Software and web development can be really exciting, after years of work it can reward you a million dollars or you can get in a groove. Many of us only care about keeping a head above water. But isn't it our goal or did we dream about it in school and childhood.
To earn more money, many of us search for additional work and don't bother about anything other than hands down programming. We can't take a rest, we can't spend more time with our family and friends, we can't do anything other than work. This leads to a stress and an unsatisfied life.
But wait. There is a way to make our life better. Really, a few time management principles can do our life successful and improve software and web development to profitable and fascinating levels.
Set your goals: long term and short term
To make life better, first of all you need to know what is "better" for you. Where do you want to be next week, next quarter, next two years, or even next 20 years (if you are young enough . You must decide for yourself what you want from your life.
Do not plan in a lazy way
Napoleon once told that only properly planned things can produce a desired result. Don't ignore this principle and invest time for planning. Remember, mussing is not planning. I like the classical citation: "Sometimes I sit and think and sometimes I just sit". Usually this phenomenon can eat much time. If you find yourself mussing, switch to another work, look out from the window or simply relax your eyes.
Regularly update your plans according to reality.
If you can't plan, just track
If you can't plan anything now, don't worry, you can do it later. Just track whatever you do on a paper, Excel sheet or use a task management software. Update the list every two hours, or at least in the end of the day on in the beginning. This will help you to find common interrupters and recurring tasks, this way you can plan things for future. Even one week of day to day time tracking can bring a light on how we live.
Look at your time journal and try to find out things that don't really need to be done, things that could be done by someone else, work that can be done more effectively or quickly, actions that wastes others' time etc.
You can download a simple time tracking template here.
Collect all tasks in a to do list
Sometimes we have no work, and later we remember (or manager reminds) a number of important tasks, whose are very urgent and important. The only way to avoid such situations is to collect tasks in a to-do list. Add tasks to a list whenever it comes to you from your boss, colleague or from your mind. If you can't access computer, or don't remember the task, write it down on a scratch or any other media. Transfer it to the main list whenever possible.
Estimate every task, set deadlines yourself. This will help you to avoid doing things in a last minute.
Drucker Dictum told: "Doing things right is not as important as doing the right things". In software and web development it is possible to spend a lot of time for tasks that produce insufficient value for the customer or even do not produce any value at all. For example, writing a regular expression to split a coma-delimited array or writing a CORBA application to access two methods on a remote server. There is no silver bullet that can shoot all prioritization cases, but a few tips can help:
- Ask a customer or manager for the proper task ordering and prioritization first. Be sure to do it beforehand: not every customer can answer immediately.
- If someone else is dependent on a specific task then do it first.
- For equal tasks set priorities using a task difficulty: ugliest tasks first (some prefer interesting tasks first, why not?).
Delegate when feasible
If someone, who can take a part of your work, is available, do not hesitate to share some work with him. Give objectives, not procedures, take responsibility and accountability. Describe a task clearly. Provide a "how to test" example.
The following rules can be used to determine whether to delegate a specific task or not:
- Will he/she do it better or faster than you? If yes, no doubt, delegate it.
- Will you commit a task to somebody if you have more important tasks to do? If yes, delegate it.
- Is someone is able to complete a work without your assistance, for example if you are out of office? If yes, delegate it.
- Of course, you can even delegate your work to your boss, but do not abuse.
In a multi project environment, the work of the whole team cannot be distributed equally to every member. Someone will have to do more and someone less. Using Goldrat's Theory of Constraints, project cannot be completed until the slowest member completes his work. Thus delegation should be promoted inside a team, not only from manager to developer. This process can only be effective in teams with honest and open communication, like in XP and agile teams.
Perfect is not better than good
While writing a code, for example, it is more important to finish in time than to worry about a perfect solution that fits for all. Get the job done and you can add more features later. Do your best and "Get it right the first time". Do not save on coding conventions and code quality. Pure code usually increases support time later. Consider unit tests, it can improve quality and speedup development. Automated tests reward with a confidence.
Split difficult tasks into bite-sized pieces
People usually avoid difficult tasks. Break them down into smaller steps. Complete manageable chunks and soon you will notice that the problem is resolved. A very helpful approach is to add "how to test" notes for each task. This will setup a micro goal and will help in determining task completion. Of course, if these tests can be automated time on repeated tests will be reduced.
Identify your time wasters
Man is a social creature, we deal with people every day and hour. We have colleagues, friends or kin. They can help or slowdown you in various ways. Someone can ask you directly, via phone, instant messaging or email. This leads to interruptions as well as time spending. Interruption of 6 - 9 minutes usually takes additional 4 - 5 minutes to recover. Five interruptions will shoot an hour. It's always good to think about ways to reduce a frequency of such interruptions. It is hard to setup firewall around or ignore others. For example, ignoring phone calls from sposure can lead to unpredictable results ;) The only way to reduce such time spending is to find repeatable time wasters. Once you get the whole picture it is easy to decide where to save and where to spend.
Plan relaxation and recreation
Keith Frayn, professor of human metabolism at Oxford University, told TV Plus: "Any normal person could survive for up to 60 days without food on just a water". But without some sleep men can degrade much quickly. In 1964, a high school student Randy Gardner attempted to break the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest time awake - 260 hours. Stanley Coren describes the day-by-day impact on Randy in the book Sleep Thieves, as documented by John Ross of the US Navy Medical euro-psychiatric Research Unit in San Diego. Randy had trouble focusing his eyes on day 2, hallucinations on day 4, and slurred speech and short attention span by the last day.
Do not expect high productivity if you are tired. Sleep recharges our brains and helps us to think more clearly. Plan your day adequately, do not save on sleeping.
Developers usually sit for 8 hours a day or more in the work place near a computer. This leads to emotional and physical diseases. One of our exposed organs is eyes. Working behind a monitor for a long time, even expensive one, will ruin our eyesight. To reduce pernicious influence on our eyes there are many techniques of eyes training. Type "training eyes" in a search engine and find a suitable training for you. Schedule it daily, just before a dinner, or at any other convenient time.
Do not hesitate to ask friends or colleagues for an advice
Almost every IT project involves risks; they are either hidden or visible in the beginning. Developers have to resolve them. Working on any of them, even a small risk, can take days or even weeks. To avoid these time spending just take the advice or help of your colleague or friend. I have many examples of how this rule reduced a time on difficult tasks and prevented project failures. An example from my experience: customers of our recent project required an extra safety for applications from possible cracks. One part of the protection was to download a component from the server and load this DLL to the application without writing to the disk. Even after two hours of research I couldn't find any useful information. I paused for a moment and tried to recall someone who could help me with it. I asked a friend of mine who has worked as a developer in another company and he helped me. He sent me a link to a tutorial that I was looking for and the problem was resolved.
Everyone expects a reward or praise for his work, especially completion of something. Lack of a reward can kill our desire to work. This usually leads to a reduced productivity. That is why we prefer working for others than doing something for ourselves. Promise yourself a reward after completing a task or finishing a job. For example, let yourself to watch an interesting movie once you finish developing a page or a new feature or eat some sweets or anything.
This list of time management tips is just a starting point to a new improved life. Following these principles every day can show a way to a successful career, robust health and welfare.
My university teacher always told me that every detail is important. Usualy failture in something happens due a small but important detail that we forgot or skipped. Help yourself to achieve your dreams. Avoid chaotic motion, plan and manage your time, be successful and healthy.