Little fires everywhere – not just a best-selling novel and new streaming show starring Reese Witherspoon: it’s what most respondents said was the biggest impediment to productivity in their workday. Distractions in the form of meetings, urgent emails, and (worst case) system outages force even the most organized sysadmin to push tasks back and cause pileups in the future. Whether or not you’re using the same strategies to stay productive in IT as the ones highlighted below, learn how your peers avoid and overcome hurdles to keep focusing on high-impact tasks.
We asked IT professionals to share their challenges, successes, and tips for optimizing productivity, and for them it comes down to three things:
1. Prioritizing Tasks
Common sense says to get the most important task done first – that’s why nearly every person we asked said they prioritize their work in some way. Whether you’re the type of person who likes to start the morning by knocking out small to-dos and using the afternoon for bigger projects, or you prefer to dive into your most gnarly task as you sip your morning coffee and manage easier tasks during the after-lunch haze, having a grasp on what is business-critical keeps your day – and organization – running smoothly.
Speaking of prioritizing – save time by printing the PDF guide to optimizing productivity!
Spend Your Time Up Front
CISO Chris Reffkin says he attempts to focus on the items that will make the biggest difference first: “either the highest risk to customers, employees, or the company, or the items that if successfully addressed have the highest impact to reduce risk for the organization.” Like the “measure twice cut once” saying you may have learned in shop class, high-value high-effort projects may take more time and legwork, and managing those up front can end up saving you time by reducing issues down the line.
Use Downtime to Your Advantage
One IT Manager looks at prioritization differently. Outside of his top-priority tasks, Experian’s Jorge Garita keeps a list of to-dos, organized by urgency and value, and tackles each one in 20-30 minute increments – he has high praise for the Pomodoro technique (learn more from The Muse or LifeHacker). Like Garita, you can keep lower-priority tasks top-of-mind with a list organized by value and urgency, and slot them into chunks of downtime, like those awkward 15-minute breaks between meetings (which can then be known as the ultimate efficiency quarter hour!).
Everyday necessities, like meetings and checking and replying to email, can creep into time you meant to spend working on your top-priority tasks. If your organization makes it feasible, turn off email notifications except for twice or three times a day, and then use those dedicated blocks to catch up on important missives. The same can be said for meetings. One project manager we talked to only schedules meetings in the morning, preferably early in the week. This gives him more time to take follow-ups post-meeting, work, and deliver updates near the end of the week.
2. Creating Time for Yourself
“I often schedule 'meetings' for myself to have quiet time to focus on daily tasks and projects that need my attention that day,” says Seth Byrd, an IT Specialist. “This helps me stay focused and shows my online status as 'busy' or 'in a meeting,' which typically helps to keep unwanted distractions at a minimum.”
While blocking off "Get Stuff Done" time on your calendar may reduce some of the messages that come your way – at least temporarily – it may not eliminate them entirely. However, this method can give you some guidelines for how to spend your time, plus function as a reminder straight from your calendar. Maybe you want to sit and work on a project for a several-hour stretch, or you’d prefer to spend a little bit of time each day on it instead. Whichever format works best for you, time blocking can help you set aside the time you need – even if you don’t stick to the schedule too closely.
As a bonus, blocking off your time can help you devote 100 percent to one project, rather than bouncing between several tasks at once.
Setting aside time for yourself can also make you more proactive. While many organizations tend to take a reactive approach, giving yourself even a little bit of thinking time can be the extra step that keeps your organization ahead of future dilemmas.
“Fires. Putting out fires. I try to schedule things, but there seem to be a lot of fires that pop up.”
- Robert Bratton, Software Engineer III
You’re not alone – sticking to a schedule is rarely feasible for any of the IT professionals we talked to. Pesky emails, messages, and phone calls frequently interrupt head-down time. As Reffkin says, “The challenges are that no day is predictable, regardless of intentions.” Re-prioritizing each time unexpected requests and other strains on your time pop up can make a person crazy. Building some “putting-out-fires time” into your schedule can save you headaches and late nights, and make that coffee run feel less like an escape from your desk and more like a regular break.
3. Using the Right Tools
The right tool can make any task easier, and the best make processes and staff more efficient. Systems Administrator Christian Mitchell agrees, saying “Great tools are what really lead success.” Among the people we talked to, three categories of tools stood out the most.
Jumping back into task prioritization and making time for yourself – project management tools are the ultimate way to break a project into bite-sized tasks and monitor every aspect from one centralized location. Jesse Van Winkle, an EDI/System Integration Developer, says “I use a project management software to track what changes need to be implemented and take notes on their progress.” This also helps him tackle one of his biggest day-to-day challenges: keeping up with the quantity of work that comes his way.
There are hundreds of project management tools – both free and paid – available. However, there’s one option that most people already have on hand: Excel. The ubiquitous Microsoft tool can be the perfect first foray into project management and give you an idea of what to look for in other available tools. Use a project management tool to work on ongoing project, keep a log of future projects, and collaborate with your team – the possibilities are endless!
“Automation continues to dominate our development landscape.”
-Seth Byrd, IT Specialist
The best for efficiency? Automation. Says Mitchell, “The more things that I can automate, or have some sort of tool do the work, the better.” Avoid tedious manual work by automating tasks, and move them out of the hands of you, your team, or other employees across your organization. Byrd notes that as his team automates more and more, “We're finding that there is less 'noise' around a process than when fully handled by humans.”
Automation is a major focus area for most IT teams. It’s one of the best ways to give yourself that precious commodity – more time.
“Everything that we can push to the cloud will benefit us in multiple ways,” says Mitchell. The cloud is where everyone’s raring to go and, for the most part, it comes with huge benefits:
- Moving maintenance, upgrades, and overall upkeep of applications out of IT’s wheelhouse, which gives IT the ability to focus on other projects
- Reducing IT costs by taking hardware out of the equation
- Less time spent fixing broken applications
- Increased security, loss prevention, and quality control
Some tools just get in your way. Using a tool that isn’t intuitive or doesn’t fit your process can slow you down. Some even cause more havoc for IT teams than they’re worth – if you’re constantly fixing or implementing new tools, you lose time rather than gaining it.
Changes and innovations in IT can cause some growing pain; new tools can allow for agility and flexibility, but they come part and parcel with establishing new processes. While well intentioned, implementing new technologies tends to raise questions about processes, practices, and standards that should be well defined before jumping in. Balancing what to establish before implementation and what to cover afterwards is one way to thwart discussions that keep backing an implementation date out. That’s not to say an abundance of caution is a negative – but letting the perfect get in the way of the good can slow down even the most efficient of organizations.
Cost is always a factor, especially when it comes to new tech. Says Mitchell, “The challenge for IT is always the budget, and being able to justify the cost to executive management.” Making the case for a new tool is challenging, but not impossible. Determining the ROI before proposing a new tool can cut back the debates before they start.
How to Get to the Ideal Workday
Two things that are in short supply for most IT departments: time and money. But those two things can also give IT the biggest return on investment. Keep these strategies and tips top-of-mind every day – print or save our helpful walkthrough for surviving another urgent request, application overhaul, or just your everyday planning. In unpredictable times, make sure your plan is ready to go.