Time Management

OpenCraft's sprints are jam-packed with client tasks, forum discussions, mentoring, context switching, planning for next sprint, epic project budgets, firefighting, discoveries, more context switching.. in short, there is a lot of work to do, and only one sprint to do it in. So how do we do it all, and not go crazy?

The short answer is, we all go crazy some of the time :) But the goal is to find your own balance, with sustainable work practices that improve your productivity and lower your stress.

On this page, we'll share some tips and strategies for time management.

Take real breaks

Really. Sometimes the best way to manage your time, especially when everything feels overwhelming, is to walk away from your desk for a while -- mentally, as well as physically.

If you're having trouble working through a sticky problem, or finding it difficult to focus, or getting stuck down in the weeds of a ballpark estimate instead of staying up at the high level, that's a good time to take a break. Do something that really does take your mind away from the pressing issue: take a walk, listen to a podcast, read something unrelated, have a cup of tea, pet your cat, talk to a friend.

As with everything, the more breaks you take, the better you'll get at taking them, and at achieving the mental block release that they provide.

Assess your sprint

Every couple of days at least, it's a good idea to take stock of how your sprint is going. We suggest you print out a copy of Are you feeling productive? and keep it near your desk, as a reminder.

  1. Are you feeling unproductive?
  2. Are you running behind at all?
  3. Is this task taking longer than you estimated?
  4. Is this task more complex than it sounded?
  5. Are you doing more than the task requires?

If the answer to one or more of these questions is "yes", then it's time to do something about it.

  1. Who are the two people you should tell?
    Some suggestions are:
    • Task reviewer
    • Epic owner/reviewer
    • Sprint firefighter
    • Upstream specialist
    • Braden
    • Xavier
  2. Can you split added scope into another task?
    If yes, propose the split to:
    • Task reviewer
    • Epic owner/reviewer
  3. Can someone pick up any of your other tasks? To find out, ask:
    • Sprint firefighter
    • On Mattermost
    • During the mid-sprint meeting.

Plan your sprint

If you're consistently having difficulty finding time to complete tasks, or are always working in the evenings or on weekends when you don't want to be, then you might need to work on your sprint planning.

Take care to note the timezone and schedule of your reviewer, so you can limit round-trip time for replies. Be sure to discuss when you'll have the work ready for review, especially if your reviewer will be away for part of the sprint.

One approach is to map out the days in your sprint, and as you assign yourself to tasks and reviews in the upcoming sprint, block out the day(s) each task will cover. To limit context switching, try not to have more than 2-3 different tasks in a day, especially at the beginning of the sprint.

You may find another approach works better for you, but the important thing is to have a strategy, and tune it to ensure that it helps your sprint and stress levels.

Improve task estimates

If you're using the Sprint planning report to avoid overcommitting, but you find that you're consistently logging more hours than you initially estimated, then you might need to work on improving your task estimates.

One of the common traps when taking on a task is to "estimate" it by looking at the hours you have remaining on the Sprint planning report, and using that to determine how much time the task will take. This consistently skews estimates into being too small, so don't do it! Please evaluate each task independently, based on time required to achieve its acceptance criteria, not how much time you have left to do it.

If the scope of your tasks grows beyond what you expected the task to be, then it's best practice to split this extra work into another task. Splitting tasks isn't just about semantics, this is part of how we keep our client commitments within bounds and on time.

Use JIRA to list your tasks which had more hours logged than originally estimated, and at the end of each sprint, spend some time assessing them to see if you could have done anything differently. Ask your reviewer or the epic owner if they have any ideas too.

How to do estimates includes a list of common items that require logging time. With each task estimate, there are the set factors which are known in advance and unlikely to change and there are the risk factors which are unknown.

Improve task estimates, a checklist

Use the point estimation tables at Task workflows to get fast ballpark numbers for most tickets.

Use this checklist

  • when you have exceeded the estimate on a ticket, or,
  • when you are chronically underestimating for a particular client or project.

