Principles of Time Management

Below is an excerpt from our Ops Manual, a guide for our team on the principles of good time management. It’s not just applicable to remote work (there’s enough blog posts on that right now). It’s a primer for work in general.

Introduction

Good time management skills help you in your personal and professional life. Rhythmic has four ultimate goals for time management:

  • Follow the Kanban pull-system of work
  • Produce clearly observable work product that can be reported at standup and weekly review
  • Complete what you are committing to, in a timely manner, while not blocking other people
  • Be prepared for standup

Principles of Time Management

While there are many different principles of Time Management, we focus on the following:

  • Pick an organizational system and stick with it
  • Work smart, not hard
  • Develop routines, habits, and mantras
  • Maintain focus
  • Prioritize

Pick an organization system and stick with it

Using an organizational systems allows you to free up your brain. Rather than using your RAM to track things that need to be done, you can use it for problem solving and planning. Even though sheets of papers and sticky notes seem convenient, they often end up floating around your desk and are not easily managed. In the best case scenario, this creates distracting clutter; in the worst case scenario, items get lost and work gets missed.

The number one indicator of success on the Ops Team is the quality of your personal organization system. There is no one right system for everyone, but you must adapt a system that works for you.

Use Jira alongside a personal organization tool to keep track of your: meetings, reminders, notes, schedule, to-do list, and more. You can use this Daily Task List as a starting point for a personal organizational tool, or look at other resources.

  • FranklinCovey. One of the original personal task management systems, Covey has specialized journals, software and web apps.
  • Getting Things Done. See tools like OmniFocus and Things.
  • Bullet Journaling. Originally created as a tool for pen and paper journaling, there are electronic options available today.

Work smart, not hard

Working smart often eliminates the need to “work hard”. There are simple things you can do to streamline your daily work and remove secondary tasks that come from not “working smart”. Below are a few examples of things you can do each day to help you work smart.

Spend a little time now to save more time later

There are countless ways that you can trade time spent upfront for time saved down the road. One of the most obvious ways is to plan how you will do your work before you actually begin working, allowing you to to think through the task and arrive at roadblocks before you find yourself stuck halfway through. Another trade off is documentation; it takes time now to document procedures and settings, especially for tasks that don’t need to be completed very often, but it saves you much more time in the future when revisiting the task, or asking someone else to complete it.

Another example is setting aside 15 minutes at the beginning and end of each day. Your first 15 minutes can be spent: reviewing your schedule, creating your Daily To Do List, prioritizing all of the items you need to complete then rescheduling the ones you wont be able to complete today, preparing for standup, etc. Spend 15 minutes at the end of your day to wrap up loose ends: take notes, comment on in progress tickets and leave yourself reminders for where you want to pick up tomorrow. Read and respond to emails and messages that have been waiting.

Use available tools to demonstrate progress

Use intended tools to communicate status. Rather than providing updates in Slack rooms, email, or in person conversations, you should be updating your status in Jira, Confluence, etc.

Be mindful of exactly what you are asking of your teammate when you pop-in on Slack to ask what time the meeting is supposed to be.

Conserve brain power for what’s important, use external storage for everything else

The most important task is the one you’re currently doing. Finish it, before you start another. In the case of large, multi-day tasks, set checkpoints of what you expect to accomplish before moving onto something else. Do not bounce from task to task. When a new task comes in that requires handling, write it down. Don’t rely on your memory. Your short-term memory sucks a lot more than you’re prepared to admit–this is true of all human beings. It’s a bit of a design flaw. So, use your personal task management system to add

There are many ways that you can conserve your brain power so that you can focus on the task at hand, some of these are easy (keeping your work space clean and neat to remove visual distractions) while others take a bit more effort, such as using an organizer to keep track of tasks. Even if you can remember everything you need to complete after your current task, you lift the burden on your mind when you write it all down. What you think of as “remembering” is actually your brain context switching over and over. When you use external storage (your phone, a note book, an app, etc.) you give your brain a break and allow your brain to have a single focus. Using organizers, lists, and physical reminders are all examples of conserving brain power by utilizing external storage.

Lists are a great example of external storage. By taking the time to write a list (for example, ‘what needs to be tested after an OS upgrade’) you free up your brain long term. Lists have the added benefit of enabling others to complete the task without involving you, and creating fail safes when other team members see what you may have overlooked.

Occasionally, as in all of life, there are some exceptions to this rule. For example, if you are in the middle of a task and someone asks you an urgent question that you can easily answer, it may make more sense to answer the question, rather than writing it down and coming back to answer it later. That being said, we have a mutual responsibility to not be a source of interruption to others. We are all guilty of the pop-in question, the side conversations, and the requests.

Determine your “peak focus time”

Peak focus time refers to the portion or portions of your day where you are the most fresh, the most focused, the most productive. Chances are you are more productive in the first hour after arriving at the office than you are at the last 10 minutes before lunch. Take some time to think about your day and your work patterns and determine your peak focus time. Arrange your day so that work that requires your focus and attention happens in that peak focus time, while interrupt heavy work can fill in the other times of day.

Develop routines, habits, and mantras

Routines, habits, and mantras are investments we make to keep us working smart, not hard. By establishing and practicing them, they become second nature. However, you will not improve if you don’t invest time and effort.

