How many times have you wished you had a time machine or maybe just a Delorean to drive to work on time? Ok that’s too much. Maybe we just want to be a bit like Hiro Nakamura, coding while doing some time and space bending whenever it is needed, specially when that project deadline is just around the corner. Science fiction aside, since we can’t yet manage time travelling, what we can actually do is learn to manage ourselves! Time is money and in business you don’t want to waste your clients’/company’s money.
A huge step in improving your time management skills is knowing your purpose and desired results so you can determine objectives and task prioritization. Although it’s very “mindful” to be in the present so you don’t feel stressed all the time, starting to plan ahead for the next day, next week, next couple of months is crucial.
Why Plan? Planning allows you to think of the future, avoid major problems and deal better with the normal workflow, thus staying away from work overloads. If you plan, you end up having more usable time and can better coordinate tasks with others, it’s a combination of effort and focus. This also eventually helps your team to better manage their time. It’s a “do more with less” situation, where we just need to follow a few tips.
First things first, one problem I’ve come across in training people on time management is that they usually neglect or get stuck on the most basic things like, what are their goals? And what is and isn’t a goal? So we just need to tell people to be “SMART”:
Specific - normally we have a general idea, but objectives need concrete and observable goals that can answer: “what needs to be done? And how will you know it is done?” Which leads to the importance of the definition of done.
Measurable/Measurement - if you are able to measure what you propose to do, you are already on a good way to eliminate abstraction from your goals list. Ask yourself and your team what measure fits best: quantity, quality, frequency, costs, deadlines, etc, and which are the standards you´re required to follow. Convert them into numbers to be aware of your achievements and to improve on your failures.
Achievable- This is where it comes to committing -can you reach your objective in the given time frame? Can your expectations be achieved given the team’s knowledge, experience, resources and capability?At the beginning this may require some practice, but as time goes by you will get more experienced.
Relevant- Not everything you set as a goal is relevant. So you should ask why it is important to achieve an objective and what impact it will have.
Time-oriented- there are no endless projects or tasks when setting goals. Deadlines, end points, “due dates” need to be defined. Besides giving you the ability to give your client a time table, setting limits also helps setting up the human mind towards fulfilling a certain amount of work.. It creates a sense of urgency that helps people to finish their tasks.
Doing good planning implies getting to know yourself, know your strengths and your weakness. As Mao Tse Tung said “It is well known that when you do anything, unless you understand its actual circumstances, its nature and its relations to other things, you will not know the laws governing it, or know how to do it, or be able to do it well”. So people’s instinctive behavior around planning usually involves:
- doing what they like before doing what they don’t like and what takes less time before what takes longer;
- choosing easy tasks before the hard tasks;
- choosing tasks that require handling materials over thinking tasks;
- choosing scheduled tasks with others (e.g. meetings) over the ones without a designated time slot;
- choosing planned tasks over unexpected ones;
- choosing tasks that have other people’s dependency over tasks that only depend on themselves and work based on “group” consequences;
- do urgent tasks over non urgent ones and deal with crises and emergencies first;
- do things because it’s a habit, without thinking about the consequences;
- deal with tasks in the order they emerge;
Try to use a planner -whether it’s digital or on paper is a matter of personal choice. Just don’t use both for the same purpose, you will end up losing time by doubling your work or even worse losing information. Even though I’m a technology fan, I still like good old fashion paper and I always take my time when picking the right planner for each calendar year. Monthly views always allow me to have a broad view of when I have more work and better place when to do what. Also having a detailed space to take notes see your day hourly, using colors, bookmarks and a pencil is a plus.
How can we look at our task and have a clue of what’s going on? Personally I like to use and teach Stephen Covey’s system, which is divided into four quadrants.
- In Quadrant I of the Covey Matrix (top left) you can find your urgent tasks, things that need to be dealt with immediately! Here is where you deal with all the work crisis, usually you can easily identify what they are. But if you are spending most of your time in this quadrant watch out for burnout signs and take a closer look on what you are NOT DOING on quadrant II.
- In Quadrant II (top right) is where we find the important but not urgent tasks. Although they do not require our immediate attention, we should tag those tasks as important because they usually require planning and good planning requires time. Business/project wise this is your essential step to guarantee you achieve long term goals and establish a sort of balance. This quadrant is where you can plan your projects, prevent crisis, identify new opportunities and build and improve your relationships.
- In Quadrant III (bottom left) it’s when we have urgent, but yet unimportant items. These are the tasks you should take a closer look at and minimize or even try to eliminate them (e.g. unnecessary meetings and interruptions). A big part of the time spent in software development is in meetings. Internal meetings, meetings with the client, meetings with partners… In sum, it’s a lot of people and subjects to manage. Although planning and decisions are very important business-wise, if you aren’t careful with the way meetings are organized they end up consuming a lot of time in unproductive time slots.
- In Quadrant 4 (bottom right) we have unimportant and also not urgent items — items that don’t have to be done anytime soon, perhaps add little to no value and also should be minimized or eliminated. These are often trivial time wasters. Time stealers like pleasant social media time, cartoon viewing and procrastination in general fits here. No one can do 8 hours of continuous work with distractions but don’t fall into the loop.
If prioritization is still not an acquired skill you can also use other tools to assess tasks e.g. MoSCoW Method of prioritization (Must, Should, Could, Won’t).
Yeah, having a big plan is great and defining objectives is essential but what happens if you are not aware where you may waste your time? We can speak of three types of time wasters: environmental, human and administrative. Lets take a look at what those are:
- phone interruption and occasional visits/encounters;
- delayed or incomplete information;
- excessive bureaucracies, paper work and other formalities;
- lack or excess of staff;
- noise, and visual distractions.
- Working too hard and not knowing how to say “NO”;
- lack of self organizational abilities;
- too much social time;
- accumulate unfinished tasks;
- procrastination and indecision;
- no self-discipline in sticking to what you committed to.
- lack of standards, control and progress reports;
- poor delegation or confusion in authority or responsibility;
- lack of communication and not knowing how to listen;
- inexperienced or inadequate people for the job;
- having no clear goals, priorities and planning.
The only thing that is certain in project management is that time is limited. Try not do deal with all tasks at the same time and delegate as much as possible so each team member can work autonomously. Be clear on who’s doing what and know that good practices takes time and continuous effort.
If after reading this you’re thinking that you don’t even have the time to start planning your tasks differently, just start gradually. Start today, you don’t have to implement change all at once and it is easier to change you habits slowly. As Stephen Covey said “I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions”.
Since you just took about seven minutes to read an article on time management, you can most likely also take the next seven minutes to determine importance and urgency of some of your tasks. Time to stop procrastinating and to start effective planning! Also, if you are already a time management master remember to do some monitoring from time to time, so that you don’t end up overloading your schedule.