Ivan Rivera’s Time Management Tricks & Productivity Tools

October 24, 2016 Ivan Rivera

It is expected that during project development (and more if we manage several projects simultaneously), we will discover new activities needed to complete subprojects that we were not able to detect in the initial planning phase.

As project managers, we must know techniques that allow us to remain productive: prioritizing tasks, assigning more staff, reducing time allocated to other activities, postponing or eliminating non-priority activities, etc.

In addition, we now have plenty of tools designed to help at work. From the smartphone to online utilities and everything that can be installed on the desktop computer, we have endless possibilities.

But several problems arise. The most important is that the work has to be executed using the only resource that we cannot renew or recover in any way: time.

“Work has to be executed using the only resource that we cannot renew or recover in any way: time.”

Moreover, all these tools can easily become distracting, with instant messaging, alerts from our social networks, personal emails and other interruptive tools.

So, from my point of view, the key to being productive is to manage my time, the right way.

It All Starts with Time Management

The difficulty of time management is that all activities of all our projects are executed at the time they are scheduled (some at the same time), and when new activities arise we must consider them and reorganize everything to continue working.

So the problem that we as project managers face daily is to decide:

  • If all this must be done today, where should we start?
  • How to move from plan to action?
  • What will be my first task in the morning?
  • Now what task will be the next?

The issue is not trivial, and it reflects a situation that is more complicated when we control more than one project, and each one is equally important.

In my case, I need a tool that allows me to see all outstanding activities of all projects, so I can decide between all that is pending and reorganize tasks as needed. It must also be a solution on my desktop but that can be fed from my phone. A solution that allows me to "empty the mind," as it records all that I have to do, so I never have to rely solely on my memory. Finally, it must be a simple mechanism that allows me to quickly determine where I am.

What Works For Me

Here is a proposal that has worked perfectly for me: a combination of Kanban, GTD, and the most important task of the day.

Again, I don’t even remotely consider myself an expert in any of the topics and tools that follow. I only offer an opinion based on my experience and the suggested readings I included below.

Getting Things Done

First up is Getting Things Done (GTD), a method of managing activities and the title of a book by David Allen. According to Wikipedia:

“The GTD method rests on the idea of moving planned tasks and projects out of the mind by recording them externally and then breaking them into actionable work items. This allows one to focus attention on taking action on tasks, instead of on recalling them. First published in 2001, a revised edition of the book was released in 2015 to reflect the changes in information technology during the preceding decade and incorporate recent scientific research supporting the system's claims regarding how the mind functions.”

So, GTD proposes a major change: empty the mind. I’m not going to review all Allen’s work. I suggest to read the book instead.


The second element to consider is the Kanban board:

“Kanban boards are perceived as a variation on traditional kanban cards. Instead of the signal cards that represent demand or capacity, the board utilizes magnets, plastic chips, colored washers or sticky notes to represent work items. Each of these objects represents an item in a production process as it moves around the board. Its movement corresponds with a knowledge work or manufacturing process. At its simplest, the board can be divided into three sections: waiting, work in progress, and completed work.”

It is also called "card system," because in its simplest implementation, it uses cards that stick in containers of materials and peel off when these containers are used, to ensure the replacement of such materials. The cards act as a witness in the production process.

More sophisticated implementations use the same philosophy, replacing the cards by other methods of flow visualization.

Javier Garzas has written an excellent description of how to use kanban in project management:

Kanban is not a specific software development technique. Its goal is to manage generally how tasks are completed, but in recent years has been used in software development project management.

The main rules of Kanban are as follows:

1. Display Kanban work and the phases of the production cycle, or workflow.

Kanban is based on incremental development, dividing the work into parts. One of the main contributions is that it uses visual techniques to see the status of each task (we have all seen blackboards full of sticky notes). The work is divided into parts, and normally each of these parts is written on a Post-It and stuck on a blackboard. The Post-Its often have a variety of information, but should always have a description and the estimated duration of the task. The board has as many columns as states through which a task can pass (e.g., waiting to be developed, in analysis, design, etc.).

The purpose of this display is to make clear how much work there is to be done, what every person is working on, and the priority of tasks. The phases of the production cycle or workflow should be decided on a case by case basis.

