This habit is not only for managers

As a software engineer, I've always liked having my agenda as empty as possible. It gives the impression that I'll be able to focus on my work because I wouldn't have to attend many meetings. I saw team leads and managers with full agendas, which always made me wonder how they managed them.

Yuri Luiz de Oliveira Software Engineer

I didn’t realize that I often struggled with time management, although my agenda wasn’t usually busy. It was frustrating as I felt I was unproductive for no good reason.

I’ve recently joined a team where time management is quite challenging due to the many things to do every day (the team name even reflects that). When you have a lot of things to do on the same day, even if small, it requires a lot of context switch, which consumes a lot of energy, as you’re constantly moving your attention from one subject to another.

I felt overwhelmed when things started popping up because the tasks would pile up in my brain. I didn’t allow myself to forget what I needed to do. While working on something, I’d think of everything else.

That happened frequently until, one day when I was catching up with my manager, and I saw a flash of his agenda. The agenda had many events like: “Talk to [someone] about [something]”, “Approve [something] for the consultants”, etc. He’d schedule a time in the agenda for his tasks, not only meetings.

It seemed paradoxical for me to want an agenda full of events, as it would give the impression you have a lot to do. But in the end, he valued the time to do his work as much as he empowered others by sharing his time. And that’s fair!

The problem: disrespect of your time

After this specific interaction with my boss’ agenda, I realized I wasn’t respecting my time. And, if you don’t respect your own time, others won’t as well.

Does having an agenda full of meetings you didn’t schedule makes sense? No! After all, it’s your time. Even if your job requires you to have a lot of meetings, they shouldn’t be the only thing on your agenda. If you reserve time for others, you should reserve time for you too.

Let’s say I planned to do the following during that day:

  • Deploy one application.
  • Investigate a production incident.
  • Review Pull requests of my peers.
  • Work on my development task(s) for the sprint.
  • Send an email message to a stakeholder about some specific business rule alignments.

Despite that being enough work for a day, my agenda would look like this:

Judging by the schedule, if someone asked for help or requested a meeting, they and I would have the impression that I’m free the whole day, even though it’s not true. I’m, then, disrespecting my own time and leading my peers to do the same.

How to respect your own time?

Reserve time for you

When you have many things to do on the same day, keeping track of them all is challenging. I’ve tried many different ways to manage my daily tasks, such as:

Remembering everything I needed to do

  • It relies solely on your memory.
  • It’s very susceptible to distractions.
  • It’s overwhelming to be constantly alert to everything you need to do.
  • It’s easy to forget something.

Keeping notes in a notebook or Post-it notes

  • Hard to keep track of deadlines.
  • Susceptible to ignoring stuff that has been there for too long.

Reminders apps

  • It’s overwhelming as the list gets more significant when you don’t manage to do everything.

All the above strategies fail in one thing: you’re not reserving time to work on the tasks. You know everything you need to do but didn’t commit any time to achieve that. You might (and, in my experience, is likely to) go back into a cycle of disrespecting your time.

And most importantly: you’ll have a lot of unfinished tasks to do, and your virtual agenda won’t reflect that, making it easy for you and others to schedule meetings in a day that should already be fully scheduled — by your tasks.

What if I told you, you could:

  • Reserve actual time for your tasks.
  • Be free to remember only some of what you need to do.
  • Have a visual representation of how busy you are.
  • Maintain fewer free time slots, making you and others respect your time.
  • Quickly move events around in the agenda.

You can achieve that by making the virtual agenda the core of your time management. Follow these guidelines, and you should see yourself focusing a lot more on your tasks:

  • Everything you need to do MUST be on your agenda, even if it’s something that you’ll do by yourself.
  • When something new comes in, put it in a free time slot and only move something to later if a task with a higher priority pops up (Helping others is not necessarily higher in importance).
  • When someone asks for help or to have a meeting, save some time in a FREE time slot. Don’t do it immediately.
  • When the time for the tasks is over, and it’s not finished, reserve more time in a free time slot.
  • Leave free time slots for breaks, and don’t schedule anything in them.

After I started using this approach, my agenda looked like this:

The check emojis ✅ are for progress tracking (finished and unfinished tasks).

