Thursday, July 23, 2015

Becoming more productive on a busy schedule

Today I am going to try my take on the million dollar question "How to become more productive at work and life? Juggling career, kids, marriage, continuous learning, relationships and enjoyment". Due to the inflation of US dollar the million dollar question has now surged into billion dollar range.

The overwhelming number of resources tell us about super-successful superheros, who seamlessly work a demanding job committing 50+ hours weekly, at the same time train for a half-marathon, have 3 children and 2 dogs, volunteer at the local charity, bake the best cakes in the neighborhood and are about to publish their second fiction novel. This list goes on and on.

By no means I claim being one of these superhumans, and in fact I am very far from reaching the status of one. After working a typical intensive day at the office, picking up my 1 year old daughter from daycare and cooking dinner and her meal from next day, usually all I want to do is watch Netflix for the next hour before going to bed. Yet, I sometimes end up needing to catch up on some work after my daughter to bed, and if the day calls for a special occasion my husband and I will have real conversation at the dinner table, instead of eating in front of the TV while answering emails. On typical weekday I am too tired to go out and socialize, but I am thriving to improve changing one bad habit at the time.

Some several small changes in my daily routine made a big difference for me, especially after becoming a parent. Here are some of the tips that are helpful for me, and I will encourage you to try:

1. Focus: Don't multitask, focus only on the task at hand.  

I am extremely bad at multitasking. However the expectations in today's workplace is that you should be able to juggle 3 projects at the same time. When you are trying to create paradigms and ideas, or even improving current features on 3 different projects, these ideas somehow blend into one and becomes tangled. It takes lots of unnecessary time and effort trying to untangle the mess and try to do something for half and hour only to discover you need to switch again. A good example of this is having 3 work meetings that have 30 minutes in between. That half an hour is wasted time.

The minimum amount of time I would commit working on one project is 4 hours or half a work day, usually morning till lunch or lunch until leaving office.

2. Have a list of goals

Having a clear list of goal for the week on Monday helps set priorities and realistic expectations for the rest of the week. I go into creating daily TODO lists, this effort also helps to reflect at the end of the week, month or quarter on all the things that were successful and not so successful.

I have a healthy obsession with Microsoft OneNote saving and syncing my lists on OneDrive. It is very convenient since the consistent syncing allows to stay on top of things across different laptops and tablets.

3. Limit social/time consuming apps from phone/tablet

Each of us have our own obsessions, be that daily deals on Groupon, daily email newsletter from your community, Facebook/Twitter notifications, or Pinterest shares. Each new app I install from Iphone store, requests permissions to send notifications. In the result, phone is constantly buzzing, distracting you from meetings or focused work sessions. This also has a cascading effect similar to sneezing, once someone pulls their phone out during the meeting to check something unimportant, everyone else starts checking their phones for even less important news.

The best thing I have done was uninstalling Facebook from my phone. This dramatically decreased the temptation to randomly check the phone for interactive unimportant information. I still check Facebook several times daily from the desktop, this helps Facebook algorithms filter the feed to less entries that are more relevant versus checking every 5 minutes.

4. Start the day early

Never before I could have been considered as an early bird, my typical day at the office would start at around 10 in the morning and continue past 6:30 in the evening. I remember occasions of complaining to coworkers for scheduling a super early 9:30 am meeting. I would usually wake up around 8:30 am, shower, have a nice glass of coffee and drive to work. Waking up late used to mean time being past 10 am.

However with the necessity to work around the daycare schedule which requires picking up children by 6 pm things had to change. Now I typically arrive to office within 15 minutes of 8:30 depending on the traffic. Waking up late means waking up at 7:30. Our morning TODO list has grown exponentially, requiring getting my daughter fed and ready for day at her daycare. The early mornings before summer heat becomes intolerable motivate me to go on a run, I am trying to find my best routine to get better at this. (Power of habit). Having the time limit to leave by 5 pm makes me much more productive. I know I can't procrastinate.

Besides the benefit of being more energetic and goal oriented, the 1,5 hours in the office before everyone gets in are invaluable. I get to check my email, and complete the task I had spent last evening on.

5. Have a reliable support system

Occasionally there is a meeting that will run past 5 pm, or the feeling of *being in the zone* to finish a project. Many programmers will relate to this, the feeling that you need to finish your task, that everything is in the right place to do it, otherwise it will take you many hours to get back in that mode the next day.

Last night was such a day, I had a deadline that wasn't too close, yet I felt *in the zone* to finish a major infrastructure piece, so I asked my husband to pick up Ella. I left the office at 7 pm, tired but happy and accomplished.

6. Don't sweat the small stuff

There are always distraction that come into place, your phone beeping ones in half an hour with Facebook messages from friends trying to decide where to meet up, emails about choosing the bakery or gifts for your child's birthday party, reminder to call your aunt for her birthday. All these are very tempting to get overwhelmed about, just to read your email, to make the call, confirm reservation with the rental company. At any time a coworker my stop by to ask how your weekend was and tell you all about his time on the cruise vacation. Yet, your precious momentum is lost and it will take a long time to recover.

Turn off the notification on your phone for personal email, add a calendar entry at 8 pm to call your aunt and deal with contractor emails at that time. Your coworker will understand when you tell him it will be awesome to catch up on lunch, yet you can't right now.

7. Take time to refresh

One of the bad habits I developed after being time restricted on when to leave work was eating lunch at my desk. It seems very efficient at first, since there is an extra 30-60 minutes to get more done and allowed less temptation to cheat on my diet. However I ended up spending the time get distracted on reading the news and checking out your friend's vacations pictures on Facebook, yet overall it decreased my effectiveness. I am now committed to eating lunch with my team at least twice a week, which is the ideal place to chat about something very random and exciting, like a trip to Iceland or climbing Mt Shasta (which motivates me to be more effective at work and start planning my next vacation), it is also ideal environment to bounce some ideas, and get feedback on what you spent last 2 hours stuck on.

This applies to taking time off internet at night, not checking your email while in bed first thing in the morning, and being able to relax on vacation without checking your work email for entire week. You will be surprised how much more refreshed you start feeling in the short amount of time.

I highly recommend "Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg, identifying one thing that you want to improve and making small changes to reach your goal.

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