10 tenets of working in IT – Tenet 1, Create Time

Introduction

Welcome to the first child post of this one that I reposted in January 2013. I suggest that you at least read the relevant section i.e. Tenet 1, Create Time, before reading further. In the post below, rather than expanding on all the topics I covered in the parent post, I am going to focus on one key theme; how to reclaim more time out of your day i.e. time management. I hear lots of comments from friends and colleagues on the lines of “never enough hours in the day”, “how can I possibly learn all of that in that timeframe?”, “I go to meetings to discuss other meetings”, “I keep getting tapped on the shoulder for a favour”. Sound familiar? It can be very frustrating to deal with these kinds of issues. Even with the best will in the world, you can find yourself heading in to the office in the morning with a plan of action that a five star general would be proud of and leaving several hours later with that plan in tatters. So without further delay, as I appreciate your time is precious, let’s look at giving you back as much of that resource as possible.

Break it down

If you look at your day as a single block or morning and afternoon, its hard to manage it effectively and hours will pass you by. Conversely, if you live each day minute by minute, you are probably micromanaging which isn’t what we want either. A happy medium here is to break your day down in to chunks of between 15 and 30 minutes. I’ll call these time slots and whether you pick 4×15, 3×20 or 2×30 minute slots per hour is up to you, based on what makes sense for your lifestyle. Below, I’ll be using an average day of mine as an example and breaking it in to 15 minute slots, which works for me. As you’ll see, with this approach I can easily group these back up again in to bigger slots as necessary.

Time slot Activity
07:00-07:15 Get up, get ready for gym and load up car
07:15-07:30 Drive to gym. Listen to podcast
07:30-08:30 Gym workout. Listen to podcast
08:30-08:45 Shower and get dressed
08:45-09:30 Drive to work. Listen to podcast

Can you see a theme there? I’ve only just got to work and already I’ve worked out for an hour and listened to two hours worth of podcasts. So let’s summarise with a couple of tips:

Tip 1 – use dead time more effectively
Tip 2 – multitask where possible

Tip 1 mentions dead time, which is a term I’m using to talk about time that a lot of people would consider unavailable for more productive tasks e.g. the daily commute, lunchtime, waiting in queues\doctor’s waiting room, trips to the toilet, being on hold on the telephone. This dead time adds up over the day. The beauty of something like listening to a podcast is that it’s a relatively passive activity. Sure, you need to try and understand what is being said but it is a one way conversation that requires no input from yourself.

Tip 2 is simple enough to understand but you sometimes have to put some effort in to put it in to practice. When I used to go to the gym, I’d fire up my MP3 player with something along the lines of heavy metal, dance or the Rocky soundtrack. I soon realised that I was missing an opportunity. Change Eye Of  The Tiger for a podcast on MPLS design and now I’m exercising my mind as well as my body. The same thing applies to the daily commute. I very rarely listen to the radio now and when I do, I try to opt for factual content more than music.

I employ the same approach for the time slot between signing off from work until bedtime. Podcast on the drive home, hang up my work\training\nerd boots when I get in until Mia goes to bed and then either study or chill with my wife depending on what day it is and how much studying I have to do at a given time. Regardless, I still break it down in to time slots, otherwise a two hour study session can turn in to 15 minutes checking personal emails\Twitter again, quick game of Call of Duty, hit the digital drum kit…just to relax. Distractions kill productivity. Try applying these time management tips to your hobbies and distractions too and you”ll start seeing improvements there also.

I brushed over it in the previous paragraph so I’ll mention it again. From getting home to putting my daughter to bed, it’s family time. No checking emails, no Twitter, no logging on to the VPN. When I was the team leader 18 months ago, this was absolutely not the case. I’d get home, eat tea, log back on and check my emails, finish a report, check the monitoring systems. It got out of hand and is one of the reasons I stepped down to a purely technical role again. Make sure your family time is as focussed as the rest of your productive day.

