Schedule Time to Focus

I have a fairly busy job as a director at a Fortune 10 company. I have a 12 person team, 9 major projects, three massive initiates for the year, and teams in three states and two countries. It got to be where my job was managing me. Here’s a look at a typical day:

6:00 am – Wake up, shower, feed the dog.
6:45 am – Leave to catch the train
7:15 am – Board train. Quick planning call with my team or sort email
8:15 am – Arrive at the office. Make coffee and get settled.
8:30 am – Process email
9:00 am – Meeting
9:30 am – Process email. Team is arriving, so I’m starting to field questions here and there
10:30 am – Meeting
11:00 am – Impromptu feedback with some of the team
11:30 am – Brief firefighting call with someone on my team
12:00 pm – Lunch
12:45 pm – Email meeting minutes and do a few other small tasks I signed up for from past meetings
1:00 pm – No meeting, awesome. Now… what should I do….
1:15 pm – Quick status chat with someone on the team
1:50 pm – Right, back to email
2:00 pm – One-on-one with someone on the team
2:30 pm – Meeting
3:30 pm – Catch up on email, and answer a few questions and provide a bit of feedback
4:00 pm – Meeting
5:00 pm – Catch the train home, wrapping up email or small tasks

Looking at that schedule, you’d think email is a primary initiative, right? Of course it’s not.

With such a fragmented day, I had no time to focus. The only thing I could complete in the short 15 minutes of free time was one or two emails.

My productivity went down, night-time working went up, and overall job satisfaction went down. Time to inflict some changes

Make Time for Work

First change I made was blocking out time in the morning and evening to do actual work. For this, that means creating repeating ‘Work’ blocks on my calendar. One wonderful-yet-terrible feature of Outlook is that it allows people to see your calendar is free so they can schedule a meeting. Similar to Parkinson's Law where work expands to fill the time available, the number of meetings will expand to fill your day if you allow it.

High Priority Work First

Now that I had dedicated time to work, I made sure to working on the highest-priority tasks first when I’m fresh and thinking clearest. I’ll fit the low-priority tasks in the small windows of time between meetings or in my evening work block. I use Things to constantly track tasks that need doing.

Plan the Day

The last thing I do (normally on the train) is review my schedule and to-do list for the next day. I choose the high-priority items and assign time-slots in my morning work-blocks for the next day. Now I relax for the night, knowing what tomorrow holds.

First thing I do when I start my workday is block my calendar for the day. I don’t accept any day-of meetings, unless it’s with my team or mission critical. This keeps me proactive throughout the day and keeps my plan mostly on track.

New Schedule

6:00 am – Wake up, shower, dog, train, etc.
8:00 am – Work!
11:00 am – Meetings, ad-hoc team feedback, etc.
2:00 pm – Every day I have a 1 hour one-on-one with someone on my team. Everyone rotates on a two-week cycle.
2:30 pm – Meetings, ad-hoc team feedback, etc.
4:00 pm – Work!
5:00 pm – Catch the train home and plan tomorrow’s work

Ahhhh, that’s better, right? Well, so far so good. I’ve only been doing this a month or two, but it’s already feeling better.

Scaling Through Quality

In my professional life, I’m always finding myself needing to do more. Needing to scale. I’m sure everyone runs into this eventually. As you get better at your craft, develop a reputation, amass more clients, etc., your time becomes more and more limited.

A lot of people approach this by working faster, pumping out more and more work, all while quality is slowly slipping away. This is the danger zone. A slippery slope.

Don’t do this.

Instead, work slow. Be methodical in your craft. Focus on the process. Enjoy the work. Produce the highest quality work your craft demands.

Now, when it’s time to scale, look back to your past work and use that as a lever, a pattern of good work, that can inform and speed your task at hand.

This is why design patterns are all the rage—they work.

Have an Opinion

Seth Godin says one of the greatest things you can do is run a blog because it forces you to have an opinon. Time and time again I see confirmation that having an opinion leads to better career opportunities.

You become the expert on a topic. Or the critic who can always find the fetal flaw in the plan, and having your blessing is the first step towards success. Or people want you at their conference or event to hear your opinions. You get the point...

Of course, having an opinion doesn’t mean you’re always right. People often ask ‘but what if I’m wrong?’. Well, then you’re wrong. Life goes on. Even better, someone who lays out the research and facts to why they’re changing their opinion is fantastic. It helps others to learn with you. It shows maturity, growth, and mindfulness.

Anyway you slice it, having an opinion is a good thing.

Point of view is worth 80 IQ points –Alan Kay

Sometimes it's hard to have an opinion. Opinions come from experience. From seeing successes and failures. From watching things fall apart from the inside. You wouldn't expect someone to have an opinion about a book they've never read, right? It's hard to form opinions without experiencing.

It means creating things, and more importantly, sharing them with the world. It means talking with other and deciding if you agree. It means trying new things. It means getting out of your comfort zone. It means learning how other fields can impact and influence your field. Forming opinions means having experiences.

Back to Seth’s advice; it’s no use in having opinions if you’re not sharing them. Whether it’s in meetings, on your blog, in conferences, or when mentoring. How will you learn if you don’t share and get feedback? Worse, how will others learn if you don’t share?

You’re already an expert in something. And you know a great deal about other things. Give back to the world and share your thoughts. We’re waiting.

