Hats — How not to lose your sanity when wearing too many.

In my previous post about challenges of scaling up a startup, I mentioned how wearing multiple hats at work is now the norm than an exception. Some hats are a result of new responsibilities we assume while others are acquired rather unwittingly when we indulge too much in something we are interested in or think we are good at.

Over the last year, I juggled between being an engineering lead, an architect, line-manager for multiple teams, technical mentor of sorts, on-call support person, a hiring manager, conflicts-referee when shit hits the fan and a general dogsbody. No wonder my daily swear count surpassed unprecedented levels.

As it began to take its toll, causing me to get overwhelmed, overworked and distressed, I had to devise some guidelines for myself to keep afloat and avoid an eventual burnout. Here they are:

Rank tasks keeping sight of the big picture
When tasked with many things at once and everyone wanting a piece of you, initially everything would seem like the most important and the most urgent.

Rank things in an order that takes you closer to your strategic goals and use your judgement to filter out facts from the fiction. I normally ask myself some basic questions like:

Which tasks need immediate attention or else they’d royally bite you in the bum.
Which tasks if done timely would have the biggest positive impact.
Which tasks if deferred would have the biggest negative consequences.
Can any tasks be split and done slowly over time in multiple iterations.

For example at one point I had to wear my boring recruitment hat more often than any of my favorite ones because it was adding the most long-term value; building great teams and all that.

Limit Work-In-Progress
Multi-tasking is often over-rated and misunderstood. It surely optimizes efficiency up to a certain point; beyond that, it causes too much context-switching and eventually kills productivity. So, borrowing from the Agile concept of limiting WIP, I try to finish what I start as opposed to keep starting more tasks in parallel . How many can you do side-by-side is subjective, so find the number that works for you and stick to it.

Reach out for help and delegate
There is a fine line between being a hero that saves the day and being that prick who wants to be the only one who can save the day. When you’ve taken on too many tasks, you run into the risk of becoming the bottleneck yourself. Don’t shy away from delegating some of them.

Even better, if you can have a plan prepared to on-board more people who can perform these tasks when you are not available. Making yourself redundant in this context is actually a good thing. For example, going from being 1 of the only 2 people who could resolve out-of-hours support issues to now being 1 of 7 means more good nights’ sleep for myself and everyone else.

Stay organised and manage your time
Are you putting out fires all the time and not getting any work done? Are people having impromptu conversations or booking you in irrelevant meetings? Does your calendar look like a gridlock on a motorway? Then you need to start managing your time effectively and more precisely.

I found that doing certain tasks at specific times of the day is better. For example doing the ones that require more concentration early in the morning when its quieter. I also found it to be a useful hack to start blocking time-slots with specific tasks on my calendar. It allowed me to be more focused, disciplined and proactive . Its obviously not a long-term solution but something to get you by until you can start shaping the culture around you.

Automate repetitive tasks
Being an engineer at heart, I often draw parallels from what I know and apply it to situations I am in; like for example the usefulness of automation. When you repeatedly find yourself doing some stupidly monotonous admin tasks; automate them. It doesn’t need to be the perfect, most elegant solution; just good enough to not warrant you having to perform them manually like a zombie. Excel sheets never went out of fashion.

Learn to say no, politely 
This is something I am still learning; the saying no part; the politeness part, I excel at! Being in multiple roles results in you been invited to every meeting there is, just on an off-chance that you’d come up with something profound to say at the end of it, you know, once you’ve woken up from your deep sleep that is. So set yourself some boundaries and limit involvement only to conversations that matter and where you are adding some value.

Take a break
There is just no alternative to taking occasional breaks and time away from all the craziness that is surrounding you; even if its a few minutes every now and then, switch off for a while so you can come back refreshed, ready to take on the storm again, because that’s not going to go away anytime soon.

Summary

Gone are the days when titles aptly defined our roles. Balancing many hats now is common. Some hats look and fit better, some get worn out over time and should be thrown away. If you wear the wrong ones, you look silly. If you wear too many of them, you look sillier. The above guidelines have served me well so far in keeping the balance; hope it does the same to some other folks.