System Resilience

A system is resilient to the degree to which it rapidly and effectively protects its critical capabilities from disruptions caused by adverse events and conditions. (Source)


Little did I know towards the end of last year, while setting up a system to allow my professional growth, that it was going to become the lighthouse bringing me to safe harbor during the tempest.

Strength

In March of this year, the world changed.

I have been working for a distributed company for more than nine years, and before that, I had worked remotely most of my life. It would be easy to reach the conclusion that for my colleagues and myself, changes were less deep than for the rest of the world.

The reality though is that for all its advantages, working from anywhere also comes with challenges. In my case, the struggle is about maintaining sufficient levels of physical activity, and social interactions.

It is great luck to have your passion and your work overlap, but when your home and office are also the same places it can become consuming. In normal times, the world around you can be used as a guide: kids go to school and come back, you want to hit the gym during a quiet hour, meeting friends for lunch or dinner drags you out of the house, and then weekends come and go with their whole sleeve of potential activities.

When the world suddenly changes, and staying home becomes the smart (or mandatory) thing to do, when suddenly every day looks exactly like the previous one, having a preexisting structure, and being accustomed to it for months, helped me incommensurably. 

That was a stark reminder that the future will always manage to surprise us, and the only way to be ready is to prepare ourselves during times of stability.

Structure

Last November I shared the principles behind my schedule, here’s how it looks now on a typical week:

Almost every slot between Monday and Friday is allocated to an activity. The mornings mostly reserved for focused time and solo work, the afternoons overall dedicated to collaboration with others.

I take some time on Monday morning to allocate the morning green slots to specific tasks based on the moment’s priorities. I also leave a few open slots in the afternoons to have the ability to handle the unexpected requests from teammates without becoming a bottleneck for anyone.

Scarcity

With very rare exceptions, I never schedule meetings in the morning. 

On top of giving me daily opportunities to do uninterrupted, focused, work, it also sets a limit to the number of meetings I can participate in on a given week, which in turn pushes me to prioritize which ones to attend.

It is crucial to be present for my teammates, but it is even more important for them to be empowered to make decisions autonomously, and for me to be able to focus on the aspects of my role that require concentration. This reminds me of the safety instructions from airplanes: put a mask on yourself before helping others. 

Discipline

Ten months have passed since I started experimenting with this type of structure, and I was certainly helped by the fact that when the first lockdown measures took place in March this year, I had already built routines and habits around it.

With that being said, while it is, of course, preferable to prepare for a crisis during quiet times, that’s not always possible, and particularly when the changes disrupting our lives are there to last, we must remember that for all the changes that we have not asked for, we always have the option to introduce more structure to our days to create a framework that will guide us when we are confused.

That’s precisely the primary way the system helps me: I have good days, and bad days, super focused days, and days I absolutely can’t concentrate. I am particularly struggling with those days I feel like I am drowning in newsfeeds, each one more daunting and pessimistic than the previous one.

Whenever I start feeling like I am losing control though, my calendar is always one keystroke away, which allows me to recenter on the task at hand or the upcoming meeting, and puts me back on track.

The Night is Dark, and Full of News…

That is until night comes. I am still working on that. It seems that the one boundary I can’t respect so far is the one between awake and sleep time. I have been quite good in the mornings, at avoiding been swallowed by newsfeeds as soon as I open my eyes, but I am failing at it at night, and I too often waste an hour or more of precious sleep to read news and analysis from all around the world.

Results

The results are positive so far. I want to be very candid though, I believe that there are contextual factors that have amplified the short term results but may have a delayed cost.

On the one hand, a non-negligible productivity boost comes from having eliminated travel from my life. With an average of one week per month away from home, between the time spent in airports, planes, catching up with jetlag, and focusing on activities different from my day-to-day, I was always playing a game of catch-up in the past.

I now have much tighter control on my schedule, being at home every day, and my todo list has never been shorter and cleaner.

This is something we’ll have to pay back in the future. Six months in, I start feeling that the lack of time spent face to face is affecting us already.

September is the month where traditionally we would meet the full company at the Automattic Grand Meetup.

There are too many colleagues hired in 2020 who never met any of their teammates in real life, there are too many laughs, hugs, meals, and drinks that have been indefinitely postponed.

On the other hand, a number of activities I was having a hard time being consistent with, like going to the gym, or to the coworking space, have now been off-limits for months.

This has contributed to making me feel better about myself for a while, but I am increasingly aware that this too, will demand payback at some point.

At least I have managed to keep my weight in check, and actually lose a few kilos since March, by eating only every other day… but that’s another story and another post.

Future

Our ability to control our lives, our environment, and our schedule will vary, but as Nir Eyal explains in his book “Indistractable”, it’s not what we do with our time that matters, as much as whether we do what we had planned to do.

I am optimistic, we’ll get out of the current crisis.

I am also cynical, there will be others, and as change is accelerating, they’ll come faster and faster. Don’t take my word for it (thank you Bob for the link).

I will keep iterating on this system. Experimenting, listening for feedback, preparing for the changes I will see coming, and building resilience to handle the ones I won’t.

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Personal Scalability

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.

The Plan

The schedule:

  • 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).

Takeaways

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?

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