Maximizing Productivity Hacks for Engineering Professionals is a guest blog by Kyle Umlauf, P.E.
Effective and successful engineers have something in common. They are capable of effectively managing their time. As a consulting engineer, your time is a precious commodity. Your clients are paying for your knowledge and time. Therefore, the action of maximizing your time, focus, and overall productivity, will equate to more money. Learning to master your time can do wonders for your engineering career and personal life.
In your career, managing your time will help you take on more tasks, delegate tasks as needed, and become a more productive member of the company. This will increase your value to the company and help you climb the ranks more quickly. In your personal life, better time management will help to maximize every hour of the day and make you feel in more control of your own life. This article is adapted from a previous article on my personal blog.
In today’s day and age, technology has waged an all-out war for our attention. Every device has sounds, vibrations, and notifications that distract us when they go off. It is vital to understand what is important and what is not. This can be done by categorizing your tasks into four quadrants — which will allow you to maximize productivity and master time management. I first found the Time Matrix method in Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This concept was further expanded on in Franklin Covey’s The 5 Choices: The Path to Extraordinary Productivity. If you struggle with time management, or even if you think you have a good grasp on it, I would recommend Covey’s book. This method has the power to change your life. Anthony Fasano of EMI recently produced an 80/20 video that is similar to the Time Matrix concept. This is a good visual of the Time Matrix, with a different twist to it.
The Time Matrix Explained
The Time Matrix is a tool that can help you categorize all of your tasks. There are two topics and four quadrants to the matrix. For every task, you should determine whether the task is IMPORTANT or NOT IMPORTANT. Also, you need to determine if a task is URGENT or NOT URGENT. According to studies referenced in Covey’s book, approximately 40% of the average person’s time, attention, and energy are going to unimportant or irrelevant things. Idealistically, we want to minimize this number. Now, zero percent is an unrealistic goal, but what if we shot for 20% to 30%? The goal of the Time Matrix is to maximize the return on this moment (ROM). In doing so, you will be maximizing your productivity as mentioned in the Time Matrix. Here is the matrix explained:
Q1 – Urgent and Important
Q1 is urgent and important. Some items will inevitably end up in this category, but we want to limit the number of them. People who don’t manage time well often procrastinate until all tasks end up urgent and important. You may feel like you are really being productive while in this category, but burnout may occur. These tasks include “fires” at work such as a construction emergencies or a last-minute changes in design right before a big deadline. The ROI of this category is break even. You feel accomplished and get something done, but as mentioned burnout will eventually occur if you live in this quadrant, and living with your hair on fire is no way to go.
Q2 – Important But Not Urgent
Q2 is important but not urgent. These are projects that you need to work on, but you have a while before they are due. Other examples could be emails that need to be responded to, but not right away. This is the sweet spot of where we want most of our tasks to be. Tasks in this category are also things that will contribute to us growing as engineers. These tasks could also include career development, working on tasks that will improve your company, etc. The ROI of these tasks is exponential. Q2 is the quadrant of potential extraordinary production.
Q3 – Urgent but Not Important
Q3 are tasks that are urgent, but not important. For example, you get an urgent call or email from a contractor requesting a solution ASAP, but really, the answer isn’t needed until a few weeks later. We want to limit these tasks. They can seem like Q1 tasks, but really, they do not matter.
Be careful not to mistake Q3 tasks for Q1. This will put you in an unnecessary state of stress or panic. Also, when you bust your butt to take care of these tasks and find out later that it was not needed, it will frustrate you. These tasks will also take time away from working on true Q1 tasks or the Q2 sweet spot tasks. When you work on Q3 tasks, you are working at a loss.
One tip for avoiding Q3 tasks is to ask clarifying questions. If you are getting a task from a manager, clarify the deadline. There are many times when since we are getting a task from a superior at work, we want to jump on it right away. This is not always healthy. Also, to clients, their project is always the most important thing in the world to them. Their project should be important to you as well, and you should act that way. However, it does not need to be a top priority until it is. Clarify with contractors, architects, clients, etc. when they need things by. Also, don’t be afraid to push back a little when people are being unreasonable. A lot of times clients set deadlines just to have them. If you don’t ask, you won’t know their flexibility.
Q4 – Not Urgent and Not Important
Q4 items are not urgent and not important. They’re the hours of YouTube videos you watch instead of getting your work done. This category is a complete waste of time and should be avoided. Now, this is not to say that watching some TV or unwinding after a long week is not necessary. Watching some of your favorite shows could be considered Q2 time. Relaxing and taking care of your mental health is important. When it crosses into Q4 is when Netflix has asked for the third time “Are you still watching?” Take Netflix’s judgmental hint and realize you are in Q4. Q4 has a ROI of zero and should be avoided at all costs.
Utilizing the Time Matrix
Now that you understand the time matrix system, try assigning your tasks into each quadrant. You will realize how much time you are potentially wasting on tasks that are not relevant and will begin to reclaim some of your time. I recommend keeping a running task list of “to do’s” that are broken down into each category. Spend ten minutes each morning going over your list for the day and making sure you can maximize your time spent on Q2 activities. Remember, Q2 is the quadrant of exponential return on this moment.
Managing your time well is one of the single best things you can do for yourself. It will propel your engineering career and personal life to new heights. If you feel worn down all the time, and like there is never enough time in the day, this method is for you. Reclaim your life, and your time. You will be glad you did!
About Kyle Umlauf, PE
Kyle Umlauf, PE is a structural engineer by trade. His work primarily consists of designing buildings and working with construction teams of multiple disciplines to come together for successful projects. Kyle has a passion for mentoring others. When he was a new grad engineer, there were several questions he had, and not many valuable resources on the internet to turn to. This lead Kyle to start his blog, The Engineering Millennial which focusses on helping young engineers grow and providing information many engineers wish they had when they first started. Reach out to Kyle on his blog, or on Facebook or Twitter.
We would love to hear any questions you might have or stories you might share about maximizing productivity hacks.
Please leave your comments, feedback or questions in the section below.
To your success,
Anthony Fasano, PE, LEED AP
Engineering Management Institute
Author of Engineer Your Own Success