TL;DR: There are times when your time is so fragmented that you feel entirely dictated by your calendar. There are ways out of that trap: Blocking time way in advance, thoughtfully saying “no” to meeting invites, batching things, or disappearing altogether.
A couple of days ago, I was talking to a very esteemed colleague of mine and asked him: “Do you know these days when your entire time is so fragmented that you don’t even bother starting anything, because you know exactly that you will have to drop it anyway as soon as you start getting into some kind of flow?” His response: “You mean like…every day?”
We had a good laugh, but it was only half-jokingly that he said it. Meetings and other appointments can break your day up into useless micro-fragments of time where you cannot even get an email finished. You find yourself context-switching all the time, and feel extremely unproductive. This is especially true as a team lead, tech lead, manager, or in any role that requires a lot of communication. In such roles, it is vitally important to actively fight against this shrinkage of your time. Here are five ways you can do it.
1. Block time in advance
Everybody tells you to block large, contiguous blocks of time in your calendar, so that you can work without interruption for some time. I tried to follow this advice, but it rarely worked out in the beginning. What happened was that, on Monday, I would try to reserve one or two 3-hour blocks somewhere during the week. The problem was that it was already too late. My calendar was already so packed that the best I could get was 90 minutes during lunch time on a day or two.
If you have the same problem, you need to be more aggressive: Plan ahead one or two weeks, or even more. Go as far into the future as necessary to find contiguous blocks of time and protect them way in advance. You might even consider creating a recurring calendar entry, like blocking every Thursday afternoon, or so.
In the end, you might not be able to actually claim all these blocks of time to yourself, because of some emergency, or because your boss comes up with something. However, these reserved chunks in your calendar will remind you to actively take control of your time. As Andy Grove said:
“How you handle your own time is, in my view, the single most important aspect of being a role model and leader.”
2. Say “no” to meetings
I talk about “protecting” your time, and I do so for a reason. In a large, busy organization, there are attacks on your time, from various angles. Some are entirely justified and valuable, some less so. One of the more common attacks is the meeting invite. Meetings mainly come in two forms:
- People meet to be informed about something
- People meet to reach an agreement or make a decision
For informational meetings, consider if you absolutely have to know the information that is spread there. Maybe there is a different way to get the same information without actually attending the meeting. For example, there might be meeting notes that you can consume later on, or a recording you can skip through, or a friend can tell you what happened.
For decision meetings, ask yourself if you are needed to make the decision. Sometimes, people will invite you only because they do not want you to feel like your opinion does not matter, not because you are absolutely necessary to make a decision. To determine who should be included in a decision, the following four questions are helpful:
- Who cares? If you are not that interested in the topic of the decision, and you can live with any outcome, you probably do not need to be present. Example: As an engineering manager who does not code much anyway, you should probably leave decisions on code style conventions entirely up to your team.
- Who knows? If you have substantially more information on the subject than anybody else, you should probably be there. If there are others who have the same overview and expertise as you, or even more, then consider skipping the meeting.
- Who must agree? If you are the only person responsible in the end, and the decision is somewhat important, then your presence is needed. If the decision is not of much importance, but you are the responsible person, maybe it’s enough if somebody informs you of the decision after the meeting.
- How many people is it worth involving? If the meeting is already large, it is easier to skip it. A large number of people can make decision-making difficult, so if you can allow yourself to skip it, you actually make it easier for the other attendees.
Sticking to these criteria, you might be able to skip more meetings than you think. What is important, though, is the meeting culture of your organization: If meetings are an important part of the company culture, and skipping meetings is considered “unprofessional”, then you might still have a hard time.
3. Batch communication
“Ok, let’s figure this out… The counter variable is still zero in line 55, but the exception is thrown anyway. The only way this can happen is… Ah, Stefano is writing. I can quickly answer that.” …typing, waiting for answer, more typing… “Ok, where was I? Right, the counter variable was still zero, but the exception is thrown. This can only happen if… oh, new emails. Better have a look.”
Have you ever been in situations like this? You are trying to get yourself immersed in a complex mental model to make sense of something you do not yet understand. You try to focus, to build up understanding, bit by bit. And then, you are interrupted. Your focus wavers, your last thoughts become blurry, the context is lost, and you will have to start over.
Software engineers feel this effect very strongly.
They lose a lot of time when they are interrupted. It hurts their productivity, and it can be frustrating. However, context-switches and interruptions result in a slow-down not just for software engineers, but for everybody who is trying to focus on a difficult task.
Therefore, it is important to protect your productivity by minimizing interruptions. Some interruptions you cannot prevent — think of meetings or other appointments. But in quite a few cases, we readily accept interruptions or even bring them upon ourselves, without a real need to do so. Instant messages and email are such cases. Nobody dies when do not reply instantly. That’s what asynchronous communication is for: You can reply when it hurts your productivity the least. You decide when you reply. Make this decision actively and consciously.
Better yet: Avoid having to decide, because decisions consume your mental power. How do you do that? By shutting down, or at least hiding, your communication apps for certain periods of time. I disabled Slack notifications on my laptop long ago. The number of channels I am subscribed to, along with the number of times “@here” or “@channel” is used, meant too much distraction and stress. If messages really do pile up and demand a response, you can process them in a batch all at once.
The same goes for email. Usually, people do not expect you to answer an email within minutes, so this medium is even more suitable for batching. A lot of very effective people read their email only once or twice a day, and it saves them tons of time. Don’t get me wrong: Reading and replying takes probably the same net time no matter if you check your email once a day or ten times a day. However, the context switches you avoid by checking less often are a real game-changer.
In case of both instant messages and email, I would not worry so much about missing something. If there is something really urgent, people will find you. Unless you follow tip number four below…
4. Disappear for a while
Batching things avoids a lot of context switches. However, it does not protect you from all interruptions. People come up to you, ask you to sign something, ask your opinion on something else, and while these are all justified requests, often it does not matter much if you fulfill them two hours earlier or later. Therefore, if you are interrupted too often during “deep work” time for relatively minor reasons, consider disappearing for a while.
This could mean working from home for half a day, going to a quiet work area for some time, locking yourself up in a meeting room, hiding with your laptop on a different floor, or even going to a nearby café to work there. A lot of very successful and effective people spend a lot of their time just thinking. Even some very effective CEOs regularly take some alone time to work and think quietly. If CEOs can do that, you can do it, too.
If you cannot or do not want to disappear entirely, you can still do something less drastic: When somebody walks by and asks for some information, or wants to talk to you for five minutes: Consider politely denying the request if you have to finish something first. In a lot of cases, you can still get back to them in 15 or 20 minutes.
5. Don’t check email in the early morning
When you need to be at the office to work, and people will just find you wherever you try to hide, you might have to come in earlier than the mainstream. I love the early time in the morning, when the office is still quiet, and you can focus deeply on your work. These are the hours to work on things that really count, so don’t waste them with email, company news, or anything else that you can do as well at any time during the day.
This is the time to work on the tough bits of your todo list. Be creative. Write a difficult piece of code. Finish the blog post that has been waiting for your attention. Elaborate on your tech strategy. Write that killer job ad you have been thinking about. Try to do something that requires your full attention and focus, because it might be your only chance for the day.
Whether you are a manager, tech lead, or individual contributor: In busy times, we all face influences that endanger our attention and productivity — meeting invites, appointments, incoming messages, and other interruptions. In order to maintain at least some level of productivity (and sanity), we have to actively manage our time, availability, and attention. Think of the Andy Grove quote above, and be a leader others can look up to!
This blog post took me about 2.5 hours to write.