Can anyone help me deal better with my time confetti?
August 2, 2018 7:20 PM   Subscribe

My job combines working on long term projects (for both internal and external clients) as well as providing on-demand phone, email and walk-in client support. I am in desperate need of project/time management strategies that take utter unpredictability and small increments of time into account. Help?

I once read an article about being the parent of a young child (which I also am so yay) that described the way that you do have free time and if you kept a time diary it'd add up to a few hours every day, but it's in like 5 minute increments, which actually means it's not really usable free time at all. It's time confetti.

My executive functioning is not top-notch though I have spent a lifetime developing coping strategies out the wazoo. They are not up to this task, however.

If you had projects that required many hours of work, but you were likely to be interrupted at unpredictable intervals and for unpredictable lengths of time throughout, what would you do? I'm looking for project and time management strategies as well as brainhacks to reframe my time confetti as... confettertunity?
posted by soren_lorensen to Work & Money (7 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
My job is similar, and one thing I do is that I use check lists. I've got the main check list of projects and various other things to do. Then for anything that isn't a single step and less than 15 minute task, I really like sitting down and making a step by step checklist of what needs to be done for the project, and I try and keep the items in it bout 15 minutes long, which is the average chunk of time I have between interruptions on normal days. This takes a little time investment upfront, but it pays off by keeping me aware of what my last\current\next step is. I also have a little note pad that I write a quick note about whatever I am doing when I get interrupted. That way I always know where I am and can stop and start without having to spend 2 minutes remembering where I am.

I also use this to plan out my day, but a lot of my interruptions are scheduled. It is nice for using keep track of what you actually spend your time on though: when I started to get a little bit overwhelmed at work I was able to pull out a couple of weeks worth of the pages and asked my boss what he thought I needed to prioritize and stopped getting nearly as many "oh, could you do this today?" tasks.

Oh and I write everything down, and then once a week go through my pages to make sure that everything that came up either got added to the check list, added as a note in the right place, or just dealt with.

At some point though, 5-10 minutes just isn't enough time to get any traction on more complicated tasks. When there's a predicatble busy time where that's how long I have between interruptions, I save up the quick and mindless tasks for then (I'm in an administrative role, so lots of copies get made and stuff like that). If it's busy at random, I just give myself permission not to get anything done. I know that if I try and power through and do the work in those short bursts I'm going to make mistakes and have to redo a bunch of it anyway, so it makes more sense for me to just wait till I can do the job right. Even if that means I'm not constantly actively working on a project.
posted by Gygesringtone at 8:25 PM on August 2, 2018 [7 favorites]

How flexible can you arrange to be on the support response times? Would it be possible to somehow only check the support email/voicemail every hour or whatever, with an appropriate escalation channel for actual emergencies? Walk-in hours from 2-4, so you can plan on lots of interruptions during that time? At the end of the day, most if not all of us aren't really able to do a good job of lengthy serious projects in five minute increments, so figuring out how to separate them if it's at all possible would make a big difference.

It also gives you some tools you can go back to your boss with: "I spent 70% of my day on support requests, which only left me with N hours to work on the Important Project." And then you can use that to have a conversation about priorities and the progress of your projects.
posted by zachlipton at 9:13 PM on August 2, 2018

I'm a public librarian with a desk IN a play area(!) and little to no off-desk time. I keep my organization system simple as possible because otherwise I spend too much bandwidth maintaining it.

Gygesringtone describes my process pretty closely. I use a big series of Trello lists and boards, some project-centered and some time-based (main board has lists like today, tomorrow, time-sensitive, someday, DONE, etc). I make a card for each small task (apart from those unpredictable customer service tasks) and swap them around on different boards constantly. I try not to have more than 5-8 cards on my most-urgent lists at any one time, move them to the "Done" list when completed, and archive the items in the "Done" list weekly-ish. The archive lets me keep track of what I've accomplished pretty painlessly. In slower periods, I will occasionally do a clean out/reorg and delete or rearrange tasks that are no longer relevant or need to be reprioritized.

That's really it. I've tried more complex systems but they actually demanded more mental effort to maintain than I was able to spare. This works and is flexible enough that I can actually use it.

It's tricky for sure! Interruptions are mentally exhausting and no joke. I can't control them, but what I can partially control is the amount of mental effort I spend figuring out how to get back on task after being interrupted.
posted by Knicke at 12:44 AM on August 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

I’ll be following this thread for more recommendations, but I have a physical checklist made of the smallest possible units of activity. Like if the actual item is “make 20 slides for a talk” I write down the individual numbers as I go. For projects that are less able to be broken down into bits but which can be picked up and dropped easily, I put a check mark next to the item every time I spend any time on it. This is a little boost for tasks like “catch up on email” that never look done, and show me that yes, I did actually make progress.

Projects that take a good stretch of uninterrupted work are tougher. Is there a time of day that your work is quieter? I don’t do my best work in the morning, but the students don’t start coming in until 9:30 or so, so an hour of “not best work, continuously done” is better than “best work done in 45 second chunks.”

My husband does this by putting meetings of one on his calendar, but his office heavily uses shared calendar systems.
posted by tchemgrrl at 4:58 AM on August 3, 2018

Seconding the Emergent Task Planner. It's especially helpful for embracing where your time is going and really understand what's contributing to the confetti so that you can try and plan around all that in future.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 6:11 AM on August 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

Don't suppose you're part of a team? Sacrificing one (rotating!) member of the team to deal with the interruptions is one strategy.
posted by Leon at 7:18 AM on August 3, 2018

I have a similar situation, and I agree with others above that having detailed checklists are really helpful. I can waste a ton of time on figuring out what I already did and what's next to be done... but if I just have to look at the list and do the next thing, I get a lot more done.

If you're getting interrupted by coworkers, see if you can ask "just a sec, let me jot a note about where I'm at" before you turn your attention to the interruption. This will get you back into working faster. Write down whatever you would need to know to dive right back into the task you were working on. If you've got lots of repetition in the kinds of things you're writing down, come up with a personal code so you can just write a couple words or acronyms instead of needing to jot down a sentence or 2.

I've also found it helpful to prioritize tasks in advance. Each day I have a list of tasks, and any task that goes on the list gets a number from 1 to 5. In my personal system #1 is something that has to be done at a certain time that day, #2 is something that will take a long time but needs to be done that day, #3 is something quick that needs to be done that day, #4 is something that needs to be done in the next day or 2, and #5 is something that needs to be done eventually and had to go on the to-do list somewhere. Depending on your work, your labeling system would be different. It took me several months to settle on my current setup. But this gives me a quick way to look at my to-do list and pick what to work on next, rather than re-reading the entire to-do list and deciding which task is highest priority and best fitted to the time I've got available. 1st thing in the morning, I make sure I'm ready for my #1s at their designated times. Any time I expect to have 45+ minutes, I tackle a #2 task. When I know I only have 10-15 minutes, I do the first #3 that can be accomplished that quickly. I don't look at the 4's or 5's until the other ones are done. And if I finish a task that implies a next step needs to be done, and I don't have time to do it now, it goes on a future task list with the right category number. It's easy to assign that label when the task is added to the to-do list, because the project and the next step are fresh in my mind.

Short version: figure out a systems that lets you spend less time on figuring out what to do next.
posted by vytae at 10:47 AM on August 6, 2018

« Older Why have people uploaded our old website to our...   |   Shallow "landing table" style console, stand or... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.