How to work with too little time?

Can you remember a time when you actually had enough time to do everything you wanted to and the way you wanted? A time when you were able to start a task early enough and with enough background information to do a great job?

For me, it’s really hard to remember such a time. I think it must have been back in my university days where I mostly wasted the time that I had! Looking at my professional life, it feels like I’ve never had enough time to meet my needs.

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For any software testing job, there are constraints. Lacking docs, development already behind schedule, deadlines coming up and project budget already used last month. So what is the best way to approach these constraints and deal with too little time and starting too late?

First step in all work is to understand how much time you exactly have. Even if it’s too little, knowing the exact amount is paramount. Only then, you’ll be able prioritize, scope and communicate your work to match what you got.

This was my pitfall for a long time. I always started on the action points and demands of the project management. And I always fell short of their expectation, felt stressed while working and miserable after failing to stick with the deadlines someone gave me.

So before anything else, remember to agree on exact number of hours that you can budget for a specific outcome you work on.

After you’ve clarified the specific time-budget, things get easier. You’re done when the time’s up.

With a specific time-budget at hand it’s time to make a plan.

Here I wan’t to share the three most useful principles for managing and planning time that I’ve found. But let me warn you. They may seem simple at first. And the danger in simple things is that they are as easy to do as they are to neglect.

1. The Pareto Principle

It was first suggested by management consultant, Joseph M. Juran who named it after the economist Vilfredo Pareto. Pareto noted the 80/20 connection in 1896. He observed that about 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population.

Many others have since written about the Pareto Principle, but I first came across it while reading Tim Ferriss’ book ‘The 4-Hour Workweek’

The 80/20 principle simply states that 20% of what you do, contributes to 80% of the results that you can deliver.

So minority of the work produces the majority of all of your results. The rest of the work is easily being busy for the sake of being busy. The idea is to identify three to five simple activities that will produce 80% of your results. The trick is to then ignore everything else until the important part is done.

Last year I published a book about software testing. I needed to write four pages a day in order to finish the book by June. In order to do this, I set my 20% activity window to occur first thing in the morning.

Waking up early I would brew a big pot of coffee, followed by some stretching. I would then read something inspirational for 20 minutes to get my mind on writing. Finally, I would open up my laptop which was already in full screen mode so there would be no distractions to prevent me starting towards my daily goal.

This way, I was able to dedicate the first hours of my day to writing, while the rest of the day was filled up with the other 80% of activities. It was this technique that got my book published even though I run a 40 employee testing business, do testing trainings and father two fast moving kids.

Later a friend of mine asked how it is possible to publish blog posts and social media updates at such a rate? Well, the secret is to leverage the content that I wrote with the 20% of my time everywhere possible. And the thing is that text is easily distributed via blogs and social media and even Instagram.

The key to success is to put your focus on just a few activities that produce your biggest results AND that have a potential to be used several times.

2. Parkinson’s Law

While I was studying University, we would have essays or project reports to write. It was normal to be given a month to complete them, but I would always procrastinate and find something else to do.

I would find any excuse or opportunity to put off writing the report until the final evening with the deadline was looming. By 5pm when my whole apartment was clean, and even the bathroom was scrubbed. Now, you probably guess where this story ends?!

After brewing an epic amount coffee it was time to work my ass off over the final night. By 4am the following morning, the report would be ready. I would then grab 4 hours of sleep before handing in the paper in time for the 9am deadline. I would always get decent grades and I would be left feeling really accomplished. It had only taken 8 to 10 hours to write, but had filled up the whole month allotted to it.

The thing here is that the work will always fill up the time that you allow it.

So I was just allowing one month of work for the report and I would invent a huge number of irrelevant activities that weren’t actually contributing to the goal. Once I entered the final 9 hour time window, I was able to produce all the results. So boxing the time in tight enough windows is crucial for actually creating high output.

Since I have a bit of an attention disorder, one technique I’ve found extra usefull is called the Pomodoro Technique. It helps to box activities into manageable periods. You simply need to give yourself 25 minutes time-slots for working on a specific goal, then allow yourself a 5 minute break and repeat. In software testing the technique is simply called time boxing.

3. Chunking

I ordered some new t-shirts for my business a while ago, so I went to the shirt printing company and asked them if they could print it,

“Sure! How many shirts do you need?”

“Well, we have 50 employees, so maybe 100 should be enough.”

“Okay, the unit cost is 25 euros for 100 shirts”

“Wow, that’s expensive!” I replied.

“Well, you could order 300 shirts and the unit price would go down to 12 euros per shirt.”

“What the hell is going on? 100 shirts is 25 euros and its half the price if I order 300?”

“Yeah, exactly. That’s the point.” he said and went on to explain,

“We need to set up the printing machine to print your shirts. The initial setup costs are really high because it takes a lot of time and effort. Once the system is set up, it makes no difference how many shirts you order. The more you order, the less you pay since the setup cost is divided between each shirt.”

This is when the penny dropped.

Every activity has a setup cost and a cleanup cost.

Every time I read my emails, there is a setup cost and cleanup cost. It takes time to open the email application and the messages to download. And then there is the psychological phenomenon called ‘attention residue’ that means that part of my attention remains focussed on the previous activity and it takes time to fully focus on the new activity with full efficiency.

If I read my email 4 times a day, then I must pay that set up cost 4 times over.

The same goes in my domain of software testing too. Here’s an example. Every time a Jira ticket comes in, you drop what you were doing to focus on Jira. Every time, it requires a setup cost in your mind and time. So instead of doing one ticket at a time, learn to chunk the ticket verification time so that you only pay one setup cost.

So here’s a quick recap.

  1. Pareto’s principle. 80% of results come from 20% of activities. Find your 20% and double down on it!

Now it’s your turn. Leave your principles in the comments or try one of these… If you don’t learn to manage your time, who else would do it for you?

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Today the world doesn’t need your fear or your worry. Now, more than ever, it needs the best version of you!

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