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Managing your time – from a senior IC at Google
Time management tips for thriving and surviving within a large, corporate environment with so many fun things to work on
Since I was a kid, I’ve always had a knack for efficiency and time management. Even in Elementary school, I would speed walk to classes. In high school, I did my homework in my other classes, so I rarely had to do it in the evenings. In college, I worked full-time and attended evening classes to get a jumpstart as a designer while finishing my degree.
Time management may be the quintessential skill to master. It’s a currency we can never get enough of, and once it’s spent, you can’t get it back. If used well, time translates to our impact at work. It also impacts our ability to have a work/life balance. If done poorly, it can result in missed deadlines, feeling overwhelmed and stressed, and a fuzzy set of prioritization.
While working in a large tech org, time management can feel chaotic. We may feel a lack of control over where our time is going as people put random meetings on our calendar, requests come through chat from people we’ve never met, and a constant flow of emails that we have FOMO over. Despite time management being in my blood, it’s a daily wrestle over priorities, where to say yes, and, more importantly, where to say no.
My friend and old office mate Alison Tintle shared this metaphor: Work is like a buffet. You pick up a tray (your time), and there’s a lot of tasty food (projects) you’re being offered to work on. But at a certain point, your tray will bear more than you can hold and more than you can eat. You’ll likely drop some things. And now you’re caught with more than you can eat. You have a finite amount of time, even if your eyes are bigger than your stomach.
Today, I’ll share some thoughts and ideas on managing your time working in (big) tech. Since there are many, many good blogs and books on this topic already, I’ll focus on the specifics that help me stay focused and productive in both Amazon and Google’s hectic meeting-centric culture.
My framework for time prioritization
Over the last ten years, I’ve increasingly been able to set my priorities and decide where my focus goes. This is common as you become more senior and have more autonomy. Even if you aren’t there yet, you are likely asked to do work that you have a choice of whether to prioritize.
To prioritize how I manage my time, I ask myself:
What will happen if we wait?
Will I block another workstream by delaying this?
What other tasks or responsibilities do I currently have? Can I realistically prioritize this work without neglecting other important tasks?
How is this work utilizing my superpowers?
How does this align with my current work or past experiences?
Will this work help me learn?
Is there someone else who is better positioned to do this?
Will I be excited to contribute to this?
What’s the impact of this work?
How significant are the CX issues affected by this?
How many customers are affected?
What’s the risk to the business in this work?
Will it significantly impact the overall success of my projects or career?
What are the consequences of not completing this work? Will it impact my reputation, relationships with colleagues, or future opportunities?
What’s the cost of this work?
What am I giving up by taking this on?
How much time and effort will it take to complete this work?
How will prioritizing this work affect my work-life balance and overall well-being?
In the last few years, I’ve started to factor in ‘how is this leveraging my superpowers’ into my time management. Before committing (task, a meeting, volunteer to help), I try to think deeply about why I’m the right person to contribute. My goal is to spend the majority of my time contributing in a way that I can bring the most value to Google and our users. I love feeling included when people invite me to meetings, but I also have to consider what value I can bring by attending. When I’m asked to mentor, I inspect how I can best help them or whether I know others who may be of equal help.
There are two caveats to this. First, if the task takes me less than 5 minutes, I do it immediately and do not second guess. I’ve learned I may spend more time avoiding the 5-minute tasks than just doing them. Second, I believe in Amazon’s ownership leadership principle that leaders “never say ‘that’s not my job.’” I don’t avoid tasks because I feel they are beneath me or should be done by someone else.
This may sound like a lot of dimensions. I don’t ask myself all of these questions for every task, but these are the considerations I’m trying to calculate whether my time will be well spent. Primarily, I’m trying to optimize my time to have the most significant impact on the most number of people, either internally or externally.
Funnel all tasks into one inbox.
At work, it can be easy to suddenly find yourself with to-do tasks in many places: email inbox, chat, meeting notes, sticky notes, a notes app, your calendar, your to-do list, etc. For many years, I’ve used a variation of GTD (Getting Things Done) using Evernote (now Notion). One key aspect of GTD is to have a single place to capture your to-dos. You must clearly understand what tasks need to be done and in what order. Two GTD suggestions have stuck with me:
Capture all of your tasks into a single place. Avoid storing these in multiple places you can’t evaluate as a complete set and prioritize.
Organize your tasks into categories. I use “Now” (1 task, current focus), “Next” (1-2 tasks I’ll work on immediately after Now), “Soon” (Tasks I intend to do in the next week or so), “Later” (Tasks I want to capture to do at some point but not as urgent), and a “Waiting” (tasks I’m blocked as I wait for others).
