12 tips for making the best use of your time

Some tips that have worked for some people, some of the time, for some common problems. YMMV.

In arbitrary order:

1. Help! I’m constantly distracted by email, IM, random things.

Block no-email time in your calendar. It’s less complicated than it seems. Even just two hours a day could make a massive difference. Trust me, if it’s that urgent, someone will figure out how to find you.

2. Consistency is the key

Each morning write down one thing you can accomplish that day that would make the day worth it. Then just focus on that one thing until it’s done. Everything else is gravy that day. If you aren’t almost done half-way through your day, it might be time to consider a new plan.

3. Practice makes better

Practice helps you get more efficient. Being more efficient gives you the extra space you need to become better. Dedicate no less than 30 minutes a day to one specific activity that you can do to improve your skill. It’s your skills, your career, your profession. Your homework for yourself. Do it every day, no exceptions. Throw away the results each day; the point of practice is practice, not building something.

4. So. Many. Meetings.

Find out before meeting what specific questions the person that called it is trying to answer. See if you can answer those questions in advance. Then if you’re lucky you can either individually decline or get the whole meeting canceled because all questions are already answered. At worst, you’re better prepared.

5. Every goddamn thing is on fire! At the same time!

Triage. Someone utters the phrase “would be nice”? That item is cut. Anything you don’t have extremely high level of confidence in, is cut. Basically anything that would not be an immediate catastrophe is cut. That’s the easy stuff. After that, everything is still on fire and you still aren’t going to be able to do it all. The only thing that matters here is that you admit it. Some of these patients are going to die. Pick some, live with that choice, and suggest people get comfortable with the others or find workarounds. That’s the time to get creative.

6. How much is it worth?

Before you sit down to do something, decide how much it’s worth. How much time could you spend doing this and it would still be worth it? Two days? Two years? Where is the line? How much would you personally pay someone to do this? With that in mind you can decide when to completely stop what you’re doing if it’s not going well and throw it out (if you have nothing useful) or use an earlier, but less awesome iteration (if you have something that at least works).

7. Seriously, you don’t need to be involved in everything.

Are you afraid that someone is going to make a decision that affects you without consulting you for your opinion? Get over it. It will definitely happen. It’s an absolute certainty. Expecting that everyone (or selfishly, just you) would be involved in every decision that could potentially impact you is… impractical. Everyone that you add to a conversation is going to make that decision making process more complicated. Getting the right and fewest people is a trick. Make a list of the decisions you absolutely, without question, need to be part of. Make sure people see that list. Make sure people know when to bring you in (and can infer when it’s not as necessary.) Expect the same from others. If you don’t know their list, ask them directly.

8. Where did the day go?

You get to the end of the day and feel like you didn’t accomplish anything. That happens a lot. What’s happening? Why do you feel so useless? Stop. First you probably just need some perspective. And second, it probably is true that you’re not spending your time as wisely as you’d like. Everyone hates this exercise, but it’s still a straightforward and valuable approach: For a week, track every minute of your day. Write down everything you do. Get a coffee? Write it down. Read an email? Write it down. Wander around and have a chat? Write it down. Account for every moment. Once you’ve done that as honestly as you can, you probably have some insights you can work with to actually answer the question of where your days are going.

9. Holding people up with lots of small things

You’re getting to the urgent stuff. You’re getting to the important stuff. But there are small things that people need (replies to emails, code reviews, whatever) that aren’t particularly urgent or hugely important. Until they are. People have to bug you about it. And by then it’s become urgent or important. Two useful tactics: (1) Don’t read it twice. If you’re taking time to read email, prepare to respond during that time. Anything you can possibly get an answer to, answer immediately. Don’t “get back to it” if you can help it. And (2) keep a separate list of those little things that build up during the day, and just knock them all out at once before you end your day.

10. Brutally honest about your own progress

If you catch yourself thinking “I can make up the time” or some variation, stop. You can’t. You’re behind and you need to start thinking about (1) who needs to know; and (2) how you can adjust everything else to accommodate. Now, before it gets desperate.

Apply the 80/50 Rule: Once you’ve used 50% of the available time, if you’re not 80% done, you are behind. And 80% done basically means you could walk away. It works, it’s not your best work, but you could stop now. If you catch yourself saying “lots of stuff just came up and got in the way” or some variation of that, stop. This probably isn’t the first time you’ve had to deal with fires and random things. In fact, while any individual item isn’t predictable, I’d bet that the total amount of your time spent on unpredictable items is extremely predictable. Account for it.

11. Don’t answer the same question three times

Have you answered the same question twice? It’s probably safe to assume you will be asked again at some point. Either (1) document the answer so that you can point to documentation when you are asked (don’t assume people will read it in advance and not ask though, that’s ridiculous! No one will ever RTFM first); or (2) teach someone else the answer so they can answer the question in the future instead of you.

12. Trust the process

The fantasy: “Next time I’m going to do it sooner and better. I’m going to make all these amazing decisions way earlier, because it’s such a mess when they are made late.” The reality: That doesn’t happen. There are too many variables changing at the same time. The ideal, theoretical approach will remain both. For any given issue, ask “What are the absolute minimum answers I need before being able to reasonably solve this problem?” Write them down. Put aside the problem until those answers are available. Spinning your wheels on problems you can’t solve yet will waste a lot of your time. See also: Preproduction.


Originally published at sites.google.com.