How to deal with too many tasks efficiently

pile of files

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 ?

Jack of all trades – a case for a general programmer

swiss army knife

What exactly is a jack of all trades ? According to vocabulary.com, a jack of all trades is a person who has some level of skill in many areas.

The world is changing, and so must we

Technology is changing faster than ever. If you look back even a few years, things seem almost unrecognizable. Just looking at graph of the most popular programming languages since 2014 should give you an idea on how fast things are moving. Just for reference: Javascript was invented in 1995.

Vertical vs horizontal learning

There are mostly two directions in which you can go as a software developer:

  • Vertically – getting more and more specialized at using a framework and/or programming language. You’ve gone further down the rabbit hole than most people.
  • Horizontally – you broaden your perspective, learn something new and add a new skill to your arsenal. You have a broad view across many fields.

Now, here is the catch: The more proficient you are with a language, the harder it is to improve. You don’t trust me?! Think of it this way: You learned more in your first week programming, than you did last week, right? Following this logic, it comes a point in your career when the effort to improve can be just too big. This is the time to look for something else to learn.

The framework is a tool

The language is a tool. It’s a neat little way you can express your ideas in a way the computer can understand them and then execute them. I sometimes see some developers who share an emotional connection with the language of their choosing. Usually it’s the one they’re most familiar with. Or it’s the one they started with. Keeping an open mind pays off. If you’re not a fortune-teller, you can’t tell what the future will bring. When you get married to a certain programming language, then it means you blind yourself to all the possibilities that lay out there, outside of your chosen horizon.

As the old saying goes, don’t keep all your eggs in one basket. It usually applies to valuable. I would argue that your knowledge is valuable. Don’t you agree ?!

Use the right tool for the job

As many other tools out there, different programming languages have different strengths and different weaknesses. Choosing the right tool for the job can mean the difference between breezing through a project, and spending lots of sleepless nights pushing a boulder up a mountain.

When you increase your bag available tricks, then you have a wider perspective on any problem you might try to solve. When it’s not that easy to think outside the box, it might be just as profitable to have many boxes you can think inside of. This seems like a good note to finish this article on, don’t you think ?

Scheduling – Come one step closer to full productivity

Productivity plan

 

The unicorn of office days: Having a productive day, each day, every day. It’s an admirable goal. It’s a goal we all strive to achieve. A step in that direction is having an efficient schedule. I’m here to help. Let get cracking!

Get the data

Step one in solving any problem is defining it. Try to keep a list of the tasks that need to be done within a given period. I usually find a week to work best. Use whatever you want to get a list of tasks. Forward warning, this might take some time and some trial and error to get used to. Some apps that I find useful when collecting tasks are:

  • Todoist – I use this to keep track of small tasks, repetitive tasks and reminders. I also use this as an idea bank to keep track of ideas before I get back to them and turn them into something more useful.
  • Trello – I use this to keep track of bigger projects. I find Trello boars offer a nice way to keep on top of multiple ongoing projects. If you’re anything like me, you have your work and then a couple of ongoing personal projects you need to deal with.

Disclaimer: There are the tools I’m using, and they seem to work fine for me. However, I must warn you, finding the right tool is a process. You will most likely need to try a couple of alternatives to find the one that works best for you.

A couple of alternatives might be: google tasks, google keep, your favorite calendar app.

Arrange the data

Do not underestimate the power of a well thought schedule. In computer science there is a concept called context switching. It’s the list of operations that the CPU needs to do to move from one task to another. They’re not processing the task, they’re the overhead needed to move from one task to another. Doing that to often can be a problem. You can spend more time switching between tasks than doing actual work. Our brains are not that different. To switch between tasks you need a long time. More so, you have to spend a lot of mental effort to do so. Why not try to minimize that?! Group similar tasks together! You have  a bunch of meetings you need to schedule ? Bundle them all together, so they don’t interrupt your other work! Need to do some paperwork for the week? Do all the paperwork in one day. It will be a boring day probably, but once you get that out of the way, you can focus on your other tasks. More so, you have the bonus that you don’t have to think about paperwork.

Remember, it’s your schedule and it should be custom tailored to you. You know yourself best. I find that certain times of the day work best for certain types of task. For me, morning works best for intense, focused work, so I try to reserve big blocks of time to code early. In the afternoon, I don’t seem to have that much energy left, so I try to do my more mundane tasks: reports, meetings, planning etc. Try out different things to find out what works best for you!

