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Organization & productivity: getting more done with less

I've asserted before that the tech professional's optimal path to wealth is to start with a good financial plan and then focus on their career. If you check out the aforelinked* article, you can see that it's laughably easy to create a case study that bears this out. If you understand how raises work, that can give you a leg up in the process. And, as I discovered in my own career as an engineer, the right mindset and productivity tools can make all the difference!

The right mindset: effectiveness over efficiency

Let's get one thing straight up front: effectiveness is an order of magnitude more valuable than efficiency. In other words, make sure that you're working on the right thing before you focus on doing it faster! Around engineers, "rabbit holes" turn into "black holes": we love our work, so it's easy for us to get sucked into minutia that ultimately prove unimportant.

Think of your work as a highway that you're driving down. On the left side is "cutting corners and sacrificing quality"; on the right side is "wasting time on trivia". If you don't keep your hands on the wheel, you'll find yourself running off the road towards one side or other, leaving out comments on a particularly intricate bit of code or designing a feature that might be useful to have someday, just because it's cool. It doesn't matter how fast you're driving (efficiency) -- if you don't stay on the highway (effectiveness), you'll end up in a ditch!

"Easy for you to say," you say. "But how do I know where the lines are? How do I know what's trivia and what's actually important?" And it's a valid point; most tech professionals don't have the luxury of clearly-delineated guidelines. This is where mentors come in: find someone whom you trust, who's upwardly-mobile but not necessarily political, and ply them with lunch every so often. (We love sharing our hard-earned expertise over free food!) Ideally, that person is your manager, which is perfect; your weekly 30-minute one-on-ones are a great time to garner feedback. And if you don't have weekly 1:1's, suggest them!

Point being: make sure you're centered on the road first. Once that's done, we can floor it.

GTD: Getting Things Done

GTD isn't just a pithy acronym: it's actually a well-regarded productivity algorithm. Go buy the book. It just might be the best $10-$15 you've ever spent.

At the heart of GTD is the idea that trying to carry around a whole bunch of things in our brain -- tasks, reminders, projects -- is taxing on our ability to concentrate effectively. Get all that stuff out of your head and into a system that will bring it up at the right time. Free up your RAM, stop constantly context switching, and focus on The Next Step. Tech professionals get paid the Big Bucks to focus, and to hold a lot of things in their head at once; the more background tasks you can kill and the more resources you can free up, the more focused and effective you'll be. (And, in my experience, the more fun you'll have!)

GTD isn't just an idea, though; the author David Allen has very specific ideas on how to implement it. Though he's very much a "paper and folders" kind of fellow, it's super easy to adapt the physical aspects of GTD into a digital system. Once you get the concept of a "tickler", for example, it's a short step to creating reminders to accomplish the same task.

And speaking personally: Getting Things Done was the inflection point for me. Before GTD, I was a decent coder, and not much more. After GTD, I became an upwardly-mobile engineer who ended up managing twenty people by the time I changed careers. It's not that I was smarter than my colleagues (many of whom are certifiable geniuses) or particularly political or worked 60-hour weeks; GTD just helped me to be efficient and effective, and that made all the difference.

The Ideal Week and Calendar Soup

Having heaped my praised upon GTD, there's one point where Allen and I differ somewhat: I rely on my calendar a lot. My colleagues would recoil when they saw me pulling it up; the wall-to-wall colors make it seem as if I'm constantly bouncing from meeting to meeting, sunup to sundown, like an episode of West Wing. Not true! I simply use my calendar to determine what I need to be focusing on.

Part of it is about "designing the Ideal Week". The idea's popped up several places, but I think Michael Hyatt codifies it best. On my calendar, I plot out my ideal week: marketing on Mondays, client meetings and work Tuesdays-Thursdays, and working on the business on Fridays. I subdivide it further as necessary, setting aside time for regular tasks (like writing blog articles). Sometimes I just set aside an hour for automating tasks or catching up on compliance, and determine the specifics of what needs doing when the time comes.

Like Getting Things Done, this is a great way to get stuff out of your head. The answer to "what should I work on right now?" becomes simple: just look at your calendar! What used to cause analysis paralysis becomes automatic.

