Manage your time
One of the most surprising aspects when becoming an engineering manager is that your agenda will radically change.
You'll now be part of a bunch of meetings:
- 📅 Team meetings
- 📅 Individual meetings with your reports (one-on-one meetings)
- 📅 Meeting with your management peers
- 📅 Meetings with cross-functional partners
- 📅 Meetings with other teams
- 📅 Recruitment and interviews meetings
Your agenda will evolve from large blocks of 2-4 hours with a few meetings around from small blocks of 30-60 minutes, mainly packed with meetings.
You can feel overwhelmed, with not enough time to handle your current tasks, and with a lot of context switching.
Time is our scarcest resource. You need to manage it very efficiently, with discipline, and to be fully aware of how you invest it. Your agenda becomes a critical tool to master.
Getting Things Done (GTD)
An excellent methodology to manage your time efficiently is the Getting Things Done (GTD). This practice can be summed up in five steps.
📝 1. Gather what draws your attention
Someone asked you something, resist the urge of doing it right now. Write it down in a referential. You can use a single document or a todo list. Personally, I use a dedicated Kanban board. This step is critical as it will avoid having to keep everything in mind.
🤔 2. Clarify what it means
Once written, try to really understand what it means. Is it a simple task or action? If it just takes a couple of minutes, do it right now. If it requires more work, you can record it to work on later. You can also decide to do nothing about it. It seems counter-intuitive, but something the best to do is to do nothing. A meaningful way to detect a useless task is to ask yourself what will happen in one month if you do nothing?
🗃 3. Organize and categorize
If it is not a simple task, what could be the next action? To which project does it belong? What's the importance? What's the priority? Describe the steps and categorize the item in the relevant system. Schedule some time in your agenda to progress on it later or delegate it. But don't do it right now.
🔍 4. Review it frequently
Review your detailed todo list on a regular basis. Reflect on the priority and impact of the items, reprioritize them. Decide what to do and what to put on hold. Personally, I book 20 min on Monday and Wednesday morning to do it.
✅ 5. Engage and do the things
Keep some time to efficiently engage, and for the tasks that are in your priority. Personally, I tend to do the most complex tasks in the morning and to do the easy ones at the end of the afternoon. We usually have less energy at that time, it's good to complete them in automatic mode without thinking too much.
💫 Benefits of Getting Things Done (GTD)
The main advantage of this method is to capture what draws your attention to avoid being overwhelmed. Once written, your mind is free and available to be focused on your current activity.
Taking some dedicated time to reflect on priorities is an excellent exercise for a new manager. It helps to avoid falling into the trap of doing only reactive actions. It will give you more control over how you invest your time. Last but not least, it's a great way to identify the actions you can delegate to give growth opportunities and new challenges to your reports.
Help yourself, take care of your agenda
One of my favorite questions when mentoring an engineering manager is how do you invest your time?
This is a hard question to answer. And, in fact, we have a pretty wrong idea of how we effectively allocate our time. We have bias because some activities are more present in our mind, because times sometimes do not feel linear. One hour fulfilling a report may look longer than one hour having a chat with a teammate.
The goal is to choose where we allocate our time.
Time allocation is a strategic decision. On which activities or project do you want to invest your time to increase your impact and the impact of the team?
Time management is hard. However, we already have a great tool to manage our time: our agenda. With solid practices and some discipline, we can make the best use of our time.
My own method is the following one.
📅 1. Record everything in your agenda
I record any single activity in my agenda. Not only the meetings, but also each significant task I will dedicate time to, even when I work on a task on my own.
🤔 2. Analyse on a regular basis
On a monthly basis, I extract, consolidate and analyze how I invested my time. I wrote a small Python program to easily consolidate the activities per theme.
🎯 3. Set goals and prepare
Then, I rebalance the time allocation on my activities. How much time is dedicated to hiring and onboarding, to one-on-one with my direct reports, etc? How regularly do meetings take place?
To try to make the best of my time, I define my top 3 priorities for the upcoming month, and I make sure I will heavily invest on these priorities. I book some large time slots in my agenda to make progress.
Being an engineering manager, you'll always have some reactive work, surprises, changes that will happen overnight. But being aware of it and controlling your time will make a huge difference when it comes to increasing the impact of the team.
Managing your own time is a thing, but keep in mind that you need to do it in a way that does not break the flow of the team. A team meeting in the middle of the morning is the best way to destroy the productivity of everyone. The sweet spots for the team meetings are the beginning of the day, just before lunch or just after lunch.
When moving to engineering management, you may have mixed feelings regarding the outcomes of your actions. Most of your activities will not bring an immediate result. You lost the benefits of a regular and direct reward of having created something that works today. It's especially hard when coming from a developer position. You can feel that you're achieving less.
It's a pretty common feeling at the beginning. You're working on longer term actions, they will bring results later on. Keep going.
- 📖 Getting Things Done (GTD) is a time management method that has been formerly defined and explained by David Allen in this book.
- 💡 Booking time in your own agenda may sound weird. But it's a very efficient way to protect your time, and to manage your time by capacity. It also brings the benefit of making your actions more visible and understood by your team.