What do you do to maximize your productivity? I am an engineer; I am an individual contributor and for me, quiet time provides the amount of concentration necessary to create.
What is Quiet?
“Quiet”: what does that mean to you? Is it a reference to sound? Or are we describing the state of work you need to get done?
Quiet time can mean that I am isolated from the hustle and bustle of everything around me. But also, quiet time can mean I am in a coffee shop, plugged in listening to music, surrounded by folks, but just getting my work done. Quoting Peopleware, “as any kid who does his arithmetic homework with the music on knows, the part of the brain required for arithmetic and related logic is unbothered by music — there’s another brain center that listens to the music.” So what is quiet? For me, it’s honestly a mix of all of the above, but mostly a reference to the state of calmness I get within my day. It’s the flow of productivity within my day; the amount of time I get to breathe.
Before we move on, let’s take eight seconds (yes, only eight), close your eyes, and breathe. Ready, set, breathe.
If you’re reading this between meetings or anything else you have scheduled in your day, those eight seconds were meant for you to recenter yourself and get into the right mindset. You can consider it a reset from whatever you were just doing.
Now that we’ve defined quiet and settled into a calmer state of mind, let’s continue with what works well for me.
Schedule Your Day
Think about how your day typically looks to you. Are you shuffling between meetings and trying to squeeze in some time to get some tasks done? That’s a tough spot to be in and probably not quite a good situation to be in long term.
For me, I don’t find myself as productive as I would be if my attention is constantly being taken in quick bursts. But in the same vein, if I just have a giant block of unscheduled time, it can be a hit or miss on how productive I really will be. (Hello, yak shaving!)
To quote Cal Newport’s Deep Work, “Decide in advance what you’re going to do with every minute of your day”. This is great advice, but I wouldn’t necessarily say every minute, but rather give your day a bit of structure.
What I do to find a compromise for meetings and finding maker time is schedule my day. I will typically start off my morning before the work day starts, by taking a look at my calendar, accepting or declining meetings. (I’m an early-riser, but this same task can be done on the previous day if you choose to!) Then with the free time that remains in my calendar, I will block that off accordingly with the chunks of time with what I intend to do with them.
So for example, take a recent random Tuesday; I had stand-up in the morning, an architecture review one hour after that, followed by two 1-hour long meetings one hour after that, and then finally the day was free from meetings.
Now, what about the free blocks of time? I had two 1-hour blocks of time and a huge chunk of time at the end of the day (~3 hours). One of the 1-hour blocks, I set aside time for lunch; the other I used for a “writing block”. With my remaining chunk of time at the end of the day, I split that into “maker time” and another “writing block”.
In Deep Work, there’s a section entitled, “Schedule Every Minute of Your Day” that goes deeper into the whys of the benefits for this habit, but for me it gives me a guideline into what I can expect from any given day and how can I use the most of my time in a productive manner.
Budget Time for Interactions
The idea of solidifying my calendar day was quite appealing to me at first. Thinking about all of the maker time I would have been able to get on light meeting days made me feel confident that my velocity would have tripled! But the thing that I did not think about at first was that while I can schedule my day as much as I can, there are quite a lot of variables that can skew your schedule a whole lot; and you just really need to be okay with that!
First off, don’t be too concerned with underestimating the time you are expecting to work on something. You will not get all of your estimates correct every time. Remember, you should think of it more as a guideline on what you intend to use your time for when that time comes. It’s usually the bits of “where do I begin?”, that are the toughest for me; but if I’ve already thought that through, there’s a lot less pressure.
Second, don’t forget your teammates. Remember that you or your teammates may need some time for pairing, ideation, or just casual socializing. You may have your day scheduled, but sometimes a lot of the unknowns are better solved together with a teammate. This is a good time to point out that I am not advocating for anyone to just go off on their own and be the phantom programmer. Building relationships is important. Unblocking your teammates by helping them work through a problem is important.
Susan Cain wrote about this balance of quiet, independent work versus social, collaborative work, in Quiet. She suggests “not to stop collaborating face-to-face, but to refine the way we do it.” So, definitely take time to work through problems on your own, but don’t feel obligated to work everything as a solo effort.
Productivity is Hard
Let me just say that what works for me, might not work for all of you. I am an individual contributor and I benefit from a maker’s schedule. I know some folks with their manager schedule are going to just laugh at the thought of quiet time.
I know that there are many folks out there who are probably actually more productive when working with others; they strive for collaboration and faster feedback loops. These are all perfectly fine.
I do recommend thinking through your day and trying to get the most productive time throughout your schedule regardless of what kind of person you are. Find the right balance of quiet within your day and see what makes you the most productive. Cheers!