Reclaiming Productivity: Time Management Tips
ex-Head of Quality Engineering at Automattic
As a lead and mentor, one skill that has frequently come up in discussions with my team and mentees is time management.
Among the myriad tools, tips, and techniques available for time management, time blocking is the most critical and beneficial technique for me. And not just marking off a few hours per day or week that say “get stuff done” or “do things,” but really scheduling out all my to-dos, tasks, project work and big ticket items.
Note: As a lead/manager, I typically have to attend to many various things and tasks in a single day, and often don’t have large multi-hour blocks of time available. For those of you that aren’t leading or managing others, you might find you have more of a makers schedule and that simply blocking off hours for focused work is enough. I recommend reading Maker vs. Manager: How Your Schedule Can Make or Break You for more on the differences between a maker’s schedule and a manager’s schedule.
This post has been adapted and expanded from my review of Reclaim.ai, which was initially written as part of a company-wide internal experiment on leveraging AI tools for productivity.
Time Management Tips
Before getting into the specifics of time blocking, let’s go over some basic time management tips. Without these, time blocking will not be as useful or valuable.
Identify everything that you need to do. This is the first step, as understanding what you need to accomplish will help you understand how best to use your time.
Prioritize everything! Use a technique such as the Eisenhower Matrix to understand the priority of everything on your plate. (More on this in a future post.)
Delegate when you can. This is built into to the Eisenhower Matrix, but bears repeating. If you have a team, delegate tasks that others can handle. Effective delegation frees up your time for more critical responsibilities.
Set Goals. Establish clear, specific, and measurable goals for your day, week, or month. Having a target in mind helps you stay focused and motivated.
Periodically review your time management strategies to see what’s working and what isn’t. Adjust your approach as needed.
Say no, often! This one can be difficult to to put into practice. However, if you don’t have the time to work on something, you should say so. Tasks or commitments that don’t align with your priorities or workload are less likely to get done, and it’s better to communicate that up front. Another approach here is to say “If I take on this task, then I won’t be able to complete a, b, or c. Is that the right trade-off?”
The challenge I faced was having too many tasks and too many tools to keep track of them all.
I used a mix of handwritten notes, Slack reminders, manual time blocking on my calendar, and a personal Trello board to manage my to-do list. However, this system had its drawbacks. Tasks on my Trello board often remained untouched for extended periods (or indefinitely), handwritten notes were prone to getting lost or forgotten, and I found myself overwhelmed by the sheer number of Slack reminders (at one point, I had over 100 overdue Slack reminders). Only the items that made it onto my calendar had a decent chance of getting completed, but often schedules and plans change, and moving everything scheduled was painful. Moreover, this system made it difficult to discern what was truly a priority for any given time period.
In early 2022, I stumbled upon Reclaim.ai. According to their website, “Reclaim is an AI scheduling automation app that finds the best time for your meetings, tasks, habits, & breaks.“
When setting up Reclaim.ai, I compiled a list of recurring habits (it comes with some suggestions like “Morning catch-up”, “Lunch”, and so on). These generally have a fixed duration or can be easily time-boxed and occur on a set schedule.
Next are my individual tasks, which are where Reclaim.ai truly shines for me. I enter every item from my to-do list into Reclaim. This can be done either on the Reclaim.ai website or through the Slack integration. When entering each task, I do my Eisenhower Matrix evaluation and think about the 4 quadrants (Do, Do Later, Delegate, Delete). I also make a best guess at how much time I need. If it’s a large amount, or I really don’t know, that’s a sign I need to break that task into smaller components.
Now, instead of using Slack reminders or manually scheduling these on my calendar Reclaim takes care of it for me. It can easily reschedule whole days, or even weeks, if I mark my calendar as busy. For each habit, I can specify its relative priority, preferred days and times, and how assertively Reclaim should protect my time to ensure the habit or task gets completed. Additionally, I can indicate which habits should take precedence over other tasks when scheduling.
Often, the due dates I set for tasks are somewhat arbitrary, but it helps me maintain organization and focus. All those things I used to jot down, put in Slack reminders, or record in Trello, now find their home in Reclaim.
To supercharge Reclaim’s effectiveness, I pair it with MeetingBar, a MacOS app that adds calendar events to the status bar. It even auto-joins Zoom or Google Meet meetings for me at the scheduled time. (I haven’t configured it to automatically open Zoom, so I receive a browser pop-up, serving as a visual cue when I have a meeting. This is particularly useful when I’m in a flow state and lose track of time.)
For me, Reclaim.ai offers several invaluable benefits:
A centralized place to oversee and manage all my work, ensuring I focus on the most important tasks. A mechanism that compels me to estimate the time required for each task. After all, without a clear understanding of task durations, how can I plan my work effectively? A comprehensive view of my weekly plans and a historical record of what I’ve accomplished. Auto-rescheduling capabilities that come in handy when unexpected events arise. It’s also easy to adjust task timings, reschedule for different dates and times, or lock a task into a fixed slot.
While Reclaim.ai has numerous advantages, it does have a few limitations:
Limited integrations: I’ve been awaiting Trello integration for over a year and a half. Initially, I attempted a workaround by setting up Zapier to transfer tasks from Trello to Google Tasks, and then Reclaim would pick them up from there. However, this proved cumbersome and didn’t align with how I had structured my Trello board. Eventually, I transitioned away from Trello entirely, opting to use the Reclaim website and Slack app instead of a separate to-do list or planning tool.
Scheduling tasks within narrow windows: If you have tasks with tight scheduling requirements, such as weekly updates due every Monday morning before noon, but you also need flexibility to complete them if you’re occupied, Reclaim may not be the ideal solution. In such cases, manual calendar scheduling may be more appropriate, as Reclaim won’t deviate from the schedule. It’s not free: However, I personally find that it’s more than worth the price.
If you want to try time blocking, but aren’t interested in a tool like Reclaim.ai, there are alternatives.
My recommendation would be to start with documenting, prioritizing, and sizing all your tasks. Then you can manually add them to your calendar. This didn’t work well for me, as my schedule and availability changes frequently, all the things scheduled needed to be moved quite often. However, this is an easy way to try out time blocking and see if it works for you, without learning or paying for a new tool.
Originally published on Quality Boss.
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ex-Head of Quality Engineering at Automattic
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