Time management is one of the most obvious and… the most dreaded aspects of every project. Keeping to your schedule despite unexpected turns of events may seem like chasing dreams that never come true. Fear not! Where there’s a will, there’s a way - and we are here to share useful strategies and tips to help you create a manageable timetable and stick to it with as few exceptions as possible.
Real-time vs asynchronous communication
Before I explain the flow I find most effective when it comes to asynchronous communication, I need to stress one basic principle: communication works both ways, and with mutual adherence to the rules you decide to follow. Respect this principle and demand that those you work with respect it too. No exceptions, no putting yourself above anyone. Point taken? Now, I can get to the details. Enjoy!
What I’ll say here might surprise you in an era when multitasking is a highly sought after skill in almost any job advertisement, but let me make this clear: interrupting an ongoing task (e.g., writing this post) to do something else is highly ineffective. Simply put, it extends the time dedicated to a particular task. It doesn’t matter how many projects you got started if none of them is finished. And it’s not just the developers who lose focus when you disturb their work.
There is another side to multitasking, the drawback of which seems much more obvious to many: interrupting others during their work. No matter which side you take - the disturber or the disturbed - it seems pretty clear that such a practice shouldn’t take place in any project team. It’s easier said than done, I agree. But let’s get out of the multitasking box and look at things from a different angle.
If your fellow workers are not able to continue a task without your support and you are not available at that moment, it’s their job to find something productive to do in the meantime. We’re all adults, perfectly capable of organising our working time and prioritising responsibilities (or, maybe not perfectly, but we can strive for it :)). Perhaps your team members could carry on with other tasks which they can perform on their own? Once you’re available to them, the person who asked you for help will know exactly where they finished and what issues need your support. It’s much more convenient for them to wait than for you to have to go back to your original task, having been interrupted at a random point.
This section mostly applies to Project Managers, as their workflow differs from that of developers’. While devs work on one project at a time, the PMs have to deal with several of them, and it’s natural that they won’t be able to focus on each 24/7. Remember that answering within 30-60 minutes in a regular workflow won’t cause the world to end. This also relates to live chats. In the case of Netguru, we don’t require our Project Managers to reply within seconds. I don’t mean to encourage you to ignore other people. What I have in mind is that you respect your time and distinguish between emergency cases and regular issues that don’t require an instant reply.
Notifications vs real-time communication
This point is tightly linked with the previous section, but I wanted to draw your attention to the special case of meetings. If you interrupt a meeting with notifications, you lose focus, just as if you were switching to a different task before you complete the one you’re working on. The difference is, not only do you distract yourself, but all the participants of the meeting.
This is going to be hard and will probably stress you out in the beginning, but I strongly encourage you to leave notifications off for the majority of communication channels during meetings. Leave it on for the most important notifications, and only for these. We use multiple Slack channels and there is one dedicated to client-team communication - this is the most essential channel. If you’re having a storm in your project and everyone’s suddenly on the line, you’re excused, but be careful about what you call a storm.
Since we work with iterations in every project we do, why not use this solution for your own time management? Check out these options and find the one most suitable for you.
Daily iterations for Project Managers
Plan your day in short fragments and stick to the time limits you establish, except in urgent situations, of course. Here’s an example:
20 minutes for real-time communication/Slack,
40 minutes for weekly summary preparation,
(other responsibilities in your to-do list, divided into daily steps),
close your computer, go home, leave your work at the office.
Unlike developers, every Project Manager at Netguru is responsible for a couple of projects. This gave me an idea for a different sort of work organisation. If you prefer to focus your iteration by project, you might find this pattern easier to follow. The basic rule is: 1 hour for every project. Don’t extend that timeframe unless necessary, and don’t make it shorter. Spend these 60 minutes on real-time communication, planning, digging in JIRA, writing and answering emails - anything related to the project you’re working on. Next, switch projects. It’s as simple as that.
While working on each project, check whether everyone involved is on the same page as you and that there is nothing urgent to do that day. If there is, it might change your schedule, but... while there can be exceptions to almost every rule, there is no exception to this: prioritise.
Final phase: close your computer, say goodbye to your fellow colleagues at the office, and leave. No more work today!
Communication in iterations
No matter which sort of iteration you prefer (daily/project), and even if you decide to turn the company chat off for more serious tasks, remember to communicate with other project members. Don’t forget about your team or client - let them know that you’re busy working on something complex and name the time you’ll be available to talk again (30-60 minutes, preferably).
Calendar: communication and planning 2-in-1
Step 1 - the easy part. Set placeholders for recurrent tasks (e.g., executive summaries and time sheets, weekly summaries, application tests, etc.). This will help you stick to the plan and actually find the time for scheduled tasks. Also, it helps you communicate with others when you have the whole agenda in front of your eyes.
Step 2 - the harder part. Make people remember and understand that they can check your availability in the calendar. Don’t be afraid to point out that “busy” means “really busy” to you, and you don’t want to be disturbed during this time. By the way, naming your tasks clearly will make the calendar more comprehensible to those who view it. “PM meeting” sounds more serious than “busy”, wouldn’t you agree?
How to save even more time?
Create your plan for the next day. Before you finish work, it’s a good idea to decide what you are going to do the next day. Set tasks, priorities, and most importantly, list the things you are just getting started with. This will help you switch to working mode from the morning’s outset. Project management tools certainly come in handy - in our case, Trello saves the day.
Use resources and think ahead. If you can do something in advance, please do! When you plan your iterations for the next week, but also have a chance to list some issues for the next three, organise these as well while you have time, and make a note of the context of these tasks. This will save you a lot of time when you get back to the topic again. And again.
Make calls. Text chat is cool, I agree, but sometimes things are much easier said than typed. Want to save some of your time, your developer’s, and the client’s? Apart from regular weekly calls, you can always set up an extra call to explain something, discuss an issue, or find out about something important. It involves the very same considerations you would make when deciding to text or call a personal contact.
Also, remember to keep breaks between your calls and meetings. I get it, the client is important, but maybe that 20 minutes delay it takes for you to gather your thoughts and take a deep breath won’t make a shambles of his/her schedule.
Last but not least, help others - in a smart way. Helping is cool, but it’s a skill that’s acquired like many others. You may give a fish to the hungry - but wouldn’t a fishing rod be more effective? In other words, you don’t have to answer every question directly and send all the links somebody asks you for. Encourage your co-workers to look for answers, provide them with useful resources, and show them the right path to follow. Sometimes it’s worth spending the extra 5 minutes explaining in order to prepare someone to look for answers on their own next time.
That’s how we do time management at Netguru. I hope you haven’t interrupted yourself while reading this post! Will you follow these tips for your everyday workflow? Or would you like to share the ones you find most effective? Feel free to leave us a comment!
Now that you've found out how to manage your time better, it's time to work on communication. Maybe you would like to check these 5 communication hacks for better business relationships?