Ben McCormick

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More Thoughts On Time

This article was first published in my newsletter, Herding Lions

In my last post I listed some process tips for how to manage your time as an engineering leader. Continuing that thought, in the spirit of new habits in the new year this week will explore the question of how to choose what to focus on with the time that you do have. After all, efficiency is only valuable if it is pointed in a worthwhile direction.

Generally the time on my schedule can be divided into 3 categories - ongoing rhythms, one off must-dos, and opportunities. Each of these requires a different strategy.

Rhythms

Rhythms are my word for any activity or task that takes place on a regular cadence (daily / weekly / monthly / quarterly). As EMs we’re likely to have rhythm meetings focused around our teams (standups, 1-1s, quarterly planning, performance reviews), as well as upward and outward rhythms (staff meetings or regular cross-departmental syncs), and personal rhythms (clearing time each week to write a status report, or do code reviews or review the backlog).

If you get one percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. - James Clear

Healthy rhythms are extremely valuable. When you thoughtfully invest in relationships or valuable work on a regular basis, that investment can compound and redefine the type of impact you and your team can achieve. And regular maintenance of important relationships or projects can also help you stay informed and aware when things are off. When I plan out my quarters and years, I spend much more time on figuring out what rhythms and habits I want to maintain or develop than setting goals, because it’s the regular investment of time that ultimately leads us wherever we end up.

However, not all rhythms are healthy and inefficient rhythms that are not thoughtfully moving you toward some broader goal can be a painful tax on your productivity and your sense of well-being. Almost everyone who has done time in the corporate world has had the experience at some point of regularly attending a meeting that seemed to provide little value to many or all of the participants, where engagement was low and morale was lower. This type of “rhythm” can easily have negative externalities where it wastes not just the hour in the meeting but time before where you’re dreading it and time after when you’re recovering as well. Better time management with regard to rhythms means designing your rhythms. That means understanding the why behind each recurring calendar event and taking steps to remove or redeem the low and negative value ones. I covered this for meetings a few weeks ago, but the principles apply to any regular use of time. It also means taking the time to evaluate your goals and focus areas and consider whether there are any rhythms you should be investing in that might allow you to unlock the type of compound gains that require regular time. This could be clearing time for networking, building a new skill, 1-1s with key peers, or just dedicated “focus time” that you block and protect for deep work.

Must-Dos

Ok so this is the tricky one — what if you’re drowning in “must do” work? There may be seasons where you really are filling your calendar with mostly one-off non-recurring work. If this is a short term season with a clear ending (a big project push, a switch to a new team or company) that may be fine, but this is an area to tread carefully. When we perceive a large chunk of work as things we must do, it becomes much harder to be thoughtful about balancing our priorities.

It’s a cliché, but the key for this type of work is developing a healthy ability to say no, as well as good rhythms of prioritizing and evaluating your time. EMs who say yes to everything will quickly overwhelm themselves, and even worse will overwhelm and burn out their teams; so the ability to say no in a way that is effective and doesn’t burn bridges within your organization is a key skill. But often time work that we’re pushed to do is valuable. So the key is to make sure you’re prioritizing thoughtfully, and that takes time. I have a few questions that I commonly ask when considering external requests (or marching orders passed from above)

  • Is this a high leverage activity? I love Andy Grove’s model of manager time being valued in terms of leverage, or how much impact an action has relative to time/effort commitment. For asks of both me personally and my team, it’s helpful to see whether this is an incremental win or something that will enable more value over time. You can also think about this in terms of return on investment.

  • Can somebody else do this? For EMs, almost any work that can be done by somebody else on their team should be done by somebody else. Especially if you feel like you’re spending a high amount of time on urgent “must do” work. Give away your Legos, develop your time and clear your time to work on higher level work.

  • Can I do less here? When people are making external requests of you, most of the time they’ll ask for everything they think they might want up front, and are not thinking about your schedule. If the work isn’t core to your responsibilities, it’s always worth asking if there is a scrappier solution that will still make people happy. There’s a fine line to walk here — you don’t want to become known for skimpy/sloppy work, but it’s important to develop a habit of understanding what level of quality is needed for a task. People are used to making cost vs speed vs quality choices, and can usually help you understand their priorities if you frame things in that light (I can do it like this now, or do the full thing next month. If you need the full thing now it will mean stopping all work on some other thing they care about)

Opportunities

The final category of work is the most likely to get pushed off your category. This is work that won’t blow up if its neglected, might not ever be asked about, and in many cases isn’t visible to the rest of your org at first. This is taking the time to do a deep dive on understanding the quality issues on your “problem feature”, writing a reusable onboarding plan for your team to make it easier to add new teammates or clearing time to organize a brainstorming session on future roadmap activities. If you don’t already have ideas of what this might be for you, you could always start with clearing time to think about what areas your team could most improve in and your top ideas for addressing those problems.

This type of strategic deep work is an important part of having a team that is continuously improving. Without time to identify and understand problems, and time to address those issues, most teams will stagnate. And while that leadership can come from anywhere, on many issues it is often most impactful and most practical for it to start with an EM. The key skill for opportunities is to keep an identified list of your top strategic opportunities and priorities so that as time does become available to work on them, you’re ready to take advantage and don’t automatically fill that time with lower priority work.

Every EMs calendar is going to shift over time, with some months bringing more opportunities and others resembling more of a fire fighting session. But consistent habits of designing your rhythms, carefully evaluating the asks that come in to you and your team, and identifying and prioritizing key opportunities can go a long way. An Engineering Manager’s calendar abhors a vacuum and time will fill up. Invest in making sure that it goes to the right things.

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