Time management for engineers

One of the factors most influential in your personal success will you be your time management ability. As an engineer you will have many competing demands on your time. Like many engineers you may feel that most of these are “interruptions” or other demands that impede your “real engineering” work. These notes can help you manage your time better if you feel the need. Try out my time management worksheet to evaluate your own performance over time and pick up some hints for better practice.  (Time management questionnaire 140924)

Here’s how Leslie Perlow, author of the book “Time Famine” described this.

I found that engineers distinguish between “real engineering” and “everything else” that they did. They defined real engineering as analytical thinking, mathematical modelling, and conceptualising solutions. Real engineering was work that required using scientific principles and independent creativity. It was the technical component of engineers’ deliverables that utilise the skills the engineers acquired in school. As one engineer summed it up, “real engineering is what I thought I was hired to do.” In contrast, “everything else” translated mostly into interactive activities.

Engineers describe these interactive activities as disruptions to their real engineering, although research reveals that interactive activities are critical for the completion of an engineer’s tasks. 95% of the time, these social interactions are unplanned, spontaneous so they can seem like interruptions.

This can lead engineers into a vicious work-time cycle. In this cycle, time pressure (to get a product to market/getting the project completed) leads to a crisis mentality which results in individual heroic behaviour causing constant interruptions to others adding to the time pressure and crisis mentality. “Fire Fighting” is the term used by many engineers to describe this, and it’s ever-present for many if not most engineers.

You can learn to break out of this vicious cycle.

Understand your daily physiological patterns

We all have different sleeping pattern. Some people sleep for only three or four hours a night, others need a full eight hours. People who sleep only a few hours in the night often have the ability to take short “cat naps” during the day, short sleeps between 10 and 30 minutes at a time.

Together with our sleeping cycle, we also have better and worse times for intense cognitive (thinking) work during the day. Some of us can concentrate better on demanding work early in the day, like myself. If I have a challenging piece of work to do the demands concentration, the best time for me is between 7:30 AM and 10:30 AM. I also have another time during the day when I can concentrate better, between about 4:30 PM and 6:30 PM. Other people, often called “night owls” work better in the evening, even into the early hours of the morning.

Try and figure out your best times during the day. Try and keep these times free of interruptions. Switch off your phone or put it on silent. Close chat windows and all other distracting applications on your computer screen. Close your email application. If you have to work in an open plan office or computer lab, set up a flag on your desk so that other people know that you should not be interrupted if at all possible. Put on your headphones and play some music to keep the distracting noises of people around you out of your mind.

It’s important to understand that our brains need biochemical energy supplies, especially for learning. Your biochemical energy supplies vary through the day. For some time after intense exercise, they will be depleted. Digesting some foods, particularly meat in combination with carbohydrates, also demands biochemical energy reaching a peak around two hours after eating. That’s when you tend to feel sleepy after a heavy meal. Food consisting mainly of whole grains like oats or whole grain bread takes longer to digest and places less demand on biochemical energy supplies. However, we are all different in our responses to food and exercise.

Try and develop your awareness about your physiological state at different times during the day, and work out when you perform at your best. Try and reserve these times for tasks requiring mental concentration.

Identify different kinds of work that you need to get done

We can characterise some of the different tasks faced by engineers.

Extended thinking-intensive tasks demand concentration. Interruptions can easily disrupt this kind of work because we often rely extensively on short-term working memory, memories that persist for 10 – 20 minutes. Even a brief interruption can disrupt our short-term working memory, such that it takes 10 – 15 minutes to resume the interrupted task. Studies have shown that, in the presence of frequent interruptions, many such tasks (up to 70%) remain uncompleted at the end of a working day: we simply forget to go back to them.

Then there are many other tasks that rely much less on short-term memory, or take only a short time to complete. An example is filling in a form, or writing simple replies to incoming messages and queries.

Social interactions are essential for technical collaboration but often present themselves as unwanted interruptions if they coincide with extended thinking tasks. Research has shown that technical collaboration relies on socio-technical interactions that take 60 – 80% of working time for engineers.

It’s helpful to keep detailed records and observations of what happens during your working day. Then you will identify times when you are more likely to be interrupted and other times when you can safely focus on time intensive thinking tasks. Learn to schedule tasks taking this into account, and also your own biological daily rhythm.

Adapt your schedule

Learn to adapt your schedule according to your physiological state and the demands of the work that you have to accomplish. Always remember to leave some spare time pre-allocated to a task for the things that you don’t anticipate. Observe your ability to predict how long it takes to get things done, and then learn to compensate with your schedule. If you find it takes you twice as long to get things done as you expect, allocate twice as much time as you think you will need.

If you don’t have enough time to allocate, plan ahead. Let people know what you can deliver and when. If you can’t deliver, it’s much better to say so ahead of time so that everyone can adapt. Some simple advice: always try and deliver more than what other people expect, earlier than expected, and learn to leave enough to do that.

Use an electronic diary or calendar to plan your time.  Remember, the more you have in your calendar, the easier it is to tell others that you’re too busy to help out immediately, unless you really want to.

Keep records

There is a universal principle in engineering: you can’t manage something that you don’t measure. The essence of time management is keeping track of the time that you spend, and comparing the actual time you spend with your original predictions. That’s the only way to improve, by observing your actual prediction performance and modifying your predictions in future.

Why is this so important for engineers?

Obviously, it helps to be able to deliver work when other people expect. However what’s more important is that, as an engineer, you will be relying on lots of other people to perform skilled work to help you complete your tasks. This is what is referred to as technical coordination and project management and it typically takes at least half of the time of most engineers, just organising the work to be done and monitoring what other people are doing.

One of the most important skills, therefore, is developing the ability to accurately predict how long it will take other people to get technical work done. You will depend as much on that as managing your own personal time.

Technical Collaboration

Chapter 3 my book shows how engineers spend most of their time on technical collaboration: interactions with other people. It’s tempting to see this as “non-technical” engineering work, but research shows that:

  • The concepts engineers discuss with others are technical and rely on technical understanding, though much of the time it’s unconscious understanding involving tacit knowledge – see chapter 5.
  • Technical collaboration is essential in engineering: without it engineers would never achieve much. It’s often referred to as “team work” but research shows it’s more complex than that. See chapters 7 – 13 in my book.

Learn to see this as core engineering work and plan the times you need to focus on extended thinking tasks so as to minimise the chances of interruptions.

Good luck!

PS: How did you score on the time management worksheet?  The average for part 1 is about 43 and for part 2 is 40.  Reply to this post and send in your scores!


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