CoolData blog

27 June 2013

Time management for data analysts

Filed under: Best practices, Training / Professional Development — Tags: , , — kevinmacdonell @ 5:32 am

Does it seem you never have enough time to get your work done? You’ve got a long list of projects, more than a few of which are labeled Top Priority — as if multiple projects could simultaneously be “top priority” — along with your own analysis projects which too often get pushed aside. We aren’t going to create more time for ourselves, and there’s only so much we are empowered to say “no” to. So we need a different strategy.

The world does not need another blog post about how to be more productive, or a new system to fiddle with instead of doing real work. However, I’ve learned a few things about how to manage my own time and tasks (I have done my share of reading and fiddling), and perhaps some of what works for me will be helpful to analysts … and to prospect researchers, alumni magazine feature writers, or anyone else with work that requires extended periods of focused work.

First and foremost, I’ve learned that “managing time” isn’t an effective approach. Time isn’t under your control, therefore you can’t manage it. What IS under your control (somewhat) is your attention. If you can manage your attention on a single task for a few stretches of time every day, you will be far more productive. You need to identify unambiguously what it is you should be working on right now from among an array of competing priorities, and you need to be mentally OK with everything you’re not doing, so that you can focus.

My “system” is hardly revolutionary but it is an uncomplicated way to hit a few nails on the head: prioritization and project management, focus and “flow”, motivation, and accountability and activity tracking. Again, it’s not about managing your time, it’s about managing your projects first so that you can choose wisely, and then managing your attention so you can focus on that choice.

Here is an Excel template you can use to get started: Download Projects & Calendar – CoolData.org. As promised, it’s nothing special. There are two main elements: One is a simple list of projects, with various ways to prioritize them, and the other is a drop-dead simple calendar with four periods or chunks of time per day, each focused on a single project.

Regarding the first tab: A “project” is anything that involves more than one step and is likely to take longer than 60 minutes to complete. This could include anything from a small analysis that answers a single question, to a big, hairy project that takes months. The latter is probably better chunked into a series of smaller projects, but the important thing is that simple tasks don’t belong here — put those on a to-do list. Whenever a new project emerges — someone asks a complicated question that needs an answer or has a business problem to solve — add it to the projects list, at least as a placeholder so it isn’t forgotten.

You’ll notice that some columns have colour highlighting. I’ll deal with those later. The uncoloured columns are:

Item: The name of the project. It would be helpful if this matched how the project is named elsewhere, such as your electronic or paper file folders or saved-email folders.

Description: Brief summary of what the project is supposed to accomplish, or other information of note.

Area: The unit the project is intended to benefit. (Alumni Office, Donor Relations, Development, etc.)

Requester: If applicable, the person most interested in the project’s results. For my own research tasks, I use “Self”.

Complete By: Sometimes this is a hard deadline, usually it’s wishful thinking. This field is necessary but not very useful in the short term.

Status/Next Action: The very next thing to be done on the project. Aside from the project name itself, this is THE single most important piece of information on the whole sheet. It’s so important, I’m going to discuss it in a new paragraph.

Every project MUST have a Next Action. Every next action should be as specific as possible, even if it seems trivial. Not “Start work on the Planned Giving study, ” but rather, “Find my folder of notes from the Planned Giving meeting.” Having a small and well-defined task that can be done right now is a big aid to execution. Compare that to thinking about the project as a whole — a massive, walled fortress without a gate — which just creates anxiety and paralysis. Like the proverbial journey, executing one well-defined step after another gets the job done eventually.

A certain lack of focus might be welcome at the very beginning of an analysis project, when some aimless doodling around with pencil and paper or a few abortive attempts at pulling sample data might help spark some creative ideas. With highly exploratory projects things might be fuzzy for a long time. But sooner or later if a project is going to get done it’s going to have an execution stage, which might not be as much fun as the exploratory stage. Then it’s all about focus. You will need the encouragement of a doable Next Action to pull you along. A project without a next action is just a vague idea.

When a project is first added to the list as a placeholder until more details become available, the next action may be unclear. Therefore the Next Action is getting clarity on the next action, but be specific. That means, “Email Jane about what she wants the central questions in the analysis to be,” not “Get clarity.”

(The column is also labeled “Status.” If a project is on hold, that can be indicated here.)

