Tips to Improve your Development Productivity

Of all the questions I receive via email, I think the most prevalent two are how do I stay productive? and how can I consistently think of new ideas without burning out. If you do a quick scan of many of your favorite blogs, you’re almost guaranteed to find at least one post touching on these very subjects. Here are just a few articles on productivity I found in a quick 5 minute search on some of my favorites:

Basically, the reason there are so many of these types of posts out there, is because everyone wants advice and there really is no magical formula that will work for everybody. If you need some tips, your best bet is to absorb as much information as you can from as many sources as you can. Try things out until you find what works well for you. I can almost guarantee you that after you’ve done that, your final work flow will be as unique as it is for the 8 blogs mentioned above.

Improve Your Development Efficiency

What I thought I’d do with this post is share some of my own productivity tips from a development standpoint. Many of the articles you find focus on bloging or how to keep your site interesting over a long period of time. Very few touch on things from an online business standpoint or from a programming/site design standpoint. Since the majority of my time is spent in this arena, I thought I’d talk a little bit about what works for me in keeping my productivity moving along…

  • Keep multiple projects on the go, and shift gears when you hit a roadblock. At all times, I’m probably working on a minimum of 5 different projects at once. Right now, I’m in the process of designing two new websites, building a new site infrastructure, and writing 3 different blog posts. Whenever I hit a road block on one project, I switch gears to something else temporarily. This helps reduce my idle time where I’d blankly staring at the wall, and it also lets me put the issue I was having at the back of my brain where subconsciously I can work through the problem. At a minimum, when I eventually come back to the project, I’ll come in with a fresh perspective, which is the key to overcoming whatever roadblock held me up.
  • When a project gets down to the point where you’re wrapping things up for launch – focus! When wrapping up all the loose ends to finish up a project, it’s really easy to want to do something more interesting. I usually have a really strong urge to do something more interesting and not do tedious things like validate my XHTML or fix an obscure bug. When this is the case, I force myself to focus on these projects until they’re complete. If I didn’t, I guarantee I’d have 10 sites right now all 90% ready for launch… 
  • Tackle the things you struggle with first. For me, this is crucial. I’ve mentioned before, the aspect I struggle with the most is graphic design and by association web design. As a result, the first thing I do on any project is tackle design first. Once I have a design in place or even just a logo/site name, it’s enough to drive me through the entirety of the project. I would assume it’s similar to being an author, and choosing a title for your book. Once I have the design/branding out of the way, everything else is much more comfortable and therefore easier to remain productive while doing. If I leave the design till the end, it can weigh on my brain and slow down my progress on other aspects.
  • Look for inspiration from other projects. When your mind is full of clouds, look for the blue sky. If you hit a wall in your projects, one of the best ways to get around them is to look for inspiration from other projects and designs. Just seeing what someone else has programmed can be enough to subconsciously push yourself into getting your own solution off the ground. 
  • If you need a breather, just do it! Some people believe that if you’re having trouble solving a problem, the best way to proceed is to focus harder and push through it. I have the exact opposite opinion. If I hit an impasse that I can’t get through, sometimes the best medicine is just to take a breather and focus on other things for a while. Go for a beer, go see a movie, hit the gym, watch some TV, etc etc. Just a little distraction from your current issues can clear your mind and make you more productive when you get back to it.
  • If you can’t figure something out, put it out of your mind till the next day. A few months ago I was working on a project and had a programming error I just couldn’t figure out. I spent 4-5 hours straight staring at my screen and finally went to sleep angry and frustrated at 6:00 in the morning. After sleeping on it for 3-4 hours before having to get up for work, I woke up, hit my computer, and solved the problem in less than 10 seconds. Now, If I hit a problem I can’t seem to work out, I try not to waste my time by agonizing over it while I’m getting increasingly tired and increasingly stupid (RedBull doesn’t improve your intelligence!). Switching to a new project temporarily or even just catching some Zzzz’s will save you time in the long run, I guarantee it. 
  • Think about names and features, sometimes they help drive development. When I get really deep into a project, I occasionally reach a point where I’m not sure if everything I’m doing is going to work out and improve my business. When that happens, I like to sit back and think about things like new features or names for our sites/products. I also like to think about how I plan to monetize the site and how I think it will perform in the long run. This kind of future thinking helps me visualize the completion of the project and can get me over the hump and actually wrap it up.
  • Start your day by tackling the painful stuff first. If you’re a human being, then you probably have things you need to do everyday that you’d rather not do. You also probably tend to procrastinate about those things and put them off until you run out of time in your day. I know I do. Before I finish working everyday, I like to make a list of all these painful chores and when I start working again, they’re the first things I strike off my todo list. If you do all the exciting stuff first, it’s way too easy to get caught up and neglect the painful stuff. So, until you start outsourcing the painful parts of your daily routine, it’s best to get them done first if you want to be at your most productive throughout the day. 
  • Try to finish every day with something interesting. Before I finish up my work for the day, I try to always tackle something interesting. This helps me remain productive because when something is interesting I tend to think about it in the back of my mind for a longer period of time. This helps me stay interested and also creates an urge to continue it the next day, and hit the ground running as soon as I start working again. If I’m stuck doing things I think are painful first, the anticipation of jumping back in on the exciting project helps me get through the chores that much quicker.
  • Never be afraid to let something go. For many of us, letting go is hard to do, but one of the biggest detractors from productivity is agonizing over minutiae. We’ve all been there, with that application that works well but doesn’t do one tiny thing you want it to. You spend 10-20 hours extra on it just to implement the one feature that no one but you will ever use. I know I’ve been there, but keeping your productivity high also means knowing when to let something die off that’s simply eating up all your time. Sometimes it’s just a feature other times it can be an entire idea. If you analyze your project and the time you still need to invest out weighs the potential from completing it, it might not be worth the drop in productivity on other projects to complete the effort.
  • Setup a work area that enhances your workflow. While not 100% a productivity issue, I think that your work area can really enhance or detract from your ability to get things done. If you need peace and quiet to get things done, then your workspace should be somewhere that you can achieve that. If you need loud music and movies playing in order to work, you need to gear your workspace accordingly. At the end of the day, you workspace should reflect your work habits and your productivity will improve because of it. Here is a look at my workspace in my home office. I can’t get anything done without music going through my headphones and I’m lost without my second monitor :)

