Time management wins for the busy engineering manager

Photo by Djim Loic on Unsplash

As engineering managers our time is always in short supply. Most managers I know complain about never having enough time. We are busy people! At some point in your management career you realize you just can’t get more accomplished by working more hours.

When it comes to time management, there is no panacea; but there are small things you can do that when added together, can make a big difference. What follows are some small things that have really helped me reclaim time and attention, increase focus time, and just lower my baseline stress level on a daily basis.

Get a Time Tracker

The first thing you need to do if you want to get time back is learn how you spend it. You might be surprised by where you spend the most time or just how much time you spend on certain things.

This is simple to do with a time tracking app. There are many time trackers out there. I like Kronos time tracker. Its a free app on OSX, and it’s super easy to use. Simply enable it on startup and set your daytime working hours. It takes care of the rest.

Kronos time tracker settings

After a week, look at your time breakdown:

Time breakdown in Kronos time tracker

One very essential feature it has is tracking time spent on individual websites (e.g. gmail, google docs, etc.). This is much more useful than just knowing how much time you spent in your web browser (we managers live in google docs, right?). And with everyone working remotely now and using zoom for meetings, a time tracker also gives you the added benefit of tracking your meeting time [1].

The biggest surprise I had when I first looked at my time breakdown was how much time I spent in Slack. It was eye-opening. It led to me to completely change how I use Slack.

Keep your chat client at arms-length

Slack and apps like it are fantastic tools for collaboration but they can also be a real productivity suck. Without some deliberate boundary setting, they will continuously claw at your time and attention throughout the day.

This is even more important than ever in 2020, with everyone working remotely and 100% of collaboration happening over these tools. Treat your chat app like email. Check it a fixed number of times a day.

Treat your chat app like email. Check it a fixed number of times a day.

If this gives you anxiety, don’t worry. Just set up your schedule so that you check as often as makes you comfortable (within reason). I don’t succeed everyday, but here’s what I try to do:

  • First thing when I sign in
  • Mid-morning coffee break
  • Before lunch
  • Signing back on after lunch
  • Mid-afternoon coffee break
  • Last check before signing off

With a system like this, you’re never more than an hour or so from responding during business hours. Again, pick whatever time interval makes you comfortable. Building the habit is what’s important. If someone truly needs to get a hold of you urgently, they can always page you :).

In order for this to work, you have to disable all notifications. Yep, that’s right. No unread message bubbles in the dock. No animating notification boxes entering from the upper-right corner of your screen. This goes for your phone too. No app bubbles. No push notifications.

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If you do this right, the only way you’ll know if you have a new message is by intentionally switching to the app to check. If you’re like me, just the sight of the unread bubble brings on a tiny bit of anxiety, followed by a strong urge to switch to the app to read the message immediately.

Managers get a lot of messages. Think about how many times a day you are getting that tiny little anxiety hit. You don’t need that.

I don’t mean to single out Slack. It’s just one of the more widely used collaboration tools and the one I have the most experience with. This applies to most collaboration and communication tools.

You snooze, you win

Snoozing is a profoundly powerful thing. Snoozing solves an important problem: it removes the anxiety of the unread thing without you needing to deal with it yet. Just snooze it, and forget about it. Don’t worry, it will be back.

Any good task management or communication technology worth its salt has this feature, and you should use it. A lot.

Gmail

Gmail has a snooze feature. It works great on mobile and desktop.

Gmail’s snooze feature

Slack

Slack has a snooze feature called Remind me about this. It works well.

Slack’s Remind me about this feature

Your task manager

I use OmniFocus. I love it. In OmniFocus the snooze feature is called deferred until and you can do it for any time interval (minutes, hours, days, weeks, specific date etc):

OmniFocus deferred until feature

Anxiety also triggers based on message volume. Having a lot of unread emails or TODO items in your task manager is anxiety-provoking. Snoozing can help here too. It provides the opportunity for task batching. You can snooze multiples things to come back at the same time, when you have the time to handle them all at once.

Manager vs. Maker time

Ok, I’m cheating a little with this one being quick, but it’s a great one. Unless you’re starting a new job and your calendar is a clean slate, it will take some effort to set this up at first, but it makes a big difference in the long-run and doesn’t require much upkeep.

Paul Graham has a great blog post about the maker schedule, manager schedule. As a manager you spend much of your time in meetings. But you also have your own work to do. It’s all too easy to lose contiguous time blocks on your calendar to meetings. Everyone is playing calendar Tetris to make meetings work. Without blocking out time, you will find your week quickly gets carved up sub-optimally for focus time. You have to intentionally block out this time for yourself or you just won’t get it.

There are tools that help with this like clockwise, but I have found it simple enough to just create a recurring calendar block at the same times every week for focus time. It provides some predictability and helps me plan my week better. I have 2 large focus blocks per week on Monday and Friday mornings until lunch.

I’m a morning person, so that’s when I choose. Pick the time of day that maps to your highest productivity period. This is where you’re most likely to get into a state of flow. I still take the occasional meeting in those blocks if its important, but that’s uncommon, and more importantly, it’s by choice. Someone has to specifically ask.

Conclusion

Good time management is about setting boundaries and maintaining good hygiene with your tools. Lots of little things can add up to make a big difference. In my experience, the best time management habits are powered by automation and better configuration.

Introspection is key. Time management is a moving target. You will need to re-evaluate how you’re spending your time every quarter or so. Give these tips a try. Not only will you get some of your precious time back, but you’ll reduce your day-to-day stress level just a little bit too.

 


[1] Unfortunately, Kronos doesn’t let you customize how idle time is calculated so meeting time tracking is the one thing that isn’t very accurate. Qbserve is a paid time tracking app alternative that does this really well.

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