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Six secrets to productivity and getting tasks completed

Last week, we discussed setting the right expectations for yourself. We go beyond that to explore some tips for organizing your workload and getting things done.
In response to last week's post, "Five steps to enlightened expectations for managing your workload," TechRepublic member mikifin commented, "This is a good start...." He didn't reply to my query of where to take it from there, but it gave me an idea. Let's go beyond self-expectations to some tips on how to organize your workload.

  1. Make a daily list. Don't just refer to your overall to-do list -- if yours is like mine, it's a mile long and contains some items I've been meaning to get around to for months (okay, years). Each morning, write down the few things that you intend to accomplish today. The idea is to make your goals seem less overwhelming, so be reasonable with yourself about what you can actually get done in a day.
  2. Segregate time for each task. Don't try to do everything at once or flip back and forth between projects. I've found it useful to have some visual indicator of what project is "on" at any given time. I use a little stopwatch application that I created years ago to keep running totals of time spent on each project. When I can see the clock ticking for a client, I'm not as likely to get distracted -- or at least I have to take conscious action to switch focus.
  3. Focus. One reason why IT pros don't always do so well in social situations is that they have the power to concentrate intently on one problem to the exclusion of everything else. (No, honey, I wasn't ignoring you -- I actually didn't hear you, even though you were standing right beside me and speaking clearly. I might have even said "uh huh," but that was just a 202 response.) We geeks need to maximize this ability in order to be effective. We can't allow ourselves to be interrupted for "just a minute" to answer a question. The instant we break concentration, the entire problem that we were modeling in our head drops on the floor and shatters into a million pieces. This is why you shouldn't answer the phone, e-mail, or chat during these periods.
  4. Take breaks. This one seems to contradict #3. My wife never understands how I can take an hour for a long walk, but I get upset when she interrupts me for five minutes. The difference is, you take a break when it doesn't interrupt your flow. When you can't figure out a problem, it's time to put it on your mind's back burner for a bit. Or, right after you solve a problem, have a 10 minute celebration before moving on to the next thing.
  5. Take care of your equipment. I don't just mean your gadgets. Most of what you're paid for is produced by your brain, so treat it like your most important piece of equipment. Caffeine may put some spark in it, but overdoing caffeine may make you think less clearly. Years ago, I used to regularly have a beer with lunch until I discovered that neurotoxins like alcohol might be a contributing factor to all those bug reports. Get enough sleep at night, and don't forget to exercise. Your brain's function depends on your entire health. If someone were to even scratch the case of your notebook PC, you'd be pretty upset, so don't abuse the case of your primary processor.
  6. Follow through. If you have a choice between working on two projects, choose the one that is nearly finished even if the other one is more fun. When you complete a project, it creates momentum and reduces that long to-do list that haunts your psyche. Every time I complete a project, I feel an immense sense of relief; it makes me happier and more productive.

I'm not pretending that I always execute all of these tips without throwing an exception. Sometimes I get carried away with an emergency, only to be interrupted by another emergency or three -- and then my kids scream that I'm needed immediately to help with a serious household repair. The next thing I know, it's quitting time, and I haven't taken a break or eaten, and I've had way too much coffee, so I sit down with a bottle of wine and put my brain out of its misery. Guess how much I get done on those days?

About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

28 comments
mike_patburgess
mike_patburgess

Do not be afraid to get a second or third pair of eyes to look at something you are doing in a project. There may be a better way to do something. Otherwise, you are right. Do not try and do too many things at once; focus and get one task done at a time as quickly as possible (accuracy counts as well).

dawgit
dawgit

reminders are helpfull to keep on track. I especialy appreciate #2 as I do have a problem with that, I simply loose track of time when I really getting into something. And then 4 or 5 other tasks don't get done at all. Good writing too. I like how you use a metaphoric method to describe the main CPU, Us. People do tend to forget themselves from time to time. Funny though, inspite of IT people seemly getting a bad rap for being out of shape, or even fat (the sterotypes) it's amazing how many are total fitness freeks. -d edited to add: I hope you won't mind if I pass this around a bit. ?:| -d

