Many software engineers are beginning 2021 looking to learn new skills, build faster and better, and level up your career. I submit that time management is the number-one skill to invest in this year, because it’s the skill foundational to all other accomplishment and improvement.
And which time management skill is number one? Well, according to the research, it’s focus. You’re obviously going to be more successful if you put your effort and energy into the most important tasks and projects. But, no matter what you’re doing, you’re going to do it faster and better if you focus on it rather than letting yourself get distracted.
Here’s why focus is the top time management skill for software engineers, and some simple changes you can make today to get more of it in 2021.
While it might be tempting to pop on a TV show or podcast to play in the background while you’re coding, in reality you’re not good at multitasking. No one is.
What we think of as multitasking, doing two more more tasks simultaneously, is a myth. Research reveals that what looks like multitasking is actually just switching very quickly between tasks. So if you’re watching a show and coding, you’re actually just tuning into the show for a short period of time and then switching back to the coding over and over again quickly.
“Don’t multitask and take it one step at a time,” Software Engineer Pepijn van de Vorst wrote for Quora about time management for software engineers. “Finish what you’re working on before you start the next thing. This will create focus and a sense of inner peace and maybe a sense of flow as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience which describes flow as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing.”
Not only does multitasking preclude flow, but research from Sophie Leroy shows any interruption is likely to decrease productivity because developers tend to have trouble getting back into the flow of coding afterward. In Why is it so Hard to do My Work? Leroy found that when people switch tasks a part of their brain is usually still focused on the previous task.
“Switching attention tends to be difficult for people and subsequent task performance easily suffers,” Leroy wrote. Someone who can give a problem their undivided attention is more cognitively vigilant and intellectually alert than someone who is somewhat distracted. So performance suffers when people are distracted by unrelated thoughts. “They have fewer cognitive resources available for their current activity and thus process information less carefully and systematically.” Leroy wrote. This phenomenon is called attention residue. “Attention residue occurs when one has switched activities without fully transitioning one’s attention.”
That’s why Digital Marketing Lead Amit Kakkar recommends developers “Devote your entire focus to the task at hand: Focus on only one task at a time. Close out all other browser windows.”
If you’re still not sure focus is your most valuable asset as a developer, consider that when we surveyed 152 Engineering Managers about how Focus Time correlates with productivity, speed, and revenue for their teams we found that:
90% of Engineering Managers said they’re more productive when they have more Focus Time
80% of Engineering Managers said Focus Time helps them finish projects faster
76% of Engineering Managers said Focus Time helps their company bring in more revenue
So how do we get more focus in 2021? Here are three simple tips.
Leroy found that switching tasks before completing the first task degrades performance. It inhibits your ability to disengage from the goal of the first task, reduces your motivation to switch to the next task, and is associated with more attention residue and lower subsequent task performance.
In other words, finishing your last task helps your brain stop thinking about it so you can concentrate fully on the task at hand.
While it isn’t always possible to fully complete a task before you need to switch to another one, there are ways to “close out” the task in your brain. Try to create micro-goals on your tasks. Instead of sitting down and coding out a feature for two hours until it’s time for your next meeting you decide ahead of time that you’re going to complete a discrete part of the feature. Or, choose a task you can complete in two hours, such as deleting 130,000 lines of unused code, adding two components to the storybook, planning a sprint, grooming a backlog, or completing a retro/review.
Even still, unfortunately completing a task isn’t always enough to vanquish attention residue. Ideally, you’ll also get cognitive closure before moving on.
Leroy’s research shows you don’t just need to finish a task to mentally move on. You also need cognitive closure. This is when you are confident in your decision and stop processing information on the topic, and ignore any new or alternative information and ideas. So how do you get that closure? One thing that Leroy’s research shows helps is time pressure.
Leroy found that when people finish a task under time pressure they perform better on the next task than when they have more time to complete the task. “By heightening the motivation to reach cognitive closure, time pressure causes people to be more confident in having completed the first task and to reach cognitive closure as soon as task/goal-related behaviors are finished,” Leroy writes.
So one way to get better focus is to put time pressure on yourself to finish the task at hand. This is where time blocking your calendar can be helpful. Instead of listing your tasks for the day or week and then working on them at random, schedule blocks of time on your calendar for your big tasks. (Learn more: What is time blocking?; The top 3 free time blocking apps compared)
Lastly, be sure you’re scheduling long enough blocks on your calendar to actually dig into a task. Research shows that it takes 25 minutes and 26 seconds on average to get focused on a task after context switching. So we recommend creating blocks of time on your calendar that are two-hours or more for Deep Work.
Productivity gurus including Cal Newport and Nir Eyal argue that deep, profitable work requires chunks of uninterrupted time that are at least two hours, preferably longer. Chunks shorter than two hours impose unnecessary switching costs. Shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40% of your productive time.
Clockwise can schedule these blocks of Focus Time on your calendar for you, as well as move your meeting around to open up more Focus Time for you and your team.
Whatever you want to accomplish in 2021, better time management is going to help you make it happen. And better time management starts with focus. The research indicates carving out blocks of time where you can focus on one task at a time makes you more productive by allowing you to fully concentrate on the task at hand instead of having your brain still occupied by the last task.
If you haven’t already, try Clockwise to schedule Focus Time on your calendar and help you get more Focus Time automatically today.