How can engineering leaders hack their productivity? Here’s six ways to better organize your working day to avoid distractions and make more impact.
Engineering leaders have a lot to do. Not only do they have to keep on top of the technical work that got them to this position, they also have to fill an important leadership role. Both sides of the job matter equally, but having these competing time demands can get messy. How do you find time to code if you have meetings scheduled all day?
Have a big-picture plan for your time
You can’t afford to overlook the importance of having a plan for how you should spend your work time. If you don’t, you’ll get caught fighting fires and dealing with unplanned issues.
Brian David Crane, founder of CallerSmart, recommends time blocking, where you fill up your calendar with various blocks dedicated to certain projects or tasks.
Chris Evans, cofounder and CPO of Incident.io, goes a step further. He creates an entire “shadow calendar” with his idealized weekly schedule. It has blocks for one-to-ones, external sales calls, technical tasks, and everything else.
He admits that things inevitably slip and he ends up with messy, high-context switching days where he is flitting from task to task. When that happens, he scraps all his planned meetings and resets them according to his idealized schedule.
Then there is Rajesh Jethwa, CTO of Digiterre, who uses Outlook as “a defensive martial art.” He rigidly sticks to time boxes and tries not to over-allocate himself or his team.
Offload your to-do list
With so many moving parts and different responsibilities, engineering leaders have a lot to remember. Without some kind of system where you can, as Evans tweets, “offload your brain,” it’s almost certain that you won’t be able to keep on top of everything.
For example, Evans uses Todoist as a task-tracking tool. For him, “anything that doesn't exist anywhere else should exist in Todoist.” This includes documents he needs to read, important messages he needs to reply to, reminders of people he needs to chat to, and basically anything that doesn’t fit neatly into his existing workflows.
Tariq Khatri, an engineering leader at Bazaar Technologies, does much the same with Notion. It’s his all-in-one organizational tool for everything in his personal and professional life. He uses it to keep track of interviews and one-to-ones, record meeting notes and to-do lists, save documentation for his team, and even write grocery lists.
Crane is less devoted to one particular app. He recommends both ClickUp and Monday.com, depending on what kind of projects you need to manage.
The specifics of the tool don’t really matter, so long as you have one bucket where you can dump all the small tasks and important details you need to remember.
Prioritize your day
While having a big-picture idea of how you’d like to spend your time is important, like all plans, it might not survive contact with reality.
As an engineering leader, there will always be some things – like unexpected client calls or server outages – that crop up and demand your immediate attention. Still, if you take the time to look at your to-do list and prioritize your tasks on any given day or week, you can make more informed decisions about what can slip to a later date and what just has to get done now.
Jethwa recommends using an Eisenhower Matrix, where tasks are grouped into "important and urgent", "important but not urgent", "unimportant but urgent", and "unimportant and not urgent". Even if things go wildly wrong, you can make sure to chip away at the tasks in the important and urgent category, without getting bogged down replying to the torrent of emails in the unimportant but urgent box.
Evans has an interesting strategy that relies on his use of Todoist. Every single to-do item gets a due date as soon as it's added. On his train ride into work each morning he looks at all the items for the day and either decides to do them, reschedules them for a more appropriate time, or deletes them. It keeps him focused on his most important tasks without taking up extra mental bandwidth. Anything that’s still on his list at the end of the day gets rolled over and reviewed the following morning.
You can also use strategies like setting aside time to check your email and other communications apps. At least that way you can’t get caught up triaging messages every time your phone pings. Similarly, enabling Do Not Disturb modes when you have focused work to do can go a long way to cutting distractions. A problem you don’t know about is a problem that can’t distract you.
Delegate and automate where possible
Most engineering leaders have come up through the ranks and it can be hard to learn how to hand off tasks, no matter how small. As you end up with higher-level technical and leadership responsibilities, you will need to start delegating to others.
Crane says that he used to suffer from micromanaging everything earlier in his career, but he’s had to learn to trust other people to take on the responsibilities that they are better placed to manage. It’s given him the space to focus on the tasks that are most important.
Evans has gone a step further and hired a personal executive assistant who keeps things running smoothly. They manage his calendar and when someone requests a meeting, they are tasked with finding the appropriate spot.
Automation can work almost as well as delegation in some circumstances. Evans uses Superhuman, a $30 per month email app that adds advanced features to Gmail and Outlook accounts, to help keep on top of his email. “It turns the entirety of my inbox into a to-do list,” he says. “I’m now firmly an inbox zero person, whereas my Gmail used to be an absolute dumpster fire of stress and anxiety.” (Similarly, before his calendar got too overrun he relied on Calendly instead of an executive assistant.)
Review, review, review
Over time, every system starts to fall apart. Too many meetings get added to your calendar, the undone but irrelevant to-dos clog up your task list, and unimportant emails take up space in your inbox. The only way to solve it is with regular reviews and resets.
Evans triages his to-do list every day on the way to work, but still, every couple of months when his calendar gets too broken up and busy, he “defragments” it by rearranging things and resetting his idealized calendar.
Similarly, Jethwa deletes any tasks from his Eisenhower Matrix that simply don’t need to be done.
For all that, engineering leaders need to keep some flexibility in their schedules. No matter how hard you try, you can’t schedule for a server outage.
The point of having a plan is so that you can get things done when your ancient office server isn’t having a meltdown, so that when it does, you can step into your leadership role and get it sorted.