Think of this. You have a job where, whenever you need to, you can find the absolute truth. When someone asks you, “Phil, why is this happening?” you are 100% confident that you can figure out the precise answer.
This is the idyllic situation many engineers on the planet Earth live in, and, well, it’s just a great gig.
I exaggerate. Engineers do have blind spots, but for their work, for their specific pile of bits, they are omniscient. They’re their bits and they constructed them into their specific system where they are intimately familiar with the rules because they defined them.
Outside of my career as an engineer, I’ve been a store clerk, a butcher, a video rental clerk, a lawyer’s assistant, and a bookseller, and while it’s been over 15 years since I’ve done any of these jobs, I remember the sense of naive pointlessness: “What do I build? Well, I sell stuff, cut stuff, or type stuff. I don’t really build anything, I… do stuff.”
This made the first engineering gig a revelation. “You. We are building a database application and you own this specific part. It is entirely yours. Don’t fuck it up.”
Delicious, delicious structure. Sweet, sweet definition.
These basic and essential elements of job satisfaction are at the root of why many engineers make horrible managers. They are trained and love to be control freaks.
The New Gig
Now you have a new job. You have an office and you have a door. On your desk, there’s a timer that tracks the number of seconds that it’s just you alone in your office. Whenever someone else walks into your office, the timer magically resets to zero.
Today’s record for consecutive uninterrupted seconds is 47.
This is not a world an engineer is used to, this interrupt-driven day full of people and political calculus. This is where the reputation that your manager does nothing begins. It’s your manager who thinks it. It’s the close of the day and your manager wonders, “Did I actually do anything today except contend with a constant stream of people coming into my office?”
Try as you might, the structure and definition of your quiet engineering gig is gone. Your days of digital omniscience are over.
This is the big switch between the engineer and the manager. You are leaving the comfortable world of bits for one of bafflingly configured atoms, where you need to figure out how to trust those you work with. Where you need to train folks to make decisions for themselves, but also help them understand it’s ok to escalate for help. It’s a gig where you need to keep track of everything, constantly re-prioritize, but remain strategically limber.
And to do all of this, you need a task tracking system that allows you to strategically forget.
The Taste of the Day
This is my system. It’s a mix of my ability to be a systematic thinker with the fact that there is more to do than I can ever complete. I’ve been using some variation of it for ten years now and it’s how I run my day and my week.
It all orbits around a task system. Your first question will be: “What task tracking system do you use, Rands?” The answer is a simple: “Whatever works for you”. I’ve used a homegrown Excel system, Tasks, and I’m currently using Things, but as you’ll see, the strategic key here is not identification of the task tracking system, it’s using it — all the time.
This system is designed to create a living, breathing, manageable list of things you might actually do, and it starts with…
The Morning Scrub
The first task of the day is to set my head. What kind of day am I getting myself into? A quick glance at the calendar gives me the first hint of what to expect. Is this a quiet get-things-done day? A meeting hell day? Or a sky-is-falling day? Each day has a different taste and the Morning Scrub forces me to set my head appropriately. It gives me a rough sense of my capacity, the people I’ll meet, and what they might need. More importantly, it reminds me that Priority is Relative.
Humans suffer from bright’n’shiny complex, where we’re titillated by the new. Think of it like this: have you actually done anything with that last domain you bought? No. You had the idea for it on Tuesday morning and you got all fired up, so you bought the domain the moment you got in to work. At lunch you furiously doodled your design in your notebook, fully intending to get home and get started on the HTML/CSS, and then you got home… and watched Lost.
Take the bright’n’shiny complex and apply it to your entire group, where everyone is prioritizing their day by their particular inspiration and you’ll realize it’s shocking that we ever collectively get anything done.
By taking a deep breath and considering your entire day, I’m attempting to ditch all the bright’n’shininess and gather perspective: “What is going to matter today?” With this rough priority scale in mind, I do a complete scrub of the to-do list. Yeah, the whole thing. If you can’t get through this list in 5 uninterrupted minutes, your list is either too long or you’re bad at scrubbing. Don’t worry about that yet.
The purpose of the Morning Scrub is to land each task into one of three buckets:
- Today. This task must be completed today.
- Later. Not today. Later.
- Never. Yeah, I’m never going to do this task. It’s gone. This is an important essential decision that we’ll talk about in a moment.
Initially, getting through this list is tricky because, invariably, a task will be so delectable that you’ll want to jump into immediate action. Don’t. The point of this scrub is not forward momentum; it’s complete prioritization. Any deviation from the scrub decreases the chance you’ll get through the whole list.