Every Next Action also needs a Next Action Date. This may be your own intended do-by date, an externally-set deadline, or some reasonable amount of time to wait if the task is one you’ve delegated to someone else or you have requested more information. Whatever the case, the Next Action Date is more important than the overall (and mostly fictitious) project completion date. That’s why the Next Action Date is conditionally formatted for easy reference, and the Completion Date is not. The former is specific and actionable, the latter is just a container for multiple next actions and is not itself something that can be “done”. (I will say more about conditional formatting shortly.)

When you are done with a project for the day, your last move before going on to something else is to decide on and record what the very next action will be when you return to that project. This will minimize the time you waste in switching from one task to another, and you’ll be better able to just get to work. Not having a clear reentry point for a project has often sidetracked me into procrastinating with busy-work that feels productive but isn’t.

The workbook holds a tab called Completed Projects. When you’re done with a project, you can either delete the row, or add it to this tab. The extra trouble of copying the row over might be worth it if you need to report on activity or produce a list of the last year’s accomplishments. As well, you can bet that some projects that are supposedly complete (but not under your control) will come up again like a meal of bad shellfish. It’s helpful to be able to look up the date you “completed” something, in order to find the files, emails and documentation you created at the time. (By the way, if you don’t document anything, you deserve everything bad that comes to you. Seriously.) If the project was complex, a lot of valuable time can be saved if you can effectively trace your steps and pick up from where you left off.

I mentioned that several columns are conditionally formatted to display varying colour intensities which will allow you to assess priorities at a glance. We’re all familiar with the distinction between “important” and “urgent”. At any time we will have jobs that must get done today but are not important in the long run. Important work, on the other hand, might someday change the whole game yet is rarely “urgent” today. It has a speculative nature to it and it may not be evident why it makes sense to clear the decks for it. This is one reason for trying to set aside some time for speculative, experimental projects — you just never know.

The Priority Rating column is where I try to balance the two (urgent vs. important), using a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the top priority. I don’t bother trying to ensure that only one project is a ‘1’, only one is a ‘2’, etc. — I rate each project in isolation based on a sense of how in-my-face I feel it has to be, and of course that changes all the time.

Other columns use similar flagging:

Urgent: The project must be worked on now. The cell turns red if the value is “Y”. Although it may seem that everything is urgent, reserve this for emergencies and hard deadlines that are looming. It’s not unusual for me to have something flagged Urgent, yet it has a very low priority rating … which tells you how important I think a lot of “urgent stuff” is.

Percent Complete: A rough estimate of how far along you think you are in a project. The closer to zero, the darker the cell is. Consult these cells on days when you feel it’s time to move the yardsticks on some neglected projects.

Next Action Date: As already mentioned, this is the intended date or deadline for the very next action to be taken to move the project forward. The earlier in time the Next Action Date is, the darker the cell.

Date Added: I’m still considering whether I need this column, so it doesn’t appear in my sample file. This is the date a project made it onto the list. Conditional formatting would highlight the oldest items, which would reveal the projects that have been languishing the longest. If a project has been on your list for six months and it’s 0% done, then it’s not a project — it’s an idea, and it belongs somewhere else rather than cluttering today’s view, which should be all about action. You could move it to an On Hold tab or an external list. Or just delete it. If it’s worth doing, it’ll come back.

Here’s a far-away look at the first tab of my projects list. At a glance you can see how your eye is drawn to project needing attention, as variously defined by priority, urgency, completeness, and proximity of the next deadline. There is no need to filter or sort rows, although you could do so if you wanted.

projects_list_sample

The other main element in this workbook is a simple calendar, actually a series of calendars. Each day contains four blocks of time, with breaks in between. You’ll notice that there are no time indications. The time blocks are intended to be roughly 90 minutes, but they can be shorter or longer, depending on how long a period of time you can actually stay focused on a task.

If you’re like me, that period is normally about five minutes, and for that reason we need a bit of gentle discipline. I tell myself that I am about to begin a “sprint” of work. I commit wholly to a single project, and I clear the deck for just that project, based on the knowledge that there is a time limit to how long I will work to the exclusion of all distractions until I can goof off with Twitter or what have you. I have made a bargain with myself: Okay, FINE, I will dive into that THING I’ve been avoiding, but don’t bother me again for a week!

