• Matt Burrell

How to Get Stuff Done in Software Development


Why do software projects take so long? Changing business requirements, poor communication and technical debt slow developers down. But we’re more in control of our personal productivity than we think.


Recently, I’ve been using a new productivity hack and its effectiveness has blown me away. The technique has given me a concrete strategy for ‘getting stuff done’ and has made me feel immensely productive.


The technique is actually very simple and will sound familiar. It combines the use of a Kanban board with time-boxing. The result is a huge boast in productivity and the psychological state of flow.


So how does it work?


Step 1: Break work into discrete tasks


The first step is to compile a list of tasks that you need to complete. If you’re working in an Agile environment, tasks may already exist on the team Scrum or Kanban board. You could use these or create your own by breaking the tasks you are currently working on into smaller tasks.


Tasks don't have to be work-related. I've been creating tasks for working out and going for a run. You'll be much more committed to getting tasks done if you write them down.


Keep the list of tasks manageable. You can always add to it if you run out of things to do. I’m constantly generating new tasks and splitting existing tasks up as I work so never seem to run out of things to do.


Step 2: Create your own personal Kanban board


Kanban boards allow you to organise your workflow visually. Here’s an example of a simple one.

Notice that tasks are represented by boxes (or sticky notes) and can be moved between columns. Kanban boards can be physical or digital so choose what works best for you. I’m using Trello for my personal board and recommend you start with this too. You can set up an account for free.


Once you’re up and running with Trello, create a new board and add three columns labelled Todo, Doing and Done. This is the simplest form of a Kanban. You can call the columns whatever you like, for example, you might use the days of the week.


Make sure you keep your board simple. Otherwise, you run the risk of creating a laborious process for yourself. Who wants to drag tasks from Pre-Analysis, Analysis, Post-Analysis, Preliminary Work etc.?


Add all the tasks you created in Step 1 to the ToDo column. If you like you can order them by priority. Don’t worry too much about order though as it’s likely that tasks will change or need to be broken down into smaller units as you learn more about the work.


Step 3: Estimate the number of Pomodoros each task will take


The Pomodoro Technique is amazingly effective. A Pomodoro is a unit of time, usually 25 minutes long. It's named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that the creator of the technique used. You can use longer or shorter Pomodoros but I find that 25 minutes is about right.


The core idea of the Pomodoro Technique is to focus solely on a task for the allocated time. When the time is up you take a 5-minute break and then start the next Pomodoro. After 4 or 5 Pomodoros you take a longer break of 25 minutes. More on this in Step 5.


Go through the tasks in the ToDo list and estimate how many Pomodoros you think each task will take. Don’t spend too long doing this, just go with your gut feeling. If you don’t know just guess.


Accuracy isn’t important because this hack isn’t an estimation technique. The whole point of it is to get stuff done and achieve flow.


Step 4: Drag today’s tasks into the Doing column


Drag all the tasks that you want to achieve today into the Doing column. You would usually do this the evening before or at the beginning of the day. It’s important to keep the total number of Pomodoros you want to achieve to a reasonable limit. Try to aim for 6 initially.


Does that sound too low?


In practice you’re not going to do as many Pomodoros as you think you are! Focused concentration is mentally taxing especially if you don’t have much practice at it. The idea is that during a Pomodoro you are completely focused on the task.


This means no distractions. Switch off your phone (or turn it face down on the table). Close the email client. Log out of Twitter. Put your Headphones on (noise cancelling ones if you have them). Make a sign and stick it to your back. Whatever it takes. During a Pomodoro, nothing short of an emergency should distract you.


Admittedly this is easier said than done especially if you’re working in an open-plan office. If you let your colleagues know what you’re doing then they’ll soon learn not to bother you. Perhaps come up with some sort of agreed signalling system.


Step 5: Begin work


Once you’ve got the tasks that you want to achieve in the Doing column you’re ready… almost.


You need a timer. I use the PomoDone App because it integrates nicely with Trello. It’s costs a few pounds but it’s worth it. But you can also download free Pomodoro apps for your phone.


The advantage of using an app that integrates with Trello is that you can track how many Pomodoros each of your Trello tasks actually took. PomoDone also automatically marks tasks as Done and it comes with a Chrome extension.


Start your timer and begin work. If you finish a task before the end of a Pomodoro you can do one of three things. You could start the next task. But if you’re recording time spent against specific tasks this will affect the accuracy of the results


Alternatively, you could stop the timer and take an early break before the next Pomodoro. Your timing app will record this as an incomplete Pomodoro but will still record the time. You might not like having your Pomodoro's marked as incomplete, however. If so, you could follow the final suggestion.


My favourite thing to do is to use the extra time to learn something new that's related to the task or to overlearn. For example, this might mean practising a newly acquired skill. If you're coding, you could do a bit of refactoring until the Pomodoro is finished. This is like putting your productivity on steroids. Not only are you being productive and working in a state of flow, you're also learning and improving.


Once the task is complete move it across to the Done column. That’s it!


Here are the Five Golden Rules for this productivity hack:

  1. Focus entirely on the task during a Pomodoro.

  2. Create a task for every piece of work no matter how trivial.

  3. Work only when the timer is running.

  4. Stop work during the break periods.

  5. Respect the Pomodoros. If you plan to do 8 Pomodoros in a day, do it.

If you follow these rules you should see your productivity soar.


What are the benefits?


I’ve been amazed at how this simple hack has improved my productivity and well-being. Here are some of the benefits I’ve found while using it.

  • You can measure exactly how much work you've done in the day to the nearest minute.

  • You can measure how long a specific task took and learn from it.

  • You achieve focus and psychological flow much more easily than before.

  • You're reminded to take regular screen breaks during the rest periods.

  • You procrastinate less because you're focused on a specific task.

  • You spend less time perfecting things because you're motivated to finish a task within the allocated time.

  • You can use the Time Log in the PomoDone App to bill clients if you work for yourself.

Give it a try. You might surprise yourself as I did.