Have you ever had one of those days where you’ve been doing “stuff” all day long but haven’t actually accomplished anything? You look up from your computer, it’s 4pm, and you realize that you’ve been so busy battling your inbox, answering IMs, and attending meetings that you haven’t completed anything?
Time management is that crucial skill that allows you to “get stuff done” amid those many distractions. Here are the strategies that I use to increase efficiency.
1. Reduce context switching
We have more channels of communication than ever before. This means we also have more distractions, and staying focused is the most challenging obstacle to getting stuff done. Each of those IMs, tweets, emails, text messages, Skypes, etc. obviously takes time, but whether they are work-related or not they take a more subtle toll: context switching.
Context switching usually refers to computation, but it is applicable to humans as well. When we are working on a certain task, each distraction — e.g. quick email response or phone call or “10 minute catch up” — results in us having to find our focus on the original task all over again. This is particularly true in jobs that benefit from the mental state of flow such as programming or designing or making music. Being effective involves reducing context switching to focus on the task at hand.
For example, you can reduce context switching by grouping meetings together so that you have some dedicated chunks of time for focused (non-meeting) work. A friend of mine managed a development team where there were designated four-hour blocks in which meetings, interviews, or any other non-development item could not be scheduled. Similarly, I try to schedule my meetings back-to-back rather than a “start and stop” schedule. This has the added benefit of forcing me to time box each meeting: with a hard stop, every conversation can’t run 10 minutes longer than scheduled. (See below for more on time boxing.)
2. Set medium and long term goals
Setting goals is an extraordinarily effective way to remain focused. For example, at the beginning of the year, I set targets for community growth and lead generation. These are long-term, measurable targets that are visible to the rest of the company. Each month, I outline activities that will impact those targets, ensuring that my day-to-day activities are associated with my medium and long-term goals.
In addition to personal focus, these high-level goals also give me a framework for evaluating suggestions from the rest of the team. If someone recommends that we spend time working on a new marketing activity, I can easily determine whether it will move the needle on any of the key metrics or goals that I’ve set at the beginning of the year. If it does, then it’s worth experimenting with; if not, then I have a strong stance from which to push back.
3. Time box tasks
There are certain tasks – like managing an overflowing inbox — that can be literally endless. If you work from your inbox, you could spend your whole day doing nothing but emails! You feel like you are “doing” something, but it can quickly turn into a time suck or procrastination tool.
That’s why I try to “time box” my email management. Essentially, when I arrive at the office in the morning, I decide how much time I want to spend that morning answering emails. Usually I set aside about an hour. Once the hour passes, I close out of the email window and focus on the next task. While I work on that next task, I try diligently not to look at my email or any other item. (For more on inbox management, see my post Email is not your to-do list.)
One of my colleagues goes as far as blocking off time in her calendar for things like updating reports or responding to emails.
This can be particularly effective in sales organizations. I’ve seen many sales models where lead development teams have a set of call reports. They spend an hour on hot leads that just entered the system, then an hour on follow up with those that they haven’t spoken with a few months, then an hour cold calling, and so on. These call cycles ensure that leads in every stage get attention.
4. Complete tasks
When you lack focus, it can be easy to get 15 tasks 80% complete. I aim to get fewer tasks done, but to do them completely. If I’m working on a tedious spreadsheet, I set aside the time (time box!) and I hammer it out until it’s done. I would rather have it “done” than “perfect.”
For example, when I am working on a blog post, I try to simply write down all of my ideas with the expectation that I can refine later, rather than agonize over every word. Sometimes I even schedule the post to publish the day after I finish the first draft as a forcing factor! While each post may not be perfect, this approach gives me a greater sense of accomplishment.
5. Use task management tools
It’s unrealistic to expect that you can keep track of all the possible things that you could be working on in your head. A task tracker is necessary, and that could be anything from post-it notes to a spreadsheet to tickets in a bug tracker. A task management tool doesn’t make you organized, but it does provide you with a few big benefits. It gives you a place to store ideas that don’t fit into your current goals (a backlog). It keeps your to-do list outside of a major distraction zone — your inbox. And it provides visibility to yourself and others on what is getting done, and what could be getting done if there were more people working on it.
6. Efficiently schedule your time
I wrote the bulk of this blog post from the back of a taxi cab. I could have written it while in the office, or at home, but since I knew I had to go to the airport I didn’t want to make that hour an idle one. So I queued up a few tasks – writing this post, working on an internal report — that I could complete without access to internet, an external monitor, or a cozy environment. My colleagues that travel a lot or have long commutes are experts at queuing up tasks for the airport or train ride.
7. Step back and plan from time to time
At the beginning of the month, I try to step back from the day-to-day activities to review what got done last month, where we are against our target, and what needs to happen next month. I have templates for reports that I complete every month which track key metrics, activities, and team member goals. Getting organized in this way initially felt counter-productive, but over time I found that some upfront planning made it easier to get stuff done during the month.
For example, 10gen often participates in 40+ events every month, which requires lots of complicated logistics and scheduling. We used to do all of the scheduling in an ad hoc manner — as the event details were confirmed, we would schedule the people who would attend. As the 10gen staff grew, this became increasingly disorganized and it was impossible to see “the big picture” by scheduling each event as a one-off. We ultimately replaced the ad hoc system with a monthly planning meeting. At the beginning month, I put together the entire schedule and staff for all of the events happening two months out (e.g. in July we plan for September). It feels like more upfront work, but we save tons of time that might be wasted in individual email chains on each event.
Meetings are another area where a few minutes of planning can have big return. I always prefer to go into a meeting with a documented, organized agenda of items and go right down the list. Then you don’t waste time in the meeting going back and forth from one unrelated topic to another, and it reduces the need for any follow up meetings.
When you’re working, work hard and get it done. When you’re not working, relax and stop thinking about work! I try to do yoga or play tennis every day, even if I’m traveling or extremely busy with work. If I can’t find time for myself, I find it much harder to concentrate on my work and easier to get stressed out during the day.