Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
March 12, 2019 · 17 min read

How to Become a More Productive Software Engineer (Productivity Tips & Workflows)

Become a More Productive Software Engineer

We all have the same 24 hours. It’s how we use that time that makes all the difference. Unfortunately, the modern work environment doesn’t always help in our quest for increased efficiency. Slack, email, interruptions, and the constant pull of social media and other distractions mean our 8+ hours a day at work are usually far from 8+ hours of actual work.

But no one wants to waste their time. So how can you become a more productive software engineer?

In his book Smarter Faster Better, author Charles Duhigg defines productivity as “making certain choices in certain ways” that change our focus from being “merely busy” to “genuinely productive”. When you think of it this way, productivity becomes a pretty basic formula:

More focused time spent on meaningful work = more results in less time.

Sounds simple, right? So why do we struggle with it so much? The problem is that at each step of the way we face serious issues. What work is most impactful for you? And how do you make time for it? What about dealing with distractions, procrastination, motivation, and interruptions?

Let’s dive in and find out!

Step 1: Understand what gets in the way of your productivity

As Duhigg wrote, becoming more productive comes down to making good choices. At every moment of the day you’re faced with tens, if not hundreds, of paths you could take. And keeping your day on track is a constant struggle.

What's in the way of your productivity

Like any decision-making process, the more information you have the better. For productivity, that comes down to answering two key questions:

Here’s how to answer each:

Develop feedback loops to know what work brings the biggest results

As the late renowned consultant and author Peter Drucker explained:

There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.

Before you can start working on how to be more productive, you need to know what “being productive” means to you. What work is most important to your goals? How do you measure the impact of what you’re spending your time on?

One of the best ways to do this is to develop feedback loops—someone or something that measures your performance so you can see where you’re spending your time and find ways to improve. This could be your project management tool, calendar, or even catch-up meetings with your boss.

Think about the way a coach works with an elite athlete. They’re not just telling them to run around the field for a few hours. They observe, track progress, and identify the specific places where they should spend their time to get the best results.

This works because of a little thing called the Pareto Principle (You might be more familiar with its more common name: the 80/20 Rule). The basic idea behind the principle is that 80% of your results come from 20% of the work you do. This result crops up everywhere in life (within a few points), from sales to fixing bugs. For example, Microsoft found that by fixing the top 20% of the most reported bugs, 80% of the related errors and crashes in a given system would be eliminated.

Action: Find your top 20% tasks

In your day-to-day, finding your personal 20% is the most powerful way to make sure you’re getting the best returns on your time.

Unfortunately, there’s no quick hack to do this. It takes reflection and consideration. A good place to start, however, is tracking your time spent on tasks and then tie it to progress and results.

This doesn’t have to be complicated. Almost everything in your life today can be measured, from the time you spend on emails to how many meetings you have in a week. Use a time-tracking app, spreadsheet, or simply look through your calendar to see how you’re spending your time. What tasks can you tie to real results? Where are you wasting time or spending it in an inefficient way?

Fight the planning fallacy and be honest about how much time you actually have

Now that you know which work brings you the biggest results, you need to make time to do it.

“Easy!” you say. “I work a 40-hour work week, so I can set aside 3-4 hours a day to work on those tasks.”

Simple, right? Except that it’s not. Just because we work for 8 hours a day, doesn’t mean we’re doing 8 hours of work. (In fact, pretty much every statistic puts our number of productive hours a day significantly lower than 8.)

According to psychologist Ron Friedman, most people “typically have a window of about three hours where we’re really, really focused.” And assuming you have more time than you actually do is the quickest route to stress, overwork, and a lack of productivity.

Psychologists call this the Planning Fallacy—our optimistic bias when it comes to how long it will take us to do a future task. In other words, we have a tiny window of time where we’re actually productive and we’re bad at utilizing it.

Action: Find your optimal time for productivity each day

Again, knowledge is power here. Before you can set up your schedule for productivity, you need to know where your time is being taken away.

In her book, 168 Hours, time management expert Laura Vanderkam suggests spending a week or more tracking your time and writing down everything you do in a spreadsheet or notebook. Ten-minute shower? Write it down. Fifteen-minute call with your boss? That goes down too. Four-minutes eating a granola bar and staring out the window. Put it down. (If you don’t want to do this manually, you can also use an automatic time-tracking tool).

The goal is to know exactly how you’re spending your time—both productively and not. From there, you can trim the fat and know when you should be doing your most impactful work.

Step 2: Build the best schedule and routine for productivity

If the first part of this process was all about understanding when and how you’re not being productive, the next step is all about setting yourself up for success.

Now that you have feedback loops in place to tell you what work will bring you the biggest results and an honest understanding of the time you have each day to work on it, it’s time to optimize and make sure you’re doing the right thing at the right time, every day.

Create a “daily schedule template” that prioritizes your most important work

Your daily schedule is the foundation of how to be a more productive software engineer. When designed properly, it automatically sets your goals and intentions for the day (whether you follow through with them is up to you, but we’ll help with that as well!)

That’s why starting with a blank calendar each week is such a bad idea. When all your time is “free” it leaves you vulnerable to distractions, meetings, and other unproductive tasks. Instead, you want to start with a calendar that’s already full. This way, your productive work becomes the priority. Not events and meetings that pop up.

As an example, here’s what SuperBooked CEO Dan Mall’s schedule template looks like with scheduled work, email, and meeting times:

Superbooked Calendar Template

Dan’s template is realistic. There’s time set aside for basic tasks like eating, getting his kids to school, and checking email/Slack. But it also makes sure that he has a block each day set aside for meaningful work. In other words, the most productive part of his day is set aside for the work that brings in the most results.

Here’s another example from designer and Atomic Design author, Brad Frost:

Calendar Template of Brad Frost

Brad’s schedule is similarly “full” with blocks for what he calls “deep work” (his most important and meaningful tasks) as well as “shallow work” (things like email, meetings, and catching up on IM conversations) and just basic “work” (the things that need to get done but don’t necessarily bring the biggest return on time).

Action: Create your own “full” template for the day

Look at your calendar right now. Is it empty except for a few meetings and calls? If that’s the case, you’ll want to redesign it to put the focus on your most meaningful work.

Create a schedule that you think will work for you and then set aside time each week to assess and adapt.

And always remember the Planning Fallacy! Make sure to not be overly optimistic with how much time and energy you have each day. It’s always a good idea to set aside time for distractions/shallow work, breaks, and meetings.

Use a master list and the Eisenhower Matrix to prioritize your most important work

One of the biggest issues most software engineers face is deciding what task is most important. In the modern workplace, everything feels important. And that sense of urgency can ruin your day if you don’t make some hard and fast rules about what needs to be done now versus later.

Eisenhower Matrix

Yes, we’re talking about prioritization—going deeper into your most impactful work and deciding which task to take on right now. But while the elements of prioritization are simple (know what needs to be done and rank them by importance) it’s not always easy to do.

Action: Make a master list and then use the Eisenhower Matrix and Ivy Lee method to prioritize your most productive work today.

To properly prioritize your work, you need to first organize everything in a central place and then decide what to do now. Here are a few techniques you can follow:

First, capture everything you need to do on a master list

Prioritization means having one eye on the big picture and the other on the tiniest details. And while that makes most people go cross eyed, it’s easier if you have everything in one place.

Start by creating a master list—a document, app, or even piece of paper where every current and future task is listed. Then, break that down into your goals for the month, week, and day. As productivity consultant Brian Tracy explains, your monthly list pulls from your master list. Your weekly list pulls from your monthly list. And so on. This way, you know your daily priorities are aligned with your bigger goals.

Next, separate the urgent from the important with the Eisenhower Matrix

One of the difficulties of this method is that it’s easy to become too present-minded and lose sight of the important, yet not necessarily urgent things you need to do.

Developed by former US president Dwight Eisenhower, the matrix is a simple four-quadrant box that helps you separate “urgent” tasks from “important” ones. In basic terms, urgent tasks are things you feel like you need to react to right away, like emails, phone calls, texts, or news. While important tasks are ones that contribute to your long-term mission, values, and goals.

As you prioritize your most important work each day, ask which quadrant it sits in.

Finally, rank your daily work by true importance

In most cases, you’re going to still be stuck with a massive list of urgent and important tasks that need to get done. So how do you decide which ones will make you the most productive today?

One of the best ways to do this was developed over 100 years ago by productivity consultant named Ivy Lee. Here’s how author James Clear describes it:

Limiting yourself to six tasks (or less) each day forces you to prioritize properly and then stay focused by single-tasking your way through your list.

Break large tasks down into actionable steps

One of the productivity traps many people fall into is having too many big goals or tasks on their to-do list.

As you go through your master list, you’re most likely going to write down a bunch of big goals. These are exciting and working towards them often feels like the most productive use of time. However, they can often leave you feeling paralyzed. Where do you start? What order do you do it in?

Instead, those big goals need to be broken down into small, manageable steps that allow us to stay productive and move forward every day.

As developer and Hello Code founder Belle Beth Cooper writes:

It may sound counterintuitive, but the key to getting extraordinary results is to go small rather than big. Take the pressure off of yourself to accomplish heroic feats each day.

Action: Break every project down into manageable steps

Look through your list of tasks and pull out anything that is really multiple steps. Break these down into the actionable steps you need to take to hit your goal.

If it helps, think about them like your OKRs—objectives and key results. You probably use these to measure and track your tasks at work. But their true power is in demystifying the process. An OKR tells you exactly what needs to get done and what results should happen. While you don’t need to write out every step of your to-do list as an OKR, using that same approach to clarity and intention will help you keep your momentum moving and get more done each day.

Learn to work with your body’s natural ebbs and flows of energy

One thing most productivity advice misses is that we’re humans, not machines. And as humans, we can’t just recharge our energy by plugging our minds into the wall. (There’s also only so much coffee we can drink to help us stay attentive and focused!)

Ebbs and flows of energy

Instead, everyone goes through a cycle of energy each day. Researchers call this our Circadian Rhythm—a 24-hour internal clock running in the background that cycles your brain between alertness and sleepiness. To be more productive, we need to learn to react and plan around these natural ebbs and flows.

Action: Discover your personal rhythm and plan your day accordingly

Your Circadian Rhythm is personal and there is no one-size-fits-all answer to finding your energy. However, look for signs of when you’re most alert and when you feel lethargic. Spend a few days making note of when this happens and then try a few experiments, such as:

Take more breaks (at least one every 90 minutes)

You might think you can power through hours on end of coding or designing, but the truth is that to be more productive, you need to take breaks. According to sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman, our brains crave a bit of rest after 90 minutes of intense work.

This lines up with something called our Ultradian Rhythms—the 90-120-minute sessions when we’re most alert before our brains need a rest. You can probably even see this happening in yourself. When your brain wants a break it starts to send all sorts of signals. You might get hungry, sleepy, fidgety, or just lose focus and motivation.

If you ignore these signs you don’t just get tired. Your body uses its reserve stores of energy to keep up and releases stress hormones to make up for it.

Action: Add time for breaks into your schedule

This one’s simple. If you don’t schedule breaks, you’re probably not going to take them, which means stress, agitation, and burnout (the opposite of productivity). At a minimum, take a 10-15-minute break for every 90 minutes of work.

To make the most of this time, take a quick walk or do some light exercises. Not only will this boost your energy, but exercise increases the release of feel-good endorphins, making you feel better and reduce tension and anxiety.

Learn to say no with grace

By now, you’re probably asking “How am I supposed to stick to a schedule like this? I’ve got meetings, calls, and projects. I’m BUSY!”

Again, productivity is all about choices. For every project, task, or meeting you say “yes” to, you’re saying “no” to spending time on something else. Sure, 5–10 minutes to go over a bug or catch up on a project doesn’t seem like a big deal. But when you look at what you’ve actually committed to, it becomes more serious.

First off, you have to wind down from your deep work to prepare for a meeting. Then there’s the meeting itself, which best case scenario only takes 5-10 minutes. Finally, you have to get back into “work mode,” which according to researchers can take up to 30 minutes. In the end, that 5-minute meeting costs you 5–10x more time.

Action: Make it harder for people to request your time when you’re focused

So how do you turn down requests in a way that both protects your time and doesn’t make you look like a jerk? Start by making it harder to make those requests in the first place. Blocking out do-not-disturb time on your calendar is a start. But you can also use tools like Calendly to only allow people specific times to request a meeting.

If those don’t work, go with honesty. Sharing your to-do list or priorities is a great way to help people understand why you can’t meet with them right now.

Create a routine to disconnect at the end of the workday

Being more productive isn’t just about the time you spend at work. If you’re in this for the long haul, you need to take care of your mind and body so you can keep coming back and doing your best work every single day.

Research has consistently found that people who are able to psychologically disconnect from work at the end of the day experience:

Action: Follow a 4-step wind down routine at the end of your day

Disconnecting from work isn’t simply about kicking back your feet and firing up Netflix. To truly recharge, recent research shows you need to do activities that contribute to four recovery experiences:

  1. Detachment from work: Yes, this means no late-night emails or quick Slack check-ins. It’s important that you create a full break to let your brain shift out of “work mode”.
  2. Relaxation: Our brains require space to be creative. Try to dedicate a bit of time in the evening for what Deep Work author Cal Newport calls “mental isolation”—quiet time on your own for reflection that “allows you to crack hard problems and is often necessary for creative insight.”
  3. Mastery: Working on a hobby or personal goal not only helps you relax outside of work, but can lead to more overall happiness, less stress, and more confidence.
  4. Control: Our brains love feeling in charge. As much as possible, try to be in control of your wind down routine, especially if you’re not in total control of your workday.

Step 3: Remove distractions and time wasters, overcome procrastination, and stay motivated

By now, you should have a solid schedule that sets aside time for your most important (and productive) work. The final part of our productivity equation is how to protect that schedule.

Stay motivated

All of us face distractions—both external and internal—throughout the day. To be truly productive, we need to be able to recognize these distractions and take care of them before they derail us.

Use the right tools to stay organized and on task

Productivity requires organization. You need to know what tasks are most important, how you’re spending your time, and keep track of your schedule and responsibilities. But the more tasks you’re juggling each day, the harder this gets.

That’s why it’s vital you have the right tools and workflows in place to keep you on track. Here are a few essentials you should have:

  1. A solid project management tool: A project management tool like Planio allows you to keep all your tasks, to-dos, and priorities organized in one place. This way, you’re never wasting time figuring out what needs to be done next and can find the information you need quickly. (Want to try out Planio for yourself and your team? Try it for free for 30-days!)
  2. A shared calendar: Making your calendar available to the rest of your team will help them see when you’re busy and shouldn’t be bothered. As a bonus, use a tool like Calendly to set only specific times where you’re available for meetings and calls.
  3. Time-tracking software: Productivity is all about choices. And good choices require knowledge. Time tracking software gives you an accurate view of how you’re spending your day to help you stay focused and aware. (Yes, you can also track time with Planio!)

Make your phone distraction-free

If there’s anything that’s going to kill your productivity, it’s your phone. According to recent research, the average person spends more than 3 hours a day on their phone (with 25% spending more than 4.5 hours!). While the majority of people check their phone every 15 minutes.

Even if you use your phone for work purposes, it is still a hotbed of distraction and needs to be tamed when you’re trying to focus.

Action: Turn off notifications and learn to love do-not-disturb mode

Let’s start with the most basic think you can do: Turn off your notifications. It might seem simple, but according to Hooked author Nir Eyal, ⅔ of smartphone owners never change their notification settings.

If you feel you can’t turn notifications all the way off, you can still take a tiered approach to what gets through to you. Here’s how UX director Davide Casali explains it:

  1. Instant: Anything you want to know about as soon as it happens. For these apps, leave notifications as they are.
  2. Relevant: Anything you want to know about when you’re open to new updates, but not immediately. For these apps, turn off all notifications except for app icon badges.
  3. Kill: Anything you really don’t need to know about. Turn off all notifications or delete entirely.

Another approach is to use your phone’s do-not-disturb mode. This will block any incoming notifications while engaged, which is a great way to get some work done without getting interrupted. Don’t worry, everything will be waiting for you once you turn it off.

Use the 5-minute rule to get over procrastination

External distractions aren’t the only things that get in the way of how to be more productive. According to UC Irvine professor Gloria Mark, we’re just as likely to succumb to internal distractions like procrastination.

The problem with procrastination is that it tends to have a knock-on effect, especially when you’ve spent the time and effort to create a productive schedule.

Also, unlike external distractions that can be solved by switching your settings, procrastination is an emotional problem. We procrastinate because we don’t feel like working or think we’ll be in a better mood later (spoiler alert: we won’t!)

Action: Force yourself to start working “for just 5 minutes”

The biggest issue with procrastination is that the task in front of us feels massive and unruly. We don’t feel ready to commit to hours of hard work. However, once we start, it doesn’t take long to get into the flow of things.

In the words of writer and theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky: “On a moment-to-moment basis, being in the middle of doing the work is usually less painful than being in the middle of procrastinating.”

So how do you get over this feeling and just start? You tell yourself you’ll only work for a few minutes. Once you start, the momentum will kick in to keep you going. As Instagram founder, Kevin Systrom, explains:

If you don’t want to do something, make a deal with yourself to do at least five minutes of it. After five minutes, you’ll end up doing the whole thing.

Create “if-then” statements for when things go wrong

The best-laid plans often go awry. And one of the easiest ways to lose your productive momentum is to give in when you fall off the rails. Instead, you need a way to quickly get back on track, even after you’ve wasted time, procrastinated, or been distracted.

One of the simplest ways to do this is to design “if-then” statements around your most common mistakes. Simply put, the “if-then” statement gives you a clear path of what to do when you screw up. Here’s an example:

Action: Write down your most common workplace issues and create “if-then” statements for them

Getting caught up in falling behind or being unproductive only adds stress and makes you even less productive. Having clear plans in place before you mess up ensures you won’t get stuck in a doom loop of procrastination and distraction.

Get control over communication overload

It’s hard to argue that email and instant messengers like Slack are distractions when we do so much of our work on them. And on their own, these tools are great. The problem is in how we use them.

Too much communication eats away at the time we have for focused work and stops us from getting into a state of flow. In fact, studies have found that, with email alone, 84% of users keep their inbox open in the background at all times with 70% of emails being opened within 6 seconds of receipt.

Action: Batch communication time as much as possible

While we’ll never delete our email or instant messengers (and probably would never want to), being aware of how much they interrupt our focused time can help us become more productive.

To reduce their impact, many productivity experts suggest batching communications into specific blocks during the day. While others say it’s a good idea to commit to an hour or more of focused work without email or IM during parts of your day when you’re less likely to be needed (like early in the morning). Whichever you choose, the goal is to be more purposeful with how you use these tools instead of letting them dictate where you give your attention.

Track your progress to stay motivated

Let’s finish this productivity guide by going full circle.

Remember how we started by discovering what work is most productive by tracking our time, progress, goals, and outcomes? That isn’t just a one-time exercise. In fact, tracking and seeing progress on your goals is one of the best ways to stay motivated and productive each and every day.

As author Teresa Amabile writes in The Power of Small Wins, progress creates a positive feedback loop:

The more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service.

Action: Build a process for tracking progress into your workday

How you choose to track your progress is up to you. You could use your project management software, calendar, a simple notebook, or a time-tracking app like RescueTime. How you do it isn’t as important as setting aside time each day to remind you of what you’ve accomplished.

Productivity isn’t just about tricks and hacks

Getting better results in less time isn’t just about what’s on your calendar or what apps you use. It’s about setting yourself up for success and being aware of your mental state throughout the day. We can only do our best work and become more productive when we feel good about how we’re spending our time and see progress and outcomes.

These steps are designed to help you set up a day that you can feel good about no matter what happens. Give them a try and see what happens.