Managing your chaos

Most of my days are full of meetings, in 30 minute increments, sometimes in 15 minute increments, and occasionally a rare 60 min meeting.  At one point in my career, I could have 30 meetings in a day (not lying, 15 min back to back meetings with maybe 2 breaks all day) for days, and on a few occasions, a couple of weeks at a time.  Even now, my days are stretched between staff meetings, weekly 1:1s, weekly all-hands and team meetings, board meetings, founder pitches, investor connections, community ‘asks’, portfolio company support, network maintenance… the list goes on, and that’s just the work stuff.  Tomorrow I have a slow day – 9 meetings; one of them is a 2 hour portfolio review, and that doesn’t include a friend’s launch party and an event at my kid’s school.  I remember when my calendar first started filling up this way, back in 2010 – it felt exhilarating…  I’m IMPORTANT!  Look at all the people that need me!  Now I just see it as a failure on my part to impart the right people with the right wisdom and freedom to be successful, independent of my input.

I often get asked how I manage it all, and I thought I’d share here because this topic has come up 3 times in the past 2 weeks.  So here’s “Nicole’s sure-fire way of managing chaos” – which arguably, I still don’t do well.

Own your day.

I work hard to “own my day”.  I set the rules for my day, not others, I only make exceptions when absolutely necessary, and I don’t let others make exceptions on my behalf. For instance, I have work/email time every day that’s 2 hours, which usually isn’t quite enough to get through my email, but I get through a big chunk of it.  I don’t let people schedule over it, I decline most meetings that interfere with that time – your issues be damned.  I realized that in the spirit of trying to be available to everyone, always, and not trying to disappoint people, I was prioritizing their emergencies over my sanity and productivity, and that simply doesn’t work.

Hold time every day for getting your own work done, period – and that doesn’t mean between the hours of 9pm and midnight. It means during your work day.  What I did at first to ‘own my day’ was create a fresh google calendar called “Nicole ideal” and I created my ideal schedule.  For me it was sleep until 7am, get my kids up and to school by 8, workout from 8-9, at the office by 9:30, work on my #1 priority from 9:30-10:30 (more on this later), meetings from 10:30-2:30, emails from 2:30-4:30, more meetings from 4:30-5:30 (accommodates the occasional “let’s grab a beer) get home by 6 for dinner with the kids/fam, kids in bed by 8pm, enjoy an hour catching up with my husband till 9pm, then catch up on my reading from 9-11, asleep by 11.  And yes, I get a full 8 hours of sleep every night.  I religiously stuck to this routine – the only thing that pulled me out of it was travel. Damn travel.  But the routine kept me productive, sane, focused on the right stuff, and quite frankly, happier.  I set that schedule based on my own rhythms of productivity, not the worlds demands.  For instance, I can’t work out in the evening, I’m too tired.  And in the morning, I’m my most productive self, so I want to work on that which is my greatest priority.  As the day wears on, I want to be more social, and then as I get more tired, I get more introverted so want to sit alone and do email.  Use your body’s own rhythms to dictate your schedule, don’t let the world dictate it.  I still maintain that schedule to this day.

Avoid context switching, aka time block!

Our brains have 2 functions related to context switching – awareness and attention.  Your attention can only be on one thing at a time, but you can be peripherally aware of many things at the same time.  However, we are not productive when we’re using the awareness part of your brain – awareness is there to just help us notice the tiger stalking us in the grass off to the left somewhere.  You’re only being productive when you give something your full and undivided attention (see the tiger!  run!  and then you don’t notice anything else going on because all your energy is focused on not getting eaten).  However, when something isn’t an imminent danger like a tiger, it takes us a while to drop into full attention on that object.  “Getting in the zone” takes time.  And so context switching burns time that’s making you radically less efficient.  If you have a project you need to get out the door, once your brain is fully engaged in it, you want to keep your brain fully engaged in it until it’s done.  Switching from your project, to a meeting, to your project again, to your email,  back to your project will radically lengthen the amount of time it takes you to get that project done.  I keep all things of a type together – I keep all my meetings together, back to back, because I’m in the mindset of serving others and so it’s easy for me to stay in that mindset.  I keep all my email time together because once my brain is in the zone of processing email, I can process them at lightening speed, but having 30 min here and there gets me through practically no email at all.  Also, notifications are the death of us and you should turn them all off.  Silence Slack, but make a habit of spending 5 min at the bottom of every hour to check it.  Turn off Facebook, Twitter, etc – and use the Do Not Disturb feature liberally on your phone and computer.  When your awareness of the pings and dings and popups turns into attention, it pulls you out of your productivity zone.  Remember, the goal here is to prioritize you and your work, not Slack.  It’s hard work to time block – but do it, you’ll get a ton more done in the same amount of time. And you’re only mildly less responsive.

