Carve out your own thinking space

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Growth
Two calendar events scheduled at the same time have a fight. The one called “Quick chat” wins. Photo by Eugene Lim on Unsplash.

A message to you, Rudy

Dear Managers,

Do you feel that your day is a conveyor belt of meetings, starting at 9AM and ending at 5PM?

Do you find that despite the existence of that space you left in your calendar, neatly hollowed out between stacks of meetings where you intended to eat your lunch, that yet again someone has booked in a meeting called “Quick chat” with no prior warning, without asking you for permission, without giving you any idea what it’s about?

Do you feel that your time outside of scheduled meetings is your own?

Do you find that on a rare day where you have three hours without meetings, you have absolutely no idea what to do with yourself, because you’ve been in reactive mode for weeks on end?

It’s time to take control of your calendar to create space for you. Yes, you.

Yours sincerely,

James

Management isn’t all about meetings

Having a chaotically rammed schedule isn’t a badge of honour. It’s the fast track to burnout, overwhelm, lack of future planning, and to being unable to pick up critical items immediately as they arise.

As you progress to managing more people, projects, areas of your application, or whatever you end up owning, you can easily slip into a continual reactive mode of operation. This is dangerous.

In this mode you are very rarely taking time to focus on the work you deem most important. Instead, you rely on others to tell you what you should be spending your time on.

I would argue that reactivity should only be part of your role rather than the whole. As well as being available by request for others, you should also be setting your own agenda for the improvement of the areas that you are accountable for. You should be blocking out time to do so, and defending that time rigorously.

But what should you be doing?

If you have become a purely reactive manager, then you may initially find it challenging to decide on what else you should be working on that isn’t just being reactive.

(I know. I struggled with the exact same thing.)

However, before we dive into exactly what you should be doing, we should look at the how.

Mindset

We begin with the adaption of a mindset that may feel peculiar to you if you have been existing reactively.

The mindset is that your time is important, and you are completely within your rights to control your time to increase the value of what you work on.

This can mean saying no to meetings, initiatives, chats, and anything else that isn’t helping you accomplish the goals that you, your staff, and your company has.

If you are being sucked into ephemera then turn it down. If some work could be delegated elsewhere, then do so.

Your time is precious. However, claiming it can be challenging. Coming from reactive mode into selective mode can make you feel as if you are being selfish, or self-important, or disappointing others.

Perhaps there are truthful elements to all of those self judgements, but regardless of whether you feel them keenly, you should be doing the correct thing for yourself, which should also be the correct thing for the business.

You should be spending your time on the most valuable things, and that should be applauded.

Practical implementation

So you’ve embraced the mindset. But what’s next? Claiming that space.

The way that I create space for myself in the week is by blocking out portions of my calendar. I used to leave parts of the day where I had no meetings as empty space, but invariably others feel that a gap in your calendar is an open invitation to claim it, so I began to take matters into my own hands.

By blocking out chunks of time with a calendar entry called “Deep work” or “No meetings please” or similar, others will think twice about booking over that slot when there is a legitimately free slot later in the day.

It’s easier for the booker to debate in their own minds about whether creating a calendar clash faux pas is acceptable, rather than you needing to have the conversation with them after they’ve claimed a free slot that wasn’t really free because you were actually using that time to work on something else.

Another possibility is setting the default visibility of your events in your calendar to private. Personally, I don’t do this, unless it’s for legitimately sensitive meetings, however having a blanket private policy means that people will be even less likely to book over one of your existing meetings because they will absolutely no idea what it is.

If you’re using Google Calendar, you can even set it to automatically reject meetings that are booked over ones that you already have in your calendar, but I’ve found that in practice this causes more pain that it’s worth, especially when your calendar automatically rejects that impromptu chat with your CEO because you’ve got “Lunch” there already.

Example activities

So now that you’ve nailed blocking out time in your calendar for yourself, what should you actually be doing? Well, that’s ultimately up to you, but here’s some ideas:

  • Mentally “walking the floor”. In your head, iterate through all of the ongoing projects and areas of which you have ownership. What’s going well? What could do with more immediate support from you? Would any of your staff benefit from more time with you? Get it all out of your head into a list and contemplate it.
  • Thinking and planning for the future. Reactive managers rarely get the time to get ahead on what’s next. What are the next projects going to be? Who is going to do them? Is there any work that we could be doing now that could ensure that future work is faster (e.g. building something as a reusable service versus just bashing out the code). What are other teams working on, and can any of it be of use to you? When was the last time you checked in with your peers? Are there any really annoying processes that need improving or killing?
  • Putting time into initiatives that help more than just your immediate team(s). A while ago I wrote about Management Bugs, which is a project that started out of my own self-enforced deep work time. It was interesting to me, it helped out the wider department as well as just my staff, and it gave me wider input into teams that I didn’t normally work with. ¬†What could you be doing to help out your department? Could you dedicate some time to code review of other areas of the application, or help set up a working group for a pressing issue that nobody has the time to move forward?
  • Just thinking. A radical thing to do is nothing specific by default. See where your mind takes you. Walk round the block and it’ll find something important, I bet you.

One more thing…

There’s another benefit of blocking out time like this for yourself. It creates more space in your calendar that you can throw away if the proverbial poop hits the fan.

If the application sets on fire and needs all hands on deck, or if you have a difficult personal situation to handle with one of your staff, you can instantly cancel all of the commitments that you’ve set only for yourself, which makes you a more available manager them others.

That’s important.

People will wonder how you always manage to find the time to get critical things done so quickly. It’s easy when you can fight with your own time, rather than the time of others.

2 Comments

  1. Andy Polhill says

    Great as always James, I particularly like the idea of mentally walking the floor, particularly pertinent when there are multiple floors and they many miles apart!

    • Thanks! It is certainly easier to forget about teams and projects when you can’t physically see them all of the time. I reckon a great deal of bias towards physically present teams happens without us really knowing.

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