How to Stay Organized and Maximize Your Time as a Software Developer - Productivity Blog

Software developers earn some of the highest wages in the country. OK, but it’s not without its challenges. The landscape is marked by intense competition. The relentless evolution of technology creates significant pressure to continually upskill, innovate, and deliver.

The average developer may work 40 to 44 hours per week, which may seem like a standard workweek, but the complexity and mental rigor of the role sets it apart from your average 9 to 5. Your hours often focus on intricate challenges like debugging complex applications or refactoring legacy code. It is demanding and mentally taxing work. If you’re freelancing, you have additional considerations, like acquiring new clients and managing the growth of your business, adding another layer of demands to your role.

Sometimes those work days bleed into work nights and work weekends. Nobody wants that.

A well-structured workflow is key to maintaining these extensive demands and ensuring a more balanced and sustainable work rhythm. With the right systems and a little help from the right tools, effective organization can help you reclaim control over your workdays and minimize burnout, leaving room for more personal growth.

Work smarter, not harder, to get more done

Writing code is just the tip of the iceberg in software development. A developer’s role may also encompass project management (some more than others, especially in Agile methodologies), troubleshooting technical issues, and staying updated with the latest technology. Plus, projects usually operate on tight deadlines, and complexity tends to grow as the project progresses.

Creativity is as important as technical skills, especially when working on large, complex projects. But thinking outside the box can be difficult when time is tight.

That’s why every developer has been told time and time again, they need to prioritize time management. Yes, it’s effective for getting your work delivered on time, but mindful time management has huge personal benefits like alleviating stress and improving your overall work quality.

You create more time, but you can adopt and enact healthier systems to help you get the most out of the time you do have.

Start by pinpointing your peak productivity hours, using productivity-enhancing apps, and automating repetitive tasks. If you’re wondering where to start, let’s dive into some strategies to sharpen your time management skills, and achieve more in less time.

Eliminate or minimize distractions

Most people need at least 23 minutes to regain their focus after being interrupted. Now think about the frequent email checks, spontaneous meetings, or sudden requests for input. These interruptions disrupt your workflow, increasing the likelihood of mistakes and project delays.

Certainly, some distractions are inevitable, but personal time-suckers like social media and office gossip can be managed. The solution?

Time blocking.

Used widely across industries, time blocking is a strategy of dedicating specific chunks of time for focused work, interspersed with shorter blocks for tasks like checking emails or social media. It’s a pragmatic approach, recognizing that eight straight hours of unbroken work isn’t feasible or productive.

For better productivity, consider “do not disturb” or airplane modes for your devices, or even turning them off. Take a play out of California-based software engineer Cameron Perrin’s book: he advocates for a two-hour “monk mode” a few times a day. Phone off, social media blocked, and clear goals set.

Identify your peak productivity hours

Do you feel more productive in the morning or later in the day? Identify your peak productivity hours, and plan your most demanding tasks around them.

Some people feel best in the morning, but their energy drops after 4-5 PM. At the opposite end are the so-called night owls, who feel productive and energized while everyone else sleeps.

Many software developers can work remotely and make their schedules. If you’re a night owl who falls into this category, maximize the hours when your productivity is at its peak.

Pay attention to your daily routine and note when you feel most alert. Assess your energy levels and mental focus over several days. Try to identify patterns, and then put the pieces together to determine your most productive hours.

Work on the most difficult tasks first

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Eat the frog?”

Occasionally “eat the frog” is misused to reference tackling your most unpleasant task (or the one you least want to do), but the idiom really refers to resolving the most difficult task first thing.

Sometimes that might also be the most unpleasant, sure.

But for the most part, this is a task that may take more time, dedication, resources, etc., but ultimately is the most significant or beneficial task of the day. This could be something that is due (or overdue) or needs to be completed so another colleague can do their leg of the job or just something that takes a lot of brain power you need to get off your to-do list.

If you don’t tackle the easiest tasks first, you may need more energy to work on the more difficult tasks later. When fatigue sets in, we are more likely to become distracted, procrastinate, and make poor decisions. Therefore, this isn’t the best time to work on complex projects.

By eating the frog and completing the task first thing in the day, you’ll have an accomplished sense of price and momentum for the rest of the day.

Focus on one task at a time

Certain people in certain roles really thrive off multitasking, but for most – especially in the development world–it’s just counterproductive.

Only 2.5% of people can multitask effectively. This approach divides your attention, resulting in poor mental focus, slower response times, and diminished productivity.

