Scalability is the property of a system to handle a growing amount of work by adding resources to the system. (Source)
Ever had a moment you felt you couldn’t scale? It happened to me about three months ago, in the middle of the summer, about three months in a new role.
What I mean is that looking at my schedule, I realized that most of my day, I was busy in 1-1s and meetings. Only a bit of time remained to concentrate, sprinkled in here and there.
As a reaction to this situation, I was stretching my days later and later into the evening and sometimes the night, sacrificing family time for little marginal additional impact.
My working hours had become directly proportional to the number of people with whom I am working / I was meeting. With my time being limited, this was the definition of a bottleneck.
I couldn’t scale.
I work for Automattic, and one of the most valuable perks we receive is access to amazing professional coaches to help us grow in our roles, and thanks to this program I meet every other week with my coach, Akshay Kapur (disclaimer: we are hiring).
We then started a conversation about holding two paths at once. How to work hard and smart? How to focus both on business and family, without sacrificing either?
In our coaching sessions I realized that abundance is the enemy of prioritization, which led to the question of how I could create scarcity for myself. We then agreed that I would create a sustainable and scalable system.
We highlighted that being constantly available and always valuing everyone’s time ahead of my own wasn’t doing anyone a favor and wasn’t helping me bringing my best value to the company.
We agreed to start experimenting by reserving some time, even just 30 minutes, once a week, to reflect — a 1-1 with myself, a time with no external solicitations, no tasks to accomplish. A time when even doing nothing would be considered a success.
Now I haven’t yet read Deep Work, but I heard about the principles mentioned in the book. I have known for a long time the real cost of interruptions, as well as the fact that the human brain is particularly bad at multitasking.
There is value in nurturing that “do nothing” time; it’s the time when most of the plan came to fruition.
Finally, I identified a significant obstacle standing in the way: my phone (I am not sure why we keep calling it that), rather the computer on my nightstand. I was using it as an alarm and sleep tracker, and as such, was the first object I would use after waking up and the last before falling asleep.
Starting my day with an iPhone in my hand completely ruins any chances of success. Once I dive into the notifications from the night, there is no way back to concentrating.
I have since switched to charging it on my desk, out of reach from my bed.
Going to bed without my phone is just a collateral benefit. I wasn’t sure it would matter much until I realized that I was back to falling asleep reading books instead of newsfeeds.
I am now two months into this experiment, and not only is it working, but I am enjoying it enough that I can see it last. It’s still a work in progress though, and there are still areas for improvement,
Here’s the thing: the “plan” I am referring to relies on a tighter organization of my work schedule and starting each day with the “do nothing” time I described.
- 08.30 – 09.00: Go to the co-working space
- 09.00 – 10.00: Do nothing time
- 10.00 – 11.30: Focused Work session 1
- 11.30 – 13.00: Focused Work session 2
- 13.00 – 14.00: Lunch
- 14.00 – 14.30: Relocate home for the afternoon
- 14.30 – 19.00: Meetings and 1-1
- 19.00 – 20.00: Generally free, the occasional meeting can be scheduled here if necessary.
Disclaimer: this setup works well for me because I live in Vienna, and interact mostly with people from UTC-8 to UTC+3, your mileage may vary if your conditions are different.
Note: It looks dense written down like that, but that’s only to keep it short. I take a short break between the two Focused Work sessions, and I manage 5 to 10 minutes of break in the afternoon every hour by scheduling meetings for 25 or 50 minutes.
On top of the schedule:
- I try to work on at least two different tasks in the focused sessions, more if they are shorter tasks.
- I use Zapier to set my Slack status so that my colleagues know when to expect quick answers, and when I am not receiving notifications unless it’s an emergency.
- I have no expectations of getting any focused work done in the afternoons.
What have I achieved so far?
- I haven’t had so much focused time per week in a long time, which is the most significant benefit.
- I have artificially limited the number of hours available for meetings, creating the scarcity that has allowed me to eliminate a few by prioritizing the most impactful ones.
- I feel much better not starting my day with my iPhone, but with a family chat or a book.
- I don’t spend all my evenings online anymore.
- I sometimes read at night again.
What is not working yet, or could be improved?
- I failed so far at consistently going to the co-working space in the morning. That is my next challenge.
- I am not yet good enough at ending meetings on time to keep the short breaks in between.
- I still tend to check notifications and Slack messages now and then at night, even if I am not working anymore.
- I keep going to bed too late at night, but at least now it’s not because I was working.
- I have been doing this for nine weeks, and I was traveling during three of them. I don’t have an equivalent yet for travel weeks, so the system is only effective for about 2/3 of the time (should average to 75% of the time over a year).
As I mentioned, this isn’t the first time I tried to organize a schedule to reserve time for different tasks or types of work.
In the past, I always failed within a few days. With a different premise, this time it’s working better. Valuing everyone else’s time above mine is not working well. The scarcity I have created for myself leads to prioritization and impact.
In the past, I always sacrificed my wish to have focused time on the altar of total availability.
Are you doing the same?