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Sharpening Your Saw

This lesson is a part of an audio course Productivity Systems for Developers by James Bowen

We have already covered what we need for managing our time and staying focused. But developers need to keep their core skills current, otherwise known as sharpening the saw. Fundamentally, we have to look after ourselves because no one else will.

Now, I don’t mean that to sound negative, you may well have a great employer. But the sad reality of the IT world is many employers want everything now. If you ask for self-improvement time, you may not get it, despite that being best for everyone. The business is looking at time to market, and there’s merit in that. But us developers know that we need to invest to make a good product. The bosses are fine with you investing, as long as it was in your last job, at someone else's expense.

Long story short, you know what’s best for you. You have to be strong and invest in your time. Even if you love your employer, who's to say there may not be redundancies in the future?

With all that in mind, part of your productivity system should be allocating some of your time to improving, just a little each day. Little gains will add up, and you can ‘get away’ by allocating small blocks of time during your day. Yeah, I’m saying just do it, don’t ask permission.

The challenge will be in maximizing what you get out of that time. Let’s take a look at that.

Understand Your Best Times

Daniel Pink wrote a great book called ‘When’. In it he explained that we have different chronotypes, in essence, what are our best waking hours? Are we an early bird, a night owl, or something in between? I like to think of it as ‘historically when I have done my best deep work?’. And by deep work, I mean something that requires all of my brain cells and no distractions to carry out.

In my case that’s definitely the morning. You might have to experiment a bit with when to find yours. Perhaps you could even set a recurring GTD task for reflecting and capturing it?

Anyhow, we have a standup at 09:45, which is the best time to accommodate both the early starters and those on school runs for their kids etc. So I use that time to my advantage. I mark 09:00 to 09:45 as ‘my time’. Monday’s time slot has been planned on Friday evening, Tuesday's time slot is planned on Monday evening and so on. As for what to focus on, let's take a look at that.

Pick Something Important Not Urgent

In the great ‘7 habits of highly effective people’ Steven Covey draws on the matrix of urgent vs important. I’ve also heard that same matrix attributed to Dwight Esisenhower. If you’re not familiar with it, imagine the following in your mind's eye. There's a quadrant for all your tasks, and they fall into “urgent and important’, “urgent and not important”, “important but not urgent” and “not important and not urgent”. Your work will always fall into those categories. There is plenty of work that is ‘right now’ stuff, but doesn't improve things in the long run. That’s urgent, but not important. For our self improvement, we want to pick things without time pressure (i.e not urgent) but are important for our career development.

Why is this? Work will always drag you into something they deem important, but to you it’s merely urgent. Also, you’ll be dealing with what work you want to do for the majority of your day anyway. Work will reap the benefit of your self-improvement too, they just don’t know what’s good for them a lot of the time!

Going back to the example of the certificates I mentioned previously, there was both urgency and importance depending on your point of view. The urgency was getting the API gateway we used to allow traffic through so the developers could continue with their work. I got help from someone for the ops team and the developers could keep moving – so I fixed the urgent by doing just what I needed to do.

But I spun off a different task as a result, which wasn’t urgent but was important. I made a judgment call on my own career. I decided to allocate 45 minutes the next day to learn the fundamentals of certificate issuer chains and experiment a bit. When this problem came up again (and it was sure to) I wouldn't be at the mercy of someone else's availability and generosity.

Other examples would be learning vi, learning the keyboard shortcuts of our IDE, getting good at the command line. All these things can be done any time because they’re not urgent. But the long term dividends would be fantastic. I started out using ‘nano’ on Ubuntu because vi was too cryptic to me. Now I build docker images out in Intellij, use vi to make changes inside the images and copy changes back to my IDE. My productivity has gone through the roof because I was prepared to learn some weird shortcuts.

Ok so assuming we’ve picked a candidate to focus on, how do we set up a system? Let’s move onto that next.

Use the Calendar to Your Advantage

Planning your next day is a crucial step to productivity, and so easy to do. Before I pack up for the day, I assign 09:00 – 09:45 in my calendar as a private appointment. The notes section used in the calendar has links to any supporting materials I need. Mind Maps, OmniFocus, articles etc all go here. That’s my Monday to Friday self improvement time. I don’t answer any emails, open up slack or go on my phone during this time. To be 100% accurate, on Monday I shift my investment time from 08:30 – 09:15. That’s just because of the weekly department meeting, but I found a way to get my time in first. I move it before 09:00 rather than after because my best 'energy times’ are the first thing. I’m an early bird, remember?

Remember from our GTD lessons that the calendar is sacred territory? Well, your best times are the scariest of all.


If you can find your best times for productivity, allocate that to your own self-improvement. You can experiment to find the best time, but start today. Break your improvement out onto 45 min blocks and be consistent. Don’t cave into pressure to do work stuff during this time. Work will always have something they consider more important than your career. And don’t forget they’ll reap the rewards on your improvement too. They just need protection from themselves!

We’ll move onto the final module in this course, how to use your system for some specific scenarios. You already know how to deploy a productivity system for planning, how to improve your focus, and how to allocate improvement time. We’ll go through some applications of your system to fix some specific problems next.

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James Bowen