December 16, 2008

Day 17 - Time Management

This post was contributed by Ben Rockwood. Thanks, Ben!

During the holiday season there seems to be a mad rush between Thanksgiving and Christmas. An odd force compels us to hurry things up and get organized or finish projects before the long Christmas break. The great and glorious pay off is a new January, fresh with possibility and reward. Out with the old, in with the new.

The new year offers something special and unique... perspective. Maybe you don't finish your projects prior to Christmas but things somehow feel different in the new year. New plans, new schedules, and a fresh perspective. So how can we get that perspective on a more regular basis?

Principles of Time Management

  1. Write everything down:

    Really, everything. Work or home, write it all down. If the thought cross your mind, it should be recorded. The thought may be "get mail", or "see new Bond film", or "implement new backup solution". If it's not written down you will think about it again, and again, and again. So get it out of your head.

    I encourage you to set aside about 30 minutes to an hour for this purpose. Set aside some time, go to some place relaxing, get a cup of coffee and just let your mind flow. Things you always wanted to do as a kid. A book, comic, or movie you never really understood or only caught part of. A hobby you've always wanted to try. A skill you think would be fun and useful. A new language you've wanted to learn (programming or spoken).

    In this alone you'll feel a great sense of relief and comfort.

  2. Keep it all in a central place:

    I'll offer some systems below, but which system you use isn't as important as simply consistantly using it. For SysAdmin's this may actually be a small collection of places, such as your company ticket system and a personal planner. If you simply use scraps of paper or a legal pad you'll innevitably loose it, so opt for a specific peice of software or organizer or note book. When your brain knows that all your projects and tasks are in a place it can easily reference it will leave your concious mind alone.

  3. Keep multiple lists

    You should not just have a single simple TODO list... life just isn't that linear. Rather, you should have a big "braindump" list of things to do, and then break that out into daily, weekly, monthly lists, or whatever granularlity you need.

    The sad fact is that in our minds, we tend to have a hodge-podge of TODO tasks, large and small alike. We constantly are steam-rolling this in our concious mind, and eventually it becomes overwhelming. When you lay everything out, and then look at that list and say to yourself "What can I accomplish this month?", then create that list, you start making life managable.

    This is key. When you have everything written down, you can create smaller, more approachable sublists to execute on it and have a greater sense of confidence that you might actually do it.

  4. Create daily TODO lists:

    Each day you should have a TODO list. This is the end-result of your other lists, which can actually be directly executed on. Get mail, walk dog, buy milk, install backup agents on systems 1-14, upgrade customerX's MySQL instance, close at least 4 tickets. These tasks need to be very granular... do-able.

    When you have daily lists you have two big benefits. Firstly, you have a historical record of what you were doing day-by-day. What were you trying to get done on March 23rd? Now you can look back and find out. Secondly, you can "push" tasks from one day to the next. Don't have time to finish something today? Push it onto tomorows list now and move on with other tasks you can complete.

    This is something paper planners do very well, but is difficult to accomplish in software task managers.

  5. 'Clean the Garage' is a Project:

    The key to using software management tools, such as 'Things' or 'OmniFocus', is to think in projects. A "project" is defined as any goal or objective that is not accomplished in a single task. As an example, replacing a lightbulb could be either one. If you have lightbulbs and you just need to swap it, its a task. However if your out of light bulbs and need to go to the store first, it is now a project consisting of the tasks "Buy Lightbulbs" and "Replace bulb in hallway".

    I make special emphasis of this because if you don't think like this the software tools will be very difficult to manage. You'll just have growing piles of TODO's that seem unrelated and you'll spend more time digging through lists of tasks than accomplishing them.

  6. Think out the steps:

    It's very important to not just think about the end result you want, such as "Backup Oracle Database", but rather to think about its individual tasks and then lay them out. Even tasks that may be fairly simplistic can seem overhwelmingly complex when you mind floods your concious with all the possible permutations and unclear decisions you will need to make. If you just break it down you can stay more relaxed, focused, and objective. You may even need to create sub-projects to evaluate your options, such as "Benchmark RMAN", "Evaluate BakBone Oracle Agent", etc.

Management Systems

  1. Franklin Covey Paper Planners

    Franklin Covey is a leading name in time management tools. If you haven't heard of them, think of the old "DayRunners" or other paper planners you've seen, but more flexable and customized.

