By February 7, 2020

Productivity for Programmers Through Time and Attention Management

Are you a part of the IT industry? Are you a software engineer, a tech lead, or perhaps a product owner/project manager whose main goal is to produce and employ a software product for the sake of business gain?

Are you someone who is technically in the IT industry but with a focus on design, marketing, or administration? Or maybe you are on the outside looking in, trying to gain enough experience and credibility to enter the tech community and become a developer.

As a marketing specialist working closely with a team of software developers working on outsourcing product development, I can see firsthand the need and the drive to be productive and optimize performance. To create a successful product, my team needs to not only meet the deadlines but also meet all of the functionality demands of the client.

Making sure each implemented feature goes through the needed process chain of research, development, compatibility checks, testing, debugging, and optimization can be chaotic. Working on several features at a time and having personality crashes and disagreements between developers make organization systems a must. If an important segment is overlooked, it can completely throw off the release plans and can easily turn costly—requiring more billable work to resolve mistakes—resulting in an unhappy client.

While I have been writing on how to be more productive to be able to achieve more, I have also made it a point to address the potentially dangerous pitfalls of burnout that may come with the hassle. And of course you must, as a developer, put in the effort to make sure the job is done efficiently, but as an employee, there is more to it – and there are definitely ways to do that without reaching dangerous burnout.

How Does Time Management Help to Balance Productivity and Burnout?

One way to battle the downsides of burnout and overworking yourself is to consciously delegate time for work and for rest. You might schedule sessions for each, or you might simply set yourself reminders to take a break.

There are many great practices when it comes to time management. They help you to make sure you have enough time to perform different activities properly.

There are two helpful techniques I have learned to use when appropriate: task planning and using a calendar.

Task Planning

I am both a fan of and against to-do lists. Let me explain.

I am a fan because laying out my tasks ahead of time helps me be more focused on what I need to do to meet my goals. In fact, I prefer to write my to-do lists not at the beginning of the day but rather at the end of the previous day. It helps me get a better night’s sleep, as I no longer remind myself what I need to get done but have the list ready when I wake up.

I am against it because it is way too easy to overpack a to-do list with tasks I want to get done but cannot reasonably get to perform without overworking myself and introducing massive amounts of unnecessary stress in my life. As good as checking off multiple items of the list feels, going to bed with half of it failed and uncompleted feels that much worse.

How I Strike a Balance

Plan according to your day and capabilities realistically. I used to start out with a list of 10-15 seemingly tiny tasks, but I was always surprised at how quickly they stacked up.
My to-do list looked something similar to this:

  • Wake up by 8.
  • Go grocery shopping.
  • Cook lunch.
  • Shower.
  • Brush teeth.
  • Tidy up the living room.
  • Wash dishes.
  • Vacuum the floors.
  • Load laundry and then put it up to dry.
  • Read for 30 minutes.
  • Call mom.
  • Go to the gym.

And so on and so forth … As you may imagine, all of those tasks were supposed to be performed in all of a four-hour time slot that was not occupied by sleeping, working, eating, or commuting to work.

Getting it all done was difficult. I either failed to do many, simply running out of time—going to bed disappointed. Or I crammed it all without allowing time to rest, accelerating burnout and going into constant fatigue.

Now I spread out my household chores on multiple days and only add as much as I think I can finish. Hardly do I ever go beyond five tasks total. And only three of them are considered a priority. I also learned not to include minor “tasks” such as brushing my teeth and showering—those are little habits that do nothing but overpack the list needlessly.

If you want to track whether you are consistent with your habits, you can use a habits chart for the month. Personally, I have a few habits that are important to me. And I have my chart prepped either monthly or weekly. Every day I put a mark under each habit: “n/a” if it is not required that day, yes if I did it, and no if I failed to do it. As those habits are daily, they do not have a spot in the to-do list. Here is an example of a habits chart:

Habit Vitamins Gym Sleep 8 hrs No sugar
Day 1 y n/a y n

This tracking system helps set habits you want to implement and also helps you kick the bad ones.

How I Approach My Work List

As you can imagine, I have stumbled upon a system that works, and I implement it separately from my work. I have a well-structured, realistic list of things to do, and I tackle them based on priority one at a time.

There is one key difference, however. I have a weekly list as well, where I put down everything I must get done. This is where I add things that come up as the week goes by—here always are unforeseen tasks regardless of what your job is. This helps me see the bigger picture and helps me distribute my work more evenly on a day-to-day basis so that I finish all my work but do not feel overwhelmed trying to catch up in the last two days of the week.

The thing that turns the to-do list from a nag to an irreplaceable ally to productivity is following the main ground rules.

  1. Do not overpack with too many tasks.
  2. Plan ahead.
  3. Be realistic.
  4. Take enough time to rest, and avoid burnout.

All that being said, there is more to staying productive than optimizing your to-do’s.

Using a Calendar To Track Time

The other thing I do is use a digital calendar to help keep track of my time. While using calendars to track your day and what you are doing is hardly a new concept, many people get overwhelmed, as they do not necessarily know where to get started. And on the flip side, different people implement calendar functions in a different way. Here are some of the ways I personally find the most helpful.

Scheduling Events, Assignments, Exams, Repetitive Occasions

I do those things easily, how the majority of people use it. The fact that apps such as Google calendar are available cross-platform, on tablets phones, on computers, etc. makes them incredibly valuable.