  • Routine – A defined sequence of actions that you follow
  • Habit – a tendency or practice that is ingrained and done without thought
  • Mantra – a mental statement or slogan, repeated often, to trigger “rules of thumb”, assist in building routines and habits, and assist in making decisions

Routines

Routines help you automate your day, saving you time and brain power by avoiding thinking about and planning things that will have to happen anyway. For example, if you create a routine that you always fill your gas tank after work on Thursday, you wont find yourself late for a meeting on Monday because you had to make an emergency gas station trip. Think about the little problems that come up throughout the day, and think about routines that you can implement to circumvent those little problems. A great routine to start with is to begin each day by reviewing your schedule and Daily To Do List, then setting priorities for the day.

Having routines also benefits the people around you. If your peak focus time is 10am-12pm, and you go to lunch at noon every day, your team mates will know your predictable schedule and can use it to their advantage when trying to plan their days. Routines can also help you are perceived by your teammates, being in the routine of using the Information Gathering Order of Operations before asking for help means your team will know that you are really stuck and you aren’t trying to pass your work on to someone else.

Habits

Habits, like routines, help you automate. If you organize your windows the same way every date, you eliminate the need to “find” things and can reduce mistakes. If you are in the habit of constantly reviewing, prioritizing, and adjusting, you wont find out on Friday that the project you worked on all week was pushed out by two months and you have a deadline coming up on Tuesday.

Mantras

Mantras help us automate by pre-computing decisions so that we don’t waste brain power on trying to figure out simple answers. See if any of the following decision making mantras could benefit you

  • “Sooner is better than later” – When trying to decide when to start a small task you will likely procrastinate on.
  • “Trust the process” – When you know a process works, but it feels like you don’t have time to do it the right way.
  • “Change comes in small steps” – When you are trying to implement new routines and habits, but your ROI doesn’t make it feel like it’s working.
  • “Delegate. Write. Do.” – When a new request comes in and you feel pressure drop everything to work on it. Can you delegate this to someone else? Can you write it down and come back to it later? Is it a small enough task that you’ll spend more time Delegating or Writing than you will just Doing it now?
  • “If it has to be done every day, do it early in the day” – When you need to remove an item from your mind, so you don’t have to keep thinking about it all day.

Take some time to reflect and see if there are any negative mantras you currently have that could be replaced with positive mantas. For example “I’ll remember to do it later” with “Sooner is better than later” or “I’m too busy” with “Delegate. Write. Do.”.

Maintain Focus

“Action express priorities.”
– Mahatma Gandhi

Too often we allow ourselves to lose focus by responding to external interruptions. These seemingly minor things kill productivity and introduce errors. During your peak focus time, make a habit of turning off Slack notifications, email notifications, and cell phone notifications if you aren’t on call. If something is truly urgent, you will be alerted another way. If you are currently in peak focus time, enforce the idea that non-urgent interruptions go in the queue, don’t squander the time by reading the news or checking email, learn how to say “go away” without being a jerk. When you are the interruption catcher, be mindful of everyone else’s time. Send an email instead of a Slack message when there’s a non-urgent request, don’t drop-in at desks for small talk.

The time it takes to return from an interruption is time wasted and should be minimized at all costs. Studies show that that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time. Avoid multitasking whenever possible and only multitask during “hurry up and wait” work items (a task you can start, walk away from, and come back to when it’s completed). When you do multitask, make sure to add any follow-up tasks on your Daily To Do List so you aren’t using your brain power to remember to check on that process you started two hours ago.

Prioritize

The more work there is, the more important it is to prioritize.

Planning meetings are an excellent example of putting in time upfront to save time later. When we over loaded it is easy to make mistakes and find ourselves being “interrupt driven” rather than actually managing our time. When we take the time to set our priorities and intelligently group our tasks and schedules, we can be in control of our time, our responses, and our WIP, rather than simply responding to the fastest burning fire or loudest alert. The following priority dos and don’ts can help you prioritize your Daily To Do List.

Do

  • Use Jira and your Daily To Do list to track your work items.
  • Plan your work in Manageable Chunks. Instead of planning to finish The Big Huge Project, plan to finish the stories and tasks that make up the project.
  • Use a Calendar and reminders to track meetings, deadlines, appointments, etc. (some people even add Lunch Time to their calendar!)
  • Schedule your time. Plan for Ticket Time, Interruption Catching Time, Project Time, etc.
  • Reprioritize. If it’s becoming clear that you will not be able to complete every item on your list, move the lowest priority item to tomorrow (but communicate it with your team)
  • Reduce the scope of a task. If you can complete part of a task today, do that and add finishing steps tomorrow. For example, fixing a nightly batch job and verifying fix. Fix today, verify tomorrow.
  • Use appropriate estimates. It doesn’t help your team if you report at standup that you will be completing 5 cards if a single card is going to take you 3 hours. Be honest with your estimates and mindful of the things that may get in your way and prevent you from completing even a single care.
  • Rely on the priority in Jira. If everything is the same, look at the commitment dates (do the coming commitment dates first), if everything is still the same, go down the list. Finish one item before starting the next.

Don’t

  • Use random notes to track work items. Loose paper gets lost, adds to clutter, and has no accountability attached to it.
  • Use a single, ever growing To Do lists; you will never finish and will never have a feeling of accomplishment.
  • Let anyone dominate your work time. Whether it’s friends, family or other co-workers, your time is precious and irreplaceable and should be used wisely.

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