When I transitioned from software engineering to engineering management I had a difficult time adjusting to the new job. As an engineer, I let the day run me. I did not proactively plan my day or my week. I worked on my sprint tasks when I had no meetings and joined meetings when I had to.
That is a common way of working as an engineer. You want to do your work and try to maximize your time to code and try to get into flow state. This can work out fine.
I continued with that basic framework as an engineering manager out of habit and it did not work.
By letting the day run me I was sitting in meetings almost all the time, never got into flow state and just reacted to things. I barely had time to do any proactive, strategic work and when I had some time I feverishly caught up on outstanding todos.
In 1988 Jamaican artist Flourgon landed a number one hit with “We run things”. In the chorus he used the Jamaican proverb:
We run tings, tings nuh run we.
In the spirit of these wise words, the solution to the problem was for me to start to run my day. Doing so basically means to take control of your calendar and live by it.
Every day I switch my calendar into day-view and clean it up. I Reject any meetings I don’t have to participate in, resolve parallel meeting conflicts by rejecting or moving meetings that I can’t attend and schedule things I want to get done in the remaining free areas of the day.
Using your calendar and scheduling everything you want to do in there is a major productivity practice taught by many productivity experts. Ideally you work on one thing at a time and plan beforehand when to do it.
Taking control of your calendar has little value if you are letting Slack and email constantly distract you from what you are trying to do. Checking your messages is also work that should be scheduled.
My Slack notifications are always turned off. I schedule time to check Slack and answer messages. Sometimes I just quit Slack to make sure I am not distracted by attempts of the lizard brain to quickly switch over and see what is going on in there. The same setup goes for email.
The last ingredient needed to run your day is to keep a todo list. This is something I never needed as a software engineer. Every attempt of using a todo list ended in todos rotting away somewhere in different todo apps, never reviewed, never checked off.
As an engineering manager I find myself inundated with little tasks I need to do or little to big things I volunteer to do for my direct reports or my manager. In order to not forget 90% of these things I have to write them down. I use Things for that.
I use a global keyboard shortcut to capture every single thing I need to do in my Things Inbox. On a daily basis I do a review of the todos. Sort them into the right areas (typically just “Work”) and prioritize them.
When it comes to prioritization I learned that it really helps to focus in on the 1-3 tasks you really and truly want or need to get done today. Add them to your Today list and makes sure you definitely do them. Repeat every day.
To be honest I am quite bad at reviewing my todo list every day but when I fall off the wagon I just pick up from where I left off. I go through the list, check off everything that is already done, delete every todo I don’t need anymore and proceed to prioritizing the top 1-3 items.
When sorting todos I also use Things’ scheduling features for items I don’t need to think about now so that they are out of my face.
This technique really helps to deal with the emotionally overwhelming aspect of growing todo lists. And this is where we go full circle and come back to the calendar because the work items that you schedule for your meeting-free time should be the top priorities from your todo list.
So this is how you run your day.
To summarize, the first rule is to make your calendar the single source of truth for anything you do today and live by it. Second, one must turn off all notifications and any other distractions, schedule message checking and answering as per the first rule. And the third rule is to keep, review and prioritize a todo list, schedule top priorities as per rule one.