Igor Royzis
Igor Royzis

All great points. Exercising helps too. That 1hr break you talk about is best spent for me in the gym. It frees up my mind and gets me ready for that next round. I like to prepare my daily to do list the night before, while my memory is still fresh from current day's activities. And though I am an IT guy, I still print my daily list and place it right next to my keyboard so I can always see it.

apaj
apaj

Number 6. Very true, about creating flow and momentum. The bliss and sense of accomplishment of marking that task "completed" in Outlook. Sometimes the big picture is daunting when looked at from a macro perspective. Get micro people. Get on that giant wave and let it flow. It gets easier. You just have to catch the wave.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Absolutely right, Michael -- I'll admit, one of my weaknesses is trying too long to solve a problem before bringing someone else in to help, when I could often save time by bringing them in sooner.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

There's something about having it on paper, isn't there? I'm totally digital except for that one thing.

juliebeman
juliebeman

Not only am I a geek, but I'm also a writer. My SO and I have developed the "escalation" method to deal with interruptions while working/writing. If either of us is concentrating and the other e-mails/calls/interrupts we just state "escalation" and the other backs off immediately. It works really well, and since we devised the method together neither of us takes the "rejection" personally and no feelings are hurt.

Timbo Zimbabwe
Timbo Zimbabwe

Maybe not, but you sure have a fairly decent handle on this issue. Good advice, thanks.

apotheon
apotheon

"[i]... so tell me what I left out.[/i]" If there's anything you left out, I think it's the fact that geeks are often working hardest when they appear to be loafing. 90% of what professional geeks do for work involves thinking about a problem, rather than actually typing up the solutions. The problem of returning a 202 can happen even when I'm sitting in front of the TV, supposedly "watching" an episode of [i]Law and Order[/i], because I'm working through part of a problem that has suddenly swapped into volatile memory for a while. I find that sometimes I work on something in that manner in bits and pieces, interrupting other (less critical) activities (like doing dishes) for a few minutes -- and during those times I can find it quite difficult to respond to conversational tones from others standing nearby (or even consciously realize they spoke to me). In general, however, I think that may be the most concisely presented accurate explanation of how geeks work (and how they can make best use of that) I have ever encountered that is suitable for giving the Significant Other in a geek's life some insight into what's going on when we get that focused, far-off look. Luckily for me, my SigO is pretty geeky herself, so that's not as big a problem for me as it probably is for many others.

geekGirlFri
geekGirlFri

There is something about a "problem" that needs to be "solved" that puts my mind on a single track... even when it's not my job to solve it, I'll sometimes jump into that mode before I know what I'm doing! And it's often hard to let go when I just can't figure out the solution.

dawgit
dawgit

Credit given, where / when (and to whom) credit due. With me, it's natural. ;) -d

ajaxnii
ajaxnii

Signal Leads the Way!!! I felt that way for the 8 i did and my SigO's were always the geeky type too.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, unfortunately for most of us, the explanation makes even less sense to our companions than the behavior itself.

dawgit
dawgit

Who did that. I live next door (ok, almost next door) to a restaurant, (they are good friends as well) and when ever I hit a block, or just need a time out to step back and think, I just walk next door, go straight to the kitchen and help with the dish washing. I've tried to explain, that for me it's a relaxing way to think, but... Not being geekie they'll never get it. It's all ok though, they do appreciate the help. And they feed me. :^0 -d

juliebeman
juliebeman

Use of the word originated organically and was first used by the SO. He was in a situation where everything that could go wrong was going wrong, and folks were starting to escalate the problems to higher levels of management. "Escalation" connotes a level of professional urgency that can't be conveyed with "I can't talk to you right now" or "I'm really busy."

apotheon
apotheon

That's amusing (and depressing). It's also too often true -- which is one of the reasons I appreciate this article of yours so much: it provides a clear, concise explanation. It might help where a less eloquent explanation might not.

dawgit
dawgit

That's for nice weather now. (I must be getting old :0 ) There are many benefits to being in a kitchen, always warm, the weather is usually good, and there's food. :^0 -d

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Washing dishes must have some sort of proprioceptive benefit for you. It doesn't do a thing for me. Either on a long walk or during a shower is when inspiration will strike me.