More importantly, though, the Ideal Week is like a budget for your time. It gives you a forcing function and a knob you can turn. If you're concerned about the quality of your work, why not add more time to your calendar for testing and reviews? If you're tempted to spend too much time on a pet project, why not set a limit on the time you spend on it?

And if you have no idea what your Ideal Week looks like, don't fret. I didn't really know when I started, either. So I tried things until they worked. I now know that I'm best off doing solo work in the morning and meetings in the afternoon, and because I still love engineering, Friday afternoon automation time is the perfect segue into the weekend!

Now, as an engineer, I know it's tempting to treat something as Writ In Stone once it's on your calendar. Don't let this happen to you! Your calendar is meant to serve you, not the other way around. Think of it less like Tetris and more like soup: it doesn't matter what order you put in the ingredients, as long as all the necessary bits make it into the pot, and in roughly the right proportions.

If a co-worker asks you out for coffee during the time you have set aside for code review, don't say no out of reflex. Just take a look at your calendar, see if you can shuffle things around, shorten certain tasks, or even delete them entirely, and go from there. Of course, if you've got two deadlines coming up, your calendar may be full of things you have to get done, in which case you'll likely take a rain check -- and feel good about it!

Sidebar: put e-mail on your calendar, too!

Seriously. Turn off e-mail notifications, get rid of the little icon in your system tray, and set aside time in your calendar for plowing through your inbox, say 30 minutes 2-3 times a day. I call this time "Administrivia", because I also use it to take care of those little 2-minute "mosquito" tasks that crop up. Bonus: set that time for mid-morning at the earliest, forcing you to get some productive work done before taking an e-mail "break".

If you absolutely have to, you can set up your phone to alert you if you get an e-mail from e.g. your boss or significant other. In my experience, though, the concept of "text me if it's urgent" works just fine for most people. (And "please use your power for good, rather than evil" can help set boundaries with a sense of humor.)

Of course, if an e-mail comes in that will require a significant chunk of time to address, that's likely something that should be deferred, perhaps until the right time in your Ideal Week. You can jot out a quick response indicating that you got the message, are on top of things, and will have a more complete reply by Wednesday -- which will impress the hell out of most people!

The Pomodoro Technique: balancing focus and burnout

File this one under "simple but profoundly effective": the Pomodoro Technique, so named because it centers around a tomato timer. Set a timer for a stretch of time (a "pomodoro"), say 25 minutes, work until the timer goes off, then take a 5-minute break, then work another 25 minutes, and so on, interspersing larger breaks every four pomodoros or so. Make every effort to keep a pomodoro atomic, working on one thing without distraction or diversion; save chats, coffee, and restroom pit stops for the breaks. ("Sure, I'd love to discuss that, but I'm in the middle of something right now -- can I come by in 10 minutes?")

I've found this kind of rhythm to be perfect for maintaining focus. Having a timer that goes off every 25 minutes keeps me from going too far down a rabbit hole or missing a meeting (or lunch!). And forcing regular breaks keeps me from burning out, even if I'm having to work 10+ hour days!

Like all productivity tools, this is meant to serve you, not vice versa: adjust as necessary for your personality and situation. Some of you naturally tend towards being too draconian here, while some of you will take on any distraction that comes your way. Whichever end you find yourself on, work to lean towards the center.

"That's great, but it's a lot. Where do I start?"

I've dumped a lot on you, and if this is your first time hearing any of this, it's probably a bit overwhelming! If I had to do it all again, I'd start with my calendar. Set aside a 30-60 minute block per week to work on your systems, whether it's setting up your Ideal Week, reading GTD, or adding the Pomodoro Technique to your system. Pick one that sounds interesting to you and start, then use that time block each week to evaluate and iterate. Setting aside a block of time is a great forcing function, as I mentioned above: if you dread setting up your systems, it forces you to spend time on it, but if you love tinkering with your systems more than doing actual work, it keeps you from going too far down the rabbit hole!

Those of you who've already tinkered with productivity systems of their own: got any experiences to share, good, bad, or otherwise? Start a conversation in the comments -- I'd love to swap stories!

* Yes, "aforelinked" is a word, as it turns out!

Britton is an engineer-turned-financial-planner in Austin, Texas. As such, he shies away from suits and commissions, and instead tends towards blue jeans, data-driven analysis, and a fee-only approach to financial planning.

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