Start using a time management technique today

So you take a task from the board, work on it from A to Z and on nothing else. Sounds familiar? I mainly know this situation theoretically. In real life there is always some interruption like a review to be conducted, a bug to be analysed or a phone call to be answered. And having your smartphone laying around vibrating with the latest funny pictures on WhatsApp doesn't help either. Even though we use a prioritised list of work items in our teams, my work as a developer is far from being focused on a single task.

Unlike people who perform at their best when being a "firefighter", I do not like this mode of work. But what can you do about it? Most teams use a regular meeting to improve the way that the team works together. Some things can be achieved here, but on a personal level, you will still have to find a way to focus and deal with interruptions. This is where personal time management techniques come in.

There are a lot of techniques available - I recommend having a look at the following three:

Getting things done

Getting things done provides a comprehensive way of sorting all incoming stuff into various buckets like a waiting list, a calendar, an archive or even the waste bin. I never feel that I have huge amounts of stuff to organise so I have never applied this technique. Reading through the documentation gives you some good hints regarding how to handle incoming stuff though:

  • Is the stuff actionable at all? If not, get rid of it.
  • What is the concrete next action?
  • Can it be done in two minutes? If yes, do it right away.

Personal Kanban

Personal Kanban is an adoption of the Kanban method for your personal use. You basically visualise all your work on the board, limit the work in progress and focus on the tasks you have chosen. I really like having a Personal Kanban board in our kitchen at home, although it is more of a family Kanban there.

Pomodoro technique

The pomodoro technique is, as you can guess, my favourite. It takes a "pomodoro" as a unit of work. Pomodoro is Italian for tomato and the technique's name is inspired by tomato-shaped kitchen timers.

The technique consists - among other things - of five steps:

  1. Plan your work: What will you do today? What is your focus during the next pomodoro?
  2. Start the pomodoro, for example by setting a kitchen timer to 25 minutes.
  3. Work on a single task you planned until the pomodoro (25 minutes) is over.
  4. Mark an uninterrupted pomodoro with an X.
  5. Take a break (5 minutes after every pomodoro and 20 minutes after 4 pomodoros).

The pomodoro technique helps your brain to be as efficient as possible:

  • By marking a pomodoro as done you get a reward for your work. Every 25 minutes!
  • Having a break every now and then allows your brain to take a step back and probably come up with new ideas.
  • A break also helps you get out of a flow, in which you probably no longer see the whole picture.
  • Having a rhythm frees your brain from the need to structure your time.
  • By handling interruptions actively, you gain more capacity to focus on your work.
  • With the mindset of "having some time at your disposal" instead of "having to fight against the time" you have a positive attitude towards time.

The first thing I noticed after applying the pomodoro technique was that I was more relaxed after work. Only at second glance did I also notice that I was more focused during the work. This is mainly because of the different way in which I handle interruptions when using this technique. Internal interruptions like other tasks coming to my mind during work are just written to the work log - and can be forgotten again. External interruptions like phone calls, emails or colleagues coming to your desk need a different approach. The easy part is all the electronic stuff: switch off Outlook notifications, put your chat to "not available" and your turn smartphone to silent mode - and voilà, you will not be interrupted by these means during your pomodoro. But do not forget to check your email and phone in the next break! Handling working with colleagues is more difficult in this regard: I think collaboration is so important that I generally do not consider a colleague coming to my desk to be an interruption. But at times when I really want to focus on my pomodoro, rescheduling the conversation usually works fine. I just say: "I'll be with you in 10 minutes", make a note and then keep my promise.

It doesn't matter whether you choose an existing personal time management technique, combine aspects of them or come up with something completely different yourself. I just think it is important that you find a way how to stay focused.

By Christian Abegg

About the technique

  • Online: The Pomodoro Technique by Francesco Cirillo.
  • The Pomodoro Technique: Francesco Cirillo, 2013, FC Garage, 978-3981567908.
  • The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated: Staffan Nöteberg, 2009, Pragmatic Programmers, 978-1-93435-650-0.
  • Pen and paper, the best for planning, working and analysis.
  • FocusBooster for web and desktop, includes reporting.
  • TimeWise timer for Android (unfortunately not available in Germany).
  • ClearFocus timer for Android. Very clean, minimalistic interface.
  • Clockwork Tomato timer for Android. More configurable than ClearFocus.
  • PomoDoneApp timer for Mac, Windows, Linux, Android (beta) and web. When you want to integrate a timer with your task list (Todoist, Trello, Wunderlist, Asana, JIRA, Basecamp, Google Calendar, Microsoft To-Do, Microsoft Outlook Tasks, Yinxiang, Slack and/or Zapier).