Protect and serve yourself

I have a 7.5 hour working day, although I am afforded a flexible working week which comes in extremely handy now that Mia has started school. Again, I break those 7.5 hours (8 including my lunch break) in to 15 minute slots but they get grouped back up again as necessary, the obvious one being the 30 minutes for lunch and guess what I’m doing as I’m eating my lunch? Exercising tips 1 and 2 above by watching a training video, reading a blog post\book or listening to a podcast.

It’s your time during the working part of the day that is the most difficult to protect as you inevitably have more pressures and interferences at play. Let’s list another couple of tips that by themselves should save you a huge amount of time:

Tip 3 – manage your sources of information
Tip 4 – learn how to say no

Tip 3 is referring to a multitude of sources. Perhaps the worst ‘offenders’ are email and social media. Whilst they hold value and in the case of email, I would argue are critical for your job, they can also chew up vast swathes of valuable time. How many times have you found yourself reading the same email three times or more before putting it to bed? Are you one of those people who have Twitter open all the time and check it everytime the browser tab shows the (1) indicating you are missing the action, right now! Try to be honest with yourself. Twitter isn’t just for you, it’s for everybody else. If somebody wants message you, you’ll be informed by email or by the notifications on your mobile app etc. Check Twitter no more than a handful of times a day and you will save yourself a lot of time. Use a service such as Pocket to save any useful links you come across to be read later, all together.

As for email, I refer you to the 4 D’s method I mention in the parent post. Check your emails no more than every 15 minutes and preferably once an hour unless you are expecting something important. Don’t mull over any email. Quickly carry out triage and determine whether it needs to be dealt with now, deleted, delegated or deferred. Any deferred emails should be dealt with the very next time you look at them. I’ve been guilty of not following my advice here on numerous occasions and even now find myself slipping in to old habits…checking emails every couple of minutes, checking Twitter just as frequently. Before you know it, all of those ‘quick checks’ add up to a couple of hours or more a day. Stop doing it now.

Tip 4 is the one that a lot of people find the most difficult as it means pushing back and in some cases standing up to people, sometimes literally. I bet I will hear little argument when I state that the biggest time sink during the working day is meetings. Meetings that don’t start on time, don’t finish on time, don’t have an agenda or anybody willing to act as a chairperson to keep things on track, the wrong people present, meetings about bloody meetings! For those that struggle to say no, turning down meeting requests is usually a good place to start to claw back your time due to the fact that in this day and age, most meeting requests come in a digital form and so declining is not done face to face, although I’ve taken great pleasure in the past going over to a meeting organiser and telling them exactly why I wouldn’t be attending their meeting. Consider these points on whether to decline a meeting request or not:

  • Is the topic of the meeting relevant to your job?
  • Is there an agenda in the meeting request?
  • Does it conflict with other work you had planned and if so, which takes priority?
  • Are the right people being invited to this meeting? e.g. is it a ‘technical’ meeting with you and the marketing team?
  • Is the meeting a recurring one? Is this really necessary? Is it necessary that you attend every one for it’s entirety?
  • Are minutes being taken so you can read the key points of discussion at a later date?

If I get a meeting request that doesn’t tell me why I need to be there specifically, either directly or indirectly, then I’ll chase the organiser for a justification. The same applies for an agenda. I want to know what will be discussed, at a high level at least. This not only allows me to prepare but helps me decide whether I want to be there in the first place. If I think a colleague would benefit from being in the meeting too, I’ll forward them the request. If I think I can get a away with it, I’ll sometimes ask the organiser to bring me in to the meeting when it gets to the relevant bit for me and I’ll make my excuses if I decide the meeting has no further value to me. If a meeting has drifted from the agenda, don’t be afraid to ask for it to be brought back to point. Life is just too short to spend unwarranted amounts of time in meetings.

