Managing time and stress

My stress is at its highest when I don’t have time to complete the tasks in front of me. I always look to systems, processes, and routines to solve a problem. If the stress is due to lack of time, I use my organizational skills to solve the problem and create time. We’re not building a magical device to freeze time, but we will talk about how to create that time. We can do this by making ourselves more organized and efficient.

Organizational efficiency

So what exactly is “organizational efficiency”? Well, for me, it’s rules, conventions, and systems of organization that create efficiency. I like rules, conventions, and systems, so this is what I use to manage my time and stress. With these in place, I can focus, be productive, complete tasks, and handle unexpected tasks that arise.

I have a process for fielding tasks, using a system to manage those tasks, and then acting to complete those tasks. Let’s look at a brief example of this process in action:

  • [Input] There is a new GitHub issue assigned to me.
  • [System] An IFTTT recipe adds any assigned GitHub issue to my Todoist Inbox.
  • [System] I review my Todoist Inbox daily and schedule the todo.
  • [Action] I complete the todo and close the GitHub issue.

The benefit of the system is to identify new inputs, file the task in the system, and continue to do my work. I trust that the system will tell me when I need to know about it. I don’t need to spend any more mental energy than is necessary, thus keeping my stress at a healthy level.

Let’s talk about specific systems of organization we can establish to manage our time and stress.

Notes

I use notes to write everything down, and I organize them so that I can find and reference them. Here are the main ways I organize my notes:

Ideas/Inbox

The “Ideas/Inbox” note is a running list of ideas or general items that have no direct filing place. It’s useful to have a scratchpad of sorts when you need to jot something down.

Areas

Each Area is a fixed domain or property that does not regularly change. The note file contains:

  • General notes
  • Things learned
  • Things to document
  • Questions
  • And more…

I have a template that I follow, but each Area will adopt its own structure, as necessary.

Projects

For each project, there is a note file to track:

  • General notes
  • Things learned
  • Things to document
  • Questions
  • And more…

Like Areas, these note files will change structure from the template, as necessary. You should let the project dictate the structure — do what makes sense.

Meetings

Each meeting has a note file with the following:

  • Date
  • Agenda
  • Participants
  • General notes
  • Questions
  • Takeaways
  • Next steps

After the meeting, I will archive the note once I’ve organized the individual items.

Templates

I can’t stress enough how important it is to create templates. I treat this one like a variable in programming. If it’s used more than once, store it somewhere to remove the duplication. I create a template file, and I will continue to refine and improve the template. I will avoid ever copying from a previous document.

Todos

Todos are vital to managing time and stress. You need to keep track of the things you need to do, and you need to make sure you have a quick way to add new todos as they come in. Throughout the day, I will enter todos into my Inbox as they come in, and I’ll deal with them later when I need to. Hear the input, use the system to organize and forget about it for the time being, and then act on it later when you need to.

Quickly adding a task

So how are my todos organized? I have a Work and Personal section for my todos, but let’s focus on the work side of things for now.

Areas

Like the Areas in my notes, these contain fixed domains or properties. For example, a few sub-projects I have are Platform, Course Production, and Marketing. These contain todos that aren’t part of a more transient project — one that has a definitive end.

Operations

With leading the front-end team at Code School, part of my time is for operational tasks. Under this project, I have Communication, Management, and Planning sub-projects. Each sub-project contains individual todos that pertain to it. Let’s look at an example task for each of these sub-projects:

  • Communication: “Corey: Optimizely test”
  • Management: “Submit expense report”
  • Planning: “Schedule quarterly offsite”

Projects

I create sub-projects for each Project. These are temporary, and I archive them once I complete all tasks within the project. If new tasks continue to come up, this is an Area instead of a Project.

Daily prioritization and review

My todo list is something that I continue to review and curate. Every morning, I review my todo list and assign a priority level and difficulty level for each task.

Priority levels

The priority levels are as follows:

  • Priority 1: The tasks I have to get done today.
  • Priority 2: The tasks I really want to get done today.
  • Priority 3: The tasks I’d like to get done today.
  • Priority 4: The tasks that don’t have to get done today, but I can get a jump on them if I finish all the other priority-level tasks.

Difficulty levels

The difficulty levels are as follows:

  • Easy: Tasks that take an hour or less.
  • Medium: Tasks that take two to four hours.
  • Hard: Tasks that take more than four hours, which would constitute a day or more worth of work (four-plus hours). I usually break these tasks into smaller Easy and Medium tasks.
Priorities and difficulty levels assigned to each task

Tracking progress

I’ve been using a feature in my todo manager to keep progress comments for each task. If I have a blocker, I’ll comment on the task about that. If I have to reschedule a task for some reason, I’ll add a comment. It helps to track where tasks are, and I can even pull up the progress in a meeting to comment on the status of the given task. It keeps me accountable, and it makes sure that I know all the up-to-date information about a task.

