Picture by Nikki Buitendijk released under Creative Commons License
I´ve been a Web Developer for nearly 13 years now. My job title changed a lot in those years, from intern to junior, from junior to specialist, from specialist to senior, from senior to... even if you´re not working in the tech sector, this pattern will probably seem familiar to you.
When I last switched jobs, moving from a web agency day job to a bigger corporation something changed in that pattern and I was given this monstrosity of a job title: "Specialist Senior Manager Software Developer".
I probably had the same look on my face as you´re having on yours now. I made my fair amount of jokes about this and just went along with it. But something was buried in this monstrosity, something I realized only a long time after being in this job: From then on, I wasn't simply a developer anymore, I became a manager.
Past, present & future tense
For the first few years of my career, productivity wasn't in my vocabulary at all. I didn't spend a second thinking about my own productivity. Of course, I spent a lot of time trying to become a better developer. Trying to get the job done. During all those agency years my day job was rather simple. Some project manager assigned me a task. Some that could be done in a day, some that took weeks or months to complete. Every now and then they would show up at my desk to inquire the current status and tell me to hurry up. That was it. Back in those days productivity for me meant getting the job done as quickly as possible.
Things changed when I was still working at the agency, but instead of working on tasks in isolated tiny groups, I was shifted into a client project: Working on-site with the client, with their teams, with lots of freelancers, with people from other disciplines. And it wasn't only that. Knowing only waterfall methods, I ended up in a full blown agile Scrum project (or whatever they thought Agile or Scrum meant). From then on I had to estimate upcoming work, write user stories, epics and tasks and the need to break them down into smaller bits and pieces that could be solved in a short amount of time. Interestingly enough, aside from there being a lot to learn and a lot more work that kept me away from the thing I love, writing code, I felt relieved. Someone not only gave me work, they gave me the trust and responsibility to estimate, plan, raise concerns and be responsible for myself and my own work.
I guess that´s where it all began. It wasn't really an obsession, but I began to think a lot about optimising everything that I could think of. Shifting between digital & analog setups. Trying, failing, procrastinating, questioning my abilities and somehow reaching a state of agreement with myself.
An agreement that I actually drew out of the agile methodologies I´ve picked up along the way. Nothing is ever finished. You start with the Minimum Viable Productivity. From there on, you constantly iterate. You constantly improve. You constantly discard things that get in your way. I´ve also accepted that there isn't a 100% top-solution that boosts your productivity through the roof. Neither with the software or analog tools I use nor with the methods I define for myself. Everything is in a constant state of flux and everything needs to be adapted regarding the actual tasks and chores you work on.
The most important thing is to stay focused. At least for me, it´s impossible to work on a swath of things simultaneously. Of course, there´s always more than one thing on our minds, may it be work, open source projects or private life. In the end my personal productivity boils down to managing my focus right.
Narrow your focus
If you read the other fantastic articles on this blog, one thing gets crystal clear, productivity is a very subjective thing. It always depends on the situation you´re in and there are many ways to achieve it. You need to pick the bits and pieces that´ll help you. The bits and pieces I picked up along the way look like this:
I plan only a week ahead. Depending on how I feel, I sit down on a Friday afternoon, Sunday evening or early Monday morning and plan the week that is ahead of me. By planning I mean I take a look at my "needs reply" mail inbox, my agile board, and my calendar and convert these into tasks that I put into a very simple, digital ToDo app. It adds a bit of duplication, and I can tell that I´m not totally satisfied with it, but keeping those things in one place helps me to maintain my focus.
I don't draw a line between work, open source and private here. I do keep those things in different folders, but I don't plan for topics, I plan for timeframes. I plan my days. Also, I don't duplicate whatever is on my calendar. I don't add "Meeting" to my ToDo list, I add "Prepare for meeting X", because I can take the time that a meeting takes into account for the amount of work I can handle on the day. Preparing a meeting at least a day ahead keeps me on track of managing the meeting itself on time.
»If Tetris Has Taught Me Anything, It’s That Errors Pile Up and Accomplishments Disappear« - Origin unknown
When I first started this I made the two biggest mistakes one can make when they start working like this. I overestimated the number of tasks I can handle and I ticked off my accomplishments, letting them vanish into the digital nirvana.
It took me quite a long time to realize that there´s one solution to both problems. You might hear of things like a Done list and probably seen a lot of articles about why ToDo lists don't work & done lists do.
I do prefer to have a mixture of those. Instead of letting my done tasks vanish, I move them to a "Done - Monday", "Done - Tuesday" etc. folder on my ToDo list. They stay there for the entire week, so that, whenever I feel like I´m not making any progress, I can actually take a look at this folder and see what I´ve accomplished so far. It also helps me to constantly evaluate how many tasks I can assign myself per day. At the end of the week, I reevaluate what I planned for each day & what I actually managed to do.
Nowadays, coding isn't my primary job. I plan and attend meetings, research and present special topics. A lot of these tasks follow the same patterns and I´ve realized that they roughly take the same amount of time. So I´m constantly getting better and better at planning my days, even if I have a lot of work ahead of me. This means that I not only feel confident that I can get things done, but also feel a growing sense of self-confidence around my ability to give real estimations of how long things will take and to decline things because they are impossible to fit in.
Question, Reevaluate, Adapt, Improve
As I mentioned before, I´m constantly trying to improve my workflow. I´m using Wunderlist at the moment, which might be gone soon. I´ve also tried to switch to analog planning, using the Bullet Journal technique (Bastian Allgeier did a great write up about it here). As this wasn't really compatible with how I work and didn't make me feel good, I may give Trello another try, after reading this Article.
None of this solutions will be "the perfect fit", I´m aware of this, but it doesn't keep me from giving them a try alongside my regular approach and see how they work out.
In the end, "Productivity" is just a word. We all have to define for ourselves what it means for us. The most important thing is to always be aware that just because you're not trying to "boost" your productivity, it doesn't mean you're unproductive. You are different from your friends and coworkers. What works for them might not work for you. Don't feel bad because you think that they´re all so much better at it than you are (Hint: They mostly aren't, they just approach things differently and the foreign has always some appeal to us humans). Find your own way, fail, try again, fail again, and be reassured that it´s the same for all of us.
P.s.: Two books that I haven't finished reading yet, but currently inspire me to try new ways to tackle my productivity are: Work Clean and Reinventing Organizations.