Orr on Engineering: Time: The Undiscovered Country

Nov. 23, 2008
"I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they go by.” — Douglas Adams

Most engineers never have enough time — they always seem to have more to do than time in which to do it. What’s your relationship with time? Do you have enough of it? Are you frequently running out?

If you want to make better use of time, you must first learn how you use it.

Here’s what to do: Keep a time log for a day or two. You’ll need a timer that alerts you every so often — say, every 15 minutes. Make a list of short codes that correspond to your various activities so it won’t take too long to itemize what you are doing. Use a spreadsheet or other method to track your activity during each time interval.

At the end of the day, total up the quarter-hours you spent in each activity. What do you notice? Are you surprised at anything? Was it a typical day? Do you want to do anything differently tomorrow?

Knowing how you spend your time is only part of a bigger picture. To best make use of your log, you need goals. Time spent moving toward them is probably well spent. To reach a goal, first define success, then determine the steps to attain it. Next take action and track your progress.

Use what are called SMART goals, which are:

Speci c. Goals state clearly what you intend to accomplish.

Measurable. How many? How much? When goals are measurable, you will know when you have reached them.

Attainable. They might be a stretch but are within reach.

Relevant. Goals should speak to your heart and relate to what you want to accomplish in your life.

Time-bound. They have deadlines. Create a set of SMART goals, such as follows:

Life. When you look back on your life, what do you want to have accomplished?

10 year. Imagine yourself in 10 years. What is your life like? Write it all down.

1 year. What is your life like one year from today? What are you doing?

90 day. What needs to happen in 90 days so you reach your one-year goals?

Weekly. What are your SMART goals for the coming week?

Daily. What SMART goals will you accomplish tomorrow?

Review daily goals every day, weekly goals every week, and all goals every month. Mark off the goals you’ve reached, add new goals, delete irrelevant goals, change whatever needs changing. Note your review times on your calendar — and enjoy doing the reviews. Once you’ve captured your goals, prioritize them. Which should be done first? Which can wait?

Here’s a time-management tip I learned the hard way: Focus, don’t multitask. I used to think that when I was doing several things at the same time, I was being efficient. But I discovered that a far better way to work is pick a task and focus exclusively on it — preferably, until it is done. Then move on to the next task.

Note that taking control of “the undiscovered country” is not a one-time effort. Instead, it’s an ongoing journey. Do not criticize yourself if your improvement seems slow. When you find yourself doing things you hadn’t planned, and didn’t even want to do, just notice, and refocus. Don’t waste time and energy berating yourself.

Joel Orr

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