A topic that frequently comes up when speaking with engineers is how to use one’s time efficiently. Several years ago I started rating myself at the end of the day to get a sense for how well I was performing throughout the week. I found that there were days when I clearly performed well, and days when I clearly did not perform well. As I looked at the data I realized that the days during which I accomplished the most occurred when I had explicitly scheduled events throughout that day in my calendar, and the days during which I accomplished the least occurred when I did not have defined calendar events to guide me. Ever since then I’ve followed a time management system that has allowed me to maximize my impact each day. I’ve come to learn that this system will work for anyone, and I’d like to share it with you today. And if it starts sounding like a lot, don’t worry, I’ll summarize everything at the end in a few concise bullet points.
It starts by spending about an hour at the beginning of each week identifying the most important items you want to accomplish that week – I refer to these as my SMART goals (google SMART goals if you’re not familiar with the term). This usually ends up being about 3-5 items of moderate effort, and they’re generally activities that that will take maybe 2-4 hours each to complete. Now, these aren’t the only items you’ll complete that week, these are just the 3-5 most important items. In addition to these 3-5 SMART goals, you’ll also identify a handful of other things you need to get done. I’ll refer to these as the operational tasks. These are often the day-to-day operational stuff that isn’t necessarily in support of your long-term goals, but need to get done, nonetheless.
Speaking of long-term goals, it’s important to note that these are really the basis for your weekly SMART goals. I like to set yearly goals for myself that generally get broken down by quarter or even by month. Then, as you’re contemplating the most important efforts to tackle each week, all you need to do is look at your long-term goals and decide which efforts will best support the achievement of those goals. If you don’t have long-term goals, make them. If you aren’t sure what they should be, talk to your manager and ask for input on what they should be, because without them it’s likely that your weekly tasks will be more reactionary than intentional, and probably won’t take you where you want to end up. It’s like the Cheshire Cat said: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Or put another way, not having long-term goals is like captaining a ship without a rudder…you’ll end up somewhere, but chances are it won’t be your ideal destination. Once you have your long-term goals established, it becomes much easier to determine which tasks warrant your time each week, and which can be deferred or possibly even eliminated.
It's also helpful to keep a running todo list in which you can quickly and easily capture new items. I like to use an application called Airtable because it’s on my phone and thus pretty much always accessible to me when I think of something to add. Regardless of what tool you use, a lot of these don’t need to be accomplished right away, so the list tends to grow over the week. Then, at the beginning of the following week you simply review that list and identify relevant items to work on that week. Since a list like this can get unwieldy quickly it’s important to purge it on a regular basis. For more information on how to organically defer or eliminate items of lesser importance watch my video on YouTube called Ultimate Task Management System: Airtable.
Now, once you’ve identified your SMART goals and your operational tasks, you then add each of them to your calendar as individual calendar events. For example, if one of your SMART goals is to prepare a presentation for a new customer, you’ll schedule an event in your calendar for an appropriate block of time that says “Create presentation for XYZ customer”. Or, maybe you’re having trouble sourcing a particular component, in which case you’d schedule an event in your calendar that says “find two suppliers who have ABC component in stock”. And remember, all of this scheduling is happening at the very beginning of the week. In fact, if you really want to be neurotic, create a weekly recurring calendar event that blocks out time you’ll use just for scheduling the rest of the week. Anyway, the point is to be specific about the scope of your calendar events, including the day, time, and duration during which you intend to work on each. Morning hours tend to be when most of us perform cognitive tasks better, so it’s advisable to schedule analytical high-cognitive-demand tasks in the morning and more creative tasks in the afternoon.
At this point you’ve identified everything you want to accomplish that week, you’ve ensured those items are in alignment with your long term goals, and you’ve defined exactly when you’ll work on each item. What happens next seems like magic: the execution of these items now becomes almost automatic. You’ve effectively batched the thinking related to time management to the first hour of your week, and now you don’t have to spend time the rest of the week wondering what you should work on and when. You simply follow the plan you’ve laid out and all the right stuff ends up getting done.
There is one more element to setting up your killer time management system: minimizing distractions. If you don’t control your own time, I can promise you that someone else will! So, set yourself up for success by shutting down every source that has the potential to distract you. These probably include things like your email program, phone calls & notifications, direct messaging applications like Teams or Slack, and possibly even those working around you. My good friend Joel had some great advice on minimizing distractions – check out the first few minutes of Season 2 Episode 39 of the Being An Engineer podcast titled Processes For Life & Business, McDonalds Ideas, & Feel Good vs Real Good.
Of course, we won’t know in advance everything to plan for. Inevitably things will come up during the week that require our attention that we didn’t know to plan for. So, as important as it is to plan most of your week, it’s also important to leave some time slots available in your calendar. These will act as buffers against the inevitable meeting requests, IT issues, or other unforeseen needs that arise.
Okay, that was a lot. Let summarize the main points here.
- Make sure your long-term goals are clearly established; they will guide your weekly goals
- Keep a running list in which you capture new todo items as they come up
- At the beginning of each week, review your todo list and your long-term goals and decide what to tackle that week
- Create specific individual calendar events for you to work on each item; schedule your most important items first (these are typically the items in support of your long-term goals), and then schedule your items of secondary importance, which are generally the operational tasks
- As you work on each goal or task during the week, set yourself up for success by eliminating sources of distractions such as email, phone notifications, and direct messages
As fallible humans, we really do need systems to help us manage our time and be productive. The system I’ve described here is the best I’ve found so far to help me stay on track and I’m confident it will do the same for you. Sure, things don’t always work perfectly according to plan, but I can promise you that without a plan you will never manage your time as effectively as you can with one.