Time Management + Life Hacks in the Age of Covid
I began working for a large agricultural tech startup at the start of March 2020. I’m a software engineering tech lead — I only spent 2 weeks in my new workplace before being asked to work from home as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
I’ve been working from home for approximately 9 months, during this time I had to learn to manage my time more effectively, working entirely remotely. I live in a 1 bedroom apartment, my new work space overlaps with my leisure space and that introduces some problems. This article is about time management whilst working from home, I share some “life hacks”/ strategies and I talk about some techniques for optimizing time and increasing productivity.
What is Time Management?
“Time management” is the process of organizing and planning how to divide your time between specific activities. It allows you to have conscious control of time spent on specific activities, to increase effectiveness, efficiency, and productivity.
Good time management enables you to work smarter — not harder — so that you get more done in less time, even when time is tight and pressures are high. Failing to manage your time damages your effectiveness and causes stress.
Fortunately, there is a wealth of research that delves into the skills of time management. Time management is often defined as a decision-making process for adjusting a person’s time in changing environmental conditions.
Three particular skills separate time management success from failure:
- Awareness: thinking realistically about your time by understanding it is a limited resource.
- Arrangement: designing and organizing your goals, plans, schedules, and tasks to effectively use time.
- Adaptation: monitoring your use of time while performing activities, including adjusting to interruptions or changing priorities.
Time Management Strategies
1. Develop good habits and break bad ones.
Keeping track of something appears impossible in the midst of our hectic lives. And when you’re off course, you’re more likely to take the wrong direction. Your habits, on the other hand, will change the way you keep your life in order.
There are some great books about habits, Atomic Habits by James Clear distills a lot of great ideas down into a quick read.
The premise of Atomic Habits by James Clear is that it’s very easy to underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis. Too often we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action.
The Book in Three Sentences
- An atomic habit is a regular practice or routine that is not only small and easy to do but is also the source of incredible power; a component of the system of compound growth.
- Bad habits repeat themselves again and again not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change.
- Changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years.
- Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.
- If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead.
- The most effective way to change your habits is to focus not on what you want to achieve, but on who you wish to become.
- The Four Laws of Behavior Change are a simple set of rules we can use to build better habits. They are (1) make it obvious, (2) make it attractive, (3) make it easy, and (4) make it satisfying.
- Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior.
I recommend using an app like Strides to track your good and bad habits.
Strides from makeprogress.com is a mobile goal tracker app that tracks your habits and registers the progress of distinct facets of life. You can even set alerts to check and remind you about the progress of a new habit.
Once a target is achieved, the online goal planner app pop-ups a message to congratulate and, thus, keeps the user encouraged.
With Strides, you can keep track of just about anything, from how much sleep you get to how much money you spend.
Strides is a flexible goal tracking app. The app has four unique tracker types that can easily be customized to fit your needs:
- Habit: It can be good or bad habits
- Target: You can set goal value by date. For assistance, the goal tracker has a Pace Line feature.
- Average: You can analyze the progress average by any period.
- Project: Set simple milestones and pursue the complete sliders with pace & dates for the project.
You can track the progress of every individual task because every habit has its chart.
2. Limit multi-tasking.
Avoid Looking at Your Phone
It might not seem like looking at your phone in the morning has anything to do with multitasking, but it’s actually a huge productivity killer. According to Entrepreneur, founder and president of NuttZo Danielle Dietz-LiVolsi said, “Do not check your phone or email when you first wake up,” Dietz-LiVolsi said. “Wait at least 60 minutes, so you are not jumping right into a ‘reactive’ state of mind.”
- Until you pick up your cell, take a moment to think….
- Examine how you use your phone and create boundaries.
- Get rid of any apps that are causing you to lose concentration.
- Reduce the number of updates you get.
- Keep your phone at arm’s length…
- Before going to bed, turn off your phone.
The Pomodoro Technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. Each interval is known as a pomodoro, from the Italian word for ‘tomato’, after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo used as a university student.
Pomodoro is a popular technique to do a short burst between our activities. Muscle training follows a similar routine. An athlete jogs for a while, does a short quick 100 meter dash, then back to jogging.
The technique has been widely popularized by dozens of apps and websites providing timers and instructions. Closely related to concepts such as timeboxing and iterative and incremental development used in software design, the method has been adopted in pair programming contexts.
3. Minimize interruptions.
We are all slaves to our calendars. Time blocking is scheduling your to-do list against your calendar. You block off the time you’ll be working on a specific thing ahead of time, and then during that time, you work on that thing.
Let’s pretend it’s Monday, and you have a pitch or presentation due on Thursday. You block off either a couple of hours on your calendar each afternoon between now and then, or an all-day marathon on Wednesday, which is less recommended.
There are several complexities to actually implementing a time blocking strategy — the benefits and drawbacks of blocking off the whole day, what gets blocked and what doesn’t, how far in advance to block, changing your blocks on the fly and after the fact, and so on — but time is the basic currency, and the action of “to-do list item => block of time on the calendar” is how you trade in it.
It’s a massively useful productivity tool, particularly for consultants, technical leads, salespeople, product/project managers, analysts, and everyone else whose existence falls somewhere between the maker’s and manager’s schedules.
- It gives you control over your daily schedule.
- It’s a socially appropriate method of rejecting time vampires.
- It strikes a balance between the urgent and the relevant.
- It makes you demonstrate your goals through action.
- It keeps you from procrastinating.
