When I coach new managers, or transition ICs into management, one of the key struggles initially (which I also remember myself) is overwhelm. For some, this ends up in exhaustion, and those are the people who often switch back onto the IC path – they find management unsustainable at that time (some return to it later; some do not).
Superficially, it’s understandable that people become overwhelmed. They get a bunch of new responsibility, and need to process that responsibility; it can take some time to filter through it all and figure out how to manage it. The context switching can also be very draining, particularly context switching at different levels of abstraction (i.e. from strategy to detail level code review).
But one of the deeper things driving this, is that ICs often differentiate through strong time management. They work their schedule to really prioritize the deep work for some chunk of every day, they figure out how to churn out small things alongside it. They manage their time well, and that makes them effective.
Shifting into management, the biggest challenge is not time management, but rather energy management. This requires a different approach.
As an engineer, often the most challenging thing to do in a given week is some gnarly problem. Carving out four hours of complete focus to make a dent in it can make a huge difference.
As a manager, often the most challenging thing to do in a given week is a hard conversation. It might even be a short, hard conversation. The biggest challenge is psyching yourself up to do it, and whilst you might (arguably should) spend time preparing, often that is more about managing your own emotions in order to do it, rather than the actual work required.
Even aside from the truly challenging things, to a more “normal” week, being emotionally present in your 1:1s or team meetings allows you to detect potential problems earlier, and help people more effectively. If you show up distracted and exhausted (which happens to everyone from time to time, we’re human) you’re less effective in some of your highest leverage activities.
If your meetings are not high leverage then that is a similar, but related problem. If you don’t have time or energy to think through how to improve (or delete) them, then that will not change.
Similarly, being proactive instead of reactive is largely an emotional regulation issue. It requires getting ahead of things, perhaps by doing something very tedious, versus reacting to whatever seems most pressing in the moment. Making active decisions here requires a level of emotional calm and mental clarity that we lose when we are stressed and overwhelmed. Proactive work is also less of a dopamine hit than reacting and “fixing” something.
If you’re a new manager and feeling overwhelmed, the first thing is to figure out whether you have a time management problem or an energy management problem.
- What things do you add to your todo list on Monday, but delay until Friday? Why do you put them off?
- What things do you struggle to do at the end of the day even though you technically “have time”?
- Looking at your task list for the last week, what was draining beyond the time spent on it?
- Looking at your task list for the next week, what do you worry you won’t have time for? Why is that?
- Looking at your task list for the next week, what are you dreading? Why?
- Looking at your task list for next week, what are you looking forward to? Why?
- What do you think is the most valuable thing you do? Why? How much time do you spend on it?
- What do other people think are the most valuable things you do? Why? How much time do you spend on them?
- Audit your calendar / regular work and ask yourself for each thing: how valuable is this, how much time is spent on it, and whether or not it’s energy-giving, energy-taking, or neutral.
Once you’ve worked through some of these questions, you will probably know whether the problem is just sheer volume of things (which okay, time management, but probably mainly figuring out what you can get rid of) or whether it is not the volume, but the emotional drain of certain activities.
The final question is this: When you step away from work, are you able to disconnect. If not, what do you keep thinking about?
Thinking about work long after we have finished for the day – especially in terms of ruminating on things we are stressed about – is how we work forty hours in time and sixty in energy. If we physically leave the computer but don’t emotionally leave the work we exist in the limbo of neither working nor resting, and that creates resentment and exhaustion.
Some ideas to improve your energy management:
- Think about things you can do at the start and end of the day that ground you.
- Such a cliché, but even just a 20 minute spin class before I start the day makes a huge difference to how I experience it.
- Think about things you can do during the day to ground you.
- I use the Positive Intelligence app to do mini-mindfulness exercises.
- Schedule lunch breaks, and take some time to do something, away from your desk.
- You could take a short walk, savour a hot beverage, or read a chapter of a book.
- Make a daily (or weekly) list that accounts for energy rather than time.
- If you have a heavy road mapping week, or are doing performance reviews, perhaps you won’t be in a frame of mind to write a chirpy blogpost on engineering best practices. Accepting that and planning for it is much easier than dreading it and struggling.
- Look at your calendar and commitments for a day, and consider what is emotionally realistic versus technically possible?
- Recently, I was dealing with a huge chunk of my team being in the vicinity of a war zone. So much emotional energy went to that situation and those 1:1s – even though they took a the typical amount of time – that I kept 1:1s with people who were not directly impacted by that shorter and lighter. Is that ideal? No. Would I do it every week? Also no. But in that kind of situation it’s better to be realistic about my own limitations and set expectations accordingly.
- Take 15 minutes to think about each meeting before you have it, decide what outcomes you want to drive and how you can do that most effectively.
- If you don’t have time to do this, you probably have too many meetings. See about deleting some! (Start with the boring ones, they can most easily be replaced by text).
- Consider the activities that you find most emotionally draining. Is there anything you can do to change your relationship with them?
- Are you on a learning curve? Do you need to take more time to better understand how to approach it?
- Are your expectations for yourself too high?
- Do you lack an understanding of the purpose of the activity? Can you find one?
- Is your relationship with the activity shaped by previous bad experience? Can you change it? E.g. you dread your meeting with your current manager because your previous manager was horrible. Actively catching yourself in old thinking patterns, resetting your expectations and re-enforcing to yourself that this relationship is not that relationship can help shift your relationship to the meeting over time.
- Do you need to be doing this activity? Can you transition it to someone else, or just stop doing it?
If we want things to be different, we have to create space for them to change. Being overwhelmed each week and finishing behind and exhausted are a vicious cycle. Whilst things may improve “naturally” over time, as you get more comfortable with the role, much stress and suffering can be alleviated with some meta-thinking into how you’re approaching your work, and adjusting self-management to emphasize energy-management as even more important than time-management.
Good luck! Let me know how you get on. My inbox and Twitter DMs are always open.