A colleague of mine recently asked me how I deal with switching between high level meetings talking about company strategy and then going back to focused tasks such as coding up features for the company’s product. He’s having difficulty finding time to focus on what’s arguably the companies most important and urgent project1, whilst also having a team to manage, and many other “strategic” work commitments.
Being able to switch between the two “levels” is not something that is all that natural and does take continuing effort to hone.
Being pulled through 4, 5, or even 6 meetings in a day may easily take up 4-6 hours. Fitting in your “real work” in the gaps is tough! I can attest to a lack of time to make progress on things which you want to can being a deeply anxiety inducing and stressful experience. It leads to people attempting to put in extra hours outside of work (guilty) in order to get things done, and a great deal of other “self sabotaging behaviours” which we all promise ourselves we’ll do “just this once” to get a project over the line, but gradually leads people down the road to burnout.
And if the mental health concerns weren’t enough, the fact is that it leads to lower productivity, and in most domains, lower quality ideas and implementations. Juggling tasks and comms has a real business impact.
My tactics for balancing my time
Before I go any further, I wanted to attempt to capture some of the basics which are outside the scope of this post, and I am going to assume that you already do, dear reader. These are:
- Not being prone to loosing a lot of time to news and social media during the work day
- Having a “self-care” routine that works for you “well enough” that you consider it fit-for-purpose. Exercise, meditation, yoga, eating well, sleeping enough, etc etc all fall in this category
- Knowing what your priorities are at the moment, and indeed what you need to accomplish from your focused tasks.
One way to reduce context switching as much is to attempt to put all your meetings at particular times of the day. When I ran my own company, that meant I tried to schedule my meetings for the afternoon because I knew that the mornings were the time when I got my best focused work done.
Conversely, these days, others tend to put meetings in the morning and I’ve had to adapt and get more clear blocks of time in the afternoon which I seek to keep clear. Sometimes, I do this by blocking out my calendar with the simple title “Focus time” (google calendar recently even added this a new type of calendar event).
Even pushing meetings to both the start and the end of the day can be helpful since you will have a longer span of time in the middle.
A final, and possibly less good option is to even just set aside days of the week when you are not expecting to get much focused time. In a hybrid work environment, this might be your office day or days.
Reducing the meeting load temporarily can be required (though can come with longer term costs). If you feel it’s necessary to trim some meetings to make way for the highest priority task, it can be useful to say no to some meetings. In group meetings, you can just decline and invite that people drop you an email if anything particularly important comes along.
I tend not to push 1-2-1 meetings with team members unless it’s really really urgent circumstances (e.g. production outage), because leaving those often leads to more “fires” breaking out which need extinguishing in the mid-term.
Let’s say I need to create a new mini website for a tool (for arguments sake). I know that I won’t be able to get that much done in the time before my next meeting (45 minutes), but I can ask myself “What can I do to make it easier for myself to make good progress in those 3 hours I have later”. That will often lead me to take on a small chunk of the overal task. Perhaps getting something in place for the styling of the web pages, or setting up a template to use later.
By considering the constraint of getting something distinct done in a time window, it’s very commonly a smaller less context heavy chunk of the project, meaning less context to pick up again later (another small benefit).
In the case that I am not able to finish the smaller goal I set myself I’m still in a better place than I was 45 minutes earlier (and I know to try for something smaller next time).
Take a break
Sometimes there is a business case for just accepting you’re not going to get anything meaningful done in the 15 minutes before your next meeting other than to get yourself prepared and ready for the next meeting. I still have trouble taking this advice, but when I do manage it does lead to better concentration in the meeting and less fatigue afterwards.
Unsuccessful tactics (for me)
Here are a few other things that I have tried with less success, but are common enough recommendations that you might have seen them online or in practice.
I have tried in the past to set office hours which are bookable for anyone who needs my time. My experience has been that they tend not to get used as people think that what they have is either a) too important to wait until office hours later in the week, b) not important enough to warrant a 30 minute slot in the scarce office hours slots, or c) the other person has sent you 10 DMs without remembering office hours even exist. As such I can’t recommend this approach unless you’re willing to spend an unreasonable amount of time forcing everyone to use it.
Setting timers to try and chunk focused work is something I very briefly tried when reading other’s accounts of how wonderful it was. I cannot say I found the same. If you do actually get in to flow, you then get rudely disturbed by an alarm. If you don’t, it’s a real slog until the timer goes off and maybe you needed more of a break before.
I appreciated that this may appear to conflict with the “smaller chunks” point above, but the difference is that I tightly timebox a task when required by external factors, not as a routine.
I hope that some of these tactics are as useful to you as they have been to me. Please reach out with any comments or questions.