5 min read

Rock Around The Clock

Rock Around The Clock
It was surprisingly hard to find a good image for this post. All credit to Bill Haley and the Comets.

As a manager I have a lot of meetings.

It's a fact of life when you're responsible for multiple people and the value that they deliver to a business, so lamenting it is something of a pointless activity.

But it does require lamenting dammit, especially when it stops you from getting time to focus on things. Constantly jumping from meeting to meeting is an easy trap to fall into and can result in starvation for tasks that require more in-depth thought.

That in-depth thought is something that can bring a lot of value to the company that you are working for and can also bring a lot of fulfilment and satisfaction to your own life.

I don't know about you, but I certainly need that sort of stuff.

So today I'm going to talk about the value of focus time and then specifically zero in on a tool that has helped me to actually get it.

I'll do my best to make it not feel like some sort of weird advertisement.

We'll Have Some Fun?

Some meetings are a necessary evil. Other meetings are actually productive and useful and generate connection to your colleagues and a shared understanding of whatever the topic in question was.

Some meetings shouldn't be meetings at all, but let's not get into that.

If you have a calendar that looks like mine, you often find yourself running from session to session. As a result, you don't get a lot of time to sit down and think about anything.

It's a little bit better when you don't have back to back meetings, because at least you get to digest what you just talked about. But small gaps still don't leave you the time necessary to delve into those deeper topics.

And that's dangerous, because eventually you train yourself to be unable to do that deep thinking. You just adapt to constantly jumping around, flitting from topic to topic like some sort of manic hummingbird.

To fix that, you need focus time.

You might not think you need it, but you do. It's not just a thing for engineers to be able to focus and get stuff done, it's just as important for you as a manager to sit down and explore topics, experiment and just generally settle on a flower and drink that sweet sweet nectar.

Okay, enough hummingbird analogies.

No-one is going to make focus time for you. If someone is organising a meeting, they are probably trying to pick the one place that actually works for everyone. That rare planetary alignment, when the moons line up and a portal to hell opens.

I mean a meeting happens. Not the hell thing.

So you have to make focus time for yourself.

When The Clock Strikes One

When I started at Atlassian, one of the first things my team did, was encourage me to use Clockwise.

At a high level, Clockwise is a calendar automation tool that integrates with Google Calendar and also has a Chrome extension to that effect. I think you can use it without the Chrome extension, but I imagine it's far less effective.

It has some simple functionality like setting meeting hours, automatically blocking out time for lunch, colour coding meetings based on their content and displaying insights about your total meeting time, which are all pretty neat.

But it has more complex functionality as well, like the ability to find a time for a group of people to meet. That one is cool, because it also tells you what the meeting is costing the other person in terms of interruption or lost focus time.

Speaking of focus time, in addition to blocking out lunch, it also allows you to set a quota for focus time and then automates the scheduling of said focus time in your calendar. You know, so that other people don't just interrupt that wonderful three hour block that you've been looking forward to for days now.

In order to help maintain that focus time, you can put meetings on autopilot, which means that it will move them around within the constraints that you define (i.e. within peoples meeting hours and preferences) in order to resolve conflicts and concentrate sparse meetings together.

Like a defrag for your calendar.

At first, I didn't trust it to do that though. I just kept managing my calendar manually like some sort of control freak.

Even with my tolerance for repetition, that got tedious quickly, and when I found out that the autopilot functionality actually made good decisions, I started leveraging it more and more.

If a tool can get me to trust its automation, it must be doing something right.

If The Band Slows Down

There are, obviously, some downsides.

The first one is that I don't know how well Clockwise works when you're the only one using it. You can certainly mark meetings as autopilot regardless of their attendees, but I imagine the system is nowhere near as effective when it doesn't have information about them to draw on.

The second is that I assume Clockwise costs money at some point, but I've never run into that, because it's just kind of...there. At Atlassian that is. The licensing page does talk about a free version that does all the things with some quota restrictions? It might still work perfectly fine if you don't pay any money, but I honestly don't know.

The third downside, which I talked about a little bit above, is that you kind of have to trust in the system to do the right thing. I learned this lesson the hard way, because I was not getting the most value out of it when I was just using it manually. Just relax and let the automation do its work.

Even taking into account those downsides though, I think it's worth a shot for anyone struggling to get focus time in their workday.

We'll Yell For More

If you take one thing away from this blog post, it should be establishing a regular pattern of focus time. And the fact that you need to zealously defend it of course.

But if you're open to letting software do some of that work for you, give Clockwise a shot.

For me, Clockwise is probably the only reason I've actually managed to get reliable focus periods each week, which in turn has let me feel like I'm getting ahead of the game instead of just treading water.

I know that I could look at my calendar and move things around in order to maximise my focus time. I mean, I literally tried to do exactly that.

These days I'm mature enough to realise that if I can, I should just let software do that heavy lifting for me, because that is the sort of complex yet tedious crap that it's good at.

And I have better things to do with my brain.