going to have to devote to that to-do list.
  • Clean your desk at the end of the day. It doesn’t have to be spotless; nor do you need the perfect organizing system.  Just clear some space.  Make sure the things that need attention are somewhere you can put hand to them easily, trash and recycle the things you don’t need anymore.  Not only does this help prevent things from going missing, it also has a psychological benefit.  Clutter builds up over time, and when you approach a cluttered environment, it can feel overwhelming.  If you clean/straighten your desk at the end of every day, it’s going to be that much easier to engage the next morning.
  • Take regular breaks.  If you’ve been working on something for two hours or more, you need to take a break.  You don’t need to go far; you don’t need to start doing something else.  You do need to stand up, walk around a little bit, get the blood flowing, and allow your unconscious mind to take over the problem-solving for a little while.  Some people like quick naps (doesn’t work for me), others do a lap around the building.  Do whatever works for you.
  • Disconnect when you need to. Nowadays, we’ve got IM, Twitter, and Facebook to deal with in addition to e-mail.  It’s okay to log out.  Really, it is.  When you really need to focus, clear all the potential distractions out of the way.  It can even help to have a separate workspace you can go to where people are less likely to interrupt and you don’t have all of your communication channels open.

Personally, I like to be slightly over-booked at all times.  This keeps the right amount of tension in my day such that I am constantly pushing to do more, so a lot of these tips are biased towards dealing with being over-booked.  What works for me may not work for you.  The important thing is to make yourself consciously aware of what is affecting your time use and productivity.  Track and measure your own successes and failures, and you can customize your workflow to get the most out of every day.


The Power of Showing Your Work

The first time I was asked to keep a log of the work I was doing in my job was around ten years ago, and I was incensed.  The request came down from management, and it felt like a surveillance technique, a way to take work that is complex and often abstract (game design) and make it measurable.  As an adult, and a salaried professional, it got my back up.  Surely, I thought, and likely argued at the time, the measure of my work should be the results and not the amount of time it took to get there.

Nonetheless, it was required, and like a good, little foot-soldier, I started doing it.  It turned out not to be as onerous or repressive a structure as I anticipated.  It only took a few minutes every day to reflect back on what my day had consisted of and write it all down.  Management didn’t use this information to regulate what I was or was not doing.  I’m not sure what value, if any, it actually had for them.  Over time, it became a habit, and then something surprising happened.

When it came time for my annual review, I actually had a defined record that I could go through.  Instead of only being able to focus on my most recent accomplishments and work patterns, I had a data-set that I could mine.  Work that I had done 6-12 months ago was no longer a fuzzy, abstract recollection; I could point to (and back up) a whole series of accomplishments that would otherwise have faded in the collective memory.  Beyond that, I could actually see my own work patterns, identify what parts of my job were taking more of my time than I wanted, where I wanted to spend more time, and make adjustments.

When I switched jobs, I took this tool with me.  With no one pushing me to do it, I kept a daily work log, and every Friday, just before I left for the weekend, I would send it to my supervisor so that we both had the same understanding of what I had done over the previous week.  Instead of being a tool for my supervisor to manage me, it became a way for me to manage up.  I could go back through previous months, identify issues like excessive workload, too much diffusion of responsibilities, and even the amount of travel involved in my job and make a concrete, cogent argument for promotion, raises, additional hiring, and shifts in responsibility.  I didn’t even have to wait for formal reviews to make these arguments, because my supervisor was aware on a week to week basis not only of how I was progressing our collective agenda, but also the details involved in getting there.  As a manager, I began to evangelize this to my direct reports.  I didn’t require people to do it (remembering my own indignation), but I strongly recommended it.

I got even better at this as my responsibilities increased and my time became more fragmented.  I kept a simple Word document on my desktop, and every time I finished a task, I would open up that document, update it, and save it.  I learned that tasks shorter than 30 minutes rarely needed to be called out individually (this made the document too long and obscured the bigger issues by flooding it with minutia) and tasks longer than two hours needed to be broken down; anything in the 1-2 hour range got marked as such.

So, what I ended up with was a daily list of 8-12 items of significance; a week’s worth of work fit into two pages or less.  It became easier and easier to spot problems.  If I was consistently logging 15+ items per day, I knew that I needed to scale back, delegate, or otherwise adjust my own commitments.  If the log ran over two pages, I knew it had been a particularly hectic week.  If I had a run of days with less than 8 items, I knew I had an opportunity to take on additional work.  Before I sent this off on Friday, I would do a quick analysis of the week just past and jot down action items for the next week.  This kept me from stressing about work over the weekend, and when I showed up Monday morning, I was able to dive right in without a long ramp-up.

In other words, this tool, which I had resented as management trying to monitor how well I was using my time, turned out to be a great tool for me to manage my own time and workload.  I cannot stress enough how valuable this perspective is.  Particularly when you’re in a position where you’re constantly firefighting, overworked, and fragmented, taking these few minutes to assess, prioritize, and course-correct is a life-saver.  It also increases the sense of control and accomplishment when doing work (game design, management, relationship-building, etc.) that is abstract and hard to quantify.

What I am telling you is that you should do this.  Start right now.  Use whatever format is convenient, but do it every day.  Make it a habit; make it an organic part of your workflow.  The ROI on this simple activity is phenomenal.  Not only will you be more productive, you will be better able to identify problems and work with your management to resolve them.  It turns out that my high-school math teacher Mr. Massey was right, after all: showing your work is essential.