Give yourself some wiggle room

Things happen. More often than not, those things cause delays in your schedule. This is normal. Unknowns cause delays. Keep this in mind when designing your schedule. Meetings run late. Tasks take longer than expected. So many things can go wrong. Part of the purpose of the schedule is to isolate those issues so that they don’t affect other tasks. Some takeaway here could be: don’t put meetings that can run late just before meetings that cannot start late. Find out what the important tasks are and deal with them early (so that you have a bit of time for the tasks to run late)

Tinker with the schedule

A schedule is not a one-time job. It’s living creature, it grows, it evolves. It’s aliveee! Every one in a  while, review your schedule. Who knows, maybe there is something you can improve. Try out some different ways of scheduling, see which one works best for you. It’s your little world. You can do anything with it.

Do you have any more tips on how to build a nice schedule ?

Things to do when you’re not writing code

programmer at work

If you’re reading this, I assume most of your hours are spent staring at an IDE, coding away. What about the times when you’re not building shiny new features. If you’re lucky enough, then you’re going to have a couple of hours of free time every now and then. What should you use that time for ? So many possibilities. If you want to become a better programmer, then these few hours can be incredibly valuable. I’m here to help you get the most out of that time.

Tinker with your process

This assumes you have a process you follow through your day. If you don’t have a process, build one. A good starting point is the organization process It doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s not going to be perfect. That’s OK. A good process should be a checklist you go through for every piece of work.

What makes a process useful is that it can be improved. So start with something, anything. Now think about your process. Did you miss anything lately? Did you break anything? Does your work take longer than expected ? Did you find yourself waiting for others for extended periods of time? These are all questions you should ask yourself, and improve your process to prevent that! Sticking to a process is hard work, however, it’s worth it!

Read around

Reading is an important part of your work. You should not underestimate the value of information. The world of programming is in constant shift. New frameworks, patterns and technologies emerge every day. If you want to be a good programmer, you should keep yourself up to date with the latest trends. The best way to do that is to read around.

You should, at least, read about the frameworks you’re using. Become a guru on the frameworks you’re using. Look at the documentation. How is everyone else using that framework ? Is there anything you can learn from them ? Reading the source code can be incredibly valuable at times. Take your pick, but get to work!

Think about dependencies

What is the next thing you’re going to work on and why ? More than once, I have started on a ticket only to find out there are hidden dependencies required, assets that I needed (which take forever to track down and acquire).  Think about the next piece of work and the following ones. Is there anything you should do now to save yourself some time in the future ? There are lots of little things that have the potential of costing you lots of time later down the road. The earlier you think about them, the easier your life is going to be. And who doesn’t like an easy life?!

Think about potential issues

The hallmark of a good programmer is the ability to think about the bigger picture, not just what you’re working on at the moment. How does what you’re working on now fit into the whole project? Is the work you’re doing now going to cause any integration issues. I’ll give you a spoiler: Most of the problems with software can be found at the joints. What external services does your ticket (and project for that matter) depend on ? What happens if that service is down, or slow, or wrong or any of the myriad of possible ways of things to go wrong with a service. Catch them early and not only you’ll save yourself a headache (and possibly an embarrassment when the project goes live) and you will prove yourself as an awesome programmer. Two birds with one stone.

In conclusion, if you find yourself with some time on your hands, don’t waste it, use that time to improve yourself, like a knight sharpening its sword before a battle (I always wanted to say that!). Thse thins are valuable in the long run. Instead of stealing some moments whenever you have them, try to make them. Take a break from writing code and improve yourself. You’re going to be better at it! Your project is going to benefit! Everybody wins!

What do you usually do when you have a bit of free time on your hands ?

L.E. As with everything in life, common sense should prevail. This does not mean you should drop important work when important work needs to be done, nor does it mean you should completely abandon your other hobbies and focus on programming 24/7. If you need a break from work, you should take a break!

Soft skills do matter

Let’s start at the beginning: what exactly are soft skills ? Soft-skills, is an umbrella term, covering the less technical skills you need for your work. Stuff like communication, time-management, delegating and other fun stuff you have to do outside of an IDE. I sure hope you are one of those programmers that do consider these skills important. Whatever your beliefs are, stay with me and you might just learn something.