Coupled with the system for reminders, notifications, alarms, or receiving an email, using a digital calendar is undeniably important. It allows you to minimize the chance of missing an important event regardless of whether that event is an exam, a business meeting, seminars, or anything else that you attend within your professional or personal life.

Personally, I schedule all of the aforementioned events, including important lectures, meetups, and occasionally reminders, if I need to carry out an important errand at a certain time. Scheduling works the best for set dates and events—if you try to schedule something that is uncertain, you will find it to be less helpful.

Using Separate Calendars in Conjunction

Now, if you throw all of your arrangements and responsibilities all together in a calendar, it can quickly become messy. Well, you can assign colors to different calendar events, using the color coordination to your advantage for easier orientation. But the other invaluable function for me is being able to create sub-calendars within your main calendar profile. I currently use a few different ones:

  • Work: I list any meetings, important deadlines, events, and overall work-related arrangements.
  • University: I add all of the lectures in their dedicated time slot within the week along with details as to which room and also contact information on the professors.
  • Personal: I list any personal appointments, from going to the dentist to meeting with friends, to a deadline to return a book I borrowed from the library or going to the gym. This one always changes based on what I need to get done and is hardly consistent.

Tracking Time in 30-Minute Increments

Now, tracking time this way is not for everyone. I personally picked up on it when I realized I wasn’t getting done what I wanted within the day, and I could hardly pinpoint why that was. I knew I was wasting a lot of time, and I wanted to add a little bit more structure in my life. It is especially helpful if you want to optimize how you use your time as a resource.

A video documentary made by Matt D’Avella goes over the idea in great detail, and I believe it is one of the most valuable resources on time management I have stumbled upon. He goes over how he applied it and what impact the change had on his life and the way he goes about his day from then on.Tracking time goes hand in hand with the categorical calendars as well. For example, I would usually have a few calendars shown together—each calendar with a respective color except for important events.

Combined Methods as Needed

The fact of the matter is, you do not have to use any method that has been predefined. You can use any app or even an old-school printed calendar. Another thing you could potentially do is use a bullet journal if you personally enjoy arts and crafts and hand-write your planning.

Also, you do not have to be meticulous about logging your 30-minute increments if it becomes more of a burden than a help. Play around with different variations. For example, you can set up your repetitive events and only use it for that, plus maybe add in any standalone appointments or meetings.

You can build up or strip down your time management practices to suit your work. You might be surprised how helpful these methods can be once you try them consistently for a period of time.

Do Not Forget To Rest

Optimizing your active time is great. But you also need to set aside time to rest.

Rest time is where you do not log in, check-in, or overthink what you need to get done but haven’t yet.

Being tired will not help you get things done.

Take your lunch break, sleep well and enough, take small breaks, and move around when you feel like you need it. Stretch out, do a few squats, or just take a five-minute walk.

The Value of Attention Management

The way that time management is intended to work is by delegating sessions of focused work as opposed to dedicated time for relaxation. So let’s say you set aside time slots in your calendar for work.You crack your knuckles, you have a glass of water next to you, perhaps also some tea or coffee—maybe a healthy snack—so you do not have to get up for anything once you get started. You load up your computer and start working. Sounds great right? You are bound to be productive—you are fully prepared for it after all.

Not always. Even if you have carefully managed your environment and planned your activity, distractions can still creep in with notifications designed to take from your attention. It can be hard to focus your undivided attention on a task.

For one, nowadays we are used to consuming information in the form of social media, which is available all the time. Or we multitask, relying on tools such as music to stay productive. Those attention grabbers can end up taking away from your focus. So make it a point to limit the distractions, and try to focus solely on your task for a short amount of time.

If you find it difficult to focus, you can use the Pomodoro Method, where you dedicate short periods of time for undivided focus, spaced out by periods of rest. Start with 25 minutes of work and five minutes rest. After a while, you will get better at focusing and can modify the time periods however you need. For example, I currently use a 50/10 (work/break) ratio Pomodoro model.

And even so, I sometimes keep going with the flow of work if it feels right and take longer breaks after. The important thing is to be mindful of signs that you may be overworking yourself, and take a break when you need it even if you do not necessarily think you do a break.

Some symptoms of burnout may be having a headache, being easily distracted, feeling tired, having issues sleeping lately, having lowered motivation. Taking a timely break will save you hours of grinded work in a stressed-out state that is at a lower quality than your capabilities.

Do What Serves You Best

The most important thing to remember about managing your time and attention to achieve more in a way that is healthy is that you need to do what works for you. The practices I’ve discussed are ones that have added a lot of value to my life, but you need to try and experiment with different options to be able to see what works best for you.

It took me nearly three years to accumulate the knowledge of what works for me to get things done, and I am sure there is more to learn. Using a combination of common tracking techniques while implementing the benefits of technology has been working great for me. However, the biggest benefit is the tweak in mindset to intentionally observe what I do through the day and to introduce productivity metrics that keep me accountable and allow plenty of rest.

So I urge you to find a system that compliments your strong personality features, and help you control your weaker ones.And the best way to do that? Try making lists, try tracking your time, try to introduce changes and analyze where your efforts and attention go to see what helps you and what creates more of a distraction and inconvenience than anything else.

About the author

Danila Petrova

Danila Petrova is a Marketing Assistant Manager at Dreamix, a custom software development company, focusing on strategy building and audience engagement. With a background in mathematics, informatics, she has extensive knowledge in web design, business communication and a deep understanding of the IT industry. She is involved in numerous graphic design projects and is passionate about the advancement of software development.