Better Efficiency with Mini-Activities, Multi-Processing, and Interrupted Flow

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As a smart programmer you probably go to conferences, have discussions with other smart programmers, and read a lot. You soon form your own view, based largely on the received wisdom of others. I encourage you to also think for yourself. Used in new contexts you might get more out of old concepts, and even get value from techniques which are considered bad practice.

Everything in life consists of choices, where you aim to choose the best option, leaving aside options that are not as appropriate or important. Lack of time, hard priorities, and mental blocks against some tasks can also make it easy to neglect them. You won't be able to do everything. Instead, focus on how to make time for things that are important to you. If you are struggling with getting started on a task, you may crack it by extracting one mini-activity at a time. Each activity must be small enough that you are not likely to have a mental block against it, and it must take "no time at all". One to five minutes is often just right. Extract only one or two activities at a time, otherwise you can end up spending your time creating "perfect" mini-activities. If the task is "introduce tests to the code," the first mini-activity might be "create the directory where the test classes should live." If the task is "paint the house," the first mini-activity could be "set the tin of paint down by the door."

Flow is good when you perform prioritized tasks, but flow may also steal a lot of time. Anyone who has surfed the Web knows this. Why does this happen? It's certainly easy to get into flow when you're having fun, but it can be hard to break out of it to do something less exciting. How can you restrict flow? Set a 15-minute timer. Every time it rings you must complete a mini-activity. If you want, you can then sit down again with a clear conscience — for another 15 minutes.

Now you've decided what to prioritize, made activities achievable, and released time by breaking out of flow when you're doing something useless. You've now spent all 24 of the day's available hours. If you haven't done all you wanted to by now, you must multi-process. When is multi-processing suitable? When you have downtime. Downtime is time spent on activities that you have to go through, but where you have excess capacity — such as when you are waiting for the bus or eating breakfast. If you can do something else as well during this time, you'll get more time for other activities. Be aware that downtime may come and prepare things to fill it with. Hang a sheet of paper with something you want to learn on the bathroom wall. Bring an article with you for reading while waiting for the bus. Think about a problem you must solve as you walk from the car to your work. Do you want to spend more time outside? Suggest a "walking meeting" for your colleagues, go for a walk while you eat your lunch, or close your eyes and lower your shoulders. Try to get off the bus a few stops before you reach home, walk from there, and think of the memo you have in your pocket.

By Siv Fjellkårstad

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3

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