August 10th, 2021
by Karl Hughes
A few years ago, I was managing an engineering team at a frenetically run, early-stage startup. Everyone in the company—myself included—was young and inexperienced as leaders, and we compensated for that lack of experience by trying to finish more tasks than seemed possible every week.
We’d brainstorm new ideas over the weekend and then try to implement as many as we could the following week. With a tiny team and relatively poor communication practices, this left us working long hours, shipping buggy, half-finished features, and never properly measuring the results of our activities.
Needless to say, we didn’t actually get much done. Our constant reprioritization and belief that simply doing more would help us succeed was naive.
Unfortunately, this problem is common in companies of all sizes, and it’s a productivity killer.
“Long periods of stress and extended hours, without the usual ways of renewing energy, can and will elicit suboptimal, even damaging behaviors. Those behaviors compromise a team’s energy, efficiency, innovation, and ultimately their performance.” – Dr. Wanda T. Wallace, Managing Partner of Leadership Forum
In the years since, I’ve realized that great leaders aren’t the ones who do more; they’re the ones who know how to prioritize best. They’re the ones who make time to really investigate problems and come up with rock-solid solutions. They’re the ones who make time to act deliberately.
The Work Never Stops
Before you can take steps to remedy this problem, you have to recognize why it’s happening. There are several common work habits that sap your productivity, leaving you little time to focus on deliberate planning and prioritization.
“Push-notifications are sapping our ability to get into flow, to do our best work, and to leave the office feeling truly accomplished. Instead, we’re more likely to leave the office feeling like we’ve worked all day with little to show for it.” – Steve Glaveski, CEO of Collective Campus
First, there’s the feeling that you have to respond to everything immediately. If you lead a team, it’s likely that your email and Slack inboxes are a steady stream of problems and questions that you need to respond to. While some of these problems are likely important, I’ve found very few are so urgent as to warrant a response time of less than a few hours.
The distinction between important and urgent is critical for leaders to understand, and one of the biggest barriers is real-time notifications.
Unfortunately, many “productivity” tools are centered around immediate notifications, and with smartphones and remote work becoming increasingly common, it’s not just a problem while at your desk: many people feel the need to be more available than ever.
“Nearly 70 percent of professionals who transitioned to remote work because of the pandemic say they now work on the weekends, and 45 percent say they regularly work more hours during the week than they did before.” – Roy Maurer, SHRM
Constantly hopping between “urgent” notifications and quick wins will give you very little time to focus on prioritization, long-term thinking, and strategic planning. They make you feel busy while making you a less effective leader.
Making Time to Act Deliberately
Like many overworked professionals, it took me a few years to see how this need to constantly check things off my to-do list was hurting my mental health and productivity.
In 2018, I heard Manoush Zomorodi, the author of Bored and Brilliant, on a podcast. She talked about the way that technology and work habits have made us feel the need to always be doing something and how this actually hurts us in the long run.
“Boredom is the gateway to mind-wandering, which helps our brains create those new connections that can solve anything from planning dinner to a breakthrough in combating global warming.” – Manoush Zomorodi, Bored and Brilliant
I took Zomorodi’s advice to heart. Since then, I’ve implemented a few practices to recapture time for thinking and acting deliberately. It’s made a huge difference, making me more productive and happier while allowing me to work less. I’m sure not all of the following ideas will work for you, but hopefully, they will inspire you to capture more time to work deliberately.
Turn Off Notifications
I’ve hinted at this already, but my first step was to turn off real-time notifications. There is almost never a message or notification that can’t wait 12-24 hours for me to see it, so instead of letting my phone interrupt me any time an app has new information, I just check important apps a few times throughout the day.
I also found that Slack was not a good fit for me, so I stopped using it for work. As an employee, you might not be able to opt out of Slack entirely, but you can put an autoresponder on to let people know that you only check it a few times per day.
Now, if you’re part of an on-call team that has to respond to urgent issues, this isn’t going to work, but you can at least turn off notifications when you’re not on call. I use Android’s “do not disturb” settings in situations like this.
Get Your Inbox Under Control
I found that just turning off notifications helped, but I was still hopping into my email inbox dozens of times each day just to see if something new came in. When it did, it would pull me out of focus, and I would get sucked into responding for 10-15 minutes.
So, I downloaded InboxWhenReady to block my inbox except for two one-hour windows throughout the day. I use a form of Inbox Zero where I triage each message and decide whether to:
- Respond immediately—Usually quick questions from my team or clients that can be answered without much thought. Sometimes I’ll respond and then make a to-do list item for myself in Trello if a longer response is required later.
- Respond today—Might require more thought, so I reserve some time each day to go through these messages.
- Snooze—Come back to this later, usually in a week, and see if it’s still important. If so, either respond or make a to-do list item for it.
- Filter or unsubscribe—Drip campaigns, receipts, and auto-responses can all be filtered. Newsletters and cold outreach can be unsubscribed from.
Now email is timeboxed (less than two hours each day), and this forces me to think about it for a while and then ignore it when I’m working on something important.
Monthly “No-Screens” Day
Bored and Brilliant advocates a six-day challenge for unhooking yourself from your phone. I decided that wouldn’t be realistic for my work, so instead, I take a monthly “no-screens” day to unplug from all forms of technology. This forces me to disconnect from the constant stimulation, and I often get a ton of long-term planning and prioritization done.
I also find these monthly no-screen days to be great for connecting with my city and being somewhat spontaneous. Without access to Google Maps or my smartphone for directions, I am forced to figure things out, talk to strangers, and just experiment. It breaks me out of my routine of being constantly planned and helps me discover new connections and ideas.
Time Tracking and Blocking
Another way that I’ve made time to act deliberately is by completely blocking off certain days on my calendar. When I managed engineering teams in the past, everyone enjoyed having at least one day every week where they knew they could be heads-down and focused all day.
I’ve also been a diligent time tracker for the past few years. As an engineering manager, this helped me ensure I wasn’t spending too much time in the code and, now as an entrepreneur, it helps me know when I need to hire someone. By understanding how much (or how little) time I am thinking of the big picture, I’m able to adjust my availability and appropriately limit the amount of work I take on.
Stop Work by 7 pm
When I’m doing interesting work, it’s really hard for me to shut it off at night. I frequently wake up at 3 am thinking about a problem from the day before and find it impossible to go back to sleep.
Sleep is really important for leaders though. Without enough sleep, you make poor decisions, are more easily irritated, and lack the energy you need to focus on deep work.
I’ve found that by stopping work earlier in the evening (ideally 7 pm), I am less likely to wake up too early. This can be tough to pull off—especially for those of us with family obligations and kids at home—but it’s a goal I try to keep most nights.
As a leader, making time to act deliberately, plan long-term projects, and prioritize problems that need to be solved are among your most important functions. Neglecting them will harm your team much more than being a little slow to respond to emails or not answering messages at 9 pm. Hopefully, my tips here will help, but there is no single path. Find a system that lets you maintain your productivity while reserving time for deep work and thinking.