Tech Leader? Stop Being Overwhelmed — Get Your Thinking Time Back
(This post is about time and overwhelm. To risk paraphrasing an old Buddhist saying: if you don’t have time to read it, you should really read it).
The Bathroom Problem
When I was VP Engineering at Macromedia, I used to time my routes between meetings so I could fit in a bathroom stop. I actually planned the quickest route so there would be maybe a minute or two for a pit stop. It took me a while to realize this. It was probably on a weekend, spending another Sunday doing reviews, or Board Meeting preparation, or reading product proposals, when it dawned on me that if I didn’t have time to get to the bathroom, something might be a little off. I was not in charge of my time and attention. Which, of course, as an executive manger, was about all I had to bring to the job.
These days I coach VPs of Engineering, startup CEOs and others in the tech industry, and, guess what, the issue that shows up most frequently is overwhelm.
Usually I hear, “yes, I know I need to think about that (strategy, org planning), but there just isn’t the time”. And then I get shown a calendar: day after day of colored blocks from 8am to 6pm or later.
So I learned some things while I was still an exec, and some more things as I worked with my clients: you have to find the thinking time. It’s part of your job now think strategically, to grow your people, to develop culture, to read about other leaders, and to take care of yourself (what Ed Batista usefully calls “Deep Work”).
And you can. The solutions are at two levels: a model, and discipline around the model; and some deeper explorations of why you stay in overwhelm. Both take work, and repeated practice as you transition to really owning your time and attention — by far your most important resources. Ready?
The model is simple, and well-known. Attributed originally to Dwight Eisenhower (yes, that guy), and popularized in Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, it proposes two axes — importance, and urgency.
Conceptually easy. Divide your tasks into important/urgent, important/not urgent etc etc, and then do the ones that are important/urgent now, the ones that are important/not urgent later, and all is well. Something like this:
But! Everything feels important/urgent in a growing tech company. So how do we use this model to really get a grip?
Using the Model
Use the model as a lens: look at all of your time/attention decisions through the lens of the model, not just your task list at the beginning of a day or week (and anybody that can maintain a single task list for a week has my admiration). Look at emails — label them according to the areas on the model if you can.
Look at calendar invites — can you delegate attendance to that meeting? Can it be shorter? Can you attend for ten minutes instead of sixty? Look at Slack conversations: sure, that chat about code quality might be getting a little heated, but does it really need your attention now?
Be ruthless about what stays in important/urgent: Throw out everything you can. Your bias, and the bias of the company around you, will be to make everything important/urgent. Don’t fall for it. Make a conscious choice to keep something in the red bucket. If there’s not a great reason for it to be there, throw it out.
Schedule the important/not urgent time, always: if you don’t schedule important/not urgent time ahead in your calendar, you won’t get it. So schedule time for next week, and every week after that. You need at least two hours, every week (I know, seems crazy right now!). Some people need more, to let their minds wander, a few will need less.
Defend your important/urgent time: it’s inviolate (unless there’s a genuine emergency, and if there’s a “genuine emergency” every week, somebody — maybe you — is doing something wrong). Don’t allow meetings to be scheduled over it, don’t allow it to be cancelled.
Spot “Productivity Performance”, aka Noodling: noodling in the “not important/not urgent” zone can relax you, help take the stress off. But so can taking a walk, and taking a walk is good for you, noodling isn’t. So watch for “just doing some email” or “catching up on twitter” or “reading a few blogs”. If you are in full attention to those things, maybe they are productive. If you’re browsing, you’re “performing work”, not doing work. Might be better not to work at all and take the weight off for a bit.
Using Your Not Urgent/Important Time
So you got your two hours, and you frittered them away doing email. Bummer. Here’s what to do next time:
Find a different environment: get away from your desk to a different conference room, part of the building, somewhere you don’t normally go. Ideally go outside — find a coffee shop or a park. This signals to your brain that things are going to be different.
Don’t take your phone: we’re all weak, and that thing is like crack. Leave it behind.
Either limit, or don’t use, your laptop: we can think just as well with pen and paper, and they don’t interrupt us every minute or two. Leave it behind. If you need to use it, download Self Control, which lets you switch off a bunch of sites, whilst leaving the rest of the net open for research (there are other apps — I like, and use, Self Control).
Embrace the discomfort, and start: your brain is going to spend the first few minutes desperately wanting some stimulation — a twitter message, a new email, anything. Don’t feed it. Be uncomfortable and start working. Once you’re into your work, keep going for at least twenty minutes — after that, things will start to flow. And if not, do it again next week.
I Did All That — It’s Still Not Working
OK, I hear you. I said at the beginning, transitioning to owning your time and attention takes a while. Our cultures don’t appreciate it, and don’t encourage it, and they do encourage and celebrate people who can handle being continuously swamped.
Maybe it’s just that way, temporarily: there will be times when you are genuinely overwhelmed. Massive growth, a huge product push, a terrible system failure — these things happen. But they should be identifiable, and temporary. If you know what’s causing the overwhelm, and you can see an end to it, OK, well, maybe you just have to deal. If you can’t see it, and the end is many months or years away, take some action.
Maybe it’s your company culture: does your company culture celebrate overwhelm, over-nighters, “eighty hour” weeks? If so, how do you feel about that? Maybe you fit! Maybe that’s OK. Maybe not, and you’d like to start building a little bubble of sanity around yourself. You have a conscious choice here. Take it.
Maybe you’re not delegating: this comes up frequently — “I have to do all this because my team is not ready/too junior…”. Probably you’re wrong, and holding on to things out of fear of failure, the difficulty of clearly describing the tasks — something. Delegation is great: you get more time, your team gets more responsibility and growth. Find something you are afraid to delegate and do it, today. People are resilient, and grow when you least expect it. Try it.
Maybe it’s you: our business (loosely, the tech world), attracts people who get a kick out of highly detailed, massively complex challenge. I certainly do, and so did the people I hired. We tend to love the adrenaline of navigating a river of problems, endlessly dodging boulders and shooting rapids. And that can make us successful, and rewarded, and the stakes can be high (money, status, career).
So being able to live and work effectively in overwhelm is a super-power, but like many super-powers, it has a downside, and the downside is that it doesn’t work forever. Physically and emotionally, most of us are not set up to go that hard year in and year out.
So take a look at yourself. What do you enjoy about the overwhelm? How does it serve you (ego? a rush? status?). What can you let go of, just a little bit? Two hours a week of thinking time? Sunday afternoons? It may take a while to dig into this, but start — give it a shot.
Yes, It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint
If it all works out (acquisition! IPO!), perhaps you can retire at thirty, or thirty-five,or forty. Then this won’t be an issue (although almost without exception the folks I know who did make it remain intense, focussed and, yes, overwhelmed). But probably one way or another you’ll be working for a while.
Beware of the illusion that the overwhelm is temporary. It will only be temporary if you take care of it.
Managing your time and attention will remain a critical skill, allowing you to get to the deeper work of futures, direction and growing your people. And, most crucially, taking care of yourself and the people closest to you. So you can build a long, satisfying and productive career, and remain healthy and sane throughout.
I hope this is useful to you. Let me know how it goes.
(Truth in advertising: I’m putting together a free online course to go deeper into this subject — sign up below to get a ping when it’s up).