The most effective and successful software engineers have one thing in common—they’re personal productivity pros! The engineering field has distractions, competing priorities, growing to-do lists, too many meetings, and other sneaky time thieves.
Insanely productive software engineers move things forward in magical ways. If you’re an engineer looking to improve your personal productivity skills, we’ve got you covered. In this guide, we’ll teach you:
- What personal productivity is and why it matters for engineers
- Time management tips, techniques, and tools to try
- How to set goals and why they matter
- Tips for improving focus and concentration so you can put your best foot forward
- How to incorporate continuous learning as part of your daily routine as a developer
What is personal productivity for software engineers?
Personal productivity for software engineers refers to how engineers allot their time for tasks, goals, and continuous learning while maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Engineers must implement productivity systems to help them find the right mixture of deep work for coding and problem-solving and time for growth and development activities.
Why personal productivity is important for software engineers
Productivity is of utmost importance for software engineers. Engineers' workloads are full of lengthy lists of to-dos, including feature requests, product enhancements, and fixing bugs. On top of planned work, urgent issues may arise that can quickly detract from the planned to-dos. And to top it all off, many teams have adopted Agile, which means they’re working in brief, time-boxed interactions called sprints. Without proper personal productivity hygiene, it’s unsurprising that engineers may be unable to keep up with demands.
The benefits of being productive as a software engineer
As with all types of work, productivity offers software engineers many benefits. Better productivity leads to increased efficiencies which can reduce task timelines and improve the quality of deliverables and output. Being productive can help engineers advance in their careers as efficient tasks and time management can lead to taking on more responsibilities and promotion opportunities. And finally, when software engineers are productive, they significantly impact on their teams and organization. Engineering teams need to work together and play their part to help drive their team forward to achieve their goals.
Understanding time management for software engineers
What does time management mean for software engineers? First, we must understand how engineers spend their time and workweeks. That’s why we took a deep dive and published The 2022 Software Engineering Meeting Benchmark Report to understand better how 80,000+ engineers from 5,000+ companies are spending their days. Here’s a quick glimpse at what we learned:
- Focus Time is essential for engineers, with 90% of engineering managers saying, “Focus Time makes me more productive.”
- 52% of Engineering Managers strongly agree, and 38% agree that Focus Time correlates to productivity—deep focus leads to more productive work
- Most engineers spend about a third of their week in meetings, leaving little time for deep work
- Traditional Agile standups are beneficial, but having them daily or more than one “standup” in a typical workweek can be too time-consuming
The proof is in the data—time management is essential for software engineers. Effective time management allows them to be more productive, deliver high-quality work, and juggle tasks from writing new code to debugging, operational work, and testing features. Software engineers can optimize their time with the right tools and techniques.
Tips and techniques for effective time management
These tips and techniques can help software engineers improve their time management skills.
Develop an effective daily routine
- Creating an early morning routine to get into “work mode” before morning standups
- Blocking time mid-morning for deep work to address high-priority tasks (or using Clockwise to save Focus Time)
- Scheduling time (and following through with it) for lunch breaks (or using Clockwise for lunch holds)
- Saving less focus-heavy work (or administrative and operational functions) for the afternoon
- Prioritizing rest and sleep in the evenings to recharge and unwind
While this loose schedule might not fit every engineer, the point is to create a workday that works best for you and stick to it. Daily routines should include a healthy balance of Focus Time, operational tasks, meetings, and breaks.
Keep the Pareto Principle in mind
The Pareto Principle is a time management strategy that states that 80% of outcomes come from 20% of inputs. We can apply the Pareto Principle in software development to tasks like feature development, bugs, prototyping, and development time. This technique can help engineers determine which tasks they should spend more or less time on.
For example, not all features are weighted the same. If 80% of users will benefit from 20% of features, engineers must prioritize the 20% of features that will make the most impact. That might even mean cutting some features out entirely to make more room for the most impactful ones.
Prioritize tasks with the Eisenhower Matrix
Prioritizing tasks is crucial for engineers to manage their workload effectively and meet deliverable deadlines. The Eisenhower Matrix is a technique programmers and engineers can use to categorize tasks on their to-do lists.
It’s a 2x2 matrix with four categories based on urgency and importance, as described below:
- (Q1) Urgent and important. Bump these tasks to the top of your list. They’re time-sensitive and will help you move the needle.
- (Q2) Important but not urgent. Keep these tasks in mind, but they do not require immediate action. They’ll help you achieve your goals, so you must decide how and when to fit them into your schedule.
- (Q3) Urgent but not important. If there’s someone who can help you accomplish these actions, pull them in for support. These tasks are time-sensitive but not important in relation to your goals.