Multitasking also affects attention and working memory, which may increase the risk of errors. Moreover, it can heighten stress and hinder creativity. This effect is particularly noticeable in software development, where context switching can lead to a significant productivity drop as you move between different coding tasks or projects.

One solution is to organize tasks by priority or importance and then tackle them individually.

First, create a to-do list for the day or week ahead. Next, estimate how long it will take to complete each task. Using Stephen Covey’s time management matrix (more commonly referred to as the Eisenhower Matrix), categorize the day’s (or week’s) tasks by urgency and importance.

Eisenhower matrix

Task management tools can make everything easier. For example, Nozbe enables users to create to-do lists, highlight important tasks or projects, and leave notes for their teammates. You can also share files, delegate tasks, and provide real-time feedback—all on one platform.

Use task batching to get more done

Bouncing between disjointed tasks can disrupt your focus. A more effective method is task batching: grouping and tackling similar tasks within a designated timeframe. If some of these tasks repeat on a weekly basis, you can begin slotting them into your own time-blocking system.

Here are some batch task examples:

  • Software Testing Activities: Schedule a dedicated block of time for unit testing, integration testing, and acceptance testing for a specific feature. This will help you find and fix bugs in a systematic way.
  • Code reviews: Bundle together time for reviewing commits from your teammates. Batch this task with refactoring or optimizing your own code, since you’ll already be in the mindset for critical evaluation and improvement.
  • Bug fixes: Allocate a certain period to focus solely on debugging. Addressing system crashes, unexpected behaviors, and reported user issues can all be grouped in this period.
  • Feature Development: Assign a significant block of time to develop specific functionalities or features. This could include writing new code, updating existing code, and testing the feature.
  • Documentation tasks: Reserve specific time slots for updating user manuals, writing API guides, or documenting code. You could even batch together writing new documentation with reviewing and updating existing documents.
  • Code refactoring and optimization: Dedicate time to revising and improving sections of already written code. Combine this with performance optimization tasks, as both require a similar mindset and focus.
  • Meetings, brainstorming sessions, and similar activities: Group together all your collaborative activities like project planning, progress reporting, and brainstorming sessions. Doing so will help keep your other time blocks interruption-free.

Take the same approach to structure your daily activities, such as email checks or learning new programming languages. To add an element of urgency, consider setting a deadline for each batch of tasks to nudge yourself into action.

Break down large tasks into smaller chunks

Sometimes you’re entrusted with hefty, complex projects that can take months to complete. For example, building a mobile app involves things like:

  • Ideation
  • Market research
  • Defining core features
  • Wireframing
  • Prototyping
  • App development
  • User interface testing
  • Security testing
  • Deployment
  • Iteration and rework
  • Scaling

Each of these processes is labor-intensive and involves several steps. Break them down into bite-sized pieces to stay organized, and delegate whenever possible.

Market research, for example, can be broken down into the following subtasks:

  • Identify and analyze potential competitor products
  • Conduct surveys or interviews to identify user needs
  • Analyze market trends and identify feature gaps in the market

Complete these tasks in a logical order and set a deadline for each.

This approach allows for better planning and more efficient execution. It also gives you a sense of progress and reduces stress, keeping you motivated toward task completion. Plus, you’ll be better able to make changes as needed throughout the development process.

Use the Pomodoro technique

Stress, distractions, energy thieves, and other factors can make it difficult to stay focused.

For example, if you’re waiting to hear from a client, you may find yourself checking your email every 10-15 minutes. You can’t expect to stay focused and do your best work, in these circumstances.

One solution is to use the Pomodoro technique, a time management method that involves working in chunks. If you’ve been a software developer for more than 5 minutes, you’re no doubt familiar with this methodology. It’s basically time-blocking with very specific parameters built on empirical evidence:

  1. First, choose a task you want to complete;
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes (consider using the Pomodoro app);
  3. Work on the task at hand without interruptions;
  4. Take a five- to 10-minute break when the time is up;
  5. Repeat the process three more times;
  6. Take a 30-minute break after four “pomodoros,” then start all over.

Four Pomodoro sessions would equal 100 minutes of interrupted work. That’s enough to review and optimize a piece of code, fix software bugs, or test new features, depending on the complexity of each task.

