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6 Rules of Mindful Productivity for Software Developers

November 11, 2020 by Simon Mannes

There’s always something to do.

In a typical project (and in life) there are always tasks you need to do, and tasks you could do. This can feel like you didn’t get anything done at the end of the day, even though you’re feeling tired.

If you’re searching online, you can find plenty of productivity rules. Some rules are similar, others are complete opposites.

Mindful productivity is a way to work on what matters, focus on the present, and take breaks and time to recharge.

Here are six rules of mindful productivity that work for me (a software developer).

Plan Your Day

If you don’t know what you want to accomplish at the beginning of the day, at the end of the day you will feel like you accomplished nothing.

Always plan your day. Either in the morning or the evening before. The bare minimum is to look up which meetings you have, and to identify the most important task (MIT) that day.

Your MIT is the task you can do today that has the most impact on your goals (or the project’s goals).

For bonus points, you can schedule breaks and block focus time (see below).

Do Your MIT First

This is where the planning plays in your hands.

As hard as it seems, do your most important task first. Eat the frog. All other tasks are filler tasks that distract you from your MIT.

I notice that when my MIT is really hard or not very well defined, I drift off to do other tasks and get distracted. Practicing mindfulness enables me to notice this more often. It helps to remind myself that this is indeed the most impactful task I could do right now. That it really brings me forward with my goals.

If I continue to become distracted, it’s a sign that:

  • my task is not very well defined and that I need to plan it in more detail or break it up into smaller tasks
  • I need someone to help me with this
  • I need to take another look at my goals and if they are really important to me.

Breaking a task into smaller steps is the best way to “become unstuck” with a task.

Learn to be content when you only finish your MIT today.

Make Regular Breaks

A colleague of me is so focused during his work that he forgets to drink water and stand up. He needs to force himself or set a timer to remember to care for himself.

Even if you regularly stand up to get something to drink, or get up and stretch, we all benefit from more focused breaks. High-quality breaks with good timing.

  • High-quality breaks help us care for our mind or body. Do something good for your body and get something to drink (preferably water), stretch, or shake yourself. Give your mind a break by looking out of the window, or doing a mindfulness exercise to bring your thoughts back to the present moment.
  • Well timed breaks give you space when you really need it, not when you just want to avoid your task.

You know best how your current breaks are. Do you benefit from explicitly scheduling them? Or by picking a 1-minute “break-exercise” you do every break today? Do you need to focus not on doing more breaks but more intentional breaks?

Determine how you want to do your breaks and evaluate after a week. Then adapt.

Block Uninterrupted Focus Time

Does Slack impact your productivity? Or Teams?

How often do you check your email inbox?

Every bling calls for your attention and costs you a few minutes of productive, focused work. The constant stream of messages also increases stress. (See this article for more info.)

There are two types of work, deep work and shallow work:

  • Deep work is what only you can do. The work that you need focus and time for. Programming, for example.
  • Shallow work is answering your emails, messaging coworkers on Slack, and most administrative work.

Both are necessary. But both also need a different kind of focus. While most shallow work tasks only take a few minutes of your time, deep work requires hours of focused attention.

Take advantage of this by blocking uninterrupted time for focused deep work. When planning your day, block time, ideally 1-3 one hour blocks. At the beginning of those blocks, disable all notifications and set yourself to “busy” or “absent” in your chat applications. Close your email client.

Enjoy this quiet and focused block of time.

Do Your Tasks Mindfully

Mindfulness means keeping a moment-to-moment awareness of your thoughts, bodily feelings and your surroundings, without judging anything.

When you do your tasks mindfully, your focus is on that task alone. It’s okay when your thoughts drift. But as soon as you notice that your mind has wandered, return to your task at hand.

Mindful working also means no multi-tasking and no yak-shaving.

Learn to notice when you’re doing multiple things simultaneously, and when you keep changing the task you’re working on.

Notice this. Let it go. And return to what you wanted to do originally.

End Your Workday on Time

Recharging is important.

We heavily use our brains, and your brain needs time to recharge.

Especially as a software engineer, I don’t believe that we’re productive for 8+ hours every day. I do most of my best work in 2-4 hours. The rest is administrative work, helping co-workers, planning, and learning.

Every profession uses their brain and their body differently, and every individual too! I believe that knowledge workers can achieve most of what they do now in much less than 40 hours.

So whatever your working hours, end your workday on time and go do something else. Use your time off to recharge, read, learn, do sports, cook, care for your family, or whatever else is important to you.

You know best if that’s something you already do, or if you should focus more on it.

Develop Your Own Productivity System

These rules are not hard-written. They are what works for me (and some other people). There exists no “holy grail” of productivity systems that works for everyone.

Try these methods out. Search online for more.

Find out what works for you. Some methods will feel better than others.

For personal productivity, it’s important to get the basics right:

  • Sleep enough: most people need around 8 hours of sleep every night.
  • Eat balanced: try to diversify your diet. Include some fresh vegetables and legumes. There are no hard rules, just eat balanced and not too much.
  • Exercise: find some sport or physical activity you enjoy. You don’t need to start running ultramarathons, but get your body moving and your blood pumping from time to time. 2-3 times a week is plenty.

Many people want to slap productivity hacks onto broken basics.

Get the basics right. Then find out what works.

Mindfulness for Developers,
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