How many Today tasks are left when you’re done with the scrub? I don’t know because I don’t know who you are or how granular your tasks are, but I usually end up with between 10 and 20.
With the Morning Scrub complete, I create the Parking Lot. This is a blank legal size piece of paper that sits directly to the left of the keyboard. New sheet. Always legal size. Every morning.
Anyone who has sat through an offsite knows exactly what this paper is for. It’s the landing spot for any idea/task/thing that is worth remembering, but, if acted upon at the moment, will derail the productivity train. Like the Morning Scrub, the art of capturing a bright’n’shiny idea and landing it in the Parking Lot is an acquired skill. You’re going to want to move on the new, and sometimes that’s the right move, but you need to honestly and quickly answer the question, “Is moving on this new thing more important than finishing what I’m doing right now?”
Practice Productivity Minimalism
As I’ve already mentioned (and written about), this is not a piece where I’ll debate the pro/cons of various productivity tools. You get to find a tool that fits your personal quirks, but whatever that tool is, I have some brief advice how to use it relative to assessing your personal Taste of the Day:
- My task list has no hierarchical organization. I’ve used systems before that allow me to lump tasks by projects or by theme and, inevitably, I end up maintaining the structure rather than getting shit done. This pisses me off.
- I do use tags within Things, but only to track who the most important person is, if anyone, for a given task. This is a handy way to run 1:1s. “Show me all Bob-related things.”
- No priorities. Really. Again, priority is relative, and while slapping a priority on a task when you create it feels right, it’s wrong because two days from now the priority will be different. Priority is a big deal — as a manager you want to get the right stuff done at the right time, but the priority that matters is the one sitting in your head right now rather than the one you dreamed up a week ago.
- No dates. I’ve got to be pissing off productivity nerds now. I don’t track due dates, either. I fully scrub my to-do list every day, which means I’m constantly making real-time calls regarding scheduling tasks.
As an engineer, your natural inclination is to build an increasingly complex system for tracking your tasks. The risk is that the more structure you put into your list, the more you need to maintain it, and the more you maintain it, the less time you’ll have to actually get work done.
After work, after dinner, or just before I go to sleep, I complete another scrub. The process for the Evening Scrub is slightly different.
First, I scrub the Parking Lot into the Later bucket. This is the first taste I get of how the day actually went. Lots of new tasks? Ok, what kind? With the Parking Lot scrubbed, I take a moment to size up the day. How’d I do on taste? My original read was “meeting-infested nightmare” — was I right? This is another priority leveling exercise. It doesn’t matter if I made the right call on the day; the point is to again set your head appropriately.
Finally, I scrub unfinished items in the Today bucket. For each item remaining, I ask, “Ok, why didn’t I get this done?” Very often, the answer is, “Not enough time”, so the item gets thrown back into the Later bucket, but sometimes it just gets deleted.
Your question is, “How did a task that was scrubbed into the Today bucket this morning suddenly become irrelevant?”
The efficient, version control-loving information pack rat in you is going to have a problem punting a task into oblivion. Your thought is, “Sure, it might not feel important right now, but WHAT IF!?”
Stop. Delete it. We’ve already wasted 37 seconds noodling on this semi-essential but tasteless task. Nuke it. By getting this task off your list and out of your head, we’re making space. Don’t worry, if the task is actually important, it’s going to find its way back to your Parking Lot.
This deletion is advanced management kung-fu and it’s based on insight I don’t like to give to new managers because it’s a total productivity buzz kill. The insight is: “You will never complete everything you should.”
“Rands, I can do anything!”
Of course you can.
“Don’t tell me what I can’t do!”
I’m not. What I’m telling you is that management is the art of choosing what not to do, which means you need to be ready and willing to look at the task at the end of a day and ask, “Ok, I made this urgent this morning. A day has passed and I had time, but never got to it. Does it matter?”
Priority is relative. What felt so important last Wednesday loses importance five days later when the larger context of your week, your month, and your career shows up. You need to develop a practice of strategic information shedding where you are constantly and intelligently jettisoning ideas and work.
A well maintained to-do list gives you a daily sense of professional well-being. It constructs the pleasant illusion that you have a degree of control in a world where you have no idea how tomorrow will taste. The system I’ve constructed to maintain this list is lightweight, built using the practical use of constraints, designed to sift through an endless crapload of information that passes me during the day, but it’s a system that is incomplete.
A glance at my current Parking Lot demonstrates this incompleteness. It’s a list of things I need to do. It’s a list of tactics that I need to do to keep the management engine running, but dutifully following these to-do’s isn’t management; it’s task execution. You need another list, one that represents the strategy for your team, your career, and your values.
And that one is called the Trickle List.