Boy looking at cake

Don’t get distracted…

I am experimenting with a set of time and task management techniques that include personal Kanban, The Pomodoro Technique® and retrospectives. I use the term ‘experimenting’ advisedly. Getting stuff done requires a pallet of techniques to tackle the complexity of the day-to-day environment. Unfortunately, I have not found the perfect set of techniques that work in every circumstance. There are a number of hurdles that I have had to address during this current experiment.

Dead Time: This is a euphemism for tasks like driving to and from work or an appointment. There are several variations on dead time such as queuing to get on a plane or waiting for luggage. While all of these tasks are not truly “dead time,” they don’t fit the classic 25 minute Pomodoro time slice or any of the typical break periods. I try to grab appropriate tasks to fill these voids (like listening to the Software Process and Measurement Cast or other great podcasts) or making calls, I am not convinced of how effective these filler tasks are. Note: I have colleagues that drive, make sales calls, take notes and terrify other drivers. My coordination is not sufficient and hiring a driver or someone to stand in line for me is cost prohibitive. Lesson: Some chunks of time do not fit in my approach and are less productive than others.

Noise: I have suggested using headphones to block noise in an attempt to create space for focusing. The act of putting on a set of headphones sends an explicit signal to all those that can see the headphones to LEAVE you alone. The use of caps in the last sentence is a warning. Continually cutting yourself off from your team can reduce collaboration and potentially create disengagement. There are times when being part of a group might be more important than efficiency. Two other caveats on noise and headphones. First, I have occasionally been in offices that are too quiet, in which case I need some noise in order to focus. Secondly, not all office cultures allow headphones, in which case you need to find other ways to tune out the person in the next cube having a fight with their significant other. Lesson: Context is king, cut yourself off when needed but recognize that not all situations should require the cone of silence to get the job done.

New Ideas: Attention deficit disorder (ADD) runs in my family. I suspect that I am mildly afflicted, which is why the discipline of Pomodoro has been useful so far. That said, I am loath to let a good idea go and just trying to remember it until I am done working on an intricate mathematical problem or a juicy bit of an essay is a non-starter. I keep a paper notebook (scraps of paper are too easy for me to lose and it looks silly to have a pocket full of scrap paper) next to my laptop at all times with a pen at the ready. If an idea or a new task jumps into my mind I write it down. The physical act of writing it in the notebook serves two purposes. First it reinforces the idea so that I remember it later. Secondly, it keeps me away from away from Evernote or Outlook where I could be too easily distracted. Once I have completed the current Pomodoro I can decide what to do with what I have written. Lesson: Paper is not your enemy, write things down so that you don’t forget and so that you don’t put yourself in a scenario where you can be distracted.

Too large tasks: Ruma Dak, a fellow blogger (check her blog out), responded to one my recent entries on focus by saying that because the tasks on her Kanban board/backlog were large, sometimes it might be a few days before she went back to check priorities and accept the next task into work-in-process. I am a fan of grooming tasks so that I go back to the Kanban board multiple times a day. I feel that the feedback of checking something off the list is motivational. I believe that Scrum and other work management techniques support my opinion. There is no assumption that the task that you are doing in any single 25-minute Pomodoro session (or the time variant that is appropriate to your work) will result in a complete, shippable product. Lesson: Break work down into chunks that allow you to know what to do next, get the feedback needed to understand that you are on-track and provide the motivation to keep going. Not everyone will be the same!

Clients: Sometimes when I’m sitting in a client’s office working on a specific deliverable it would be nice to say ‘give me a few minutes to focus’, but when someone is paying your airfare and hotel it is tough to say leave me alone. When I need to really buckle down I hide in a hotel room for a few hours. Lesson: When you are onsite with your client, their needs trump most time management systems.

A few weeks ago I read and reviewed Kevin Kruse’s new book, 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, I have adopted a number of ideas from the book (and I contemplating others). I have also recently read The Pomodoro Technique by Damon Zahariades, which helped me hone my understanding of Pomodoro. In the past, I have had classes on the Covey Method and my wife has walked me through David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach. There is probably no perfect time and task management system; however, that will not stop people (including me) from searching.