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3 Practical Tips For Finding Focus As An Engineering Manager

Here are three small ways that you can allocate more time to deep work as an engineering manager.

My transition from lead developer to engineering manager to lead of leads took shape over about a decade. As my responsibilities increased, it became more and more important to manage my own time well. This included not only using my time effectively, but also prioritizing the right things to work on. As a manager, the bulk of my time was spent in meetings and one-on-ones, but those meetings often produced a lot of work that needed focus time. Finding time for that focus was always challenging. In my role as an advisor at Creo Advisory I’ve noticed this is an extremely common challenge for engineering managers.

A manager’s day is often split between many different calendar appointments (1:1s, syncs with senior leadership, etc) which makes it challenging to find any time for deep work. Much has been written about this elsewhere1, starting with Paul Graham 2009 essay, Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. Even beyond the non-coding kind of work that a manager needs to get done, there’s a strong argument to be made that engineering managers need to devote some amount of time to, well, engineering.2

Many managers I speak to average about 30 hours a week or more in meetings. If you assume a 40 hour work week, that leaves 10 hours or less over a week to do everything else you need to do. Often, that 10 hours is randomly scattered across the week in 10-30 minute increments, which makes it extremely challenging to find time to focus. As the heads-down work piles up, you become increasingly overwhelmed and important work may get dropped entirely.

Here are three things that have helped alleviate this problem for me in the past.

  • Block off time for heads down work. I strongly believe this is critical. It’s incredibly difficult to concentrate on anything in short 30 minute bursts. Figure out what time of day works best for you and block off a minimum 2 hour chunk, if possible. For me, I was able to create a four hour block on Tuesday afternoons. Of course, sometimes things come up and you need to use that time for synchronous discussions, but it should be kept to a minimum.
  • Make sure that your manager and your team are aware of the problem and the need for focus. There’s nothing more frustrating than attempting to allocate more time to heads-down work and having someone book over it for no good reason. Work with your team (both managers and your direct reports) to make sure they understand why you’re blocking time and what kinds of exceptions you have around booking over it. Use some of those management skills to sell the idea!
  • Find ways to signal to the team when you’re in focus time. If you’re in an office, it’s easy to signal with various physical flags: wearing headphones, closing an office door (if you’re lucky enough to have one), moving to a different physical location, etc. In a distributed environment, I have found it beneficial to signal focus time in group chat applications (e.g., Slack or Teams). You can often integrate your calendar with the group chat application to automatically change your status for you.

Once you’ve sold your team on the idea and blocked off the time, it’s important to use that time wisely! Deep work requires intentionality and effort, particularly when it comes to prioritization. Use it well. No pressure!

There’s no silver bullet here, but I believe that if you do these three things you will be a happier, more productive engineering manager.

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