Ben McCormick

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How I Think About Time

This article was first published in my newsletter, Herding Lions

One of the biggest challenges every engineering leader faces is making decisions on how best to use their time. Every engineering team I’ve ever seen has more opportunities than capacity, and leaders can always do more.

My day always ends when I’m tired and ready to go home, not when I’m done. I am never done. - Andy Grove

Below are 4 lessons I’ve learned about using time well during my time as a manager.

  1. Time is your primary resource as a manager, and it is finite. The Andy Grove quote above is challenging. When we can always do more, there aren’t natural boundaries that tell us when to stop. For individual contributors this can get managed without much intention through the rhythms of sprints / projects / the rate that product managers can assign work. EMs tend to be expected to generate their own work and there are fewer natural cues to tell you that you’ve done “enough”. As a result, management tends to be next level time management, and that means you need to start by defining some boundaries (when will you choose to go home and sign off?) and learning to be intentional with your time. A lack of boundaries, or setting your boundaries based on demand in an unbounded way is a sure path to burnout. This is a lesson I’ve had to learn several times personally, as demands on my time have scaled up.

  2. Be careful with the Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule mindset. One of the most famous articles on schedule management in tech is Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. In it, Paul Graham breaks down 2 ways of managing your time: manager schedules, where days are neatly divided into hourly blocks, and maker schedules where time is ideally at least in half day uninterrupted blocks (due to the need to do Deep Work / avoid context switching). I think most engineers take the right lesson from this article when they read this and work to protect blocks of time on their calendar better. And many managers empathetically learn from it that they should be considerate of their reports calendars and be careful how they schedule meetings. But there’s a dangerous assumption that people can take from the labels: that once they become a manager, they must be on the manager schedule. Now, plenty of manager’s are on a pure manager’s schedule (I’ve been there). But if you can, working at least partially on a maker’s schedule can unlock a lot more opportunity for creative and strategic work that is difficult to fit into 30 minute blocks scattered throughout your week. The article itself is essentially Graham explaining why he as an “important business person” chooses to operate on a maker schedule against social expectations. So read the article, learn from it, but don’t typecast yourself. Structure your time in the way that lets you have the most impact.

  3. Run your calendar, don’t let your calendar run you. On the subject of manager schedules, becoming a manager was the first time in my life I really ran my schedule based off an external calendar, as opposed to primarily relying on my memory for what I needed to do on a day and using calendars and todo lists as a poorly utilized backup plans. Even if you have fewer direct reports and more strategic or technical duties, it’s hart to avoid becoming calendar driven as you move into leadership roles. That said, it’s important to take charge of your calendar, and not let other people structure it for you. That means being judicious about what meetings you accept, and regularly reviewing your recurring meetings for opportunities to prune them, blocking time for strategic and creative work in lengths that allow for deep work and is appropriate to your obligations, and defragging your calendar to be as efficient as possible. When I’m running on the busier side I’ve also found it helpful to fully block my day the night before the day starts (if it isn’t already) to prevent last second invitations from sapping up prep or break time in my schedule. Your mileage may vary on that depending on how much you culturally feel you need to be available for last second invites. If you do this I recommend explaining it to your direct reports and give them a path to escalate urgent things to you in order to not appear unavailable or “too busy”.

  4. Clear time to review and improve how you use your time. The retro is my favorite “agile ritual”, and I think its difficult to overuse for both teams and individuals. One great use for personal retros is a regular review of where your time is going. Most people seem to have a bad intuitive understanding of this, its helpful to do a short term tracking exercise or reconstruct at the end of a week based on your calendar. This is a good time to prune meetings as mentioned above, identify “important but not urgent” work that is falling through the cracks, and also do a quick burnout triage.

When Everything Falls Apart

All of the above lessons have been very helpful to me, but I’ve struggled to follow some of them at specific points where I feel completely overwhelmed. So my 4 additional lessons here are patterns that I fallback to when I need to dig my way out of insanity.

  1. Do 3 things a day. I’ve never been great with task management / productivity systems. I’ve wandered through a bunch of tools and patterns without really developing consistent habits. So I may be a poor person to give advice on this topic. However the most effective habit I’ve had, which I’ve picked up multiple times when things have gotten overwhelming is very simple – pick 3 things to do each day, write them down and then try to do them. Limiting myself to 3, not keeping a backlog and writing the 3 things somewhere I can visually see it has helped me focus and make choices when life felt overwhelming. Long term I’m not sure this is an optimal system – the lack of backlog and long term planning can leave blind spots. But it’s simple, productive, and easy to implement, and a great way to build momentum and prioritize when you’re underwater.

  2. Distinguish between core work and non-core work - When things are going well and can feel easy to follow Grove’s advice at the top. I do stuff and then go home. However when you’re juggling 3 plates that are each stacked too high, it can be really hard to know how to stop. At this time it’s very important to draw lines between the essential and nice to have. One dimension I think about with this is core work vs non-core work. There are things I do at work to grow my career, to help others, or just because I’m interested in them. That’s healthy and should be part of my normal rhythms. But in crisis mode it’s important to identify these as things that can be cut down on or dropped. And then actually doing it, even if it’s painful.

  3. Distinguish between glass and rubber balls. Similarly, it’s useful to distinguish between glass balls – responsibilities at home or work that won’t come back if you drop them, like being there for a child’s graduation or executing on a career altering project, vs those that we will be able to recover from more easily because there will be more opportunities to make up for it. The distinction between glass and rubber balls will be different for everybody, but Scott Eblin has some good advice here for distinguishing the two.

  4. Choose between doing more things acceptably or a few things well. One of my biggest recent challenges as a manager was learning when my own standards for what “doing my job” were making me less impactful. At a time when I had more on my plate than I could reasonably do well, I made a choice to drop responsibilities where I had a real chance to provide value, because I didn’t think I could perform them to my own standards. That’s a defensible choice, but I didn’t really make it intentionally – instead I freaked out and protected myself. An alternative that I didn’t really consider until I’d gotten to a calmer place was accepting a lower standard of performance (and communicating that expectation to others) in return for being able to keep some projects going without having to disrupt others. Neither of these things are globally the right strategy, it will depend on circumstances and what responsibilities you’re balancing. But making the choice to not just commit to something, but to commit to a maintainable level of quality is an important skill and can help you scale yourself as a manager when under high demand.

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