Back in January, Bernard Otu and I met up with Steve Pereira, CEO of Visible. Among other things, we got to chatting about Steve’s favourite topic, Value Stream Mapping, and how most companies tend to focus on optimizing on the wrong things.
This got us talking about an experience that I had at my last workplace.
When I was working at my last organization, I remember how baffled Bernard was with, what he regards as, the heavy use of email. For me, having “grown up” in a large enterprise setting, what he considered to be excessive use of email seemed perfectly normal. I just didn’t know any better. As soon as I saw that little Outlook banner pop up on the bottom right-hand corner of my screen, I would drop everything, read the email, and respond almost right away.
And just as Bernard found my “excessive” use of email to be weird, I found it deeply disturbing that he sometimes took days to reply to an email. So we got to talking about how we found each others’ behaviours odd, and I began to understand his point of view.
Bernard had come from a startup background, where the first-class citizen on a developer’s working screen was the IDE. Yet, in this large enterprise, as he passed by developers’ desks, he noticed the email client was front and center. The fact that developers spent more time writing emails than writing code was ludicrous to him. And that statement hit me like a ton of bricks. Holy crap — he was absolutely right!
After that, I started looking at email in a whole new light. It didn’t aid productivity — it hampered it. At around that same time, I was just getting back into hard-core dev. As a developer, when you’re in “the zone”, interruptions are super extra annoying, and it takes a significant amount of time to context switch from answering emails to getting back to your train of thought in your code. The more I thought about things, I identified four types of interruptions that became painfully apparent as I was trying to push through my deliverables.
Email can be super-distracting. That little pop-up banner is an evil temptress that just beckons you to click on it. Which of course you do, and read the email, which you then have this compulsive need to answer right away or else……or else WHAT? Yeah. Exactly.
Once I identified the email problem (thanks, Bernard!), I decided to tackle it by applying a few simple rules:
- Turn off the banner notification on your email client.
- Turn off push email notifications on your smartphone.
- Check emails in the morning, and in the afternoon. That way I could set aside some mental space for dealing with emails.
- Delay replying to emails if at all possible. It can be so tempting to reply to emails right away, and it can often be the worst thing ever. There’s something to be said for reading an email (especially one that aggravates you), taking a deep breath, and mulling over the email so that when you do reply, it ends up being a thoughtful answer, rather than a knee-jerk reaction.
Texts can be worse than emails, because the person sending the text expects a response RIGHT NOW. If you use Slack or Teams, you might find yourself being part of multiple channels, where banter goes on and on and on, and no actual work gets done. Tools like these can suck the productivity right out of you if you’re not careful in policing yourself.
So, for dealing with text à la Slack and Teams:
- Disable notifications for after-hours (unless you’re on-call)
- Enable notifications only if someone mentions you by name
- If you find yourself getting constant messages from a co-worker, it’s time to have a little conversation with them to set up some boundaries. Because if you keep responding to their excessive texts, that only signals to them that their actions are okay.
Ever been in a meeting where you’re wondering why you’re even there? Or how about being in a meeting where there are too many cooks in the kitchen, and the same meeting could’ve been waaaaaay more productive with a small fraction of the attendees? Or perhaps you’ve been on a call whereby you’re not paying attention because you’re trying to get your actual work done. That’s a sign that the meeting you’re in is probably a waste of your time.
Meetings were definitely taking up way too much of my time, so when I received a meeting invite, I would ask myself the following questions:
- Do I need to be in this meeting?
- Is this meeting necessary, or can we resolve this over email?
- If we keep having these same types of meetings with the same outcomes, can we “automate” the meetings?
- Does the meeting have an agenda? If not, decline it, because the person organizing it hasn’t put enough thought into what they want to discuss. Harsh, but true.
In order to protect my precious dev time, I started cutting the junk meetings out of my life, going through each meeting invite on my calendar, reviewing the agenda, and evaluating whether or not I needed to be there, or if I could have a short phone call or email discussion. Most importantly, I started to block off my schedule, and set up designated meeting days — days that were open on my calendar for people to schedule me for meetings. I typically have 1 or 2 designated meeting days per week, depending on how busy I am with deliverables.
It’s harsh, but necessary. Time is money, and when you’re under a time crunch to get things done, the last thing you need is unnecessary noise. If you get something out of the meeting, then awesome. Mission accomplished.
Unscheduled meetings are a mixed blessing. On the one hand, spontaneous conversations can lead to some really cool ideas and problem-solving. But if you keep getting CONSTANTLY interrupted while you’re trying to code (or work on a presentation, report, etc), it can be aggravating to say the least. Sometimes, you have to get a deliverable out the door, and you don’t have time for the stream of people constantly popping over to your desk unannounced.
My solution? When I was in a real crunch at the office, I would hide away somewhere to get work done.
Making sense of it all…
If you remember anything from this post, let it be this:
- Use text (or Slack or Teams or whathaveyou) for short communications that require immediate attention.
- Use email for longer, asynchronous communications (i.e. don’t require an immediate response). Plus it’s great for capturing information for posterity and for covering your ass. It is NOT great for having conversations or worse, arguments.
- Use meetings for extended conversations. Keep them short, sweet, and focused. If you finish your 1-hr meeting in 30 minutes, spare us all the torture and end the meeting right then and there. Also, I’ll sneak in the other thing that if you use Zoom or Teams for meetings, don’t require everyone to show their face. It’s exhausting.
Life in a Covid19 World & Beyond
Now, you might be wondering…do the above still apply in a Covid19 work-from-home world? Hell yeah! Now, more than anything protecting your time is super important.
It may be tempting to panic work, to make yourself seem more present than ever, by replying to every email, Slack/Teams/Text message right away, and attending every meeting that comes your way…but you’ll just run yourself ragged, and at the end of the day, all it will do is create the illusion of work, because you’re too busy replying to messages rather than working on your deliverables.
Protecting your time is now more important than ever. As a dual-income household with a kid, I know that it’s tough to balance the needs of family while working from home. We need to carry on with our jobs/school, but we also have the added emotional burden that we all feel while being under lockdown and lamenting our old lives.
Am I being selfish in protecting my time, especially if I work as part of a team? I don’t think so. The thing is, spending time on wasteful activities when you could be focusing on your deliverables costs your employer money, if you have to end up working overtime to get work done that could’ve been accomplished during work hours.
At the end of the day, whether or not you’re a developer, protecting your time is important, and stripping out the excess from your life so that you can be more productive is always a good thing.