Five productivity tactics for a less stressful day

Example JavaScript code for 'takeBreak' method
Use short breaks from coding to get household / office chores done

A colleague recently described me in a LinkedIn recommendation as “one of the most organised developers I’ve had the pleasure of working with”.

I’m not telling you this to boast. I never set out to be super organised and didn’t really spend much time thinking about productivity when I started my dev career.

In fact, it has only recently occurred to me that the ‘organisation’ others see is just a bunch of things I started doing to make my working day less stressful.

But if these habits help me be more productive and less stressed, perhaps they can help you too…

1. Take a break… with the washing-up bowl

I’m currently freelancing and the temptation to forgo regular breaks is strong when your own time is literally money. But it is depressing to slave away for hours straight only to find, when it’s finally time to relax after work, that there is a mountain of laundry to do.

There are two problems here. First, breaks are really important. Second, nobody wants to do domestic chores after a long working day.

I solve both problems by taking myself away from my desk every couple of hours to do some household task like washing dishes or hoovering. This has several benefits:

  • I’m giving both my eyes and brain a rest from coding.
  • Physically moving away from the desk is good for your body.
  • Little jobs around the place get done instead of piling up and encroaching on leisure time.
  • The chores I’m doing are usually tedious enough to refresh my enthusiasm for work.
  • We all know how often we solve troublesome problems when we distract ourselves with inconsequential activities.

This strategy can also be employed in an office, with an added advantage: empty the dishwasher, rinse a few mugs or take the bins out and you’re not only getting your screen break but also gaining Brownie Points with your co-workers!

(Seth Godin has a variation on this tip, which is to break from demanding creative tasks by doing some dull office admin, what he calls a “productive choice”.)

2. Bureaucracy is unavoidable, but that’s okay

Whether you work for yourself or an employer, ancillary tasks – replying to emails, checking Slack and Basecamp, logging time, filling in expense claims – can seem like a drag, but remember these are all part of your job.

Few professionals are able to do what they enjoy / excel at without some unpleasant bureaucracy. But instead of seeing admin as an interruption that must be gotten out of the way so you can get back to your ‘real’ work, welcome the opportunity to rest your brain a little and know that by keeping on top of little chores you are making efficiency gains.

The best way to minimise this necessary evil is simply to get it done at periodic intervals. Ignoring your inbox all day will only lead to more angst when you realise you’ve got 10 emails to reply to before you can clock off for the night. Those emails could have been dealt with in 10 relaxing breaks during a productive day.

3. Admin time is not learning time

Part of your morning routine probably involves checking various websites and social media platforms. It’s great to follow other pros and industry news feeds, but keeping up with shared articles can be time-consuming.

Instead of trying to read everything as you come across it, you should put it aside for later. It’s fine to skim read emails, but you shouldn’t skim your learning. If something is worth taking in, you need the time to properly absorb it and you are unlikely to get this first thing in the morning.

Use bookmarks on your browser or one of the numerous read-it-later apps to build up a backlog of news stories, blog posts and how-to guides. Then, when you’ve got some downtime, put your feet up and see which items on your ‘to read’ list take your fancy. You’ll absorb the information much better when you are relaxed and not dealing with other pressures.

4. ‘Time has told me…’

You are probably already tracking your time with something like Harvest or Toggl. But if you think this is just a way to convert your hours to client billables, you are missing out on some very valuable information. Make the most of this data be analysing it yourself.

One technique is to compare the hours you estimated at the start of the project with what you actually ended up doing. This isn’t about beating yourself up for missing deadlines or going over budget – the purpose is to cast light on misconceptions you might have about your own way of working. Sometimes we think we are quicker at certain tasks than we actually are; sometimes we’re better than we think.

Another method I’ve used is to plot a representative sample of my work (i.e. a week or month’s timelog) against the Covey Matrix, which compares importance and urgency of tasks. If you are doing lots of non-important tasks as a matter of urgency, the next important (and fairly urgent) job you should do is re-prioritise your daily grind.

And if the admin your employer has you doing really stresses you out, you can only unburden yourself if you are armed with the facts. Show them how much time you’re wasting on trivial matters and they should help you reduce the load or delegate it.

5. The productivity of paper people

Sometimes it can seem like supposedly organised people waste a lot of time with things like notepads, to-do lists, diaries, calendars, year-planners, post-it notes, white boards… you get the idea.

The logical thing would be to streamline all of this information into one digital system. I mean, Google can do all this for you, so why waste all that paper and ink?

But the reason I have a multimedia approach to planning my work is that there is something about the physical processes involved that improves focus. For one thing, writing something down on a piece of paper will help you remember it better, especially if you have a dominant visual memory.

It’s also much harder to ignore something that is right there in front of you. A post-it on your monitor won’t be missed – a digital calendar notification might easily get lost amongst email alerts and other junk. And how easy is it to open our Trello lists on a tab that disappears in the clutter of our task bar for the rest of the day?

The other big advantage of the paper to-do list – if you’re anything like me, anyway – is the satisfaction you get in marking things ‘done’. Digital alternatives are very useful, but nothing beats the feeling of physically ticking something off.

With that, I’m now going to tick off an item in my diary for today – “Blog about stress-reducing productivity tactics” – then start on that laundry pile…