One maker day a week

Paul Graham wrote a great article on the difference between manager time and maker time.  The short summary is that as a manager, your job is primarily meetings to help or unblock others – and you tend to work in 1 hour time blocks.  But as a creator, you need huge blocks of time to get anything done.

I’m much more of a creative type and do some of my best work alone, undisturbed, even though I’m technically a manager.  I schedule one maker day each week, and that’s how I get through the big projects I have on my desk or the big challenges I’m faced with because I can do a mental deep dive into that topic.  I have no meetings, none, scheduled for a whole day and I often work from home on that day to avoid interruption. I wake up and know that at least until 6pm, there is no place I have to be, so I’m not peripherally aware of that place I need to be later.  Here’s the thing, one meeting, even a 15 min long meeting, will crush the whole day.  If I absolutely HAVE to have a meeting that day, I try to do it first thing in the morning, so it’s done and out of the way.

Protecting my maker day is one of the hardest life hacks I have to protect, but it’s worth it. I’m happier, more productive, less stressed, and it’s a breather from being pulled 20 different directions simultaneously.

Big Rocks

There’s a famous analogy that Steven Covey makes about getting things done that I have always identified with.  If your limited time is a jar… you can fill it with little rocks or big rocks.  The big rocks are the BIG items you need to get your job done because those are the things that are going to move you or your team or your company forward.  The little rocks are all those little items on your todo list.  Most people spend time on their little rocks – which are the easy items, and they don’t end up with enough time to spend on the big rocks.  But if you focus on getting your big rocks done first, then you will make monumental shifts in your productivity – and then fill in the gaps with the little rocks.

Know what your big rocks are and schedule time to get that done before you do anything else.  In my task manager – I have those labeled as P1 (and I often create projects around them).   I can only have ONE P1 per week; I do those first every day, before I get to my email or my other tasks.  This forces me to be conscious every week of how I’m spending my time.

The little hacks

Those are the big 4 things that I do, and there are a bunch of little things I do as well, including:

  • For all the tips I said above – schedule them into your day.  Put blocks of time on your calendar with those events to make sure others won’t schedule over them, and so you know exactly what you’re supposed to be doing at that moment.
  • Use a scheduling tool to avoid back and forth emails.  I use YouCanBook.Me because of it’s ‘on duty’ feature, but there are so many out there that are all great.
  • Create rules in your inbox to star important messages – then respond to your stars first.  For me, this is the board of companies I am on, my immediate team and my direct reports.  I rarely have more than 5 emails a day in that category.
  • Get to-dos out of your email and into a task manager.  I use ToDoist b/c it has great gmail integration and calendar integration, but you can use any tool you want.
  • Find what manages your stress every day, and prioritize that over most everything else.  You will burn out, you will suck, people will hate being around you if you get this wrong, and by the way, you’ll get sick with some life threatening disease.  Stress is a slow killer and most people hit rock bottom before they figure this out.  For me, it’s daily exercise, ideally outside. Know yours and do it, every single day.

My system has helped keep me mostly sane, productive, and fulfilled – but I am always tweaking it to try new things and get better.  If you have tips that help you manage your chaos, I’d love to hear it!

2 thoughts on “Managing your chaos

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