SEP Blog Battle: I Don’t Have Time

October 26, 2012

No really, I don’t… At Least Not Right Now

Before we start, consider the below tidbits about myself:

  • I have a huge backlog of side projects, books, blogs, podcasts, chores and things that I’d love to do right now – but I believe I’d be sitting around 1 hour of sleep per night if I did it all everyday.
  • I consider myself up to date if my Google Reader account doesn’t show (+1000 items)
  • If I don’t have at least 6 applications open on my computer, I’m probably not working.

It seems like every day that I tell someone ‘maybe tomorrow’, ‘after lunch’, ‘when I get out of this meeting’, and so on during the day – be it a co-worker, my wife or someone else. Why? The truth of the matter isn’t that I don’t have the time… if I really wanted/needed to, I could drop everything to work on Problem X or Task Y or Misc. Thing Z. The truth is that items X, Y and Z just aren’t important enough for me to make them a priority. I hate to be blunt, but it’s the truth.

I never reject something and my response is generally much more pleasant than ‘when I get around to it’. You aren’t a jerk for asking me to do something – I just have something else on my plate at the moment. Most of the time, this isn’t an issue, but it happens, life happens, we’ve all felt time crunches on projects and from time to time you have to say ‘no’ or ‘some other time’. I do my best to provide an estimate for when I can get it or to do anything else I can to make you feel like I’m not blowing you off, because I’m not.

Context Switching

As someone who typically gets pulled from one task to another throughout the day, I suffer quite a bit from context switching. Go ahead and read that article I linked and do the exercise; I’ll wait. Did you notice a 400% increase? Neither did I, but it was pretty drastic.

Forget the actual number, it doesn’t matter – what’s important is that this is where I live for most of the day – between one portion of the codebase or another, answering the phone, responding to that email marked important, monitoring the site error emails for anything crazy important (that will lead to another of these), opening up a database connection to pull some requested data and keeping up to date on our customer facing issue tracker. If at any time two of these things come up at the same time, one of them is going to have to wait. It’s the nature of the beast, and as an engineer I accept that priorities shift and it’s a necessary evil. In general I try to limit the impact of these diversions as much as possible. It’s not uncommon for someone to come up to me with a question and my response to be ‘let me finish this thought’ or ‘I’ll come over once I finish this, if that’s okay’, but I’m still suffering that mental shift from topic A to B when I come back to my work.

Crunch Time

After being out sick two days I felt a huge time crunch. I came back to 70+ emails in my inbox with another 50+ in automatically filtered folders. What was the first thing I did when I came back into work? Read email subjects and look for anything marked important. Anything that I didn’t need to respond to and no one was on fire about is still in my inbox with a To-Do flag on it. I’ve set some time aside to get caught up on the little things, but putting out fires and restoring order was priority 1, which was quickly followed by exactly what I was working on before leaving – anything else could wait until it rose in priority or I had the time.

There are still some things waiting on me having the time to do them. I’ve done some workload sharing and I’ve done what I can to get to those things, but I’m not Superman. And at the time I’m writing this, I’ve not received a single complaint or poke on why something isn’t done yet because the critical things are all done.

Chaos Management

So I don’t have all the time in the world and neither do you, but we all have our ways of dealing with that. I’m guilty of blocking out time on my calendar when I can’t be distracted, leaving early to work from home to avoid distractions at the office, stealing a conference room for a phone call even if I’m the only one on the phone (as long as there’s another free at that time slot and it’s important – I’m not a monster) and other methods of trying to manage my time to avoid context switching and to keep on task. I keep a mental list of what I need to be working on, and if something is terribly important it gets a paper reminder on my monitor

In crunch times, I set electronic reminders for myself. My Outlook Calendar can get pretty hectic at times, be it because of large blocks or lots of small blocks. From time to time I toss a 15 minute block on my calendar to have something pop in and pull me out of the tunnel if even for as long as it takes to hit the dismiss button, or reset my Pomodoro timer or whatever other reminder system I’m trying for the day. Breaking out of my current task makes me think about what’s really important about what I’m working on, and if the answer is nothing I go back to the board to see if there’s something more critical.

So What?

At the end of the day, it’s all about time management and at some point a decision needs to be made on where something falls in priority. It doesn’t have to be a hard choice, but it has to be made. The way I see it, if I don’t consult my mental version of the chart on this page, as often as reasonable I’m doing nothing but costing the client money. If I can get more out of the time I do have, then I’m creating a win for my company, my client, the product and myself.

My Fellow Battlers

Many of my comrades have spoken about motivation, having the willpower to get things done and hiding behind the excuse of ‘I don’t have time’, which I feel is a valuable read, and it’s necessary to get over that hump and analyze what’s important to you. I’ve written more about making the most of the time that you do have allocated and asking yourself the question of what’s really important. I’m not suggesting you time slot every portion of your day – I know I could never manage that kind of schedule, but think about the time you have and where you should spend it. If that means ‘I don’t have time’ gets dropped from things you say, Great! If not, at least you’re spending your time where you think it really matters, and that’s all that counts.