What have you accomplished this week?
It’s a question we don’t like to ask, but it looms in the back of our minds on the Friday commute home. Some days you feel like you’re crushing it, ticking all the boxes, perfect lines rocketing from your fingertips while you’re blasting an epic playlist and breaking only for more coffee breaks. Those days feel awesome. You’ve earned a weekend of Netflix and chill – good for you!
Then there are weeks you can’t remember a single thing that was done. A bunch of meetings happened, a couple of phone calls, but nothing substantial. Half-finished ideas still linger in your script editor; tangled amongst messy lines of code. You sit on the train hunched in silence, scrolling through your newsfeed feeling uncertain about your career choice. The feeling of being unproductive is frustrating and tends to bring us high-achievers down.
We marvel at top-performers who crush it every day – rising early, staying late and taking huge strides towards ambitious goals. What makes them so different? To tell you the truth, not much.
It comes down to a few basic principles of productivity. Take some time master these and you’ll be a more productive developer, in and out of the office.
1. Define productivity
People, managers, and companies will have different opinions on what productivity looks like for them. It might be lines of code or bug fixes – and that’s how they’ll measure your success. Your manager and CEO will be planning one or two years in the future, which will look quite different from your next sprint. So, make sure you also get the larger picture, that way you’ll know exactly what to expect and how to get there with no nasty surprises.
Once you’ve got an idea of what productivity looks like for you then you can begin to measure it and set goals. From there, you’ll easily be able to see where improvement is needed.
2. Create a schedule
You know better than anyone how and when you work best. Factor these in when creating your schedule. For example, if you’re a night owl get those meetings and emails out of the way before diving into some deep work. Or better yet, block out the time in your calendar so you’ll be left undisturbed.
If you’re a remote programmer you’ll want to be even more mindful of how you structure your day, as it’s easy to put things off. Good news, there are plenty of tools out there (Google Calendar, Trello, etc.) which you can leverage to help juggle all your responsibilities, and more importantly set aside the time needed for the ‘real’ work to happen.
Start listing your to-do’s on the daily, this will keep you on track and help you recognise your capacity. How often does a simple task blow out an entire day when you thought an hour would do?
As silly as it sounds, the simple act of crossing things off a list can motivate the heck out of you. Your brain recognises when you’ve completed something and rewards you with a bump of dopamine – similar to the rush you might get when your latest holiday picture is popping on Instagram. No judgment...
I like to get a few easy tasks out of the way first – it gets the ball rolling and makes those bigger tasks seem more approachable. Don’t start the race sprinting, ease into it – before you know it there’ll be too much momentum to stop!
With realistic deadlines and a bit of reflection you’ll be able to get a pretty good idea of what you can and can’t accomplish in one day, week or month.
3. Live a healthy lifestyle
When your mental state deteriorates, so does the quality and capacity of your work. Showing up late, lacking motivation, and workplace isolation are common signs that a burnout is just around the corner. Don’t neglect your emotional state or the warning signs. This will only lead to damaging behaviours, including increased stress and anxiety.
Get your exercise in (150 minutes per week) and clean up your diet with plenty of vegetables and non-processed foods. You’ll find that your thinking clears, there’s better focus, and a general uptake in well-being.
We tend to abuse the hell out of caffeine for a couple hours of concentrated work. There are less damaging ways to achieve the same or even better focus at work. You’ll find a load of different opinions out there, some experimentation will be needed until you find what works for you.
Here’s a good place to start.
Another important aspect to be aware of is your work-life balance. Take some time for yourself to spend doing the things you love with the people you love. Staying up to date outside the office will keep you fresh and connected while lowering overall stress and anxiety.
4. Minimise distractions
There is no better way to murder your focus than by being accessible every minute of the day. Chat, email, and meetings are big focus killers. On average it takes 23 minutes to get back ‘in the zone’ of creative problem solving; add that to the dozens of times it’ll happen and you’re looking at butt-load of wasted time.
Just as it’s important to set aside time for deep work, it’s equally important to minimise any disturbances in that period. Quiet your Slack notifications, turn your phone off and log out of your socials. You’ll be able to crank line after line without missing a beat. And hopefully your colleagues will get the clue.
Meetings with clients and management are, of course, necessary (I know, sad). Stray meetings will wreak havoc to your workflow. Try to book them at a set time – first thing in the morning is best, then you’ve got the rest of the day to get your hands dirty without a mental tick in the back of your mind.
