As a salaried employee I believe that I have an obligation to my employer for a certain level of productivity. The way I look at it, I’m not getting paid for how many hours I clock in a week, I’m getting paid for how much value I can give the company. This means I have a responsibility to be productive with my time. There are two sides to this. One is the idea of how much stuff you can get done in a given amount of time. The other is figuring out if you are doing the right thing. It is quite possible that you are very efficient at getting things done, but if you are not doing the kinds of things that add value to the company you really aren’t being productive.
On the other hand, you could be well focused on the kinds of activities that add value to the company, but working on them in a way that keeps you from efficiently getting them done. We need both things, but in this post I want to talk about the idea of getting stuff done. Specifically I want to talk about some of the productivity approaches and tools I have used and the kinds of things that didn’t work for me as well as some of the approaches I have found to be effective.
What didn’t work
I’ll start with some of the things I’ve tried through the years that haven’t seemed to work for me. It is pretty easy to find ‘productivity hacks’ on the internet, but there seems to be a lot less talk about the ways some of these things don’t work for some people. We are all different and so something that works for you might not work for me (and of course, something that didn’t work for me might just work for you).
One thing that I have tried is the pomodoro technique. I used it for several months and there are some things I liked about it, but at the end of the day is just didn’t work for me because of the amount of time I spend on collaboration. I think the technique would work well if you are primarily working in focused time on your own, but I am frequently stopping to answer questions and help other testers or developers, or I am asking questions of my own. One of my goals is to see testing and development work be more closely aligned and this means an emphasis on collaboration. I found the pomodoro technique shifted the emphasis too much to my individual work and away from a team based approach to solving the problems at hand. I have, however, been able to apply some of the thinking of this to help with my productivity. I now schedule a deep work session each day where I have some uninterrupted time to focus on work that requires that type of thinking. This allows me to balance out responsiveness and collaboration with thoughtfulness, introspection and deep thinking.
Another thing that has not worked out for me is using trello boards or kanban to structure my work. I like the theory of it and I continue to try and implement the idea of limiting work in progress, but I found that it create too much ‘paperwork’ for me. I have a strong dislike of paperwork of any sort and creating and maintaining a backlog and moving work through various stages, just felt like too much overhead for me.
What did work
There have been some things that I have found did work well for me. The system I have found to be most helpful is summarized here. The basic gist of it is that information, communication, scheduling and task management are all different things and ought to be thought of and managed separately from each other. While I don’t use the same set of tools, that system of thought – breaking those things out into separate tools and managing them each independently of each other – has led to a much more productive approach to life. Fundamentally this approach to getting things done in a digital culture has transformed the way that I work.
When talking about things that worked well for me, I have to gush for a minute about todoist. I’ve tried a number of different task management systems over the years and this one blows anything else I have tried out of the water. It is simple and powerful, probably because it does only one thing – manage tasks. It allows you to manage your tasks in an easy and intuitive way, and best of all for me, to instantly add something as soon as I think about it. This keeps me from forgetting things and also allows me to quickly add a task without it disrupting the current work I am doing. And no, I was not paid to say that – this is a tool I have come to love for their disciplined approach to solving just one problem.
Another thing that worked very well for me is the fact that I have tried many different approaches and tools. By playing around with different ways of doing things I have been able to learn things from various systems. I have been able to learn what things work for me, what things don’t work for me, and what things need to be tweaked and changed to work for me. I have also been able to recognize that some things work well in some contexts and not in others. Since there is no one size fits all approach to getting things done in knowledge work, experimentation to find out what works for me has been key.
So what kind of approaches and systems do you use in your attempts to get things done? How do you approach that digital mountain in front of you?