As I wrap up my now and next tasks, I can quickly look to my soon and determine the next areas to focus on. Occasionally, I’ll find myself with multiple “now” tasks or too many “next” tasks. My system has broken down, and I feel overwhelmed. This is an indicator to pause and reflect on where I need to be focused on having the most immediate value for upcoming deliverables and milestones.
Keep a list of priorities and not priorities.
Beyond managing my tasks, I also organize time spent across key projects and focus areas. This is an excellent managing up technique to share weekly or monthly. I have a shared doc (or you may send it as an email) with my manager that I summarize the key places my time is going. These may be multi-month projects, new areas I’ve volunteered with, repeating meetings that occupy a portion of my time that I want to indicate, etc. I organize this list into four categories:
High Investment (70% of time): This category is where most of my time goes, about 25-30 hours a week. I aim to only have a single high-investment project at a time to make the most impact on a single area. Dividing my time between too many projects means changing context too often. This isn’t always possible, but it’s what I aspire to and what happens for me most of the time now. If something urgent comes up one week, I can use this to indicate my previous “high investment” project is a lower priority for that week.
Medium Investment (20% of time): This category can have 1, maybe 2, lower priority projects that I tackle as I have time between my high-investment project. This is about 8 hours per week.
Low Investment (10% of time): This is where 4 hours of my week goes. This is usually where I’ll list reoccurring meetings (30 minutes here and 60 minutes there really add up). I include mentoring, office hours, design reviews, working groups, and projects that may be in “keep the lights on” where they are in low maintenance with just a trickle of work.
Backlog (No Active Work): This is a list of things I am not actively spending time on but could. The only time I may spend on these tasks may be replying to an email or two, but I don’t use this priorities list to track the “5-minute” tasks.
My “No Active Work” category may be the most important, especially for those of us who over-commit or think we have a larger tray than we actually have. It’s my “do nothing” list and is usually 3-4x longer than the other priorities I include. Maintaining this list allows you to compare everything you’re prioritizing against the other things you can do. This list is crucial to know what you could spend time on if you find yourself with more time and also to align with your manager in case they want to shuffle your priorities.
Dimensions for considering your time spent
In addition to recording my time across major areas of work, I also reflect on how that time translates into a few different dimensions:
Time horizons: what’s now (10%), what’s next (30%), and what’s possible (60%).
Balance time and attention between: Myself (5%), my UX/product orgs (75%), Ads Org (15%), Google (5%), My industry (0%).
I learned about time horizons from Luu Tran’s Amazon blog, whose blog inspired me to start writing. (Amazonians: look up “luut” on Amazon wiki to find his blog.) Time horizons allow you to understand how you are concurrently managing current and future business opportunities. The now horizon is activities that impact today or this week that have immediate business consequences if they aren’t done. These tasks could block team members, on-call tickets, meetings to move projects forward, etc. The next horizon is this work that impacts what’s coming up this quarter or later this year. This work looks around the corner to jumpstart what’s coming up. The what’s possible horizon looks further ahead; I tend to scope this to the next 12-24 months, although this work can also mean 3-5 years, depending on your focus. This looks at emerging trends, new business opportunities, and innovative ideas – doing the work that lays the groundwork for future projects.
In the second bullet, I use this to reflect on how much my time will impact the various groups around me. I include “myself” to consider how much time I’m spending to grow myself, including meeting with mentors, reflecting on my growth opportunities, attending training or workshops, etc. When looking for ways to expand my scope, I may look at how I shift the time balance to spend more time on areas broader than my immediate team.
Time is precious; block your calendar.
In the book Deep Work, Cal Newport describes shallow work as “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.” He goes on to say, “To produce at your peak level, you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.”
For the past five years, I have blocked half of my calendar every week. My two exceptions are 1) urgent meetings that align with my highest priority projects that cannot meet at any other time and 2) Director or higher reviews that I need to attend (because I realize their calendar is harder to balance than mine). In addition to enabling me to have extended periods of concentration, this also pushes me to have more back-to-back meetings. For me, 30 minutes between meetings is frustrating because it’s not enough time to build momentum on projects – only enough time to clear a few emails and use the restroom. Blocking my calendar helps prevent these small gaps and maximizes consecutive focus periods.
That’s all I have for today. These are my tips on time management:
Create a framework for how to manage your time.
Evaluate where you can bring the greatest value, but also don’t say “that’s not my job” if something needs to be done.
Funnel all of your to-dos into one place to organize what needs to be done.
Keep track of your list of things you are intentionally not spending time on.
Keep a running list of priorities organized by your time commitment between high, medium, and low investment.
Block your calendar to have focused periods of work.
Schedule 1:1s to fill the 30-minute gaps.
That’s all I have for today. Thanks for taking the time to read. I’d love to hear from you: What are your time management tips? You can comment publicly or reply directly to this email. If there’s a topic you’d like to read, drop me an email. If you’re finding this newsletter helpful, I’d be grateful if you share this with friends.