There are only a few things in life you can bet on being a sure thing; the sun rising (for at least the next few billion years, that is) and change. This is true in every environment, be it work, your personal life, or the world around you. Everything is changing all the time.
In the workplace, change can be stressful. How often are you set to do a task, only to have someone interrupt you by asking you to do something for them? It may not be relevant to what you were trying to get done for the day, but it may also be equally important (especially if it comes from your boss!).
The ability to plan around these tasks is crucial to your success. If you set aside time for changes in your daily schedule, even if you don’t know what those changes are, you’re more likely to be more productive regardless of what gets you side-tracked.
Over Planning & Under Planning
“Okay”, you say to yourself, “That’s fine, I’ll just get the work done when I get it done. I have other priorities at the moment, so the best way for me to deal with this is to put it on the work backlog and I’ll get to it when I get to it.”
Sounds good, right? Sure, until something else comes along. Put it on the backlog! Get back to your task, and something else happens. Put it on the backlog!
Can you see where we’re going with this? Putting everything on the backlog and getting to it “when you get to it” can be a dangerous way to lose track of what matters and may be a fast track for you to get overwhelmed in your day. Suddenly, to focus on one thing only, you’re now piling up several other things that are a cause of stress. Now you can’t stop thinking about them. It’s bothering you because you know that after you’re done with what you set out to do for the day, you’ve got a pile of stuff to do and many other people that have a vested interest in you getting these things done. Now, you’re stressed, you can’t think and your work suffers.
Your plan has just backfired. So what to do?
Slush Time to the Rescue!
Do you like taking a lunch? We’re going to assume that you do, as most people do. It is a nice break throughout the day to spend doing something you enjoy that will keep you going once you return. Taking that time for yourself leaves you rejuvenated; that same technique should be used to tackle that backlog of work you have.
Instead of saying that you’ll get to it whenever you get to it – try slotting out time in advance to deal with inevitable changes that occur throughout your day. Take an honest look at how much time you spend on things other than what you set out to do throughout the day, and use that as a rule of thumb. Then, break that time up into several chunks throughout the day, and plan for it ahead of time.
There’s a secret that the development community has known about for a long time. It’s called the Pomodoro Technique, so named because of the timer that the originator of the theory used (in the shape of a tomato). Here’s how it works:
- Decide on the task to be done.
- Set the pomodoro timer (traditionally to 25 minutes).
- Work on the task until the timer rings. If a distraction pops into your head, write it down, but immediately get back on task.
- After the timer rings put a checkmark on a piece of paper.
- If you have fewer than four checkmarks, take a short break (3–5 minutes), then go to step 1.
- After four pomodoros, take a longer break (15–30 minutes), reset your checkmark count to zero, then go to step 1.
Let’s run this process through a mental exercise: Someone comes to you and asks you for something unrelated to your planned day.
Tell them that you’ll set some time aside to do it (25-30 minutes). Put that time on your calendar, and get back to working on what you originally set out to do. Focus on absolutely nothing else but your work until the time when you stated you would help your coworker, then allot the time required to focus exclusively on what they asked you to do. If you can get it done, great! If not, block out another time slot at some point later in the day to get back to working on it. If you set a maximum amount of time you’re willing to work on something ahead of time, you can easily push that task out of your mind and return to working on what matters more to you.
While they call it the Pomodoro Technique in the development world, we call it Slush Time. Plotting out your day for incidentals in smaller increments is a great way to ensure that you can plan for the future, even if you don’t know what that future holds.
What’s the best part?
You know what the best part is about setting aside to tackle changes? There’s no learning curve here. You already do it for lunch! You commit a certain amount of time to something (eating) and tell yourself that you’re going to take the time to execute (eat). While you’re eating, you aren’t focusing on what you need to do for work. You’re solely focused on the task at hand.
Sound familiar? Good!
Using this technique will help turn your “backlog” into a series of blocked out events throughout the course of your day. If you adjust expectations of yourself and your peers on when you’ll be able to get things done, you’ll be much better prepared to handle incidentals and keep your overall productivity on track.
And of course, you can always take time to yourself to keep Brewing Your Skill!