One of the greatest challenges for a manager is finding ways to channel the constant pulling into different directions. These days, that pull is likely also true, especially in a distributed team where it’s easy to get pulled into Slack discussions and lose track of priorities. At least that’s been my experience in the past and in the present too, amplified further by now having a management role.

As a manager, trying to balance being there for your team (both for individual team members and the team as a whole) but also finding time to focus on the bigger topics presents a challenge, as the desire is first and foremost to be there for your team to support them, to answer questions, and to get blockers out of the way.

Over the years, I’ve been trying a few ways of handling and channeling the different pulls as well as finding time for focused work, time to ponder and reflect on things and work on the bigger topics that are on my own agenda.

In a couple of recent 1:1s I’ve had, the topic of staying productive came up and I offered to write up a couple of my systems. What I'm outlining below is an overview of the system I'm using (or have used) to structure the time that I don't have directly alloted to meetings or interaction with my team, like 1:1s for example.

Chunks of Focus Time

The core element of all of the systems I have been using is that focused work needs blocks of dedicated time. The best way to manage these that I’ve found is to block them in my calendar. I have a block like that scheduled every morning and about until noon, which means they can’t be booked in any other way unless I choose to.

Those chunks of time I then break down into smaller chunks, e.g. 15 minutes dedicated to a specific task (which can also be scheduled on the calendar to make this approach fully explicit and to force yourself to really think through the work at hand).

I may or may not get the task done in the time allotted but it gives me guidance to think about what needs to happen next to move this particular project or item forward. It also fosters thinking about the smallest possible step, making it as actionable as possible.

During that chunk of time, and in an ideal world, there are no distractions. Either I turn off Slack for a while and try to only focus on the task at hand, removing distractions, but also telling the team that I’m doing so.

Setting these chunks of time for yourself is also about setting expectations for you and your team. If you feel like you need to be available for your team in some capacity, set up an escalation path and communicate that to your team, e.g. that they can text you in case of an emergency.

It doesn’t matter when you schedule these chunks of time, but it does help to be deliberate about putting them in your calendar. And, more importantly, you need to stick to them. Making productive use of these blocks of dedicated time requires discipline and constant adjustment. There are many distractions always at the ready to pull you out of that little bit of time you have. When in doubt, use something like Pomodoro or Hey Focus to focus or remove immediate distractions like chat apps or block social media sites.

You can start each larger block (e.g. when you have two hours) planning out how you’ll make use of the time available, planning out the smaller chunks of time in each block.

Parkinson’s Law

The main driver behind structuring my workday is Parkinson’s Law, and it’s worth mentioning. The law says that

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

This suggests that unless time is restricted work will expand endlessly. A common feeling and observation is that there’ll always be more work. Unless we limit the time available to it, we’ll spend more than eight hours of work time in a day. It’s too easy to give into that feeling and the desire to get more work done, especially for a manager, where a general feeling is that you don’t have much visible output yet still need to find time to focus on bigger topics.

Setting up chunks of time is one way to make sure that work doesn’t overwhelm. It requires discipline but also the acceptance that not everything that needs to get done will ever get done. There’s always more work to be done.

My favourite corollary to Parkinson’s Law is this, which is more in line with the approach I just detailed.

Work contracts to fit in the time we give it.

The Operating System

This is an idea and approach I’ve gotten from “The Startup CEO”.

The idea is to have a spreadsheet that includes all my current and ongoing projects, giving me an overview of the work I have available for the aforementioned chunks of time or should a window of time suddenly open up (e.g. because a meeting got delayed or cancelled).

Each project includes a list of action items that I could tackle next. These are on-point action items, concrete rather than vague, focused around getting them done in an hour or less than being too vague, which can leave a feeling of never making any progress.

I used to have this operating set up in Wunderlist, like so:

This can also be mapped into a spreadsheet or likely any other task tracking tool. It could also be a simple text file in Markdown.

The key is to keep the list of tasks short and focused only on what needs to happen next. This helps avoid having the task lists grow indefinitely, eventually leaving you feeling like you’re constantly behind.

The focus on projects also provides framing for the work to be done. Some work will always pop up that doesn’t fit into these, but these projects define the work that I should spend my dedicated chunks of focus time on.

Weekly Projects and Daily Tasks

I’ve since abandoned using the operating system and opted for something simpler.

I start every week by writing down 5-6 bigger projects that I’ll focus on. I write these in my notebook, mostly because I like paper and because writing them down forces me to think about the projects more than when I just type them into some task tracking tool. I prefer this kind of magic over tracking things electronically, which ends up just overwhelming me over time.

Every day, I start my day by writing down 5-6 tasks that I want to get done. Some of these tie directly in with the projects for the week (which is the whole point of defining these projects), others are based on work that doesn’t neatly tie into these but that still needs to get done.

The important piece is keeping these tasks actionable. If I need to leave a comment on some GitHub issue, that’s my task. If I need to figure out what my answer should be, that’s the task that needs to come first. If the tasks are too vague or include more than one step, progress on them will stretch over days (or weeks), and it won’t feel like you’re getting anything done.

I also keep a list of tasks that come up out of the blue for each week, or tasks that I need to do at some point, alongside the list of weekly projects, so I can remember to slot them in later.

