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How To Improve Time Management: A Developer’s Guide
Published:Jan 11, 2022

How To Improve Time Management: A Developer’s Guide

We all have 24 hours a day. Unless you’re Marty McFly, there’s no way to go back in time to rescue a slipped deadline or redo the to-do list.

We can’t make more time, but we can better manage our time to achieve more in the same amount of time.

Time management isn’t just some feel-good thing that personal development gurus dole out in excess. There’s a lot of science-based evidence behind the most effective time management methods.

Let’s dig in to see how they can help software developers and development teams get more done more efficiently.

Dude, Where’s My Time?

To better manage our time, we need to understand how and why we may be wasting our time.

Planning Fallacy

A cognitive bias first proposed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979, the planning fallacy is the tendency to underestimate the time required to finish a task or overestimate our ability to complete it within a set amount of time. This fallacy is partly due to reliance on overly optimistic performance scenarios without the help of reliable data.

Multi-Step Tasks

It’s easy to estimate the time you need to complete a single work item. But if a task is overly complex and contains multiple steps, the chances that one of them will hit a snag and impact your timeline will increase. Even worse, if you aren’t tracking your time consistently and flagging the issues quickly, minor delays can add up to a substantial impact.

The Dopamine High

The brain releases dopamine, a feel-good chemical, every time we check off an item from our to-do list, no matter how insignificant it is. This feeling can make us erroneously associate productivity with menial tasks. That’s why some people run around like a chicken with its head cut off all day trying to take care of things and still fail to achieve meaningful results.

the dopamine high

The Action Threshold

Most people have problems starting work on a big project due weeks or even months out. It’s because the pain of doing the work is higher than that of delaying the task. Most of the time, we don’t have a problem doing the work—we have a problem starting it because we rely on vague, long-term goals to motivate us at the moment.

Context Switching

Just like a computer, if we have to go from doing one task to another, there’s a cost associated with context switching. Instead of doing real work, your brain needs time to memorize the state of the current task and retrieve the most recent information of the other one. Then, it has to do the same when you switch back to the first task.

Responsiveness vs. Throughput

When you’re working with a team, you’ll inevitably have to respond to others’ questions or requests. If you’re super responsive, you’re essentially switching tasks all the time, and your throughput will suffer. But if you ignore these interruptions, you could hold up the process because your team may not get the information they need.

6 Science-Backed Strategies to Improve Time Management

The good news is that you can overcome these barriers, and there are many scientific studies available to back up the most effective strategies.

Work in Sprints

Our brains operate on a 90-minute rhythm, moving through periods of higher and lower alertness. After working at a high intensity for 90 minutes, we use stress hormones for energy. As a result, the prefrontal cortex begins to shut down, and we can’t think clearly or maintain our focus.

Respect the natural rhythm of the body rather than muscling through the dip with energy drinks and sugary food. Bake rest and renewal into your work schedule by blocking out a 15-minute break for every 90 minutes of work.

Find Your Peak

Track your time and associate it with the effort to understand when you’re functioning at your peak (e.g., how much time you need to accomplish one story point.) Shift your work schedule if necessary to do deep work during those hours so you can do more meaningful work in less time simply by going with the flow.

When you’re in the flow, it’s much easier to keep rolling until you complete a task. Give yourself enough time to ride the momentum and leverage the Zeigarnik Effect, which states that after you start something, the mental tension caused by unfinished work will make your mind keep going until the task is done.

the Zeigarnik Effect

Develop Productivity Rituals

If you rely on willpower to get things done, you could be doing things the hard way. Willpower is a finite resource, and using it every time you need to complete a task eats into your energy reserve. Instead, lower the resistance by reducing the friction of starting a task.

Foster productive habits and lower the mental costs of starting tasks by establishing productivity rituals that make these processes automatic. For example, you can have a pre-set way to triage tickets or respond to emails, so you don’t spend extra mental energy deciding what to do with them and when.

Limit Your Decisions

Speaking of mental load, did you know that decision fatigue is a real thing? A social psychologist coined this term for the emotional and mental strain caused by a burden to choices. (And thus, a science-backed argument for having a closet full of black turtlenecks…)

Look for ways to simplify things in your personal and professional environment to reduce the number of decisions you have to make. For example, developing habits and rituals can help you automate many repetitive actions (e.g., how you decide which email to respond to right away and which one to park) so you can focus your energy on important decisions.

Eliminate Unimportant Tasks

Remember how our brains crave the dopamine high from checking things off the list even if they don’t contribute to your goals? These small and unimportant tasks can become major distractions, and you should eliminate them from your day as much as you can.

Be disciplined and selective about what you put on your to-do list. Resist the temptation to write down anything and everything just for the sake of crossing them out! Prioritize your task, “eat the frog,” and maybe schedule an hour to check small things off the list as a reward after a long day of productive work.

Chunk Down Big Projects

Break down big hairy projects into manageable milestones to create urgency, lower the action threshold, and avoid potential delays caused by multi-step tasks. It’s easier to get things started if a goal seems less daunting, and you can lay out the steps you need to take to avoid analysis paralysis.

Breaking down a project into smaller pieces allows you to estimate the time required for each more accurately. You can monitor the time spent on each work item, raise a red flag if you miss a milestone, and course-correct quickly if something doesn’t go according to plan.

What Gets Measured Gets Managed

To better manage your time, you need to accurately measure the time you spend on work items at a granular level, so you can go beyond saying “I spent XX hours on this project” but be able to say “I spent Y hours on this specific task, accomplishing A, B, and C.”

Then, you can use the information to determine the time required for a specific amount of effort and gain insights to inform future estimations.

To help developers better manage their time, we have created a metric called “pace.” You can calculate your own or your team’s pace simply by dividing the time spent on a task by the estimated effort (e.g., story points.)

What Gets Measured Gets Managed

After establishing your pace, you can multiply the number by the estimated effort of a future task to see how much time it’d take.

Meanwhile, you can use 7pace Timetracker to help you gather real-time data and calculate the pace for a task in progress. If the pace is drastically different from your average, you can troubleshoot right away to see what might have gone wrong or if you need to adjust your estimations for the project.

Free eBook

Rethinking Timekeeping for Developers:

Turning a Timesuck Into Time Well Spent

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