Productivity Tips

7 minute read

One of the new developer tips I gave in my previous post, Tips for New Software Developers, was

Tip 3: Set boundaries on work hours from the very beginning…but work hard and efficiently during those work hours.

I talked about how I’ve worked hard to become more and more efficient but didn’t provide any additional details. In this post, I’ll cover the key productivity tips that work well for me. But first, it’s important to establish the core principle that underlies all of these productivity tips:

The key to high efficiency is to consistently maximize the amount of consecutive hours you spend working on the things that matter most.

This is by far the most important takeaway from this post. All of the tips I’ll give are just ways I’ve found to achieve this. At first this may sound simple, however doing all 3 of the bolded parts takes a lot of discipline and practice.

Productivity Tip 1: The TODO List

I’ve already written about the way I manage my TODO list so I won’t spend too much time on it. However, looking at the core principle of productivity above, you can see that it ensures you’re thinking about priority on a daily basis, which covers the “consistently” and “the things that matter most” parts of the principle.

One more note on this before I move on: In order to be highly productive, you have to exercise ruthless prioritization. I like that phrase, because it gets across how aggressively you need to prioritize. One analogy I often use is to picture a ladder. You can expend a lot of energy climbing the ladder as quickly as you can. But if it’s leaning against the wrong building, all that effort is waste. Your time is a resource. Spend it wisely.

Productivity Tip 2: Minimize Interruptions

The TODO list helps me know what I need to work on. The final piece of the core principle is to spend “consecutive hours” on these important tasks. In the office, interruptions are the primary obstacle to achieving this. Here are the ways I minimize interruptions:

  1. We have an open office floorplan at work, which can make the office area noisy and full of interruptions. If I have a lot of focused coding work to do, I’ll work from home when I can. Otherwise, I have a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that I use. I really like to listen to musicForProgramming.
  2. I turn off Outlook notifications and I close the program. I only open it at specific times of the day and check my email in batches (I try to carve out a 30-45 minute block of time to check and respond to email). Some people try to act like email is a realtime communication channel. Don’t be fooled. It’s not one.
  3. I block out large sections of my calendar at the times when I’m most productive (for me it’s in the morning when I first get to work). During that time, I’m careful not to start by checking email. That’s an easy way to squander your most productive time. Instead, I immediately jump into my prioritized list that requires the most brain power and focus. I save checking email for later in the day.
  4. Since I’m in a senior position, often many different people might approach me with questions, which can be a terrible source of interruptions. What’s worked well for me is to schedule explicit times when I’m available, e.g., office hours. If people still come to my desk I’ll politely remind them about office hours and ask that they bring it to the next session. Of course sometimes things can’t wait or it’s a really quick answer, but this helps reduce the number of random questions.

Productivity Tip 3: Meetings

Ah meetings. No developer I know likes them, but they can be a necessary evil of the job. Here are my tips for meetings:

  1. Do not be afraid to decline meetings. If it’s not a good use of your time and you don’t have something significant to contribute, skip it.
  2. For the meetings that are necessary, do your best to schedule them in batches. Nothing kills productivity like a swiss cheese calendar day (30 minute free blocks scattered throughout the day).
  3. Bias towards email as a substitute for meetings. Sometimes this ends up being more time-efficient.
  4. When you call a meeting, make sure it is run efficiently by doing the following:
    1. State a clear objective ahead of time (it should go into the meeting invite). What are we trying to accomplish? What specific topics need to be discussed?
    2. Start on time and keep the group on task. If the objective is reached before the end of the alotted time, end early. There’s no need to stretch the meeting out just because you scheduled a full hour.
    3. Ask people to close their laptops so they’re actually present for the discussion. It can feel a bit uncomfortable to ask this, but people only think they can multitask. If their laptop’s open, they’re missing most of the conversation and are probably not being very effective at what they’re trying to do on their laptop. I tell people, either attend the meeting or don’t. They’re not doing anyone (including themself) any favors by being half present.
    4. Take notes during the meeting and email them out afterward with key decisions that were made and action items if any. Action items need an owner and a date or they’re not going to happen.

Productivity Tip 4: Learn a scripting language and automate

Early on while I was in college, I learned shell-scripting, and it has been an invaluable skill throughout my career. Being good at scripting gives you the power to automate mundane tasks away very quickly. Because I’ve used shell-scripting for so long, I always find it surprising when I see developers manually performing repetitive tasks that could easily be scripted. This happens much more frequently than I’d like, especially when working on “non-coding tasks,” like design documents, updating bug trackers, etc.

I’ve found myself saying to people, “Don’t forget you’re a developer! Be a developer!” What I mean by that is developers should not restrict their coding skills just to production code. Computers enhance productivity tremendously, and being a developer means you have the ability to make computers solve customized problems for you. Obviously, there’s a bit of quick cost/benefit judgement that should be employed. Don’t spend an hour writing a script when you only have to do the task once and it takes 5 minutes to do manually. However be aware that there’s also a long-term benefit in building your scripting skills to the point where you can whip out a script in 10-15 minutes that saves you hours.

Productivity Tip 5: Utilize your commute to learn

I have a pretty long commute to and from work, and it turns out to be the perfect time to listen to tech talks, audiobooks, and podcasts. This turns a normally tedious part of my day into an opportunity to learn about various tech topics.

Productivity Tip 6: Exercise and get enough sleep

Last and certainly not least is to exercise and get enough sleep. It can be extremely tempting to work late into the night. You feel like you’ll squeeze a few more hours out of the day and get ahead. But what I’ve learned and relearned (and relearned) in my career is that it always ends up evening out or setting you back. You may get a few hours of work in in the middle of the night, but then you can hardly function for the entire next day. Also, when your brain is exhausted, you take longer to do tasks that would normally be pretty easy. This can have psychological consequences since it can trigger Imposter Syndrome anxiety. Finally, when you’re exhausted, you tend to make mistakes that can create more work for yourself. It’s just not worth it.

This tends to be a very difficult one for developers to follow (me included!). I think it’s because of programmer stereotypes (the image of the lone coder working through the night), but I can’t stress enough how important this one is!

Hope this helps! Again, these are just the tips that have worked well for me, but anything that helps you achieve the core principle I described at the beginning of this post works. Give them a try and let me know what you think. Do you have additional productivity tips? Let me know in the comments.

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