Too Many Things

Back when I was a PhD student, I always had too many™️ projects going on in parallel. There usually were one or two things in my own paper pipeline, a handfull of other paper projects I was involved in, a couple of theses I supervised, some papers to read or review, some teaching I assisted with for my funding, some research projects I contributed to for my funding, some programming tasks waiting, a blog post to write, and some upcoming event to organize. At least. Needless to say that, strictly speaking, not all of these projects had to happen (though the things I could’ve dropped mostly happened to be the ones I most wanted to do). But somehow it seemed unavoidable to suffer this kind of multitasking. It was inherent in the job. It would get better once I finished and left for industry. Sure thing!

Well, now, here I am. And it ain’t no different

The projects certainly changed, but it seems I have to stop kidding myself and admit that the cause for them going on in parallel isn’t the job, but me. Which means I’m in power to do something about it. Great. Let’s dig into the challenge of managing my priorities such that I get the most out of my available time, given there’s always more to do than I can possible hope to accomplish within the said time.

Once again, I found a gem on this topic at Manager Tools. They suggest a simple four-step process to better align my priorities and my doing. Here’s what I did following their advice. For the instructions, I recommend you listen to the podcast.

What have I been doing?

Before I can decide where my priorities are, I first need to collect what I am working on. I sat down with a pen and paper and tried to remember as many things as possible I’d been working on over the last three weeks. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Develop new Test-Gap-Analysis demo
  • Support Pilot with Customer A
  • Develop time-tracking app
  • Plan participation in IT Career Summit
  • Support Pilot with Customer B
  • Support Pilot with Customer C
  • Support Pilot with Customer D
  • Plan participation in SE conference
  • Plan Pilot with Customer E
  • O3s
  • Improving Pilots (retrospective)
  • Participate in orga council (HUB31)
  • Plan participation in Konaktiva
  • Develop on Teamscale’s Visual Studio extension
  • Prepare quote for Customer F
  • Follow up with leads
  • Check CfPs for upcoming conferences
  • Rate CQSE on kununu and Glassdoor
  • Office management
  • Write documentation for Teamscale Ephemeral Profiler
  • Self-development (podcasts and reading)
  • Check proof of OBJEKTspektrum article

That’s 22 things I had worked on in 21 days. Didn’t sound so bad, now that I saw the numbers, but of course my time ‘s not equally distributed among these activities. And there’s some activities in there that I could’ve easily spent three weeks on each. And how does this align with what I should be doing, anyways?

What should I be doing?

Next, I went for analyzing what I should’ve been doing. I’m working in roughly equal parts in three of our internal teams, namely Pilots, Development, and Marketing. Also I’m preparing to switch from Development to Recruiting, which already reflects in my activities. To match this assignment with my above activities, I categorized the activities, first, by team and, second, by orthogonal activities within the teams. The result looked like this:

  • Pilots (doing)
  • Pilots (improvements)
  • Pilots (sales)
  • Development
  • Marketing (conferences)
  • Marketing (material)
  • Recruiting
  • Other (self-development)
  • Other (office management)

Good news is that I have been working for all of the teams I’m supposed to be working for and I didn’t miss any of the activities within the teams that I signed up for. Moreover, there’s also some time I spent on activities outside the scope of any of the teams, which is to be expected. So far so good.

Now, nine activities are certainly to much to focus on. Manager Tools recommends choosing three to five key priorities (while the actual goal is getting down to one or two). Since my list wasn’t too long, I decided to go for three and chose those that I judged to carry the highest strategic value (marked in bold above).

How much did I work on what?

Now for the reality check: How much did I actually work on the things I’ve been working on and how does that align with my key priorities?

Luckily, I could go directly to my time tracking and obtain exact data for this step. Using the data from the last three weeks, I got the following list of activities, ordered by relative amount of time I spent on them:

  • 24.0% Pilots (doing)
  • 21.5% Pilots (sales)
  • 9.7% Development
  • 9.2% Recruiting
  • 8.8% Other (self-development)
  • 6.2% Other (processing e-mail)
  • 5.3% Pilots (improvements)
  • 4.3% Other (planning work)
  • 3.8% Other (general meetings)
  • 2.5% Other (office management)
  • 2.0% Marketing (material)
  • 1.3% Marketing (conferences)
  • 1.3% Other (paperwork)

While this data reflected most of my expectations, there certainly were some surprises waiting.

First, I’d forgotten some activities outside the scope of the teams, which consume a significant amount of my time (15.3%). Interestingly, the data already showed the effects of my efforts to process mails and plan work faster, which I found encouraging. Created a todo for myself to check how this evolves in the next months.

Second, I was really surprised by how much sales activity I’d been involved in. While I’d been aware that I was active in that area, I didn’t realize that it consumes that much time! This insight alone made this whole experiment worthwhile. Planning for this explicitly, from now on.

Third, my shift from Development to Recruiting is already visible, as expected.

Fourth, I invested relatively little time in Pilot improvements and Marketing material. This is because I only started working on the topics during the three weeks I analyzed. Similarly, the small investment in Marketing conferences is because there simply were no conferences in this period. This suggest that it would be interesting to look at these numbers over a longer time. Doing this would require some more automation, however, so I decided to stick with what I had for now.

Focusing on Key Priorities

I decided that my number one priority are Pilots improvements. The goal here is to enable our customers to do more work on their own, which should increase the team’s long-term effectiveness. This seems like a good thing to focus on.

To put this decision to action, I scheduled time to work on the improvements on my calendar. I had to skip three weeks into the future, but from then on could schedule two 90-minute blocks per week. This commitment alone strengthened my resolution to focus on this activity.

As of this writing, I’m through the first such week. I had to sacrifice a little of the allotted time and move one block within the week. Nevertheless, I managed to work 2:45h on my number one priority. Not bad at all, right? And it’s on my calendar already for the weeks to come, so I’m confident that I can keep this up.

Finally, I scheduled a repeating todo to reevaluate my key priorities every three months. It’s unlikely that I will repeat the full process described here, but at least I want to consciously decide on my number one priority for the next period.

Overall, I think this experiment was well worth it and I can only encourage everyone who’s working on more than one thing to do it for himself. And, of course, I would be interested to learn whether you draw similarly interesting results from it.