The Pomodoro method imbues a sense of urgency that keeps you alert and focused. It’s ideal for smaller, straightforward tasks. However, don’t shy away from using it for larger projects. Remember, even the most complex project can be divided into smaller, manageable chunks, making the Pomodoro technique a versatile tool in your developer’s arsenal.

Take regular breaks

More than 80% of software developers experience burnout due to heavy workloads, unclear goals, and other factors. The COVID-19 crisis has further amplified this phenomenon, taking a toll on the software industry.

Perhaps not surprisingly, highly engaged employees are the most vulnerable to burnout. The more time and effort you put into your work, the higher your stress levels.

Stress can build up over time, leading to fatigue, poor concentration, headaches, self-doubt, mood swings, and low productivity. If left unaddressed, it may affect your mental, emotional, and physical health.

This habit can help reduce stress, improve work performance, and restore energy. Clinical research suggests that micro-breaks can increase performance in the workplace, and one study found that spending roughly 30 minutes outdoors can boost productivity by 45%.

Take a short break every 30 to 90 minutes, to reap the benefits. Take a nap, a walk, eat your favorite foods, or read a book. What matters most is to disconnect from work.

6 free tools you can use to stay productive

Lastly, use technology to stay on track, cut out tedious tasks, and get more done in less time. There are tons (literally, tons) of organizational and productivity tools specifically for software developers and teams out there to help you get organized and save up that precious time.

Here are six tools that can give you a leg up on your productivity and output:

1. Nozbe

Ideal for project management, Nozbe is a powerful tool for organizing tasks and enhancing team communication. The free version supports up to 3 users and provides an efficient platform for task and project management. Features include setting reminders, assigning tasks, adding tags, due dates, and change logs. A drag-and-drop feature makes task reassignment easy. For larger teams or more features, Nozbe also offers a premium package at $8/month.

2. Programmer’s Music

Spice up your coding sessions with Programmer’s Music. It’s a free app that offers pre-curated, non-vocal music playlists but also allows you to curate your own. Plus, it features a built-in timer, which you can customize to sync with your work intervals, notifying you when to break and resume work.

3. AutoHotkey

This open-source Windows tool helps automate various tasks, from defining hotkeys to automating complex tasks. Its easy-to-learn commands and support for different programming paradigms make it a must-have for developers seeking to optimize their workflows.

4. The Great Suspender

A lightweight Chrome extension that enhances system performance by automatically suspending unused tabs after a set period, thereby freeing up CPU and memory. It also provides options to whitelist specific domains and URLs.

5. Resharper

A versatile tool aimed at enhancing code quality and productivity. Often compared to a “swiss army knife for developers”, it brings over 2000 inspections across different languages to Microsoft Visual Studio. Features like autocompletion, refactoring suggestions, code quality analysis, and boilerplate code generation streamline your coding process, helping you maintain high standards while minimizing the effort.

6. Boostnote

An open-source markdown note app designed specifically for developers. With features like offline writing, syntax highlighting for over 100 languages, and organizational tools such as folders and tags, it provides a structured way to track tasks and organize notes efficiently.

Honorable Mention: Flow Club

Okay, it’s not specifically for software developers, and it’s not exactly free, but it is ideal for remote programmers who need to foster some focus time. This platform lets you host timed coworking sessions, promoting focus by muting participants after a brief introduction. Particularly beneficial for group settings, Flow Club offers an optional background music feature to enhance concentration. It turns the challenge of remote work into a productivity boost, encouraging more efficient coding.

The idea is not to crowd your workspace with a multitude of tools but to find the ones that seamlessly fit into your workflow and truly enhance your productivity.

It’s about working smarter, not harder.

Maximize your time at work

Staying productive isn’t always easy, especially when juggling multiple projects. And, sometimes, you may feel like giving up, no matter how much you love your work.

On the positive side, it’s in your power to stay organized and maximize your time. From this perspective, software development is like any other job.

If you have trouble staying focused, make small but impactful changes to your routine. Focus on high-priority tasks, take regular breaks, and outsource or delegate redundant activities. Even little things, such as timing your work, can make all the difference.

All in all, achieving peak productivity is a matter of mindset. With some practice, you can train yourself to avoid distractions, build healthier habits, and limit stress.

Andra Picincu
A digital marketing consultant and copywriter with over 12 years of experience. She works closely with small businesses, large organizations, and agencies like Optimist to help them grow and increase brand awareness. Over the past decade, she has turned her passion for marketing and writing into a successful business with a global audience. Visit her LinkedIn profile to find out more!