- It encourages in-depth work.
- It closes loops that are open.
- Batching is encouraged.
- Your calendar is in charge of keeping track of your schedule.
- It encourages you to be honest about how much time you have.
- It takes advantage of Parkinson’s Law.
- It keeps track of how you spend your time in real life.
- It teaches you how to guess how long things will take.
4. Stop procrastinating.
Procrastination is the most significant impediment to positive personal improvements in health, employment, and even happiness for many people.
Procrastination is the practice of completing less important tasks first, rather than the most important ones. As a result, you put it off until the last minute. Procrastination makes the person dilate the tasks, many time because they feel they have plenty of time to do the task, but they let the time pass and still think the same of the beginning. As a result, several tasks are piling up, causing the individual to become depressed due to a lack of time.
Temporal Motivation Theory
Jason Wessel built a method consisting of four basic “reflection points” that target the psychological origins of procrastination as part of his PhD at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. It is recommended that you ask yourself these questions on a regular basis, as you will find it far easier to avoid tempting distractions, enabling you to concentrate on the things that really matter in your life.
Wessel’s technique is inspired by Temporal Motivation Theory, which proposes four interlinked causes of procrastination.
The first is 'expectancy,' in which we overestimate our chances of succeeding at a job, reducing our overall motivation.
The second is our 'delay sensitivity,' in which many of us fail to understand how detrimental our existing delaying tactics are to our chances of finishing on time.
Third, we fail to recognize the task’s ‘worth’ and the advantages of completing it on time, implying that we prioritize our immediate satisfaction over long-term consequences.
Finally, Wessel claims that we lack basic “metacognition,” or the ability to think analytically about our own thinking, which would help us to recognize the ways we can resist these habits and get back on track.
Wessel devised a framework based on four basic “reflection points” that aim to address the psychological causes of procrastination. He wanted to condense the concepts of Temporal Motivation Theory into four basic questions that people should think about:
- How would someone successful complete the goal?
- How would you feel if you don’t do the required task?
- What is the next immediate step you need to do?
- If you could do one thing to achieve the goal on time, what would it be?
Wessel discovered that those who thought about the four reflection points were substantially more likely to finish their work early rather than wait until the end of the fortnight. In other words, it had greatly decreased their procrastination.
The benefits were not immediate; according to Wessel, students had to weigh the various reflection points many times before taking action, a phenomenon he refers to as the “sleeper effect.” “You can only tell the app that you know exactly what you need to do so many times before you do it,” he says.
WasteNoTime is a time tracking Safari and Chrome extension made by Qiao George Yang. Inspired from the LeechBlock Firefox extension, it’s designed to block time-wasting sites, it gives you a set of features to view our browsing time breakdown in days, weeks, and months.
The first time you run this extension, you must configure the working hours, the day when the extension is active, and the amount of time allowed to visit blocked websites in two blocks of time: within working hours and outside working hours. For example, you can set the working hours between 9–6 PM, and assign 30 minutes for within working hours, and 120 minutes outside working hours. I think of WasteNoTime as a Pomodoro for my web browsing habits.
The moment you visit blocked sites, the time will start ticking. When it reaches zero, WasteNoTime will block the site and show you related quotes to get things done and get back to your focus.
WasteNoTime has a feature to instantly lock all websites for a specified time. Once locked, you won’t be able to visit any websites until you finish the dash — unless you’ve whitelisted a few websites, you need to get actual works done.
I have used this extension to avoid spending too much time on sites like Reddit and YouTube, which are easy to get distracted by when you’re supposed to be working from home.
5. Master your messaging platform.
Since so many office workers now work from home, interactive tools that enable them to communicate with coworkers are becoming more common than ever. Employers are searching for the most effective ways to preserve team unity and keep in touch throughout this period, from Zoom to Google Hangouts to Slack.
I have been using Slack for a few years with several organizations and during the pandemic it has become the hub of all my daily communications. There is a learning curve to all messaging platforms, but you can become far more efficient and save a lot of time by learning tips and tricks. Here are some slack tips that I have found very useful/ but should apply to other messaging platforms.
- Utilize the search feature- during development I often encounter errors, it is very likely that the question has been asked before, often I can just copy and paste my error into the search box and I will find threads where people have already solved the problem.
- Utilize group features like starring & pinning — categorize your most important channels. In a large organization there can be a lot of noise generated from various team, org and social channels. Learn how to pin your favorite channels, reduce clutter and distractions.
- Get notifications on important channels and tweak how you get notifications. Do you need to be notified on every mention? or perhaps you want to see every new message, most platforms have detailed configurations that can make sure you get appropriate notifications. Utilize your phone and/or smart watch to make sure you receive important notifications. You can even set to be notified on certain words or phrases.
- Create shared channels for projects. These can be useful for group discussions that don’t distract other users and can be an important source of truth for important topics.
- Utilize ‘do not disturb’ and set status for when you are in meetings, out of office or having lunch. There are often plugins that can link to your calendar.
- Learn keyboard shortcuts to save time.
- Format your messages for maximum effectiveness. Utilize code blocks and emphasis.
- Pin important messages.
- Consider bot integrations for automated tasks and reminders.
Time management is a very important skill, if you master it you can have a better life.
By managing your time, you will suffer less stress, your work will be higher quality, and delivered on time.
It is important to have the right attitude to change your schedules, develop good habits and reduce procrastination. I hope you have enjoyed this article, good luck managing your time!.