Async-first communication (even in the office)

You probably heard this time before. Asynchronous communication means communicating in a way that does not require an immediate reply. Sending a text message is an excellent example of asynchronous communication. Async-first communication focuses on using asynchronous forms of communication whenever possible.

That’s usually the default in remote work environments. However, it is also helpful in an office environment. Turning to your colleague sitting next to you to ask something is a form of synchronous communication. This requires an immediate answer, taking their attention off their current task. Why should we do this in the office if you don’t just call someone in Microsoft Teams?

By sending a text message before asking them directly in person, you’re giving them time to finish their current thought and reserve some time to assist you.

Also, by taking time to answer, they can figure out stuff independently. I’ve been working for some time with a colleague on one application. I’d often message him with a problem I couldn’t fix after trying many things. Many times, a few minutes after sending him a message, I’d find the solution alone.

Async-first communication do’s and don’ts:

  • Do message someone and give them enough time to reply.
  • Do invite people to meetings with enough time for them to prepare (same-day appointments only if it is previously agreed).
  • Do call someone with previous notice or with a good reason to contact them immediately.
  • Don’t message someone requiring immediate interaction unless the message is urgent.
  • Don’t draw the attention of someone in the office if they seem concentrated or focused.

Useful tools

To achieve the most of time management, you’ll require a tool to easily create and modify events that is well synced with your work and personal agenda.

The core is the Calendar app. I used Outlook calendar for some time, but it wasn’t very flexible, and I spent a lot of time filling boilerplate of events.

Apple Calendar

  • The tool I currently use.
  • Integrates well with Outlook and Google agendas. I haven’t had any syncing problems so far.
  • Manage multiple agendas in the same app.
  • Flexible: you can copy/paste, duplicate events, and move them around quickly.
  • Free.
  • Available only on MacOS and iOS 😥.

Flexibits Fantastical

  • I haven’t used it personally, but a friend recommended it.
  • Powerful features: Smart scheduling, events & task templates, file attachments, etc.
  • Multiple agendas in the same app.
  • It has a free version, but using all features requires a premium membership.
  • Available only on MacOS and iOS 😥.

Those are tools that either I or a friend used. I, unfortunately, don’t have any recommendations for Windows and Android software as I have yet to test any for this. If you know any, let me know via LinkedIn.

Apple Calendar productivity tips

When using Apple Calendar on MacOS, there are helpful commands that I often use to make it quicker to maintain my tasks up-to-date in the agenda.

Copy and paste events.

By right-clicking or using CMD+C (Copy) and CMD+V (Paste), you can easily create new events with the same information as other events already created. The new events are created within the same time frame, with the same alerts and private flag. Using “templates” of events is very useful instead of setting everything manually every time.

Duplicate events

You can duplicate events by right-clicking the event. Duplicating is very similar to copying and pasting. You can use it if preferred.

Moving events around

You can use the mouse to move events around without the need to type the new event times. This is useful to make room for more prioritized tasks or to reserve time the next day for tasks you didn’t finish the same day.

Updating events duration

You can use the mouse also to update event durations.

Create quick events

There’s an option to “Create Quick Event”. This allows you to create an event by typing the event info, such as “Deploy application at 14 on June 12th”. This will create an event at 14:00 on June 12th with the “Deploy application” description.

Finished flags

I like to have visual representations of whether a task has been finished or not. Apple Calendar does not have a feature for this. I then use check emojis ☑️ ✅ to represent if something is finished.

Final remarks

When I started using this technique, I needed help with time management. I tried many different approaches to balance my tasks with meetings and assisting others, and none worked.

Concentrating my work management in my virtual agenda and agreeing on async-first communication helped keep my daily work organized the most.

Those aren’t, however, holy grails of time management (I don’t believe there’s such a thing). Suppose you need help with time management or are overwhelmed by your daily work management. In that case, try those strategies and see how helpful it’s to you in your current situation.

Having your virtual work agenda reflect your plans for the day is very important, and using reminders, notebooks, or a physical schedule doesn’t provide this (handy) benefit.

I hope this article was helpful. Even if you don’t find a lot of use to what I shared here, please take care of your time as much as you can.

This article is written by Yuri Luiz de Oliveira, for the WAES Medium blog.