Micro Time Management: To-Dos and To-Don’ts

October 4th, 2011 Brian Gray, Consultant  (email the author)

One of the “softer” sides of development is time management. We do this on both a macro scale (project planning, estimates, what goes into the Sprint, etc.) and a micro scale (what am I going to work on today?). Most developers on most days are concerned with micro time management — and many good project managers realize a lot of important decisions get made there as well (“it seemed like it would be a quick to fix so I went in and did it” or “Gina came over and asked me about this defect so I fixed it.”).  This is especially true of programmers on many projects, a few teams, and with some maintenance and support involved in their work.

The problem is: time management, even on a small scale is hard. We spend a lot of time learning how to get good at macro time management and very carefully lay out our project priorities for the release and the iteration. But that means little if day to day the developers don’t have a good system to find the right balance of focus on those priorities versus just the right amount of focus on email, meetings, last-minute feature requests, needs from other projects, helping others on the team, etc.

I do not profess to have a solution — I thought I would share three strategies that I have tried over my career (I am sure there have been others).  If you want to try one of these, great! Let me know how it goes! If you have another approach, please share or email!

Method #1: Cowboy Method

Cowboy Style

When I first started at Summa, I did not have a system for how to manage my time. I let tasks come in and go out — mostly just remembering what I had promised to get done and when it was due. To help, I would star or label emails and maintain a few lists.  I am organized and careful so this worked out for a while, but it did not take long for the system to start buckling with the weight of what I was asking it to do.

Within my first year, I had a 2 or 3 week period where I was helping out on three different projects — and keeping emails straight was not going to cut it. Thankfully, approach #2 entered my life soon after…

2 - Scrum Method

Scrum Method

Scrum is an agile technique for managing teams and projects. It’s goal is not to be prescriptive about anything, let alone my day, but I found that it’s philosophies were having a radical impact on the way I organized myself.

It’s hard to explain how without a deep understanding of what being on a Scrum team feels really feels like. I don’t know who you are — maybe you’ve been on Scrum teams maybe not. I don’t want to teach you the basics, but I do want to explain how they revolutionized my day.

One thing a Scrum team does is have a daily stand-up meeting. During this meeting, each team member announces what they did since the previous stand-up, what they will do before the next, and any impediments in their way. At first, I just went through the motions, but as I understood what it was about, it really started to change things. Here are some important points:

  • I talk about what I will do before the next meeting. I was used to saying, “I will continue work on the User DAO.” But my friendly compatriots would not let that slide. The stand-up is about making commitments to the team, and breaking your tasks into day-size (or smaller) chunks. Set a goal for what you will (and can) accomplish before the next meeting. Lofty endless goals do not cut it.
  • It is also an exercise in focus. Because I made that commitment to the team, it is that same team I need to face if I have not achieved one of those goals. This is not scary — they understand when it takes longer than expected or I ran into trouble. But if I got distracted by a feature someone stopped in to ask about, or a bug I found, they are there to put me back on track.
  • I also now have a list of tasks — done and to do — and I am writing them each day in a growing OneNote list. Each time I run out, I can go back to the Sprint backlog, whether it lives in a spreadsheet or (preferably) Rally to pull out my next story.
  • Scrum also gives us a win-win solution to the daily issues that come up. If a last minute defect or request comes up, I used to have to choose between fixing it now (at the expense of my current work and context) or adding it to a list and potentially forgetting it. Now, we can safely add it to the product backlog. While it is outside of the Sprint scope, the product owners know it will be there for them to prioritize at the next Sprint planning and I can continue on developing happily!

3 - Pomodoro Method

Pomodoro Technique

After a handful of years, the Scrum method was still leaving something to be desired. Mainly:

  • I would still find myself with days where I had accomplished none or few of my committed tasks
  • I would occasionally be thrown back in the Wild West — multiple projects, multiple demands, no backlogs of any kind. Scrum method doesn’t really help you out there.

I was then fortunate enough to hear a lightning talk about the Pomodoro Technique. There are many parts to the technique, but the part that most interested me was the focus on micro-micro time management. Here are some highlights:

  • Break down your daily tasks into subtasks that can be performed in ~25 minutes.
  • Choose a task and set your pomodoro timer (pictured at the left, looks like a tomato — or pomodoro, in Italian) for 25 mins.
  • This is an intensive period. Some pomodoros can be focused on checking email or following up with someone on a debugging problem, but otherwise you disregard all distraction from the task at hand.
  • Each second the mechanical timer ticks, reminding you to focus on the task in front of you.
  • At 25 mins, the timer rings, and you take a break.