How to use this checklist

  1. Go down the known column. Enter the time you expect to spend on each item.
  2. Sum that column. This is your ticket estimate. If it is:

    • beyond the client budget, go to the client or to the epic owner and say so. Propose a simpler alternative if one exists. Remember: this is the actual time you expect to spend, so if you hide it, you are preventing yourself from being paid a fair wage for your labor.
    • beyond the amount of time left in your sprint, timebox it or split it into smaller tasks. Discuss with the client if deadlines will be impacted.
  3. Go down the risk column. Enter the extra time you will spend fixing things. The risk column is the upper bound of how badly a task can go wrong.

  4. Sum that column. Divide by the known column, for example: 42 hours risk / 6 hours known = risk factor of 7.
  5. Brainstorm strategies for coping with risk before you start work.

    • Some work can be billed internally, like Ocim breaking.
    • Plan a rollback so that you don't leave the client in worse shape if you need to back out.
    • Politely schedule new work in new tickets. Don't permit scope creep.
    • Start risky work when you feel fresh. Not on Friday nights.
    • Get the client involved early. "We promised X but X also needs Y. Y takes ___ hours to build that we didn't estimate. Do you want Z instead?"

No matter how tight a client's budget is, they will appreciate a discussion of risk. This honesty builds trust. The opposite: hiding the risk and hoping for the best, will destroy trust when budgets and deadlines are exceeded.

Tip: As you go through the checklist, visually picture yourself doing each task.

Task and Considerations Known Risk
Setup and onboarding

* A working devstack?
* Read the code?
* Read the existing JIRA comments or other docs?
* All the permissions you need?
* Risk factor: What will you do if your devstack won't provision?
 hrs hrs
Implementation

* New code for new features?
* Refactor existing code?
* Find and delete old code?
* Writing tests: take your first estimate and double it :)
* Risk factor: What will you do about unexpected code complexity?
 hrs  hrs
Coordinating with the client

* Minutes per email?
* Number of emails?
* Risk factor: What do you do about long discussions of unclear requirements?
* Risk factor: What do you do if the client wants a video call?
 hrs  hrs
Manual testing

* Go through the full checklist?
* Provision an appserver
* Risk factor: What will you do if Ocim is not working?
 hrs  hrs
Creating documentation

* Code comments?
* Ticket comments?
* Extending READMEs?
* Research?
* Formatting?
 hrs  hrs
Creating the pull request and sandbox

* Good testing instructions?
* Rebase?
* Risk factor: What will you do if the CI is broken?
 hrs  hrs
Code review

* Reviewer onboarding?
* Time for manual testing?
* Time for reviewer to read code?
* Risk factor: What can you do if the reviewer asks for significant changes?
 hrs  hrs
Addressing feedback from the code review

* Update testing instructions?
* Provision new appserver?
* Rebase?
* Write comments on ticket?
 hrs  hrs
Deploying

* Run or update deployment playbooks?
* Risk factor: What do you do if the deployment fails:
* related to your change?
*
unrelated to your change?
 hrs  hrs
Upstream contributions

* How many review cycles?
* Over how many sprints?
* How many hours per each?
* Risk factor: What will you do if upstream requests a different approach?
 hrs  hrs
Extra work

* Emails, Mattermost, sprint grooming
 hrs  hrs

Spillovers

"Spillovers" are tasks which didn't reach "External Review", "Deployed & Delivered", or "Done" by end of sprint. There's several reasons why this might happen, and everyone on the team will have spillovers from time to time. But the goal is always to reduce and eliminate spillovers, and have clean sprints.

Why are clean sprints so important?

At OpenCraft, we deliver what and when we promise. All our projects and tasks are planned based on expectations of work being completed in a certain timeframe. Not just our clients, but also our internal sprint managers, sustainability planners, and epic owners and reviewers need to know that we can complete our commitments on time.

That's why, at the end of each sprint, we spend time going through the list of tasks that weren't completed during the sprint, and asking ourselves, "What could we have done differently to prevent this task from spilling over?" The use of the word "we" is intentional here, because a sprint is a team effort, and so spillover is not a single individual's failing. Task reviewers, mentors, and sprint firefighters all have time set aside to help complete tasks, and it's ok to lean on them and ask for help.

This is also why we have a minimum spillover allowance for newcomers, because we need everyone to take spillover seriously, and to know that everyone can improve.

