As a fourth year Mechatronics Systems student at SFU, I have worked for five co-op terms related to research and development (R&D) around the Greater Vancouver area. My first eight-month co-op was at Kensington, a consumer electronics accessory’s company, as a Quality Assurance Engineer. My current 12-month position at Sierra Wireless is as an Electronics Hardware Co-op exposed me to many technical details in hardware R&D. During my extensive time working as a co-op student, I have seen and tried many different methods of time management and multi-tasking. While everyone eventually develops some method of dealing with time management, it is likely a very good idea to start with some methods that work. In this blog post, I share some of the different ways time management and multi-tasking can be done that have I have learned from doing co-op and that have worked for me in practice.
Good time management is usually attributed to the ability to do multiple tasks at once. However, good time management also starts with accepting an appropriate amount of work that is actually accomplishable within a given time frame. Taking on too many things at once can very easily result in poor quality work, especially for co-op students who need to work on plenty of side tasks. If you have conflicting deadlines or if you have too much on your hands, do not be afraid to turn down tasks and/or discuss alternative solutions with your manager. To improve the amount of work you can take on, it is best to gradually automate (when time is available) using micro controllers, robots, and/or scripts.
Keeping track of multiple tasks can start with simple measures such as making notes for yourself. This can be on physical paper (i.e. using a notebook or Post-it notes), or on mobile devices such as phones and tablets. Many of the senior engineers I have seen use a simple notebook, and while this is very effective, a well setup note taking system on a mobile device is often superior with clearer display of priorities, and notifications. If your working areas are localized within a few meters, a white board list might work better as it will allow your coworkers and supervisors to view your time schedules and still be within working distance to view and update.
Electronic means of tracking tasks have come a long way from the days of the PDAs, as mobile devices now sync with cloud management systems sending you important notifications and time scheduling. I found the use of cloud management systems very helpful for time management and communication to quickly learn the various software used by the company. Larger corporations that can afford to spend money on software will often use several online tools to keep track of time, communication and resources, and even most small companies will use software like Microsoft Exchange to manage email and calendar events.
In several projects I have worked on at Sierra Wireless, dozens of tasks were assigned at once to cut down on meeting times, each marked with different priorities and time lengths. Keeping track of all of the different priorities and deadlines can be a daunting task without some serious management skills or software support. If your company does not have software systems that are capable of managing priorities and deadlines, I highly suggest using a personal use alternative software like Any.Do, todoist, or use Excel to create a sortable table with priorities and deadlines. Non-electronic methods involve writing a table similar to the electronic Excel table approach, however, as more and more entries are added, the table tends to lose clarity very quickly.
As projects get bigger and more and more people get involved, work tends to be sub-divided into smaller pieces. Thankfully, the software that is available to manage these projects is usually very good with helping each worker manage their time. My co-op experience at Sierra Wireless has allowed me to witness many different methods of time management and has greatly contributed to my views on how time management can be done both on a personal level as well as a corporate-wide system. I recommend that everyone, whether or not you have issues with keeping track of multiple tasks of different importance, try one or more of the many solutions I have discussed. I can guarantee you that they will greatly alleviate issues with and improve your time management, as well as provide you with a greater focus and flexibility to work on the things that matter most.