All this happens in a notebook, so I don’t track these things electronically but rather focus on paper. If you’re looking for a simple methodology to follow, the Bullet Journal is nice. It’s similar to what I’m using but includes a couple of extra features.

Rotating Daily Topics

An approach I’ve recently adopted again is to dedicate certain days of my week to certain areas. Each day has a theme assigned to it that guides my focus further. Here are the themes I’m currently following:

  • Monday: Planning. This is when I go through my own projects, plan out my week, garden the ongoing work in the ELT and determine the projects and work I’m going to focus on during the week. This is also a good day to do expenses for a couple of minutes to make sure they’re up-to-date.
  • Tuesday: Marketing and Partnerships. Here I follow up on conference sponsorships, focus on marketing work, e.g. writing copy, review guest blog posts and follow up on partnerships.
  • Wednesday: Team and Culture. With this team I focus on topics like hiring, following up on or starting new discussions on cultural or company topics (think All Hands, OKRs, and the like).
  • Thursday: Customers. This is usually when I will spend time diving into customer support issues for a while, making sure that I stay in touch with helping customers and continue talking to them. When I have some customers where I’m the main contact for their accounts, this is the day I’ll follow up with them.
  • Friday: Strategy and Writing. Fridays I have scheduled to be out of the office. I’ll try to be mostly offline to spend time pondering larger topics, thinking about strategy and generally leaving slack time that allows me to reflect. I also leave some time on Fridays to write, either internal or external blog posts or to write reflections for myself. I tend to not schedule any company-related meetings on Fridays, too.

The idea for this approach is from Jack Dorsey and how he schedules his week (or how he used to, I can’t be sure). Note that I don’t follow his 80-100 hour work week. My normal work day will have no more than eight hours, with the exception of some of 9-10 hours (usually only one day per week).

The Value of Out of Office Time

Being away from the office and scheduling time to reflect on bigger topics or on yourself (the mark of every leader is to continuously work on themselves, absorb feedback and try to find new ways of approaching problems and questions).

Being away from the office and the usual work environment can help greatly with this, if only it means going to a coffee shop, putting on noise-cancelling headphones and grabbing a notebook to work on an important topic.

The same is true for taking walks, one of my key habits of having time to reflect. The mind wanders when its left on its own, with no immediate task in your head or screen directly in front of you to keep your mind busy.

Once it’s in free-flowing mode it can be nudged into all kinds of directions, by asking myself questions, or by thinking about a random topic. This time is incredibly valuable and is necessary to have dedicated time for reflection and thinking.

Weekly Review

This is something I’ve only recently adopted, inspired by my friend Cate.

In this review, I look at the bigger projects I’d scheduled for the previous week and the progress I’ve made on them. Then I write about the projects I’m focusing on next.

In addition I include a section of loose thoughts on different topics, which gives me an outlet for things that have been on my mind during the previous week or that don’t fit anywhere else. They can be related to company culture, personal observation, customer feedback, anything goes.

I like this approach as it gives visibility to the team (whether it’s my direct team or the whole team is something I’m still pondering) what’s on my agenda. Visibility in work is a general struggle for every manager, and a review that’s visible to your team can help increase this kind of visibility.

Your team will generally have more interest in where you are on your bigger projects rather than on every single small task that you check off. A weekly review is a nice approach on giving them insight into your overall progress.

Listening to the “This American Life” episode on the GM/Toyota NUMMI plant recently, one particular part struck me as interesting when it comes to culture.

Culture is something that everyone would love to be able to easily replicate. Companies like Etsy, Netflix and others are forging ahead with openness, open source and empowering employees when it comes to their production systems.

NUMMI was an attempt to bring Toyota’s principles in building cars to General Motors, the automotive giant that was struggling hard in the eighties and was eventually bailed out by the American tax payers in 2009.

Toyota’s production line is famous for a simple tool, the Andon cord that allowed every worker on the factory floor to stop the assembly line whenever they encountered a problem. This empowered every employee to work towards a single goal: quality.

At NUMMI, this same system was implemented, and very successfully so. Every worker in the factory initially worked for two weeks with a team at Toyota in Japan to fully experience how teamworks looks like. It didn’t exist inside GM before NUMMI was conceived.

The Andon cord is an essential tool in learning and improving quality continuously. Every stop of the production line is an opportunity to learn and to improve the production process.

Before the NUMMI experiment, and in the rest of GM, the one goal is to never stop the production line. Quantity over quality, at all times.

Quality at NUMMI thrived, and GM looked into implementing this in more of their factories.

This experiment failed as there was a lot of resistance in management, amongst the workers and in the unions (all of whom had been fully onboard at NUMMI).

One bit in particular was interesting about the adoption issues.

The Andon cord was installed in other factories too, but when workers used it, they were reprimanded for stopping the production line. Managers were paid by volume of cars leaving the factory. In other factories, the cord was cut down so it was harder to reach.

I found this bit fascinating in so many ways, and it made me think about culture.

We’d love to just take a blueprint from another company and apply that to ours. But culture is something you need to work hard on, something that takes years of learning and improving to bring about, and it requires continuous nurturing to stay healthy.

You can’t just replicate culture.