Productivity tips for working independently and in small teams

After years of working independently and in small teams, I have come across a few tips, tools and apps that help me get the most out of my work time, enjoy my work, and avoid burn out and too much stress.

 

Burn out and over stressing
Burn out is real and burn out is terrible. A few years ago I ended up with a 2 week long headache which resulted with me spending a night in hospital and getting a large needle jabbed into my spine. After talking to the doctors they suggested that it was likely caused by over working and too much stress, i.e. ‘burn out’.  If you let your work get on top of you and stress you out, no matter how much you love making games or sculpting in zBrush, you will begin resent and avoid them.

Since then I have been trying to refine and improve on my techniques to manage my workflow into something that is not only more productive and less stressful but actually more enjoyable and something I look forward too.

 

Getting a good sleep

Getting a good night sleep cannot be underestimated. The science is in, 7 – 9 hours is what the brain requires to work at it’s optimum and retain and recall information effectively.

  • Don’t work on a laptop in bed. This is a slippery slope and will end up with you staying up too early hours hunting down that one annoying bug that has infiltrated your code.
  • Flux - Flux is a program that removes some of the blue light from your monitor. The blue light tricks your body into thinking that it is still day time, which in turns stops it from preparing for sleep.
  • Have a cut-off time for work that is at least an hour before you sleep. This will allow your brain time to wind down and ensure you don’t go to bed and dream of pages of code. (That being said, I have actually solved some coding problems in dreams before.)

 

Keep lists

When you have a head full of projects, things you have to do, people you need to contact, things you need to buy for dinner, then life gets stressful and your head gets cluttered. To help keep this under control I use lists split into relevant projects. Project task lists also stop you having to discuss tasks via email with team members which saves a lot of time searching through emails and messaging systems.

I have tried quite a few different task management systems and these are the ones that have worked for me:

  • Redbooth (Paid) - Redbooth is great if you have multiple projects, a small team of people and don’t mind paying for a to do list.
  • Trello (Free) - Trello is more almost as good as Redbooth but lacks the neat UI design and isn’t quite as fully featured. Trello is great for individual projects and very small teams.

 

Manage your communications

The constant influx of communications, notifications and phone calls can make it really difficult to get into a state of flow that we all aim for in our work. The human brain isn’t made to multitask. Every time you stop drawing or coding to check an email, you are removing your brain from the focus that it had, clearing some of your short term memory, which makes you less effective when you get back to your work. To get around this I have devised a few tricks to that help:

  • Separate your work and admin time. I usually start the day clearing up my inbox, setting up my task lists and writing back to emails then move onto actual work tasks.
  • Don’t be a slave to notifications. If you are working on a task and you hear an email notification buzz on your phone, try leaving it. In all likelihood if something is uber important and needs dealing with right away, they would ring.
  • Google Inbox – Google have a new inbox which has some useful new productivity features. It lets you tick emails when they are done, removing them from your screen. It lets you add reminders to your emails so they become tasks and it lets you snooze emails so they don’t clog up your inbox until you need to action them.
  • Don’t use Facebook for work communications if you can help it. There are many other options that don’t have a world of distractions like dog videos, anti vaxxer posts that need proving wrong and news articles about the latest dumb thing the government has done.
  • Slack - Slack is a great, minimalist communication tool for teams. It allows you to split your conversations up into projects, you can tag people, add files and links. This saves you from having to use the poor search features of say Skype or facebook to look through a conversation and find the bit where you were talking about Bug X or the new input system you are working on.

 

Maintaining focus

Once you have your admin done and you are getting down to business, staying focused and aiming for the state of flow is the name of the game.

  • Pomodoro Technique - This is a technique that helps you manage your time and stay on task. Essentially you choose your task, work for 25 mins then have a 5 min break. Do this 4 times then have a 30 min break. The 5 min break is a good chance for you to give your eyes a rest, get a drink of water and stretch your legs.
  • Strict workflow - Strict workflow is a Chrome plugin that enforces the ‘Pomodoro technique’ by blocking distracting websites during your work period. It sets off an alarm at the end of each period reminding you to shift into the next phase.
  • Stay focused - Another Chrome plugin that monitors how long you are on certain websites and blocks you after a set time. This is a great way to build awareness at just how much time you spend being distracted by non work-related websites.

 

File management

BACKUP, BACKUP, BACKUP. There is nothing more infuriating than losing work, I know because I have done it more times than I care to admit. There are a host of tools and free storage available so that you can backup into the cloud and that store revisions of your work:

  • Dropbox - Dropbox gives you free online storage that allows you to sync files to the cloud. It saves revisions and it relatively seamless.
  • Google Drive / Docs – Google drive functions much like Dropbox but also has the added benefit of working with Google Docs. Google Docs is great for online document collaboration like working out budgets together, nutting out design docs and building presentations.
  • Source control – There are a number of proper source control options out there that you can use to save specific revisions of your project assets, branch and revert to different versions. Personally I use Plastic SCM hosted on Amazon server. Plastic is relatively straight forward compared to others like Tortoise and Mercurial.