- (Q4) Not urgent and not important. Ask yourself if these items deserve a place on your task list at all. If you must keep them, save them for later.
The Eisenhower Matrix helps engineers take back control of their workday and determine which tasks need their attention, which don’t, and when they need to work on certain items.
Tools and resources for managing time as a software engineer
When it comes to building your time management skills, you aren’t alone! There are tons of tools and resources available for software engineers to use as part of their overarching routines and workflows.
Up first is Clockwise. Clockwise is a smart calendar assistant that optimizes your calendar, creates blocks of Focus Time for deep work, and helps you analyze how you’re spending your time. It’s a great sidekick for engineers to ensure their calendars aren’t cluttered with meetings that interfere with work time.
We also recommend using a time management app to track your time. It’s essential for engineers to have a solid understanding of how much time tasks took or might take them to complete for better projections and project planning. Some of our time-tracking recommendations include Harvest, Hours TimeLord, and Toggl.
AI is changing the way software engineers code and improve workflows, including ChatGPT's Code Interpreter plugin. The plugin allows users to work with code right in the ChatGPT interface.
The importance of setting goals for software engineers
Setting goals is essential for software engineers because it helps them stay motivated, focused, and productive. According to Fellow, engineers should have goals because it helps them stay ahead of the competition, provides long-term professional development opportunities, contributes toward better time management, and boosts their confidence.
Some examples of engineering goals include coding (quality or ownership), technical skill development, system design, testing, debugging, and learning a new programming language. Engineers should set goals across a few different categories to develop across multiple skill sets.
How to set achievable goals as a software engineer
It’s not enough to have a loose idea of a goal in mind. Setting achievable goals as a software engineer requires thoughtful planning. Below are some tips to help you develop better, more achievable goals.
Use a framework like SMART goals
Many people, including engineers, set SMART goals for the highest likelihood of success in achieving their goals. This acronym stands for:
- Specific: A well-defined goal is specific and crystal clear. A third party could read the goal and understand the who, what, where, when, and how.
- Measurable: Setting measurable goals is necessary for tracking progress along the way.
- Attainable: Well-defined goals are challenging but not entirely out of reach. Factors outside of your control won’t impact these goals.
- Relevant: No one likes to work toward goals they aren’t vested in. It’s important for goals to be relevant to the person setting them.
- Time-bound: Every goal should have a target deadline, even if it’s a flexible one.
An example of a SMART goal for engineers is: Improve code quality by fixing 5 high-priority bugs this quarter in partnership with a senior engineer.
It’s specific—-we know what this engineer wants to do, who they are doing it with, and when they expect to finish this goal. It’s measurable because we’ve added a bug count to it. Let’s suppose it’s attainable for this imaginary team. It’s relevant because this engineer is passionate about improving code quality, and it’s time-bound since it has a deadline attached to it.
Tracking progress toward goals and adjusting as needed
Tracking progress toward goals is a must. Whether you keep tabs on your goals in Asana, create a Trello board to monitor your progress, or use a tool like Miro to track your goals, you should write them somewhere safe and schedule time to reflect on and update your progress. Depending on the timeline of your goals, try adding updates on a weekly or monthly basis so you can self-monitor your progress and watch out for blockers or risks. Clockwise Flexible Holds can help you remember to update your goal progress regularly.
Another great way to keep track of your engineering goals is to discuss them with your manager during 1:1s. This helps add a layer of accountability and is particularly helpful for goals you may require guidance on, such as how to become an owner of a specific product, or what steps you need to take to advance to the next job role level.
Focus and concentration
The role of focus and concentration in personal productivity
Focus and concentration play a vital role in personal productivity. Without time to focus and concentrate, engineers risk getting lost in poorly prioritized tasks, delivering poor-quality results, and wasting time multitasking. All of these things impact software delivery and can have a substantial negative impact on software users.
Techniques for improving focus and concentration
Maintaining focus is easier said than done, but with the proper techniques, every engineer can become hyper-focused and create healthy routines to support periods of intense concentration.
Use time blocking (and include Focus Time)
Regular to-do lists aren’t always helpful because they don’t specify when to work on a task. For example, this to-do list does not indicate when this engineer will work on these tasks or attend these meetings:
- Solve ticket #3872
- Daily async sprint meeting
- Complete debugging request
- Work on the new feature
- All hands meeting
Time blocking, or choosing what to work on and blocking off time for each task, helps engineers take control of their to-do list, create more time for deep work, and procrastinate less. It provides a schedule to follow and leaves little room for distractions. Here’s how time blocking might look using the tasks above:
Nip distractions in the bud
Distractions are a major buzzkill, especially for engineers, since they need to maximize their focus and reduce context switching to deliver high-quality results. Some common distractions for software engineers that disrupt productivity include social media and other phone games, having the television on while working, and checking emails and Slack messages.
