The balanced calendar: How software teams can optimize their time

When I'm asked about productivity blocks, one of my most common responses is, "Too many meetings!" If I didn't have to attend so many meetings, I could get real work done.

A calendar chock-full of meetings leaves little time for software teams to be agile or create business value, but it is an effective way to ensure an inefficient and stressful workday. Nonetheless, many people seem to just accept the barrage of daily meetings as an unalterable fact. Meetings are as fixed as clockwork, a natural byproduct of team collaboration.

But what if I said you could make dynamic changes to your calendar that would liberate teams working to do DevOps from their meeting-clad shackles? Here are the most popular calendar types, along with a few key methods for streamlining your week to ensure that you're always being efficient with your time.

World Quality Report 2017-18: The state of QA and testing

The three calendar types

1. The 30-minute jam

This type of calendar has lots and lots of 30-minute meetings (often back-to-back)—both one-on-one meetings with staff and agile team standups, where teams discuss issues. Or maybe it's an important discussion on <insert your important meeting name here> during the only open time on your colleagues' calendars.

The problem with this calendar is the amount of context-switching that occurs. As with rush-hour traffic, people with eight or nine or ten meetings per day must endure constant stop-and-go—just when they get up to speed, they have to stop to jump into yet another meeting room. When you're running like a hamster on a wheel, this perpetual stop-and-go can be extremely stressful and disruptive. Even when there is a half-hour break between two meetings, that isn't sufficient time to make any real progress other than getting a cup of coffee or sneaking in a bio break.

2. The all-day cram

This calendar has no white space. No open time—at all. Every minute is booked. Executives and people managers breathe the all-day cram daily.

Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, introduced the idea of two types of calendars: the maker's and the manager's. The manager's schedule is for decision makers. They parse their calendar into one-hour increments of meetings with other decision makers, and the meetings occur all day, as leaders discuss and decide vital things such as what to do, when, and why.

The maker's schedule is for creative people—developers, designers, authors, etc. Graham writes, "They prefer to use time in units of half a day. You can't write or code well in units of an hour. That's barely enough time to get started."

Each type of schedule generally serves its purpose, except when the two collide. If execs and managers aren't careful, they can impose their calendar on the creative makers. The problem with the all-day cram calendar (outside of the obvious of there being no time to eat a proper lunch) is that when a meeting request from the boss arrives, it can crush prime creative time.

And while you could say this about all three calendar types, the all-day cram has a higher probability of negatively impacting creative makers because every minute of this calendar type is open—nothing is blocked off for uninterrupted creative time. 

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3. The triple-booked wham

Evidence abounds of triple-booked schedules. Paula Thrasher called attention to this issue in her September 14 tweet: "I love having five meetings scheduled at the same time—over my lunch break—said no one ever."

A calendar is designed to hold one event at a time. Allowing your calendar to be triple-booked is like overloading your electrical circuit; eventually, you blow a fuse. When you consistently overload yourself, your body reaches a breaking point. You get sick. Or your shoulder bothers you. Or worse, you get chest pain. Exposure to chronic stress is associated with heart disease. It behooves us all to limit stress when possible.

Key countermeasures: Interruption busters

Because we get interrupted all the time, we often stop work on one task and start work on a different task, moving from one project to the next, never focusing on one thing long enough to do it justice. This context-switching kills our ability to settle into work and concentrate effectively.

Creative work done well requires sufficient blocks of uninterrupted time. One solution is to incorporate a regular cadence of interruption-free time to focus on the most important work. The use of "interruption busters" creates a consistent format for managing your time. Here are a few ways to do this.

Do-not-disturb hours

Set a regular cadence to let people know when you are available and when you are not. Do this by scheduling meetings with yourself. Name them "Do-Not-Disturb Hours" and block off chunks of time on your calendar; 90 to 120 minutes works well because of ultradian rhythm cycles.

When you concentrate on one task for a long time, your brain needs a break, so you naturally get a lull in concentration every 90 to 120 minutes while you are awake. Two 1.5-to-2-hour sessions per day give creative people a good chunk of time to do their work.

Office hours

As they did for your teachers back at school, office hours allow people to connect with you at your convenience. Give colleagues, business partners, and others whose time you value a chance to book time on your calendar with a consistent office-hours schedule.

Y Combinator's Graham uses office hours several times a week to meet with founders. Because the meetings are booked at the end of Graham’s day, he said, they are never an interruption.

More 'no,' less work-in-progress

Both of the previously discussed methods require you to ruthlessly protect your time. This means saying no to requests. "No" can be hard to say, but you must, to free up time to do your important work.

Context-switching feeds off of too much work-in-progress (all the work started, but none yet finished), so remind yourself that more "no" equates to less work-in-progress. A calendar that allows you to do the work of your life includes saying no.

Smart managers learn to say no to scheduling meetings during peak creative hours—especially if they know that people working for them need long chunks of time to work in.

Don't overdo it

We overload ourselves, and we overload our teams—this is the everyday reality within the information technology sector. And given the speed with which products and services are created in IT, the potential to overload will only increase.

What's more, your calendar will never organize itself. The onus will always be on you. Consider incorporating interruption busters such as do-not-disturb hours and office hours into your calendar. They block off time to complete important work. It's amazing what you can finish given two hours of uninterrupted bliss.

Remember, the time you invest in unclogging your calendar—if done well—will pay huge dividends in the future, for both you and your business.

To learn more about balancing your calendar and getting more out of your day, check out my presentation at the DevOps Enterprise Summit. 

World Quality Report 2017-18: The state of QA and testing
Topics: DevOps