How I Work permalink
I’ll admit it. I’ve often struggled with time management. I have a million excuses, but none of them really matter. At the crux of this, its just about managing things I either don’t want or have to do so that I can get back to doing what I want to do. Over the past few years, I’ve made it a focus to improve in this and have adopted a few frameworks to help me effectively management my time and energy.
My decision to post this was inspired by Brandon Chu’s post on Ruthless Prioritization that I previously called out. It was reassuring to see his model align with my own developed in isolation over the years.
So here’s how I apply those tools in order to better manage my time:
Write everything down
This practice of writing everything comes straight from David Allen’s Getting Things Done method. We were fortunate to have him into the office a few times over the past year. During which, we were gifted a copy of his book and he spoke to us to give us the abbreviated Cliffsnotes version. But at the core of it, writing things down has a number of psychological benefits.
Everything falls into one of three categories: a goal, a task or a note.
And I write down each one in a distinct place.
Goals are missions or things to be achieved. Goals are the point at which you realize the value of all your time and effort. Goals are what really matters. Goals help keep you focused. Goals provide direction. Goals help prevent you from being led too far off course by tasks that must be done but don’t directly help you achieve your goals.
Tasks are things I need to do in order to achieve my goals.
When I write them down, they simply act as small reminders to keep making forward progress towards my goals.
Every task I’m assigned or think of, I write in a Trello board. I really keep two Trello boards: one for Life and one for Work. But, to be honest, there isn’t such a clear-cut segregation of responsibilities.
See, I love what I do. I love software engineering. That’s what I do at work. Coding is often what I want to do at home. And when my work goals align with my life goals, that’s great! But at the end of the day, my work’s goals are driven by making the company money. So sometimes those goals diverge from my own. That makes work a means to and end: my life goals.
Notes are for reference. Each note is a collection of information I’ve gathered in effort to achieve a goal. The contents of my notes are often the output of individual tasks.
I find that writing notes down helps me better understand something I’ve just learned. Better understanding what I’ve learned helps me build on that and learn and do more.
I also find myself applying the hypothetico-deductive model - a model of the scientific method - to my goals. I outline the problem, define how that problem is measured, list out all of the options that I can think of to solve the problem and how they would impact the metrics, then choose a solution to work towards.
I write notes in Evernote. In particular, I find the tagging feature extremely helpful in tying together notes that all work towards the same goal. I also find myself copying and pasting my notes into business plans, blog posts, documentation, and emails. And when you can effectively spread the knowledge you’ve accumulated through the years, you become a multiplier to those around you.
(In fact, this blog post started as a note in which I was formalizing my process!)
Assign a value and level of effort
I assign a value and level of effort to both my goals and tasks. Estimates or t-shirt sizes are more than enough. But not everything is high value and/or high level of effort. Try to stack rank them. I’ll explain why this comes into play later.
Assign a deadline - if there is one
Not all goals or tasks have deadlines. And that’s ok. Tasks that don’t have deadlines are almost immediately discarded to make way for things that I either want to do or must do.
But goals that I haven’t assigned a deadline to often remain unfulfilled. So I try to assign deadlines to all of my goals. The trick I use to accomplish this is I create a task with a deadline to review my goal as soon as I write the goal down.
Really, just try not to have them. But often, they’re unavoidable. If you do notice dependencies, go back and re-evaluate deadlines - particularly for those upstream dependencies.
Filter and sort everything
The first step is always to discard (filter) everything you can unless doing so prevents you from achieving your goals. I do this first because a) I find that it makes it easier to do the next step - sorting, b) I’m someone who can be overwhelmed by a long list, and c) I’m also quick to jump in and do things without considering if they even need doing.
The second step is to focus on a) how to get to doing what I want to do ASAP, and b) how to do the things I most want to do.
This is where I really leverage the various frameworks, methods, principles and tools that I’ve accumulated over the years.
I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.
- Dwight Eisenhower
First of all, while President Eisenhower did repeat that quote, it likely wasn’t his own.
At a high-level, the Eisenhower Method divides your work up into four quadrants based on their importance and deadlines (value-over-time).
The important, but not urgent things are where I really want to be. All items that are important, I do personally. Because it’s important, I want it to be done right. And we all know, the old saying
If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.
But this step actually isn’t about the important work.
Where I get the most value is in identifying and sorting the unimportant work. This lets me quickly identify what I should delegate to others and what I can drop entirely. Delegating in my personal life is actually something I’m still getting used to. Its also something I can improve on at work, but that’s a topic for another day.
The concept of quick wins also comes from business. The hope is that you do the things that achieve the most value with the least cost (effort) first. When you factor in time value (addressed later) of any item, the effects compound.
To identify quick wins, you plot items on a matrix that divides up your work into four quadrants based on their value (importance) and cost (effort).
I do the things in the first quadrant, first - and the things in the second quadrant, second. Complicated, huh?
The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 Rule, effectively states that one can achieve 80% of the results with the first 20% of the work. That implies that there are diminishing returns the harder or more one does towards a goal beyond that initial 20%. Therefore, a Pareto analysis identifies what work will achieve most of the results, which, according to the Quick Wins principle, we want to do first!
This is another step in which I whitle down work. That’s actually a big part of all of this. What don’t I have to do? It keeps me sane.
This forces me to ask the question, “Why wait?” The Time Value principle is based on economics - that a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow.
If it’s something I don’t want to do or must do, it’s a cloud hanging over my head. Get it out of the way ASAP. Let me recoup that time (time is money!) now while it’s more valuable.
If it’s somthing I do want to do, let’s get to value quickly and then iterate. My wants and goals change over time. If it takes a long time for me to achieve those goals or do those things I want to do, that doesn’t leave room for the things to come and my life stalls.
Bite things off in small, focused increments
I apply the Pomodoro technique to a Kanban workflow using my Trello board. The Pomodoro technique really helps keep my focus and forces regular checkins to make sure I’m making progress. But given that I live in a world that doesn’t operate on the same strict 25 minutes on/5 minutes off cycles, that sometimes goes out the window. But I’ve actually found it helpful in pushing back against interruptions. For example, if someone walks up to me at work, its easy to say,
I’m in the middle of something, but can I come check in with you later?
If so, I quickly write down a task in Trello to go check in with the person. But often, that person has already solved their own problem.
So to recap…
- Write shit down. All the shit.
- Assign it a deadline or discard it.
- Make note of dependencies and re-evaluate your deadlines.
- Filter and sort everything. Cut what you can, delegate what you can, work on only the things that have value.
- Bite things off in small bits.
…its not that complicated. But it does require some diligence. I hope this helps.