The funny thing is, that project I’ve been avoiding will often begin to engage me after I’ve invested enough time. The best data analysis work happens when you are in a state of “flow,” characterized by total absorption in a challenging task that is a match for your skills. If you have to learn new techniques or skills in order to meet that challenge, the work might actually feel like it is rewarding you with an opportunity to grow a bit.

Flow requires blocks of uninterrupted time. There may not be much you can do about people popping by your work station to chat or to ask for things, but you can control your self-interruptions, which I’ve found are far more disruptive. I’m going to assume you’ve already shut off all alerts for email and instant messaging apps on your computer. I would go a step farther and shut down your email client altogether while you’re working through one of your 90-minute sprints, and silence your phone.

If shutting off email and phone is not a realistic option for you, ask yourself why. If you’re in a highly reactive mode, responding to numerous small requests, then regardless of what your job title is, you may not be an analyst. If the majority of your time is spent looking up stuff, producing lists, and updating and serving reports, then you need to consider an automation project or a better BI infrastructure that will allow you more time for creative, analytical work. Just saying.

On the other hand, I’ve always been irritated by the productivity gurus who say you should avoid checking email at the start of the work day, or limit email checking to only twice a day. This advice cannot apply to anyone working in the real world. Sure, you can lose the first hour of the day getting sucked into email, but a single urgent message from on high can shuffle priorities for the day, and you’d better be aware of it. A good morning strategy would be to first open your projects file, identify what your first time block contains, reviewing the first action to take, and getting your materials ready to work. THEN you can quickly consult your email for any disruptive missives (don’t read everything!) before shutting down your client and setting off to do what you set out to do. You don’t necessarily have to tackle your first time block as soon as you sit down; you just need to ensure that you fit two time blocks into your morning.

Other time block tips:

  • While you’re in the midst of your time block, keep a pad of paper handy (or a Notepad file open) to record any stray thoughts about unrelated things that occur to you, or any new tasks or ideas that occur to you and threaten to derail you. You may end up getting derailed, if the new thing is important or interesting enough, but if not, jotting a note can prevent you from having to fire up your email again or make a phone call, or whatever, and save the interruption for when you’ve reached a better stopping point.
  • Try to exert some control over when meetings are scheduled. For meetings that are an hour or longer, avoid scheduling them so that they knock a hole right in the centre of either the morning or the afternoon, leaving you with blocks of time before and after that are too short to allow you to really get into your project.
  • Keep it fluid, and ignore the boundaries of time blocks when you’re in “flow” and time passes without your being conscious of it. If you’re totally absorbed in a project that you’ve been dreading or avoiding previously, then by all means press on. Just remember to take a break.
  • When you come to the end of a block, take a moment to formulate the next action to take on that project before closing off.
  • If you happen to be called away on something urgent when you’re in the middle of a time block, try to record the next action as a placeholder. Task-switching is expensive, both in time and in mental energy. Always be thinking of leaving a door open, even if the next action seems obvious at the time. You will forget.

I usually fill projects into time blocks only a few days in advance. The extra two weeks are there in case I want to do more long-term planning. The more important the project, the more time blocks it gets, and the more likely I am to schedule it for the first time block in the morning. Note that this tool isn’t used to schedule your meetings — that’s a separate thing and you probably already have something for that. It would be nice if meetings and project focusing could happen in the same view, but to me they are different things.

At the end of a week, I move the tab for the current calendar to the end of the row, rename it to show the date range it represents, and replace it with next week’s calendar, renaming and copying tabs as needed to prepare for the week to come. I am not sure if saving old calendars serves a purpose — it might make more sense to total up the estimated number of hours invested in the project that week, keeping a running total by project on the first tab — but like everything this is a work in progress.

Your Excel file might be saved on a shared drive and made accessible to anyone who needs to know what you’re working on. In that case, I suggest adding a password, one that allows users to open the file for reading, but prevents them from saving any changes.

And finally … this workbook thing is just a suggestion. Use a system or tool that works for you. What I’ve outlined here is partly inspired by books such as David Allen’s “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” (which is also a whole system that goes by the same name), and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” as well as a host of blog posts and media stories about creativity and productivity the details of which I’ve long forgotten but which have influenced the way I go about doing work.

Your employer might mandate the use of a particular tool for time and/or project management; use it if you have to, or if it serves your needs. More likely than not, though, it won’t help you manage the most limited resource of all: your attention. Find your own way to marshall that resource, and your time and projects will take care of themselves.

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