Student Portfolio Review

I get asked to review a lot of student or recent graduate portfolios, and I see a lot more come through our online career board. Many people, regardless of experience, often overlook some of the basics every portfolio should have.

Think about a portfolio—what is it’s purpose? It’s not a time capsule or a year book, merely capturing how you spent your time. It’s purpose it to show me the type of work you love doing, and the type of work you want to keep doing.

Tell me about the process

In almost every job interview, the interviewer will say ‘Now, let’s take a look at your portfolio...’. Your portfolio should tell a story. It can be how you’ve matured as a designer. Or how multi-faceted you are. Or how your unique process or point of view separates you from the rest. Whatever that story is, know it. When building your portfolio, plan the narrative of how you will walk people through it.

I want to know how you did all this great work, and that you can do it again for my team. So tell me. Tell me how you came to the refined problem, and how you came to the final solution.

Notice I say how you came to the solution, rather than what the solution is. In most cases, I don’t care about the final product concept. And as you get further in your career, non disclosure agreements might prevent you from telling me what the solution is. Rather, I want to know how you got there. What was the process? What methods did you use? What challenges did you have to overcome? What did you learn from a process and self-improvement perspective?

As you explain your process, I can get a clear glimpse of how you’d contribute on my team.

Tell me what you did

College is full of group projects—they’re invaluable at teaching you real-world lessons, both about your topic of study and people. When showing work in your portfolio, tell me what role you played in each part. Sometimes you’re responsible for the big, sexy showpiece. Other times you’re more of a supporting actor, running the project management side of things, or digitizing copious amounts notes. That translates to the real world—we need team players that can do both, and strive to fill gaps and make the team better. This shows flexibility and teamwork. This is important.

Tell me why I need you

This one can be a little bit tricky. I don’t want you to sell me on you—that’s part of the interview. But I want to see how you would be able to fit on my team. What gap are you filling? How will you contribute?

I often tell younger designers and recent grads to think about implementation. Often times you’re designing work for a fictional company or nonprofit, which means the design work never go beyond the design. But tell me about what implementation would look like.

What documentation would you provide for the engineering team—these could be specs, red-lines, link to documentation, etc. How would it scale? How will other designers build on your work? Abstract-out the design language into a system. Show best practices on how to use existing design elements, and the rules for which to extend the design language. This will help mature your design work itself, and shows you’re able to fit in a larger design pipeline.

Tell me about you

Now that we got the hard part out of the way, tell me about you. I don’t mean tell me about your favorite vacation spot, or favorite band. But rather, what part of the design process is your favorite? What type of problems do you like to solve? What type of teams do you like working on? What role in the team do you thrive in?

Colleges focus on giving you a lot of different skills and experiences in hope one or two really click. Tell me what clicked for you, and what you want to continue doing.

Relax

Lastly, relax. A portfolio isn’t a legal document. It doesn’t have to be stuffy or dry. Let some of your personality seep through the words to give me an idea of who you are. Remember you audience, however; I wouldn’t go overboard. But it’s okay to have a little fun show through. That’s why we want to hire you, anyway.

How I Run One-on-Ones

One-on-one meetings with your staff are key to maintaining clear lines of communication and an healthy team culture.

Early-on when building my team, I wasn’t doing one-on-ones. I was busy and the team was small. But soon it became clear these sessions needed to happen—balls getting dropped and miscommunication.

To get started, I booked the first meeting for a full hour. I explain the purpose of the meetings—dedicated time for us to talk about progress, problems, and goals. I quickly went over yearly business goals and team goals then we got down to business at hand. After this first session, we went to 30 minutes and everyone knew what to expect.

Ground Rules

Don’t Cancel the Meeting

This is the number one rule of one-on-ones. This time is sacred. It’s protected. Your team needs to know that even if they didn’t get time to raise a concern earlier, or if the morning standup wasn’t the right place, that they still have this 30 minutes to talk about anything they want.

Maybe nothing happened since the last meeting. Maybe you blow through all your touch-point questions in 5 minutes. That’s fine. Just chat. Your both humans, with similar interests. Build a strong bond with the time remaining.

Just Chat

You don’t have to be all-business, all the time. Be sure to catch up on their life, their sport’s team achievements, adjustment to the city, etc. This means you don’t end early. Fill the time with smiles and building the relationship.

No Computers

I break this rule, but only because I’m making notes or to-do items. Otherwise, my attention is fully fixed on them. This is a small thing, but it makes a huge impact on trust and communication.

Follow Up

Did you assign yourself a task last meeting? Well, did you do it? Did they do theirs? These conversations are to help improve each other and the team. And that means holding each other accountable and doing the things we said we were going to do. Good, sustaining culture doesn’t happen by accident.

Questions To Get Things Started

How’s it going?

General status check, but I don’t accept ‘fine’ as an answer. Dig a bit to make sure you’re getting a real status check. Could be personal or project.

What should change? What should stay the same? What do you want more of?

It’s important you keep a pulse on culture and team satisfaction. Questions like these can start to uncover changes that make impacts.

What's one thing we can change for you to be more effective?

We all strive to be more effective. But as their manager, you can actually make this happen. Listen to your team, remove blockers, watch them flourish.

What 10% thing do you want to work on?

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Let teams solve new problems in their own ways. These small projects can lead to new initiatives, products, and better processes. I only ask my team to limit these projects to one at a time, and it results in something useful for the business.