TIMe Management tips from uncle Tim

Time seems to slip through your fingers? Try the recipe for productive time management from the head of the web department NoveoSPb Timofey!

TIMe management NoveoSPb

First of all, a small disclaimer, this is my own approach which has been perfected over the years and is designed around my habits and character. This doesn’t mean that it will work for anyone universally, but I sincerely hope that it can be useful to others.

The most important point is to realise that any thought process that occurs, consumes energy, let’s call it brain fuel, and it has its daily limits, hence in order to be super efficient you have to build a process that helps you spend that brain fuel wisely.

I’m absolutely sure that you have felt this many times, when you’re sitting at work, staring blankly at the computer screen without a single thought going through your head, saving energy and hibernating. I’ve noticed this “lights are on, but no one is home” state after people have finished a huge project, pushed themselves to deliver something in a very short time frame, etc.

This is because they have used up all the brain fuel they had available for that day and even took a small credit from the upcoming days. Sometimes people manage to take a whole brain fuel mortgage from the upcoming months and spend it all right here right now.

We often waste brain fuel inefficiently when we try to keep things in our mind:

    1) Memory Stack Overflow – Occasionally you forget something because it has been pushed out of your stack of memories. It’s a typical situation when you try to keep all the information in your head, and a new block of information pushes out another one.

    2) Memory Defibrillation – When you walk around saying to yourself ‘Do not forget about this task, it’s extremely important, if I forget it, it will provoke an apocalypse in the office’ and most likely forget it anyway.

    3) Memory Haunting – This is when, in the most inconvenient time possible, the genius idea you had last night or the task you forgot to do appears bright as daylight, blinding you of any process you were in the middle of at that point.

So, we identified some of the reasons why we spend brain fuel unwisely, but what can we do about it?

Task lists are my answer ;)

I extensively use these two tools:

    1) Todoist for tasks because of its flexibility in terms of sorting via projects, tags, etc and its availability on everything, PC, Mac, Mobile and even your watch!

    2) Outlook for events because of its integration with enterprise systems, scheduling and emails which are part of our daily office life anyway.

Not to confuse the two, tasks work similarly to a backlog of a project while events occur when you need to gather a group of people to go through some agenda. For the love of god, do not schedule time in the calendar to do a specific task, I will explain later on why I have banished this practice.

**Below you can find an epic topic of mistakes with planning.

In Todoist, I have “Inbox” as my default landing page rather than “Today”. This helps me easily accumulate all the tasks in one place in their raw format, unsorted, and sometimes not even clearly phrased. The most important bit here is to get into the habit of throwing everything into your inbox no matter how small it is. (Of course if it is not something that you will do right away) This approach helps you unload your brain and conserve its brain fuel because eventually you will start using your Todoist instead of your brain for RAM access and there are many benefits here.

Once this first habit has formed, you can proceed to the second part, “the inbox grooming”. I have these planned at the end of each day, either in the office or at home in the late evening with a cup of tea, my personal way of meditating :) This usually takes about 20 mins.

The main point of a grooming session is to do three things:

    1) Read through the tasks and check that you understand what they actually mean and rephrase them if needed, so you don’t consume more brain fuel later on trying to figure out what you wrote. Sometimes we are in a hurry, and it’s OK to throw some raw data into the backlog. The main idea is to refactor your tasks while you remember within the day.

    2) Go through the day and make sure that you didn’t forget to add anything to the backlog. I usually do this by going through my day backwards in my head, not sure why, but it really helps restore the chronological order of events and recover any missing elements.

    3) Prioritise the tasks while keeping it simple. Start with a single inbox where you will see all the tasks at hand right in front of you. Just drag-and-drop them in order of their priority. This will help you significantly when choosing what to do next when you have a spare 15 mins before a meeting.

**Even more below I described my thoughts about “fixation” and how to work with even the tiniest time slots efficiently.

Once the backlog and grooming habits have been established, you will notice a significant boost of motivation, energy levels and confidence.

Another really pleasant side effect is when you have new items arriving in the backlog throughout the day, you can easily place them in your list of other tasks without any cognitive distortions that this new task is more important because the guy who asked you to do it is on fire :)

The only thing I can recommend after a month or so after starting this approach is to introduce a quick weekly retro which should be noted down for future reference. I do this on Sundays, it takes just under an hour, and this is where you look through what has been achieved during the week and what hasn’t. What has interrupted your weekly plans, and what tasks you’ve put aside for one reason or another. What you want to improve in the process and what lessons you have learned.