When I heard about it, I was excited. It sounded fantastic. In practice, I find I can only do it in short bursts. I often find the focus amazingly helpful. But it is hard to get much done in 25 mins. Many of my tasks are “continue on from the last task.” The biggest help is that every 25 mins I am reminded of my progress throughout the day, and my progress against my original plan. When I start to veer off course, I can see it early, even when I can’t help it.

So currently, I use a mix of all 3. Please feel free to comment and/or share your own techniques!

* “On the bench” refers to time that us consultants spend working on the home office when not on a customer engagement.

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Entry Filed under: Agile and Development

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Gerrit  |  October 6th, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    If anyone’s ever tried “Getting Things Done,” or a lighter version of it, I find that’s very helpful. As a lawyer I have lots of vacuous tasks whose completion time and obstacles I can’t always predict.

    I also do a lot of business development (read: Sales), so I find myself in places where I can’t do just any task. One of my biggest obstacles is often that I can’t proceed without feedback from someone else, so having a “waiting for” list enables me to be good at following up with clients, colleagues, or my network about balls that may have been dropped.

  • 2. Brian Gray  |  October 7th, 2011 at 8:19 am

    Good call on the “waiting for” list! Definitely important to keep track of.

    Do you have a link to some info on “Getting Things Done?” A quick Google shows me that it’s a “the work-life management system by David Allen,” but it seems like I have to take a seminar or buy a book to learn much about it.

  • 3. Gerrit  |  October 7th, 2011 at 9:09 am

    Yes, let’s get a little more into it.

    First, my summary:

    When tasks come at you, you write them down on some kind of unsorted, “master inbox” checklist. This way, when someone calls/emails/stops by your desk, you can set aside their task and continue with what you were working on.

    Once you have completed your immediate task (or 25-minute burst!), you can go to this master inbox and start sorting things out. If a task would take under 2 minutes to complete, just do it now (this is one of those tasks for me). If not, categorize it according to the next concrete step necessary to bring it closer to completion (call? email? meet with someone? research something?).

    Here’s an outline of the book and a link to a blog that covers a lot of its most important points:

    http://java.ociweb.com/mark/gtd.html

    http://www.43folders.com/2004/09/08/getting-started-with-getting-things-done

    Enjoy!

  • 4. Brian Gray  |  October 10th, 2011 at 8:38 am

    Really interesting — it sounds a bit like Pomodoro, but less rigid and more focused on how you choose your tasks then on how you structure your day. I am interested in trying it out!

  • 5. Ben Northrop  |  October 10th, 2011 at 10:12 am

    Good post Brian…and great point about using Scrums as a way to make a commitment to the team – it’s easy to just go through the motions: “yesterday I wrote code, today I’m going to write some more code”.

    Pomodoro sounds cool/effective – though I wonder how often we get 25 uninterrupted minutes during the work-day. Has this been an issue for you, when you’ve used it?

    Lastly, I read GTD a year or so ago, and it definitely helped – there are some helpful insights (though a lot of fluff as well). Thanks, Gerrit, for the summary.

  • 6. Brian Gray  |  October 10th, 2011 at 11:01 am

    You are not guaranteed to be uninterrupted for 25 minutes, but the ticking timer helps you do a better job of remaining focused through the interruptions. There are some you can’t avoid: your boss or project owner stops over and wants to talk to you about a major/production issue, well there goes your pomodoro! But in most cases, it can be avoided:

    * An email pops up with a response from a customer that you’ve been blocked on. Before you might have read it, but since it doesn’t relate to your current task, your ticking reminds you to keep focused. Not an interruption!
    * A co-worker drops over to ask about some code you wrote. You don’t wave her off, in fact you can say let me stop over in exactly 13 minutes. This builds trust that you will follow through when you delay people. And it’s not an interruption.
    * Further, when I told people about the technique they tended to wait until the ding to come and ask me. During a bit of a zany period that I announced I needed a pomodoro or two one morning, and I think it was a welcome relief to everyone to focus before we went back to collaboration mode.

    So again, I don’t think I could personally do it all the time, but I do think it in and of itself helps you get 25 minute blocks of focus where the interruptions are more easily mitigated, even if they don’t disappear.

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