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The bottom line is, only you know when you’re most productive and the only way to find out what works best is to experiment. You can take advice from other people, like me, but at the end of the day you’re still going to have to tweak it to work for you. What are some of your best tips for productivity when it comes to development and design? What keeps you going, especially when the work that needs to be done is not very interesting?

5 thoughts on “Tips to Improve your Development Productivity”

  1. Thanks for the link.

    If you need a breather, just do it! – This is something I do a lot. Whether its going down the gym, playing a game or even just getting away from the laptop for 10 minutes, spending some time not thinking about something can be really beneficial

  2. Thanks for the mention, I appreciate it! I am with you on moving on to another project when you hit a road block. Often when I am working on a design, and I am out of ideas, I just quit for a while and do something else and go back to it 15 minutes later or so. Staring at it doesn’t do me much good.

  3. Yeah, I agree. I used to be the opposite way, constantly thinking I’d get more done if I just sat there and kept going, even when I wanted to do anything but what I was doing…

    Now, when I need a break I just do it and when I come back to it later, my mind is fresh, my eyes are fresh, and the projects get done that much easier…

  4. Peace,

    I notice in your picture that your desktop is on your table. Wouldn’t it be wiser to keep the cabinet somewhere else so taht you’ve got that extra room available to keep books, papers, etc., or in general, just to have some more elbow room? I believe that extra room may work wonders for ya’.

    Not to be imposing,
    But would like to return some of that help ya’ giving me,
    God Bless,

    shree

  5. Actually, that is pretty funny. My desktop is on my desk cause I am kind of lazy, and I hate having to reach down to plug in USB devices or change up my headphones.

    That picture doesn’t do it much justice, but my desk is actually a pretty decent size. Probably 6 feet wide by 4 feet deep. It is just kind of cluttered at the moment, but I usually have lots of room for books and note pads and things…

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