Practical tech advice

too many tasks

How to deal with too many tasks efficiently

Have you ever felt under pressure, like there is no end to the tasks, they keep piling up and you don’t seem to find the light ? Know you are not alone! I have made a new year resolution to become more efficient in my day-to-day tasks. Here is what I could gather so far.

There is always going to be work to do

The first thing I considered was to the workload, do less. I’m sorry to tell you, this will not happen. You are needed (and paid) to do a job, if you don’t have enough work to keep you occupied, then you are not needed as much as you think you are. Now, let’s get to some feasible solutions.

Have a plan

Do not underestimate the power of a well-thought-of plan. Trust me, it pays off in the end. When things are hard to do, then they should take time to plan. Think it through, don’t be afraid to take the time and build a schedule. Think about what you’re going to need, who does your work depend on? Are there any risks that need to be accounted for?

The Pareto principle

There is an observation called the Pareto principle, you probably heard of it, it’s the 80/20 rule. If you can’t be bothered to read the article, the most important take-away is that, on many occasions, 80% of the results come from 20% of the work. This sounds like a good place to start looking into improving performance. Check on your plan, see which of your tasks seem like they could impact your project the most? What are the tasks your customers really care about? And then focus on those. Your time is precious, you should spend it on what matters. If you have the option, a good idea is to delegate the less important tasks to someone else.

There is also a Peter‘s principle, but we’re not talking about that today.

Don’t multitask

You might think you are good at multitasking, statistically speaking you’re not.  You might think you are, but you’re probably not. Try to reduce multitasking as much as possible, take one task at a time. Use your schedule to your advantage. Reserve blocks of time to focus on a single task. Now, the trick to this is to actually focus on the task and don’t get distracted. This means no facebook, no reddit, no emails, no instant messaging, and especially, no phone notifications. Unless something is burning (or really urgent) you stay focused on your task. An important note here is: don’t forget about breaks. You can’t stay focused for extended periods of time. Take a break, walk around, make a cup of tea (or coffee), relax for a bit before getting back to work.

Parkinson’s law

Time for another observation, Parkinson’s law says that work will expand to fill all allocated time. Parkinson’s law is timeboxing. To keep things short, in timeboxing, you put aside a block of time to focus on a particular task. When that block of time is finished, you take a break, unwind for a bit and reassess your progress. I have found that the following kinds of timeboxes work quite well:

  • Hard timeboxes: When the time is done, you are done with the task, whatever the state is. This works quite well for tasks that are detail focused. When you want to improve something to perfection, you could spend all the time in the world and you will not be satisfied. Apply a hard timebox around that kind of work, and whatever you end up with at the end of the time is good enough. Now, as always, common sense must prevail: If by the end of the timebox, you end up with something terrible, then you obviously have to spend more time on the task.
  • Soft timeboxes: When the time is done, take a break, reassess the task, think about what needs to be done and when the break is over, continue the task.

Another use for timeboxing, is grouping alike tasks together. You need to answer emails, do them all at once. You need to fill out paperwork, do it all at once. Code reviews, you guessed it, do them all at once.

One final thought: I found that using different lengths for timeboxes work really well. For me at least these are the timeboxes I use: 25 mins for answering emails, project planning and other management tasks, 40 mins for code reviews and 60 mins for actually writing code.

Do you have any other tips for a more efficient work schedule ?

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