Time is scarce. We have limited time during the day to work, rest, socialize, and spend time with our loved ones. The more time spent in one category, the less we have in others. In a way, managing time is like managing money: limited money, various categories to spend. However, time cannot be borrowed nor saved for rainy days.
I’ve observed many instances where people struggle to manage their time efficiently. This issue has caused them frustration. They deliver less and have a hard time scaling themselves. How we utilize our time is key to personal satisfaction and career progression. So, how can we better manage our time and make the best use of this valuable resource?
If you are a manager or an experienced engineer, you’ve heard about prioritization in your career. There are countless articles explaining different methods for different situations. I won’t repeat them here. However, I’d like to highlight the fact that prioritization is important.
I like the Eisenhower Matrix for prioritization. It is simple and applies to many situations in work and life.
There are four quadrants:
- Important & Urgent: Tasks with a short time to act on and missing them have sizable negative consequences. These things should be on a short list to do now. There should rarely be any unplanned tasks in this category. One example can be ongoing production issues that cause significant revenue loss.
- Important but Not Urgent: Tasks that are important but not time-pressing. These are the tasks that need planning. Healthy organizations work to leverage this quadrant as much as possible. An example that fits here is a project generating significant revenue.
- Not Important but Urgent: Tasks that are time sensitive but have little value for you. These types of tasks are good candidates for delegation. A meeting for project stakeholders to give status updates is an excellent example of this category.
- Not Important & Not Urgent: Tasks that don’t have any value and are not time sensitive. These tasks can be safely deleted. Unnecessary meetings are good examples that can be removed.
To leverage this matrix properly, one must understand the importance and urgency of tasks. There are no global rules for categorization. The terms are subjective and can mean differently from person to person.
I ask myself (or others when coaching) two questions:
- What will happen if I don’t do this? If the consequence of not doing a task doesn’t impact team or personal goals, then it is unimportant.
- What will happen if I don’t do it now? If the task can be deferred to a later time, then it is not urgent.
Of course, the answers to the above questions are not black and white. There are always situations where importance and urgency fall into gray areas that need a judgment call.
Unlike modern computers with multi-core CPUs and many compiler optimizations to improve multitasking, human is not built that way. There is no real multitasking. We shift from one task to another. We can end up having many tasks in progress and delayed delivery.
Multitasking is not all gloomy. Sometimes it helps us move faster. The followings are some exceptions in which multitasking can help with improving productivity:
- Blocked: Sometimes tasks are blocked on people or other systems. For example, you are working on a project and deploying that project for testing may take up to 30 minutes. Instead of waiting and relentlessly watching the progress, other tasks can get attention.
- Stuck: Working a long time on a task can become challenging, especially when stuck. Switching to another task and returning to the former can refresh your mind and give you a better chance to unstuck yourself.
- Urgent & Important: Important and time-sensitive issues, such as production incidents, can happen. These get higher priority over current work-in-progress tasks and must be done urgently.
- Repetitive: For people who are more excited about challenging tasks, repetitive ones can be draining. Switching temporarily to a challenging task can boost energy and help complete repetitive tasks faster.
It is evident that without distractions, things can be done faster. However, staying focused with many distractions, from non-valuable meetings to alerts and notifications, is challenging. When distracted, it takes time to pick up where you left off. The best way to stay productive is to block time for the task and remove any distractions. These are some tips to improve focus time:
- Remove not-important & not-urgent events from the calendar. Back to the Eisenhower Matrix, if there is an event that there is no value for you or your team and also it is not urgent to attend, just safely remove it. If you want to find the importance of your attendance, ask, “What would happen if I don’t attend it?” If the answer is “not much,” then it is safe to delete.
- Send delegates to urgent but not important meetings. These events don’t have much value for your team but need to happen. Back again to our matrix, these events are ideals for delegation. These should be delegated to someone else. After the successful deletion, the event can be removed.
- Leverage calendar optimization tools (e.g. Clockwise). These tools can shift meetings around the calendar to clear your schedule to have more focus time. These are best to be used by the whole organization to be most effective.
- Block a portion of the day, based on your preference, to focus. Tools like Clockwise optimize focus time for the organization and not just you. So, it is possible to have events on your calendar in a time slot where you have the maximum energy to focus on mind-challenging tasks. You can intentionally block the portion that you want no meeting on your calendar (e.g. early morning or late evening).
- Prefer asynchronous communication over synchronous. Some events, such as project status updates without discussion, can be done asynchronously. If there is not much value in a synchronous meeting, go asynchronous.
- Mute not-urgent notifications and alerts. Nothing is more distracting than constant notifications from various apps that want your attention. There are built-in apps on laptops or cellphones that can manage notifications (e.g. Do Not Disturb on MacOS). Leveraging these apps during your focus time can help remove unnecessary distractions.
Time management is essential since time is a scarce resource that cannot be borrowed or saved. To better manage time, prioritization is key, and the Eisenhower Matrix is a useful tool for categorizing tasks based on their importance and urgency.
Multitasking is not efficient, but there are exceptions where it can help improve productivity, such as when tasks are blocked or stuck or urgent and important. However, focusing on one task at a time is generally more effective.
Improving focus time is crucial for productivity, and removing distractions is the best way to stay focused. Removing not-important and not-urgent events from the calendar, sending delegates to urgent but not important meetings, leveraging calendar optimization tools, blocking a portion of the day to focus, preferring asynchronous communication over synchronous, and muting not-urgent notifications and alerts are some ways to improve focus time.
- When to Delegate, When to Say No: This is an excellent article from Lara Hogan, focusing on prioritization. She highlights the importance of simple tools such as The Eisenhower Matrix. Knowing which fires to let burn is important for leaders to focus their energy on the most important tasks and grow their skills.
- When Everything is Important But Nothing is Getting Done: This article is about a real-life organizational effort to improve overall efficiency by properly prioritizing tasks and limiting work in progress. As a result, they reached higher velocity, higher quality of work, lower coordination overhead, and higher satisfaction.
- Makers, Don’t Let Yourself Be Forced into the ‘Manager Schedule’: This article speaks more about the importance of focus for makers (aka individual contributors). Makers need more focus time than managers. They should protect their calendars and set their boundaries.
- How To Do Less: The title may raise eyebrows, but inside, the author talks about the importance of prioritization and how to commit to important projects while maintaining a lower number of works in progress.
- Prioritization as a Superpower: This article is from a venture capitalist and how he evaluates founders based on their prioritization skills. Prioritization is crucial in a startup where there are many things to do with limited resources and time. The best leaders are able to prioritize by sensing the right time to change course, communicating with their team, operating with urgency, balancing short and long-term goals, and knowing when to move on from imperfect work. The ability to prioritize well is a critical skill for building a successful company.