You work with people

Obviously, but think for a second of the implications. Your work is based on other people’s work. People decide your tasks. People evaluate your work. And, ultimately, people pay you for your work. When you think about it this way, it seems important now, to learn how to deal with people. This includes negotiating, giving and asking for feedback. Some of the most efficient programmers I know, are great at working with people. They know what the client actually means when they ask for something. They know how people react when they are given both good and bad news. I would argue that a big chunk of their professional success has to do with their people skills. I’m not saying that you can’t be a good code without people skills, I’m saying that improving your soft skills make you a better programmer.

Prioritize

You are a professional and you should treat yourself as one. You should work on the most valuable piece or work first, and then the next one and the next one and so on. Now, the most valuable task might not be the most fun to do, nor the most challenging. It’s not the work you want, but it is the work you need to do now. Do that! It’s that simple. If you put the project above everything else and you treat your time as a valuable resource (which it definitely is), then, what you should be doing now becomes obvious. Do whatever needs to be done to move the project forward by the biggest margin. Additionally, your time is a valuable resource. Don’t waste it on useless tasks, don’t slack off, and never ever half-ass the work.

Opinions do matter

Imagine this: Someone asks one of your colleagues to recommend an awesome programmer for this cool project they have going on at the moment. Will they pick you? Would you like them to pick you? Be aware of your colleagues opinion on you. There are two easy steps to get there: ask and then listen! Learn what your peers want, what they value and fine tune your discourse to emphasize what they value in your work. Now, this might sound a bit mischievous. My advice here is: be honest. There is no harm in glossing over the details someone does not care about, in order to focus on the details they do care about, but don’t lie to your peers.

Communication is important

If you stop and think about it. During your average workday, you have a lot of discussing to do. Some are not that important, like the ones about the weather, while other matter a lot more, like the ones about your promotion. You spend so much time communicating, why don’t you try to do it right ? Communications  are the result that the sum of all your soft-skills produce. You should start by listening to your manager and try to understand their motivation. Then, you should make sure you work on the most valuable piece of work available. Trust me that will make your manager really happy. Then, think about the way you are presenting your work. Does your manager understand that your task is difficult, does your manager understand that you care about the same things he cares about ?

I know this sounds tedious, trust me. However, the good news is this: these are all skills, and even soft skills can be learned and, when practiced, improved upon.

The tells of good feedback

So, what makes a good feedback ? I know there are a lot of articles out there about this, but that doesn’t stop me from giving my two cents, so bear with me.
Weather you’re giving feedback or receiving feedback, I find there are some attributes that make some feedback’s better than others.

Actionable

The purpose of feedback is to help someone improve. If the person receiving the feedback has no idea what they can do to improve themselves, then the feedback is like a bald hedgehog (pointless). If you want meaningful feedback, then it should refer to specific actions the person can take to improve themselves, which leads me to the second point:

Concrete

You’ve all hear it: You are doing perfect, keep it up! (followed by a warm pat on the back). This is useless! First of all: I have no questions that you are an overall great person, but, whoever you are, there is no chance that you cannot improve! And second (and this is more to the point): What am I supposed to to with that information ?! Where do I go from here ?! Certainly there are some things that I am doing better than others and I would like to keep doing more of those. Feedback should focus on concrete facts. Even if you are a superstar and you are good at everything you do, there must be some aspects of your work you could be great at, so try to focus on those.

Short

This one may sound a bit off at first, but feedback should be short. You do not want a laundry list of items on your feedback. We are not good at multitasking (regardless of what you might think), so focusing on a lot of things is just not going to work. For feedback to be truly useful you should find a few points that you can improve upon. I would recommend 3 or 4 key points so you can focus on those. If you tend to get a lot of items on your feedback list, it’s probably a sign you should have feedback chats more often.

Measurable

This one is sort-of dependent on the type of feedback you are getting, so it might not apply in some cases. It feels good to know you are making progress, and it’s useful to know when you are not, so why not have that information available for you to judge. This is easy if the feedback is accompanied by some kind of metric.

And now for the fun bit! Here are some examples of feedback that can be improved upon (granted there are a bit extreme examples, but I trust you’ll get the point)

  1. “I liked your presentation! It was wonderful! You should do more presentations like that! ” versus “I liked your presentation! It was the graphics that I liked the most! They really help get the point accros! Keep doing those!” 
  2. “That meeting went bad! The clients are not happy with us! We should change that on the next meeting!” versus “The meeting went bad! We went in there unprepared and we were not able to address their questions! On the next meeting we should make sure we fully understand the requirements before the next meeting.”
  3. You have been missing your deadlines lately. You should focus more on being on time.” versus “You have been missing your deadlines lately! Can you think of anything that takes time necessary so you can remove those ? “