2. Determine the limit of "work in progress.”

One of the main ideas of Kanban is that the WIP (Work In Progress) should be limited. In other words, the number of tasks that can be performed in each phase of the work cycle must be known and defined in advance (e.g., a maximum of four tasks in development and no more than one in testing).

3. Measure the time to complete a task.

The time it takes to complete each task should be measured, and the "lead time" starts when a request is made and ends at the delivery.


The Most Important Task of the Day

As described in the blog Homo Minimus by Leo Babauta, “the most important task of the day” is basically a minimalist tool in a personal organization system—a simplification of GTD and other more complex systems.

In the evening, I should think about the actions that bring me closer to my goals or advance my projects. The idea is pretty simple: the Most Important Task (TMI) is what you most want or need to do today. It’s okay to have more than one, as long as you keep it to a small, manageable number. You will likely get even more tasks done during the day, but regardless of the other things you do, the most important task should be completed first.

"Regardless of the other things you do, the most important task should be completed first."

Babauta suggests that TMI should be the first thing we do each day, preferably without interruption, for 60 to 90 minutes, with a beginning and a clear end (Pomodoro Technique). If possible, work in a private space during this period or use headphones to eliminate noise. We have to resist every impulse to distraction for a more productive day.

This ensures that every day, we progress in achieving our personal goals, which makes all the difference in the world. Every day, you have done something to make your dreams come true. It is part of the daily routine: set a new action to carry out in order to achieve a personal goal.

Other authors suggest that TMI should be the first to be done in the morning, because even if we can not finish it in one go, it will be much more likely to get done later that day.

Don’t Start the Day with Email

The last element in my proposed system has to do with not checking email first thing in the day. Julie Morgenstern, author of Never Check Email in the Morning, recommends taking the first hour of the day to do something other than reading email. She suggests choosing a task, even one small one, and completing it first. If you achieve something at the beginning of the day, it will set the pace for the rest of the day.

As you can see, these ideas are neither new nor invented by me. What I have described so far is not an exhaustive list of all the tools I've tried. It is a summary of what is working well for me right now.

Bringing It All Together

It takes two tools to make this plan a reality:

1) A tool that allows me to capture all new activities that arise during the day, and that along with the mailbox, make up the "Inbox" suggested by the GTD method. (Google Keep)

2) A Kanban board on my computer desktop, implemented with Stardok fences, or a web kanban board with Trello.

Google Keep

The basic idea is to put everything that needs to be done in a single source. That means that I can see everything just by scrolling up and down.

The list of tasks should tell me what is the next most important thing I need to do, and I should be allowed to control all specific tasks in a project.

As I said, the proposed Keep task list is part of the "Inbox" that allows me to capture tasks on my phone or computer when detected.

Fences // Trello

Fences is a program that helps you organize your desktop icons and hide them when not in use.

From the idea expressed here, making a "Kanban Board" means separating the desktop into areas that represent the flow to follow a task. Or I can use a Trello Kanban Board.

Here's How the Whole Process Works

At the end of the day, I review the status of my projects, including advancing work plans, and determine if there are new tasks (personal). Where applicable, I put these "cards" in the Input column.

Throughout the day, if I'm away from the computer and a new task arises, I capture it on my phone with Google Keep. Then I process the tasks to create "cards" in the Kanban board.

If necessary, I move the cards to the corresponding columns: Delegate, Planned, Running.

If a task is completed during the day, I move it to the Finished column.

In the same review of all pending tasks, I determine which is the most important task to perform the next day and set it apart.

The next day, before I check email, I can clearly see which is the most important task and dedicate the first effort of my day to resolving it.

That's the general idea. With this system, I’m always aware of all the activities that I have assigned, I can address the subtasks that are generated from these activities, I can meet more personal goals, and I always make sure I have accomplished at least one highly profitable activity. 

"I can meet more personal goals, and I always make sure I have accomplished at least one highly profitable activity."

About the Author

Ivan Rivera

Ivan has extensive PM experience, having managed IT projects for the last 17 years. He's managed projects for major consulting firms in México (as INFOTEC, Softtek and Praxis), for customers of the Banking Sector (Banamex and Pro Mexico); Government Sector (SEDESOL, SSP) and Private Sector (GNP) and coordinates more than 400 million pesos portfolio annually.

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