Fortunately, there are many actions engineers can take to minimize (or eliminate) distractions before they become detrimental, including:
- Storing cell phones out of sight (or leveraging Do Not Disturb)
- Muting notifications on Slack
- Cutting out distracting noises and disruptions with white noise or music for concentration
Tools and resources for enhancing focus and concentration
Set yourself up for success with the right tools and resources to help you enhance your focus. Download Clockwise to automatically preserve Focus Time on your calendar for tasks that require deep work (like working on a new feature development or completing a debugging request).
Try a focus app like Dewo, Forest, or Freedom to help you block out distractions. Or try one of these tips from Trevor Ewen, an experienced software engineer, and COO at QBench, “Instrumental music and lack of nearby distractions are critical for me. My Bluetooth speaker plays instrumental music from a playlist & newsletter called Flow State. The music is important to get me into the flow and into the space. As for nearby distractions, my office is quiet and not in an open area. I close other programs and minimize browser tabs. When I am focused, I want to stay that way.”
The importance of work-life balance for software engineers
Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is crucial for software engineers to prevent burnout, increase productivity, and foster creative solutions to their most challenging problems. Burnout can creep up on software engineers quickly as projects and urgent issues overflow into evenings and weekends. Working extra hours leads to burnout and quickly decreases productivity as engineers have less time to recharge and rest. And finally, engineers have a job that requires creativity and critical thinking, both of which are at risk when they can’t find a healthy work-life balance.
Strategies for achieving work-life balance
While there will always be some factors out of your control (like when a critical system goes down in the middle of the night and needs fixing), there are many strategies software engineers can use to achieve work-life balance.
Set practical and realistic daily goals
Prioritizing tasks and clearly understanding which tasks must be accomplished by the end of the day is one of the best ways for software engineers to ensure they aren’t letting work seep into non-working hours. Especially when urgent matters arise, engineers need to know which items on their to-do list they can sacrifice. Using the strategies discussed previously (Eisenhower Matrix and Pareto Principle) and having prioritization conversations with your manager can help you avoid poor time management skills that lead to extra work.
Establish boundaries (and stick to them)
Software engineers should communicate their availability with their team and manager, which includes setting boundaries to protect your workday and non-working hours. Some tactical examples of ways to set boundaries include:
- Setting and sticking to your working hours, even as a remote team member (Pro-tip: Set your working hours and availability using Clockwise to help communicate to your team members when you are and aren’t available)
- Declining meetings where you aren’t truly needed (Read our secrets: 5 tips for saying no to meetings to get your Focus Time back)
- Take regular breaks throughout the day (Pro-tip: Clockwise offers a lunch holds feature so you never have to miss lunch and smart meeting breaks so you can take a stretch break between consecutive back-to-backs)
- Turn off notifications (as much as possible) in the evenings and on weekends to fully disconnect
Maintaining work-life balance over the long term
And for long-term work-life balance, ensure you’re scheduling enough time out of the office to return to work feeling recharged. Explore the outdoors, revive an old hobby, try something new, take care of chores around the house, or take a long nap and relax.
The role of continuous learning in personal productivity for software engineers
As is true with technology in general, the world of engineering and programming is constantly evolving and changing. Engineers need to invest time into continuous learning to remain competitive and specialized in the field. On top of that, learning new trends and technologies helps engineers become more productive as they can find new, more efficient ways of working.
How to stay up-to-date with industry trends and technologies
Pavle Bobic on the BrightMarbles blog provides many suggestions for software engineers to stay up-to-date on the latest trends and technologies, including:
- Engaging in a mentor-mentee relationship for mutual sharing
- Mingling with engineers online through social media channels, Stack Overflow (a community-based platform for developers), GitHub, and Reddit (r/AskProgramming)
- Attending conferences, local events, and other meetups
- Reading about coding and specific programming languages
- Listening to industry-specific podcasts like The Changelog, Developer Tea, and The Stack Overflow Podcast
Incorporating continuous learning into daily routines
It’s not enough to hope you have time to dedicate to continuous learning; programmers should incorporate ongoing learning opportunities into their daily or weekly routines. You won’t attend a conference every day, but perhaps you can dedicate 10-15 minutes to listening to a podcast or reading informative blog posts. Clockwise Flexible Holds help create recurring flexible events (like learning time) that require time but not a specific block when you need to complete them.
You’re on your way to becoming a better, more productive engineer in no time! You’ll be a more vital engineer with the right time management strategies, a system for setting goals, and enough focus time on your calendar. Make your work life easier and download Clockwise today to help you take back your workday.