5. Ask for help
It often happens that we fumble around trying to figure out a simple problem for hours while sitting right beside us is the solution. Your colleagues have probably encountered a similar problem and know the process but you’re afraid it’ll make you seem weak. This couldn’t be further from reality, people like helping others; they can see the benefits of asking questions earlier on and saving the headache of misdirection. So, save yourself and the team valuable time and ask.
If I know my workmate can do a better job than me at something, I’ll try to get them involved. It’s not about doing all the work, it's about doing the best work possible.
This applies to a lot more than just work though. We all have struggles: with people, with ourselves, at work, at home, the list goes on. You can’t do everything, neither will you know it all. So, when in doubt, tap a friend or colleague on the shoulder and let them know what’s up, you’ll be glad you did.
6. Get a full night’s sleep
You know the drill: eight hours of sleep a night. Easier said than done, but when done right can have some awesome effects on your productivity. ‘Get some sleep’ is not just an overused cliche told by doting parents. Odd hours, naps, and caffeine are no substitute for the real thing and eventually, they’ll crush your creative powers.
Undisturbed, regular sleeping patterns will reduce stress and anxiety while improving concentration and focus. Meaning when you hit the keyboard, you’ll be hammering far better quality than when on the ol’ Red Bull binge.
Guard your sleep from everyone and everything. Set a bedtime and stick to it, this will eliminate the odd hours. It’ll also help to spend a few minutes getting into a peaceful state beforehand, you might read a book, write a journal, listen to some lo-fi beats; anything to take your mind off the day’s events and get you ready for some sweet shut-eye.
Automation can save a heap of time and rid you of those tedious repetitive tasks which you find yourself doing once a week. For example, writing scripts to automatically gather and generate data might require planning at first, but it’ll save you the agony of pulling data every time someone asks for it.
There have been tales of programmers automating their entire workloads. One anonymous Redditor even claimed to have done as little as 50 hours of work in six years thanks to scripts that had completely automated his job.
If it can be automated, why not?
With small tasks on autopilot, you’ll be free to focus on bigger more complicated tasks and improve your workflow.
8. Always be learning
Read (more) books, take courses, watch tutorials. There are some great resources out there (and countless blogs listing them all) written and created by developers who’ve been in the game for years, so you’ll be sure to glean some insight into programming technology and complex problem-solving.
Many companies and start-ups offer in-house and external training opportunities which is a great short-cut to growing your skill sets. Don’t let work go stale, keep it fresh with a growth mindset.
Find yourself a mentor. What you won’t find in a Reddit post is a Yoda-like programmer able to guide you through the many ups and downs of a tech career. A solid compass will keep you aimed in the right direction. Steve Jobs might’ve created Apple but turning it into a tech-titan wasn’t a solo journey, he had Robert Friedland and a few other gurus to show him the way.
9. Reward yourself
Reward yourself whenever a goal is reached. This will crush monotonous work and renew a sense of personal accomplishment after each milestone. When applied on both a personal and professional level it’s hugely motivational and it’ll keep you and the team invested while softening the edges of those daunting projects and tight deadlines.
Choose a reward that’ll get you off your ass, like a new tech-product, a weekend away, or an all-day gaming sesh. And don’t muck about, if you’re owed a reward, then follow through – the habit will keep you invested through thick and thin.
10. Get comfortable
It’s been shown that comfortable environments put you in a state of wakeful relaxation, which encourages creative problem-solving. So, don’t skimp on your equipment, if something is sure to smooth the process then it’ll likely get you ‘in the zone’ a lot quicker. A comfy chair, an extra monitor might remove one more layer of frustration, polishing the process to a sleek line of ones and zeros.
Productivity is all about balance. When things become unbalanced, that's when we can miss the beat and drop our game, and it’s not just for the overachievers out there but anyone seeking to relish their time at work. Even the dream job can become a nightmare with enough neglect.
You’ve heard the horror stories; a line of misplaced code, an entire software sabotaged, clients lost, and so on. Your habits are a bit like that - they can really make or break what you’re capable of doing. So, forget the all-nighters and instead try some of the tips we’ve discussed (if you haven’t already), refine your habits with a disciplined approach, and you’ll be sure to see the uptake.