Good luck with implementing this practice! And feel free to customize this approach and add your own ingredients to the suggested recipe ;)

**Mistakes while planning

No matter what approach I used, I could never allocate large chunks of uninterrupted time during the day to do a specific task which caused quite a lot of stress and at some point I even found myself googling ADD symptoms just in case :)

First attempt was scheduling everything in my calendar, and I mean everything, like lunch, time for one-to-one talks, bulk email checking and replying and so on. I even had ridiculous tasks like department process improvement where in an ideal world I would sit down and within an hour force myself to magically make some process work better.

What happened in real life is that my perfect calendar lived in a parallel universe to what I was actually doing, tasks which were planned weren’t getting done and were just constantly rescheduled. I was feeling exhausted and stressed because work was just piling up no matter the efforts. I’m sure that by now you realize how faulty this approach was.

After this, I tried adding more flexibility to my calendar approach, and instead of planning specific tasks, I would plan sessions into my calendar, the kind where you sit down, grab a task from your backlog and kick-off a timer for an hour pomodoro-style.

By this time I already started using a list for my backlog in order to quickly grab something from it for one of these sessions. By the way, I started simply using notes on my phone because it was synchronized with all the other devices, but searching, prioritizing and the endless copy-pasting was a pain.

I think that in a different line of work these sessions could work, it’s a decent approach, but I craved more flexibility and wanted to simultaneously stay in the context of what was going on around me without falling out for an hour every now and again.

Then one day, as it usually happens, I had an epiphany :) 

I realized that large chunks of time are rarely available, and if you force yourself to artificially create them, the tradeoff will be too costly. “So what’s the point of focusing on them?” I asked myself. After this I decided to approach the problem from the other side, to create an environment where I could work anywhere and anytime doing small tasks which would constantly drive me forward towards the finish line.

Bingo, it felt like I found Atlantis, but this approach needed some prerequisites.

  1. You always need a backlog of well-defined tasks in order not to lose any time when you have those 15 mins for a new task before the start of the next meeting
  2. The items in your backlog need to be small, this is crucial for the approach to work. This way you won’t be scared when picking up a new task and reduce the chances of procrastinating.
  3. Lastly, you have to give up on endlessly searching for the perfect time to do something, accept that it won’t come, and start working with small bits of time. 
    1. You can arrive a bit earlier to a meeting and squeeze in a task! 
    2. Meeting finished earlier? Take a task!
    3. Meeting cancelled? Try a couple of tasks :)

**Here are some other things I did to optimize my day which you could also find useful.

Fixation

One of the most evil concepts in time management. This is when you fixate so much on a single event that it completely drains you. I’m certain that everyone has gone through this and here is a typical example:

You have a very important meeting in the middle of the day for which you have already prepared but no matter what you try to do before the meeting, your mind shifts your focus back to it and you spend the entire morning just thinking about the upcoming meeting and burning brain fuel. As a consequence, once the meeting is over you feel exhausted and incapable of doing anything else. As you can see, the efficiency here is somewhere near rock bottom :)

The advice here is simple: don’t overthink, don’t escalate imaginary situations of what could happen, just keep calm and rely more on your task list with clear priorities. ;)

Distractions

We live in an extremely fast-paced environment which creates a lot of distractions and “noise” so the best thing here is to try and help yourself through limiting the number of distractions.

Here is what I have done:

  1. Most of my apps are limited to only a counter badge, so when something new comes along there is no ringing or vibrating, just an increment to the stuff I will read soon.
  2. Telegram is my main source of communication and here I have the above mentioned global setting to just show counters, with a small adjustment – group chats are not included in this count.
  3. All sounds on my computer and mobile are turned off, only gentle haptics on the watch.

Lists

When you’ll start decomposing your tasks well, you will realize that your backlog is growing exponentially and that it is starting to look scary. Fear not, this is the point where you start creating projects in Todoist and dragging tasks which are related to them from your Inbox, the flow itself mostly stays the same.

  1. New task arrives and you put it in your backlog (Inbox)
  2. At the end of the day, when you prioritize your tasks an additional step is done where you assign them to their respective projects
  3. Now you will have to set priorities: in your inbox for general tasks, and in projects for project-specific tasks.

There is another way to do this using tags, this way you keep the single view across all your priorities and see something project-specific through the filter, however, I personally prefer the split through projects :)