Progress comment on a task

Calendar

The tasks you want to complete are only as good as the time you have allotted to actually do them. The calendar is an important tool for managing timed events. Before I look at my todos in the morning, I look at my calendar to see how much time I’ll actually have to work on them. And remember the difficulty levels assigned to each task? Well, now I know which ones will fit where within the schedule I have for the day.

Email

Email is a fun one, isn’t it? There are thousands of tools that aim to “replace email,” but it’s still a necessary evil we have to deal with. Let’s talk about some different techniques and topics around managing email.

Inbox zero

I try and get “Inbox Zero” every day, but it’s not the be-all and end-all for me. Sometimes emails linger, but I do try and keep my list manageable. I treat my email inbox as a working list, and I work to clear out my inbox each day, and even several times a day. Again, it’s not a rule, but a good goal to aim for.

Intervals

I used to keep my email running, watching the notifications as they come in. Now, I like to keep them out of the way, but set regular intervals to check my email. I check email every two hours, but you should adjust this to accommodate the urgency of email for you. If I’m in the zone working, I’ll wait until I take a coffee or lunch break, and then I’ll go through emails on my phone. With how nice and easy email apps are nowadays, I can triage, swiping to archive and defer.

Filters

Email still requires manual work, but filters are the best way to automate some of the management. For example, I use filters to find certain emails, mark them as read, and archive them.

Defer

The “snooze” or “later” feature that exists in several email clients is powerful. If I don’t want to deal with an email at the given time, I will defer it until a later time. This is a great way to keep your inbox to the working list, pushing out the emails that you can deal with later. This is usually how I will end my day if I haven’t had the opportunity to act on every email. I will defer it until the following morning and deal with it then.

Tracking time

I’m a huge proponent of tracking time. How can you manage your time if you don’t know the amount of time it takes you to complete a task?

Being intentional

When you track your time, you are holding yourself accountable to the things that you need to do. You choose a task, and you set a timer on that task. This keeps you focused and intentional about where and how you spend your time.

Tracking time for a given task

Self-regulation

When you track your time, you’re more aware of working the right amount of hours. If I work a nine-hour day one day, I see that, and I will work a six- or seven-hour day another day. I’m able to see how I spend my time, and account for that when planning each day.

Better estimates

Tracking time shows you how much time each task takes to complete. With this data, you can provide better, more accurate estimates and find patterns in your work.

Identifying inefficiencies

I’m also a huge proponent of using “workflow automation” to manage time and stress. If I find myself performing an arduous, manual task, I will look to automation. Since I track my time, I can identify the areas that slow me down and then spend time on automation.

Routine

The system you create is only good if you use it and stick to it. The biggest advice I give people is to establish a routine, and stick to that routine. I figure the best way to illustrate this is by example, so I’m going to go through my routine that I have each day.

My routine

Once I log on to my computer, I follow a setup, work, and review process.

Setup

  • I open up Google Chrome.
  • I open up iTerm, the application I use for coding. In this application, I run a command to update various things in my local setup.
  • While that is running, I open up Slack, the application we use to communicate with one another at Code School.
  • While that is loading, I go back to iTerm and finish updating everything.
  • Once I update my local environment, I catch up on Slack, Twitter, and emails.
  • I open up my time-tracking software and start the timer for project management.
  • I open up my calendar and review my day. What meetings do I have today? How much time do I have to work on my tasks? Do I need to schedule anything in the free time that I have?
  • Then I open up my todo manager and review my todos. Based on the hours that I have calculated, I go through my list and set the priority and difficulty levels. I defer tasks, and look in each project to see if there’s anything extra I have time for (or want to adjust).
  • After that, I open up my notes. I review my standard note files for the areas and projects, and I create note files for meetings I have throughout the day. This is when I prep for those meetings so that I can stay focused once I start working.

Work

  • After that, I start the timer for whatever project I’m working on. I work in the time that I have allotted, focusing on my P1 tasks that I’ve marked as “easy”. Next, I’ll focus on the “medium” P1 tasks, and then start working on the P2 tasks in the same fashion. I continue to do this as I work through my daily, prioritized list.
  • Throughout the day, I will check Slack and field new todos by adding them to my Inbox, curating them as I go; collecting, reviewing, etc.
  • Every few hours, I will check Twitter and email.

Review

  • At the end of the day, I will review my todos, notes, and email.

Conclusion

With the systems of organization in place, I’m able to make the best use of my time to complete my tasks. Even if I can’t control time (yet), I can control how I use my time. The systems, processes, and routines help me manage my time, which alleviates my stress.

The organization principles are universal, but here is the list of what applications I use: