Productivity Improvement | 06.19.2013

The importance of core

A few years back my manager came to me one day and asked me to fill in for him for a month while he attended an executive MBA course at the top MBA institute in the country.

I was the senior-most developer in the team at the time and I thought it would be a cakewalk to handle a bit of part-time management responsibility in addition to my development work. At the end of that month, I had accomplished exactly zero of my development goals. I simply had had no time to do any actual development work – a quick analysis of my Outlook calendar over that month showed I had spent between 6 and 7 hours per day in meetings alone!

While most developers may not have to face such an extreme distraction as managing other team members, it is still not uncommon for many of them to have a lot of other distractions – e.g. meetings, emails, telephone calls, coffee and smoke breaks, lunch and snacks, validating QA test cases, reviewing technical documentation, researching new tools and implementing or improving processes.

Not all of these are really distractions, of course, and in fact some of them are quite necessary, but they do take away time from the core function of the developer – which is to develop. Maybe we can be more charitable and call them ‘non-core tasks’ – however, the fact remains that they not only make demands on our time but also directly affect our focus. And we all know focus is the key to productivity. Already Sapience analysis of more than 26 million work hours across more than 30,000 users has shown that developers do not spend more than 50% of their time on programming. And probably the same thing applies in more or less percentages to QA, to Documentation, to IT and HR and Admin, and even to Management with respect to their own core functions.

So how can we deal with this barrage of non-core tasks and still find sufficient time to devote to our core function?

Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, recently talked about the importance of scheduling nothing. In his post, he describes how he purposely and explicitly schedules blank time-slots in his calendar everyday in order to keep them free from other meetings. This is the time that he uses to think – about strategy, about the future of the company, about improving their products or closing competitive gaps, or simply to catch up on industry news – all of which is an integral part of his core function as CEO.

Assuming we do not all have that kind of luxury, how can we then balance our non-core tasks with the need to spend more (quality) time on our core function? For this, we may want to go back Stephen Covey’s famous four-quadrant theory, where tasks or activities can be classified into four types –

  • Urgent and Important – Crises or fire-fighting, pressing problems, or deadline-driven projects.

  • Important but not urgent – Preventive measures, new opportunities and strategy, or relationships.

  • Urgent but not important – Interruptions, calls, meetings, or reports due.

  • Neither urgent nor important – Some phone calls, meetings, time-wasters, or personal breaks.

If we can classify our non-core tasks into this kind of a quadrant and assign specific time-slots to deal with each type – according to priority, urgency and importance – it is possible we may find it easier to manage them and free up a lot more time and mind-share to apply to our core function.

Not just because our core function is what we love to do but also because – let’s face it – that is what we are primarily paid to do.