On Time Management - Focus On What Matters
Time management at work is not about doing more. It is about finding the right things to focus on and over time reducing the effort that goes into doing them.
Note: This is an article written for an IC audience interested in managing their time more effectively at work in order to grow their careers. Comic Credit: Dilbert By Scott Adams
👋 Hi all! This week I wanted to write about Time Management - a highly requested topic. I took time management very seriously right from my college days. I was paying my way through college, juggling multiple night shifts as a security assistant, taking care of printers as a lab assistant during evenings, spending time during the day attending classes (and sometimes falling asleep in the first row!) while tutoring in between. I had learned to make the most of every minute of the day, and not surprising - it left me exhausted and burnt out. Since I have started working in Silicon Valley, my list of managing multiple jobs has changed to a list of never-ending tasks at work. Now if I only managed my time well, I thought I could get through them. I treated time management at work in the same way I had treated it during my time in college - build a list of to-dos, stick to it, get more efficient at completing as many things as possible in a day.
For the longest time, I treated time management as a methodology to fit in everything I thought I had to do until I realized that time management at work was not about doing more. It was about driving the most impact by doing less and focusing on the right things.
Here is a primer on how.
First, the basics - What does Time Management really mean?
At the heart of effective time management is focusing on the right things rather than doing the most things. What is considered impactful varies from company to company, so it is important to understand what the company cares about first and then plan backwards.
It’s all about efficiency - I should get as much done in as little time as possible
It is natural to focus too much time on knocking off tasks/to-dos at work. We often label doing more with managing time well. However what we should actually care about is doing the right work, rather than more work.
It is all about managing time
Focusing on only managing your time well is a misnomer. I love the analogy by productivity expert Jordan Cohen. He likens time management and productivity to dieting and being healthy. You can diet as much as you want, but that doesn’t necessarily make you healthy. Similarly, we can focus on how well we manage our emails, meetings, etc., but that doesn’t make us productive.
How well I manage my time is solely up to me
While you are responsible for managing your time, this is not always easy if you are in an environment which moves at a different cadence than you. For example, if you find that you are most productive when you plan ahead but your work environment constantly requires you to manage conflict or last minute priorities, it may be harder for you to manage your time well on your own without support from your manager or company.
Types of work:
The first step to time management is identifying what is “impactful” versus “busy” work. I learnt about the term “busy” work at Facebook. A senior manager I respect shared advice on how to ask a manager for “more work, but not busy work.” Busy work is work that makes one feel or seem busy but does not really drive much impact for the company. This type of work is unavoidable and we must all do some portion of it. However, this kind of work tends to become a problem when it forms the majority of your work rather than just a part of it. While at work, consider categorizing your work into the following types:
A highly unscientific diagram on roughly how your time should be divided
High Impact - High Effort
Typically existential threats to the company. For example, building a payments platform if an integrated payments system is crucial to keeping your customers on your platform.
High Impact - Low Effort - aka “Quick wins”
Might not be possible at a well established organization since they might have already been addressed. For example, ensuring customers receive reminders if they have forgotten to checkout.
Low Impact - High Effort
A complex effort that may not align with the company's core strategy. For example, building a cool piece of technology or product in-house when it might be cheaper to license it. Needless to say, it is crucial to avoid this type of work entirely.
Low Impact - Low Effort - aka “Busy work”
For example scheduling meetings individually with each stakeholder when it might be more productive to send a well-documented proposal and schedule a follow up with those who have questions.
You want to try and spend the majority of your time in high impact - low effort quadrant, followed by high impact - high effort.
How to do this:
A slightly boring but nevertheless effective way to make sure you are focusing on the right things.
Step Zero: Identify
Spend at least one 60 minute conversation with your manager understanding what is considered high impact. Ideally, this is done during the performance review conversation or one where you align expectations with your manager on what success looks like.
Step One: Review
Take an hour or two out to look at your calendar and identify each of the meetings/time blocks into one of the four types of work mentioned above. Roughly, over 60% of your time should be spent under high impact - low effort or high impact - high effort bucket.
Step Two: Align
Spend at least one 60 minute conversation with your manager to review how you are spending time with your manager. If you are spending less than 60% of your time under the high impact category, discuss with your manager on how you can reduce that time spent.
Step Three: Automate
Use processes and technology to further bring down time spent in these buckets. Review things you do manually and see if there are ways you can automate them. Templates are your friends. For example, I use email templates for most commonly sent emails using Gmail templates feature, and write google scripts to automate some of my workflows on Google Drive. For group meetings, I figure out which ones I am needed for the entire time and which ones I can leave early on after discussing with my manager. I also group my meetings when possible to allow more time to focus on writing/reviewing code or product specs.
Step Four: Rinse and Repeat
There is no one system that works all the time. As you grow in your career and as your company’s priorities shift, it is important to evaluate your current system to see if it still serves you. Our buckets of work will shift, and based on this so might the system we adopt. Set a reminder every 3-6 months to review how you spend your time with your manager.
If you have a specific situation you want to get advice on, please reply to this email. I would love to hear from you! I’ll tackle a few reader questions regularly (and keep your identity anonymous).
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit Of Less is a really interesting read on hyper-prioritizing the right things. One of the books I wished I had read earlier in my career.
Until next time, stay safe and have a great thanksgiving! See you week after next.
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