Trying new things for time management

Like everyone, I don’t feel like there are enough hours in the day. At any given moment, there are ten things I could be working on, and even more things I could be thinking about. Like most everyone, I’ve tried any number of techniques to be a more effective manager of my time. I usually don’t make it a week with any of these tools — I’m not even good at making lists.

As a software engineer, I have consistently found that making good use of whatever bug tracking tool my employer uses is helpful. I enjoy the satisfaction you get from closing tickets, and I like knowing that the undone work is still recorded somewhere, waiting to be worked on when it becomes a priority. Having things on the list that don’t get done right away is not a problem for me. Right now, I’m reading a book that I had on my Amazon wish list for 13 years. (That book is Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes, which I’ll write more about later.) But beyond that, I have found productivity tools to be of limited utility.

We had a couple of two hour seminars on time management at work, and there were a number of interesting takeaways. The end result was that I’m trying two new things. The first is Personal Kanban, or at least the version of it that I retained from the 15 minute introduction in the seminar.

The goal of kanban is to lower the cognitive load of juggling tasks. You have a list of tasks in your backlog, so that you don’t have to remember them. You have a constrained set of tasks that are “in progress.” The goal here is to lower the number of things you’re working on simultaneously to increase your productivity. Finally, there’s supposed to be some value in physically moving tasks from one state to the next. I’m using my own Trello board for my kanban, and I’m limiting myself to three items in the “in progress” state. So far I’ve had good luck focusing on those three items to the exclusion of other tasks I could be working on, and trying to get through those items so I can work on other things. We’ll see if it holds up.

The other technique I’ve decided to look at (again, in this case) is Pomodoro. I find it challenging to concentrate on tasks without getting distracted by email, or Twitter, or IRC, or all of the other incoming signals that we’re barraged by during the day. I’m hoping taking Pomodoro as a framework will help me train my brain to focus on specific tasks rather than losing productivity by constantly context switching. I’m using Focus Time as my Pomodoro timer, and it seems to work pretty well.

It’ll be interesting to see whether either of these techniques holds up for me. I’d be interested in seeing which time management approaches other people use. In the meantime, I’m going to try to crank out a Pomodoro on one of the tasks in my personal kanban.

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