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Between a seemingly endless barrage of meetings, notifications emanating from every device on our desks, and our over-willingness to remain “available for questions”, we can easily find that our busy-ness can actually stand in the way of our ability to get things done.
To protect against falling in this trap, there are three techniques I use to find my most productive self. While each of these is a valuable exercise separately, employing these three in concert provides a framework to evaluate how we spend our time and what version of ourselves we’re bringing to the task at hand.
The simplest of all three of these techniques is time tracking. There are many apps and even physical devices (such as Timular) available to help with this, but the goal is the same: to truly be analytical about where time is being spent, you must have the data. This is the same principle as calorie counting that many dieters use — if we aren’t paying attention, it is easy to lose track. We can use this data to change our behaviors and our expectations.
It is certainly valuable to do this type of analysis on an individual level, but it is valuable on an organizational level too. For instance, it should come as no surprise that software engineers do not get 8 hours a day to build software; there is organizational overhead (team meetings, emergencies and other distractions, etc) that systematically eats away at the “heads-down” hours each person has. The amount of overhead is unique to every organization, but it can be estimated by calculating and tracking the time spent on different types of tasks. From this data, for example, it can make it easier to estimate roughly how long a project might take. I have found, as a general rule, it’s reasonable to assume 5 hours of actual work per day per person.
On a more personal level, I was working with a team member who had recently stepped into a Tech Lead role and was finding less and less of their time was going into coding (their historically normal benchmark of productivity). The first strategy we employed was to begin tracking his time throughout the day. By analyzing how much time was being allotted to coaching. mentoring, code reviewing, attending meetings, and writing his own code, two things happened. The first was that his definition of “productivity” changed when he recognized how much he was actually getting done (just in a new, different way). The second was that his allocated time became very fragmented, which leads into...
Once we identify where our time is going, it’s equally important to understand the amount of attention we’re able to give to each task. A great metaphor for this is presented in 5 Gears by Jeremie Kubicek and Steve Cockram:
- 5th gear is for focusing on single tasks
- 4th gear is for multi-tasking
- 3rd gear is for active socialization
- 2nd gear is for deep, interpersonal connection
- 1st gear is for personal recovery and downtime
“Gear tracking” alone can yield some valuable insights. Someone spending all of their time in 4th gear, for instance, may be setting themselves up to burn out, and someone spending the majority of their time in 3rd gear may be struggling to meet their deadlines.
Taking the data step further, juxtaposing the time spent in each gear with the time spent on different types of tasks can add color and nuance to the analysis. Consider the ideal gear for a particular type of task. Now evaluate how much time is actually being spent in what gears to accomplish those tasks. For example, when I sit down to write, I need to find multiple uninterrupted hours to spend in 5th gear if I am to accomplish anything. Even the smallest interruptions can derail my productivity. Therefore, 10 hours of writing time in 4th gear will not be nearly as productive for me as 4 hours in 5th gear.
Beginning to optimize your time around the concept of these gears can be as much about the environment as the work. The presence of people, notifications, and even visual stimuli will influence the gear in which we are operating and when. Additionally, our individual circadian rhythms can dictate which gears are most effective at different times of the day. Maybe it’s easier to get into a state of “deep work” right after coffee, or maybe 10am is the ideal time to go for a run. Through experimentation, you can tweak your environment and task strategy to find the ideal working conditions to be your most productive self.
Even after going through the Time Tracking and Gear Tracking exercises, it’s still possible to feel exhausted at the end of the day.
Related to tracking how much time we’re spending in each gear, it’s important to also analyze what type of energy is required to be present. Detailed in this blog post by Lara Hogan, “defragging your calendar” is a powerful tool to analyze and organize your energy.
We all know context-switching is costly, but for many (such as managers, as Paul Graham explains in his article “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule”), the day is divided into half-hour blocks each dedicated to a different subject. This is why Lara’s approach is so applicable: it finds similarity between the mindset and energy each type of meeting or block of time demands. The five different types that were most appropriate for my days ended up being:
- One-on-Ones with direct reports
- Leadership and Strategy conversations
- Absorption or Dissemination of information (such as Skip-Level meetings or All Hands)
- Heads-down focus time
- Personal appointments, commute, etc.
Regardless of the most appropriate categories for your schedule, assign a color to each meeting on your calendar to start analyzing the effects that your schedule has on you. It may not be enough to simply lump all similar colors together in any given week (too much of anything can have negative effects), and certain obligations may be outside of your control (which might throw off your whole day). Over time and through diligent introspection, it will become clear what works best for you personally.
You may also begin to identify that some of these categories are more energy draining than others. Experiment with timings that balance out that energy. Or perhaps start or end the day with something that boosts your energy, counteracting an otherwise exhausting and intensive schedule.
Time is a finite resource. Our responsibilities and expectations, however, are not. To ensure we are able to make the best use of our time, it is valuable to analyze the work that we take on, the attention we’re able to devote to it, and the context switching that is required throughout the day.