How to address spillovers?

Here are some of the ways to reduce and eliminate spillovers.

  1. Track your own spillovers and reasons.
    This makes it possible to identify the most common reasons for spillover, and to figure out what you need to work on.
  2. Improve your task estimates.
    If you're consistently logging time over your tasks' Initial Estimate, then this makes the Sprint planning report a much less useful tool. See Improve task estimates for ideas and tips.
  3. Take on tasks which are related to reduce context switching.
    If there are several related tasks in the upcoming sprint, try to take on as many as possible to reduce context switching and setup time. If someone has already taken one or more of these tasks, then feel free to discuss and swap assignees around. It's always ok to ask.
  4. Ask for advice.
    If you're not sure what you could have done differently to avoid spillover on a task, ask your reviewer for recommendations and feedback, both early in the sprint and when a spillover is apparent. We should also always pay attention during the sprint review meetings for ideas from other people and their experiences, so that similar mistakes can be avoided.
  5. Avoid scope creep.
    This is easier than it sounds, because often, the scope creep comes from us being good engineers, trying to do more than the task requires. Sometimes scope creep comes from consultation with the client, but it's still ok to manage expectations and negotiate these additions if they come up. When you assess your sprint, watch out for opportunities to split follow-up work into a new task, to be completed next sprint, and ensure that these tasks are communicated to the epic owner and/or client.
  6. Limit review cycles.
    Discuss the task with your reviewer early in the sprint if there's any ambiguity about the acceptance criteria. Plan your sprint to accommodate timezone disparities or any planned time off.
  7. Use timeboxes to get started on tasks that you don't have time to complete.
    Ideally, a task would be split in two so that something is completed during the sprint, e.g. if a task can be split into a small timeboxed discovery or prototype task, and an implementation task. This must be done before the start of the sprint and in consultation with the epic owner, but it's a good way to maintain momentum on a project.

Tips and tricks

Time management is an essential skill which enables an individual to complete more in a shorter period of time, lowers stress and leads to career success. When working under the agile methodology, like we do at OpenCraft, it also helps in avoiding spillovers.

Some of the online courses that cover topics relevant to time management are:

Since there is no one-size-fits-all kind of solution for all these problems, we can share the best practices that the team members follow and try to pick and practise whatever is relevant to one's situation. We have forum threads about working remotely, time logging practices and reducing stress, all of which contain useful tips for managing time. We also have some content in the onboarding course about this in the words of wisdom section and the section on time management and invoices.

Below is a list of some of the best practices recommended by the team members:

  • Capture all the time spent on work and work-related things and log all of it under the appropriate tickets. If there are restrictions due to the budget, timeboxes etc., check (and ask someone) if it is okay to spend a non-trivial amount of time on it before doing it. Under-reporting the worked time only hides the problems and causes people to lose quietly.

  • Working from 9 to 5 doesn't necessarily equate to 8 hours of logged work. In practice, the actual amount of time spent to complete 8 hours of logged work is usually more. This is because of factors like breaks, distractions etc. taking some time which cannot be logged. So it is good to be focused and mindful about the time directly spent working on tickets. Having some form of a routine for work is usually helpful and it is important to come up with a routine that works for you.

  • There is a non-stop flow of emails in one's inbox and dealing with reading all of them - at least the ones relevant to us, can be disruptive and challenging. Since we have 24 hours of time to respond to emails, it is not necessary to keep checking emails non-stop and trying to read all of them asap. Unless you are the current firefighter, it is also not necessary to read all the emails arriving on the [email protected] mailing list. It is okay to occasionally scan for unanswered threads or subjects which might involve you. Having a few fixed slots of time every day to check and catch up on emails will reduce the distractions and context switches. Try out Gmail's Snooze feature, too -- you can clear your inbox and get reminded about things on the actual day you need to follow up.

  • Serializing the asynchronous workload can make the work schedule more predictable and manageable.

  • For work spread over many tickets, like during sprint planning, or reading ticket updates/emails, the best is to do this in one chunk, time that, and roughly divide the time between the main epics/topics that took the most time. For meta-work less than say 15 minutes, it is easier to log that time on the next ticket one picks up for working on.

