Managing time as a manager

At Automattic, I manage a team of extremely talented developers. One of them is training to become a Team Lead himself and sent me the following list of questions about time management:

When you became a team lead, what was the biggest adjustment for you in how you managed your time?

Infantry wins battles, logistics wins wars

General John J. Pershing,

When you are an individual contributor, you optimize for turnaround: grabbing the most tasks and churning them as quickly as possible.

With the switch to a manager role, your output is the sum output of your team, but the force multiplier is proactively removing blockers so that everybody else can keep momentum.

As I wrote in Sort by Surprising, the biggest slowdowns come from discovering an underspecified area. Then everybody sits on their hands, waiting for decisions/clarity.

So as a Team Lead, you have to figure things out 2 chess moves into the future and keep the pipeline running before your team even realizes what they need.

Imagine your team is a factory assembly line. You need everybody operating at peak efficiency while ensuring the components are delivered on time, and the finished product shipped, all while solving minor drama.

To answer the original question: a cliche response would be that “communication” takes more time, but this is not enough. You need to communicate decisions and direction to make sure all work aligns when it should. Apart from communication, you need a plan and authority to make decisions.

The activities I now perform more as a team lead are:

  1. Drafting documents with roadmaps/plans, etc.
  2. DMing like crazy while “managing up” to ensure alignment on these roadmaps
  3. Dropping into comments/threads/issues to resolve confusion and push final decisions so we can stop discussing and move on

It is really hard to report what did I actually do by the end of the day. This takes us to…

What does your day-to-day look like? And do you have any regular routines and/or habits throughout your day?

The critical thing to remember about me is that I have ADHD and a small child. I both appreciate consistent habits, get bored by them and find them hard to implement due to family constraints. I also find daily habits more conducive to personal goals, while weekly ones are better for professional obligations.

I will rephrase that question into a few pointers on what I have found helpful in managing my day-to-day:

  • I try to batch meetings. That leaves you exhausted but ensures you have blocks of time on other days. A pro tip is not to have meetings back-to-back but leave 15 minutes between them. Most 60-minute meetings can be 45 instead.
  • Ensure you have one day/week exclusively devoted to updating documents, project threads, and reporting. Make a list of documents you have to update regularly.
  • Keep all the documents you use regularly bookmarked and launchable from the keyboard by something like Alfred.
  • If you work in Europe, you can do your IC work in the morning because after East Coast comes online, you will get buried by pings. That means that if you start your day reading internal blog posts, you will do nothing during that day. Start the hard work as soon as possible.
  • Try to respond to everything before wrapping your workday, so East / West Coast is not blocked by a question they have for you.
  • The only way to be productive after a long Zoom block is to immediately log out, and go to a gym.
  • Beer at lunchtime will always leave you useless

My morning routine (mostly personal)

  1. Be woken up by the dog wagging its tail incessantly, jump out of the bed
  2. Drink Athletic greens (It feels illegal to talk about AG without an affiliate link)
  3. Get the cover out of the bed because the dog will jump on it immediately upon returning from the walk. During winter dog will be dirty regardless of how long I try to clean her
  4. Walk the dog. If the weather is crap, listen to an audiobook/podcast (see Principles for reading). When it’s lovely – enjoy the walk.
  5. Feed the dog
  6. If it’s still before 8 am, go to the pool (I have a small pool in my building), and swim 1km. Doubles as the morning shower.
  7. Eat breakfast
  8. Negotiate with my baby if she will go to preschool today
  9. Somehow get her to the preschool
  10. Go back home / to a cowork / to a coffee shop
  11. Make coffee, and log in to work.
  12. I check, in order:
    • Slack pings for drama, and if something blew up overnight
    • GitHub and Phabricator comments for blockers, info on what got shipped, etc.
    • P2 (our internal blog system) for comments,
    • Slack scrollback, but on some days, I skip that.

How do you balance meetings and independent working time?

I, of course, try to have as few meetings as possible. That being said, the 1:1s consistently allow for re-syncing our mutual understanding of the priorities, where things are, etc.

The team I manage is quite small at the moment, so fortunately, this is not a very big issue.

Do you take notes during your meetings? If so, how (i.e. pen and paper, notetaking app, etc.)?

  1. I have a running shared Google Doc for every meeting that I attend. I always open it up and ask to fill in advance (sometimes we both fail tho)
  2. That doc gets automatically synced to my Logseq (notetaking app of choice) so that I can cross-reference with other note content. I described it a bit here.

How do you keep track of everything you need to do? Do you use a task manager / To Do app at all?

I am a big fan of GTD. Having a single list with all your commitments frees up the brain cycles from remembering all the “stuff” you have to do.

For work stuff, I try to report bigger tasks in Github, as the code issues already live there. I recommend using the private-for-the-team repository explicitly for that purpose.

But most of my tasks live in Logseq, which also has a built-in to-do system.

How do you know what information to pay attention to and what not to? How do you prioritize the information that comes at you?

Your task is to tweak the Gannt chart continually. Here is what I do, in order:

  1. Tend to any urgent fires
  2. Ensure everybody has immediate stuff to do to maintain momentum
  3. Figure out what may be surprising and impact our priorities, Prioritize figuring this out (Sort by Surprising).
  4. Maintain a backlog of tasks/projects for the team

I devote little time to “keeping in the loop” unless I get a ping. New information that gets published internally tends to change before the actual implementation, and by this time, I will get a ping about it.

But I dig into older posts when trying to design a roadmap/align direction. I find older posts more reliable than new ones.

What’s the biggest piece of advice you’d give a brand new lead when it comes to managing and organizing their time?

In the beginning, decide with your direct manager what worthwhile things you will not spend time on.

HR will proactively generate lists of stuff for you to do, but your first goal is to ensure the team has work to do and they are proceeding in a sensible direction.

I would advise postponing any “Managerial” tasks until you have 3 months of a roadmap designed. By then, you bought yourself enough time to focus on this “Team Lead” stuff.

You should also read Paul Graham’s Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s schedule.

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