Sunday, October 14, 2012

Productivity Shorts

Laura Vanderkam has a post up asking for stories/tips for successful workdays. I've been meaning to write some more productivity posts, but haven't been able to, because I am so swamped at work that I have to work at home and instead of blogging. Ah, the irony!

So I've decided to post some short tips/ideas.

1. I use daily to do lists that I write either before going home the night before or first thing in the morning to make sure that I focus on the most urgent things- as well as the longer term things that I need to do before they become emergencies. Basically, I make my strategy for each day in my to do list, with a goal of not ending up either focusing too much on immediate issues or too much on the more fun things at the expense of more mundane issues that will turn into emergencies if I don't deal with them on time.

I was amused to see Coding Horror rant against to do lists recently.  I was about to write a rebuttal post... but then I realized that the root difference is that we have very, very different jobs. He apparently has one big project and should be focused primarily on that. I have roughly 10 projects I'm trying to keep moving along (I am only doing management work right now, not technical work- I am actively trying to hire a junior project manager so that this balance can change). I also have my group to manage, and the random BS stuff that comes from working in a company of any size. If I used his method of coming in each day and working on the thing I most wanted to work on... well, I would probably be unemployed pretty quickly.

Neither of our ways of working is "the one true way." The trick to using any productivity advice- including mine- is to match the advice to your situation. 

2. I try to make sure that I do the right work at the right time. I do the more challenging stuff, like planning out a new project or brainstorming solutions to schedule or technical issues, at my most productive times, which for me are first thing in the morning or right after lunch. I do things like updating my project collaboration sites or the paperwork that comes from being a middle manager in a company during my most brain dead times, which are right before lunch and right before going home. There is no point trying to do something really hard when my brain is in need of a break, and using my most productive and engaged times to do something as mindless as paperwork would be a complete waste.

My other "right work at the right time" trick is to write policies, system descriptions, and similar sorts of documents at home with a beer. About 1/3 of a beer removes my corporate document-writing block, I find. I also often polish meeting minutes and update action item lists at night- I'm usually too mentally tired to do anything requiring deep thought, but getting these things done at night gives me a head start on the next day.

Do you have any tips and tricks to share?


  1. I like these.

    Along the lines of your "right time" idea, I find that if I'm stuck on anything, I should shift gears radically. Stop grading and read. Stop writing project X and work on project Y.

    1. Yes! There is actually research to support that approach, but I'm too lazy to go find it. Definitely- if you're stuck, the best thing to do is to change focus and let your unconscious noodle on the problem for awhile.

  2. I keep a continue to-do list in a Word document on my desktop, and it's open when I'm at work. I have a main to-do list with items that need to be done in the near future. I bold the items that need to be done in a given week, and work on those first.

    I also have other sections of my to-do list, such as long-term tasks (research/reading mostly), potential activities to create, upcoming events (with supply lists), to-do lists for my teaching assistants, and a list of questions/updates for my weekly meeting with my supervisors.

    I find it has really helped, especially when I'm floundering on something and need something else to focus on! I really need it, because - like you - I have a lot of different projects/aspects of my job going on all the time that it would be impossible to keep track of.

    1. I can't imagine doing without my to do lists! I really like Coding Horror's blog, so after I read his anti-to do list post, I thought a lot about it. I am wondering if part of the difference in whether you love to do lists or hate them goes back to the "scanner" vs. "deep-diver" thing I discussed a while back. I may post on this more when my thoughts have formed into something coherent.

    2. I think for someone who writes code all day, a to-do list might not be very useful because there may not be that much difference in which feature gets written today vs tomorrow. As long as the whole thing gets done by whatever overall deadline there is, I think developers do seem to work on what they want. Which may explain why it's so damn hard to get them to look at bugs in old code/someone else's code :)

    3. @Anandi- you know.... I'll bet he uses some sort of bug database. And chances are, there is some sort of feature list or spec he's coding towards, too. Hmmmm... Perhaps he uses more to do lists than he thinks? I should go over to his blog and ask in a comment. I don't know any developers who work without a bug database and some sort of written document with the features to be implemented on a project of any size- but maybe he does.

    4. I guess it depends on whether he works on a team or for himself. My husband just keeps that stuff in his head for the apps he's working on now, and picks what he wants to work on for a given day. This works because he's not on a team, just working for himself.

  3. Anonymous5:26 PM

    I wish I had productivity shorts. I would totally wear them every day.

  4. I'm a science academic, and the thing that has helped me the most is blocking out 2, 2 hour morning sessions a week for writing. I protect these sessions fiercely. During the 2 hour sessions I unplug my computer, close the door, don't answer the phone, and don't move from my desk. I write. If I'm really stuck sometimes I do cheat and make some figures or do a bit of analysis, but I'm supposed to just write.

    Also just in general not checking email first thing in the morning helps me focus. I deal with the emails and admin crap and most teaching related stuff in the evenings.

  5. @Cloud- thanks for the mention. I've really tried to get better about doing the right thing at the right time. I do most of my phone calls in the afternoon because I'm better able to focus on writing in the AM. Using those prime AM hours for a long conference call would just guarantee that no writing gets done. As for to-do lists, even if you spend most of the day focused on one thing, they're still useful. When I'm really racing toward a deadline, I'll spend 8-3 on one project, but then 3-5 or so on all the little nagging things that also have to happen. If I haven't written them down somewhere, I'll forget them.

  6. mom2boy4:12 PM

    This from the comment section of the article made me laugh, "The difference between writing down three things in the morning vs. memorizing three things each morning escapes me, except maybe the former is less stress."


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