  • Planning ahead and working in advance: Prepare for future high workloads during times of low workload by working ahead. This will limit the percentage of time one will feel behind, and thus stressed.

Scenarios and solutions

Handling new tasks that appear during a sprint

When one or more new tasks are injected during a sprint, discuss with the sprint manager and epic owners to pull tasks out of the sprint to accommodate the new ones. It might also be possible to hand over some assigned tasks to the firefighters to free up time for the new work.

Planning a sprint (and also after spillovers)

When planning a sprint after having spillovers in the previous sprint, work from the right side of the sprint board - i.e., tasks that are closer to being completed should be worked on before the tasks that are still in the 'backlog' state, the leftmost column.

Discuss the schedule for completing each task in the sprint with the respective reviewers. That allows everyone to plan and prioritize their work accordingly. While the ideal 'all tasks should be ready for review by the Wednesday of the 2nd week' scenario may not be possible to achieve in every sprint, planning the schedule in advance minimizes the risk of unexpected delays.

Since we are a globally distributed team, a schedule also helps navigate the delays in getting responses from team members who are in different time zones.

Go over all the tickets in your sprint, assess the work to be done, clarify the completion criteria, identify the potential risks and delays and discuss these with the reviewer to come up with a way to deal with them.

Keeping up productivity during the sprint

The "Are you feeling productive?" chart that Jill uses is a good tool for determining the next steps in case there is a loss of productivity or any unexpected issues.

It might also help to do routine productivity checks at fixed times to objectively check how many loggable hours one has worked on and if it is lesser than an expected number, change context and do something else, not necessarily related to work. For example, if one has been working since 9 AM in the morning and at 12 PM the amount of loggable work is less than expected, identifying why that is the case and then changing context after that could improve productivity.

Handling feature creep and scope changes

This basically falls into two categories: the client decides they want something extra mid-sprint or you realize mid-task that unplanned work is necessary to complete the task.

In either case, treat this as new work coming into the sprint. Either it or something else must go.

A good strategy for communicating with the client is: express empathy: "I know (fixing this logo, debugging these urls, . . .) is (urgent, important, what we agreed on)." explain the problem, quickly and without jargon: "This (forum version, theme, LTI, etc) is incompatible with your (library-name) which does (thing). I will need to upgrade (library-name)." explain what has changed: "I estimate this will take an extra X hours, which is (beyond the budget, more than I can fit in the current sprint)." make sure that they know they are in control: "Should we (cancel the upgrade, resume work next Monday, go with the default theme) or (other sensible option if one exists)?"

When you have repeated problems with this, the estimation checklist in the handbook can help.

Planning for work disruptions like forum posts and discussions

If one ends up spending too much time on unplanned work like responding to forum posts and discussions, it might be a good idea to timebox such work to an hour or two for every sprint to minimize any side-effects. Similar to the suggestion for work spread over multiple tickets, it could be effective to do this in a timed chunk and roughly divide the time between the main topics that took the most time.

Taking holidays

It is important to take holidays periodically to get away from work, refresh and relax. There is more to life than just work and hence it is important to take a sufficient number of holidays every year. The process for requesting time off is documented here.

Work-life balance

Since it is possible to work at any convenient time in a remote job like ours, it is important to identify the importance of having a good work-life balance. Failing to pay attention to this can cause issues like stress, burnout, under-performance and impact health and well-being. Some of the suggested ways to help with maintaining a good work-life balance are:

  • Setting aside a very specific work routine and timings and sticking to it.
  • Working only on the weekdays and not working during weekends and holidays no matter what.
  • Getting at least a good 8 hours sleep every night and on time. The key is to prevent long-term elevation or abnormal regulation of stress-related biological factors and to maximize the time spent in the resting state. From what we know so far, it’s pretty much grandma’s advice: Sleep well, eat and exercise in moderation, and engage in activities that help you feel relaxed and rested.

It is important to find what works for you and then to do it consistently. Consistency may be more important than intensity, so a brisk walk on a frequent and regular basis for reasonable amounts of time may be more helpful than jogging as fast as you can once every few weeks. Genuine support from friends and family can also be an effective chronic stress buffer.