The 7 Ps

I believe this saying was created by the British Army (best in the world of course). It stands for:

Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance

This has a wide scope but with focus on this post, it gives us another couple of useful tips:

Tip 5 – take notes
Tip 6 – plan for tomorrow and the end of today

With tip 5, I’m talking about a number of different things. Firstly, whether it’s a formal meeting or a quick catch up with your boss, have a pen and paper, whether its a real one or a tablet or laptop. If you get actions, don’t let them slip through the net because of a dodgy memory. Note them down and start thinking about how you are going to achieve them. If you are studying, make notes as you go. A 500 page book is not going to have 500 pages worth of information in it, especially when it comes to revising the content, so why would you read a book cover to cover again when you could refer to a distilled set of notes you made the first time around? The same applies to training videos. You could possibly make notes for a 60 minute video that will take you only 10 minutes to read through. Anything that saves you time later and reduces the chance of making a mistake is a benefit.

Tip 6 covers two key strategies I use to keep my schedule on track. The first is that I use a digital calendar (Outlook in my case) to arrange my following day\week in advance. 30 minutes for this change request, an hour for troubleshooting this issue, 15 minutes to speak to a customer to gather requirements. I block these out in advance and get the reminder just before they start. This not only keeps me on track but between creating the reminder and the event itself, I’ll often come up with relevant ideas and thoughts that I’ll add to the appointment. When it comes around to the time slot, I can then hit the ground running. I’ve found this tactic particularly useful for difficult troubleshooting issues.

The other part to tip 6 is effectively planning your exit strategy at the end of each day. If you want to leave at 17:00 each night, then trying to wrap things up at 16:59 is a recipe for disaster. Give yourself at least 15 minutes to tie up what you are doing. I use this time, as stated above, to plan the next day or even the remainder of the week and reallocate any of today’s outstanding tasks to a suitable future slot so they don’t fall through the cracks.

Summary

OK, this post is coming in at over 2000 words and so I see the irony here for a post on time management. Hopefully though, you can see this post as an investment i.e. the time you have put in reading this (and for me in writing it) will pay dividends if you apply what I have talked about. Before you close this page, just read the six tips one last time and let them sink in. To wrap up, I should include one last tip, to rule them all:

Tip 7 – make it a habit

Humans are a strange bunch. We get better at doing things the more we try them, but we often struggle with the motivation to go through the rinse and repeat cycle needed to make things second nature. Keep at it until you are doing these things without really thinking about it. In a later article (Tenet 10), I’ll be discussing how to review progress.

If you still have a couple of minutes free, add your own time saving tips below in the comments. Thanks for reading. Now go and claim your time back.

Till the next time.

3 Replies to “10 tenets of working in IT – Tenet 1, Create Time”

  1. I really liked your post. Saving it for reference.

    One issue I need help with though: podcast listening is great (PPP FTW!) but what happens when you want to take notes? Just dropping the dumbbells is not very realistic… 🙂
    My point is: anything I’m listening to is probably something I’m going to want to remember/reference later. Any ideas?

    Many thanks and congrats not only on the post but the attitude as well.

    1. Hi Fernando and thanks for the feedback. That’s a good point re. taking notes whilst on the treadmill\driving in the car\etc. I’ve not really had the need to take lengthy notes listening to podcasts to date. Although some do go in to a good deal of depth on a topic, the number of topics discussed is relatively limited and so I come out the other side thinking, for example, “I really must read up on protocols X and Y”. For reminding me to follow up, I either use a note app on my phone at the earliest opportunity i.e. back at the locker, the end of my drive etc. or more often send an email to myself with details. I have, on occasion, even been known to pull over to the side of the road to do this when I hear something that has just blown my mind!

      I don’t have an iPod but this would make note taking easier as you were listening. Of course, I don’t condone using this method whilst driving! There are numerous note taking apps that will take voice notes too and I imagine there are apps that allow you to bookmark different segments in a podcast so as you hear something you need to follow up on, you press a button and then can review all of the bookmarked sections at a later date. If this doesn’t exist yet, then I want royalties for the idea!

      Anything I’m listening to that requires more input from myself, for example some Audio On Demand series, I’ll listen to in an environment that allows me to take notes on one occasion and then use it as listening material in the gym\car for revision.

      Hope this helps. Always willing to hear other people’s methods to incorporate in to my own way of doing things.

Please let me know your thoughts!