There could be three reasons why you clicked and started reading this article.
- Maybe you are a developer who’s really frustrated about how little work he can get done or just want to hulk up and exceed their own limits.
- Or maybe you are a tech lead or an engineering manager who wants to inspire their team to do a better job.
- Or maybe I just begged you to read this, sending the link myself.
Well, in any case, I want you to congratulate you for coming here. This may very well be the definitive guide to hack developer productivity in small or medium sized teams for all we know. Frugal startups or cozier corporate offices, dev productivity is a problem all engineering teams suffer from. I am yet to meet an engineering lead who’s really 10/10 satisfied with the holistic performance of their team. There is always a scope for improving the way we operate.
This is not a manual or cheat-sheet for developer productivity. God knows I am not qualified enough to write that. But this something more useful, something more subtle. This is a simple framework.
The first rule of productivity club is: you talk about the productivity club
I know more people who believe in ghosts than people who believe that productive time is finite in a given day. A friend of mine could pull 24 straight waking hours working and then just disappear for the next 48. I’ll tell you what I told him — it’s not productivity, it’s dumbassery.
Step #1: Do it together
It is just preposterous to believe that you can be productive all of your waking hours especially if your job is intellectually demanding like development work. Your time is precious that is why people pay you per hour for that time.
No one can be productive just by willing to be, not without discipline, practice, or peer support.
Working towards a productivity club at work can help understand where and why are you lacking. You might agree with me that coworkers are often more observant of your flaws than yourself. Let your ego take the back seat for a moment and ask them. Offer to help them. Tell them it’s a real thing and we can work together on improving each other’s habits. You have to know your goals individually and as a team to up your game.
If your company can afford it, a primer talk on productivity by an expert is a great way to start a group thought about this issue.
[+] Controversial lesson: Productivity is a team sport.
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles
Legendary Chinese general Sun Tzu said this in his famous book, The Art of War. While this philosophy has great application in going to battle, it also finds a very practical use in identifying bottlenecks that hinder uninterrupted flows in any direction.
Step #2: Know yourself
- Do you have unreasonable expectations of your own productivity?
- Are you constantly frequently missing targets?
- Do you often negotiate deadlines or payload?
- Do you always reply with a yes when someone asks if it can be done faster?
- Are you overwhelmed with the amount of work that you have to do everyday?
If the answer to any one of these is a resounding yes, then there is a disconnect between you and what you believe of yourself.
The prerequisite to being productive at work is to be brutally honest to your own self.
This line of thinking is similar to how professional athletes always keep record their track times. Their job depends on improving it. If they can make a 100m sprint in 12 seconds, that doesn’t just work. They keep on working on improving this number. That is the required mindset of someone who wants to improve their productivity levels.
[+] Controversial lesson: Honesty to own self is very crucial.
You cannot improve what you can’t measure
Productivity, as a concept, is very abstract and most people don’t really measure it in any way apart from hours put in at work. But counting hours is just the rate of burn of towards your deadline. It’s a partial measurement.
Step #3: Measure your time
Total time is the sum of my productive and unproductive time, as well as my forced unproductive time and wasted productive time. To put it more lucidly, let me alphabetize and rearrange the equation so it makes more sense.
Productive time = Total time — unproductive time — wasted productive time — forced unproductive time
Productive hours are simply the cream of our time. We get almost all of our work done in these hours. Unproductive hours are the ones that we don’t give to anything or anyone. We spend it with my friends, family, and ourselves — sleeping, eating, socializing, living the life. Forced unproductive hours are the hours when we work but don’t really enjoy it — often when we are chasing a deadline or are overdue with a commitment. We are working the same hours but producing much lesser output. And finally,
Wasted productive hours are the cardinal sins we commit when laziness or mood takes over and drives us away from working.
Observe yourself for a week and sample out these hours for every day. How much time you don’t do anything related to work, how much time at work you just waste on social media and how much time you spend doing work when you should be sleeping or having a cold one with the buddies.
In my experience, when we minimize their forced unproductive hours we increase happiness and job satisfaction. When we minimize our wasted productive hours, we increase our confidence and sense of achievement. Unproductive hours should be treated with care as the reward machinery of our brain depends on them to generate contentment. It takes effort to make them productive otherwise they just become forced unproductive hours.
[+] Controversial lesson: Time is a resource. Treat it as such.
Efficiency is the edge on your sword
Now that you know how much hours you really can put in into your work, now comes the fun part of solving the productivity problem. Supercharging your productivity time with efficiency.
Step #4: Hack efficiency
To be honest, this is a highly subjective mind trick and there are no direct solutions to this. Having said that, efficiency can be improved by some accessible hacks that are commonly accepted—
- 45–15 rule: Work for 45 minutes and take a break for 15 minutes. It keeps you from draining off and top-ups your output levels once the break is completed.
- Have some stimulants: Coffee, tea, energy drinks — whatever rocks your boat. Caffeine before starting your day makes you a little bit sharper. While some people might disagree with that, it is definitely not a new concept.
- Get some music: Instrumental music at a comfortable volume running in the background helps you get in the concentration zone faster and holds you there longer. A good headset with noise cancellation helps.
- Silence your phone: Turn off notifications, don’t take calls, don’t check tweets or texts, nothing at all. Do it in the 15 minute break at the end of your hour.
- Up your game: The better you are at your job, the faster it becomes.
- Stop interruptions: Colleagues in open offices often talk or chit-chat for no reason at all disturbing your flow. It’s hard to avoid them without being rude, better to get into a empty meeting room with your laptop or just time your breaks together if you’re doing the productivity club thing I mentioned earlier.
- Enter your own efficiency hack: Seriously, as I said. This is a subjective list. Respond in the comments if you have something more that personally helps you. You can also tweet to me at @braveproductguy
Efficiency is how much work you can get done per unit of your productive time. You can increase your efficiency, and you can get the most juice out of your productive hours.
[+] Controversial lesson: Efficiency enhances productivity.
Enough of the preaching, bro. Where are my results?
Well, I don’t really know if this works out for everyone or not. It’s a slippery slope and perhaps too idealistic. I have tried to make it as actionable as possible, but still, there maybe nuances and subtleties that I might have missed or maybe just don’t know.
The truth is that I want to learn about developer productivity myself and that is why I started researching others and compiling from my own experiences. I asked around a lot, with my other developer friends and people who are working in fields of high intellectual investment. I consulted some tech leads and engineering managers and people who run some of the very productive teams I know. The only reason I even called the lessons as controversial is because you may try them and still nothing may happen immediately. They’ll take time and effort to get right.
We all like to achieve immediate results. They make us feel good and we can see the whole cause and effect in a blink of an eye.
Mostly, that approach falters in pursuit of productivity. What I’ve realized is that testing different things, budgeting your time, and monitoring your efficiency are the key chapters of this mystical book. That’s why, I focused this article on them. The secret to a productive team is not a foosball table, it’s happiness and contentment.
I wrote this article not to preach but to learn. Think of it as a conversation starter, like a virtual coffee I bought for you with my time and research. If you think this coffee was any good, let’s keep the conversation going and make each other better. That is the only outcome I expect of this article.