    When you get started with Franklin Covey you will need to select and purchase a binder, starter kit, and verious types of filler pages. If you visit a store an employee will walk you through it, and if you visit their website there is a guide. Planners come in all sizes and styles to meet your needs directly. I personally prefer the smallest size, so that I can put it in a pocket.

    The advantages to a paper planner is that you have a perminant record of each days work and schedule to archive, its easy and fast to use, and you can take it everywhere you go. On the downside, its more expensive than software. Expect a nice setup to run you about $80.

    If you are on a budget, you can emulate the same thing in any cheap binder. Many people use Moleskin notebooks for this purpose.

  2. OmniFocus

    OmniFocus for the Mac is the most popular time management software around these days. Its very powerful but can take some time to learn. Thankfully there are some excellent tutorial videos and the online help is useful.

    The software lets you easily gather new tasks in an inbox and then later sort them into categories and projects. One of the most useful concepts in OmniFocus is that of "Context". Any particular place in which tasks can be done is a "context". For instance, you can only do laundry when your at home, and you can only check the tape robots in the office. When you assign context to tasks you can later look only at tasks that you can actually accomplish now. You might need to "Wash the dog" today, but you don't need to look at that task when your in the office working.

    The key to OmniFocus is to use it as it was intended. If you don't take time to actually learn how the software is intended to be used you'll find it nifty for about a week and then start getting irritated or frustrated.

    One added bonus of OmniFocus is that if you have an iPhone you can buy OmniFocus for iPhone and sync it with your desktop, bringing the "everywhere you want to be" advantage of paper to OmniFocus.

  3. Things

    Thinks is also for the Mac and currently free. It adopted many of the concepts of OmniFocus but is not nearly as strict and rigid. Rather than structure it relies on tagging tasks, which can allow you to organize more freely.

    I highly recommend that anyone considering the software route start with OmniFocus's free trial. Learn OmniFocus and then move to tools like Things. If you don't and just try Things you'll immediately find it too free flow and unhelpful.

    There is also an iPhone version of Things, however at last check it did not support sync'ing with the desktop.

Further reading:


Anonymous said...

Personally I like the gtd methods.

Compared to your view, it emphasizes less on the actual scheduling of when you will do what. eg you only plan out things that have deadlines or that must happen on a specific date for some reason. The other things are not to be put up on a calendar or "daily todo list".
1) it requires time/effort to put things on a list, to move items between lists, etc.
2) your planning will change anyway. factors come in and out, plans change etc
With gtd you set up a calendar with the things that are bound to date/time-elements, and the other todo's are just stored somewhere else, coupled to a context and/or project. If you have good software, all that is needed then is to look at your calendar and your tasks (which can be categorized by tag, project or context, so you get a good overview)
If you're done with a task, you can tick it off or whatever, so the goal of being able to see afterwards what you did when does not warrant the use of "pre-scheduled" todo-lists.
That said, todo-lists *can* have their advantages. (a clearer planning, it stimulates more, etc)

What GTD has in common with your point of view are the concepts of contexts and projects, and the need to "dump" all your ideas/thoughts in a trusted place to get a clear mind, although gtd has very specific and organised ways to process, categorize etc that "dumped" information, which definitely helped me.

Gtd is of course much more then task management, it's about managing every thought/note/idea/task/time, setting up your workspace, etc etc. I highly recommend the book (or articles about it)

There are many gtd tools out there (of which some you already mentioned)

Personally I try to keep it simple and use simple textfiles, with a smart system around it called emacs org-mode. You can do gtd with it, or any other workflow you choose.

Anonymous said...

Yes, you definately should add
emacs org-mode to your list of available software.
Org Mode was my reason to have a closer look at emacs. It is extremely flexible, keeps everything in plain text and is just a charme to use.
Plus, it is very actively developed.

Definately recommended to anyone planing your or any other way!

Alex said...

Not sure when you last checked on Things for iPhone, but there it has supported (manual) syncing with the desktop since about September or so. As long as you have Things running on your Mac and your iPhone is on the same network, open it up and it'll automatically discover your computer and start a sync. Works pretty well.

Unknown said...

To keep track of your hours worked and at the same time manage a remote team for recording hours worked, try Time Doctor .. its a easy to use software as it will give you an update on your team's daily goals and what each of your team members will be targeting next to accomplish.