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Productivity Tips for First-time Managers

8 mins
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Denis Chernobai
Co-founder of Emery, ex-Senior Engineering Manager at Bumble
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Denis Chernobai
Co-founder of Emery, ex-Senior Engineering Manager at Bumble

I still remember my first months as a first time manager. A team of 10 people, constant collaboration with two product managers, performance reviews for the team (we did them monthly, yeah), emails, messages, urgent requests and some sort of emergencies. On top of that, I was in charge of relocating my team to another country. My brain was so stressed that I thought I wouldn’t make it through. Later on, when I started to manage other managers, I realized that my challenges weren’t unique, not at all. Once you become a manager, your workload multiplies and the environment gets much more distracting. Your brain needs some time to get used to it. In this article I’d like to share some tips that can help you withstand this period. I wish I had heard some of them at the beginning of my managerial career.

Congratulations on the promotion. Taking on a new managing role can sometimes be challenging and require developing new skills. In this article, I'll cover some productivity techniques that can help you stay on top of things.

Keep in mind that all examples are based on true events.

Limitations of This Article

Before I begin, here are some limitations of this article:

  • It focuses on your personal productivity. I don't touch on topics such as delegating and leadership.
  • It's about day-to-day productivity – here, I don't speak about strategic planning.
  • It all applies to your "normal" days. If there is an emergency, you won't be able to use many techniques. (e.g., you probably won't have a "focus time" if one of your subordinates is having a panic attack in the office and you need to get them to an emergency)

Even with the limitations above, this material will help you to achieve more results daily and keep your pace steady. These recommendations will help you to learn how to endure a marathon in a management career, rather than achieve short-term results.

What Are the Challenges?

Now you're in charge of your daily and weekly priorities (not just for you but also for the team). Most likely, you won't be able to bother your boss to help you set your daily priorities. It's all on you now.

You have more information to process. Your flow of information has increased – now, you need to process data related to you and your team. Besides, a management role usually comes with responsibility for some areas – and you have to stay on top of this.

The level of distraction has risen significantly. More emails, more slack messages, more meetings. As notifications keep appearing, focusing on a particular thing will be complicated. And keep in mind that almost every app existing has been evolving all this time to steal your attention.

Those are usually the challenges for people new to the management role. Besides, even when you gain more experience, and some things get easier, some of the challenges will remain — they will affect you differently.

For example, in the beginning, it's stressful to switch between things all the time, but then it becomes a habit and gets more manageable. But then you struggle to focus on a particular item for some time.

Below you can find some tools that can help you endure and keep your productivity high during this transition to a management role.

Managing Priorities

Set Weekly Goals

Setting weekly goals is a great way to manage your priorities. Anything would work. Just make sure you can easily access it. Return to your goals regularly during the week to ensure you haven't slipped up.

Review your progress at the beginning or end of each week, and check if everything is going as planned. Ideally, your goals should be achievable in a week. If they're too big, split them.

If focusing on outcomes works for you, set SMART goals. But if you'd rather your goal be actionable and controllable where the output is what matters, set PACT goals.

Allocate some time every week for strategic things – something that would bring the team, company, and your career to the next level. Otherwise, you'll constantly be drowning in routine.

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Do Personal Retros

Setting goals and not going back to them never helps. It defeats the purpose of productivity. Embark on a personal retrospective session to help you evaluate your past goals and discover future opportunities.

Ask yourself what you've done to what was planned and what you've managed to achieve on top of it. What about the action points you've taken down? Run through who gets assigned to what.

You should also consider your plans for the next period and if there are any extra ideas, thoughts, or information you should add.

How often you do your retros depends on how fast your environment changes. It can be weekly or bi-weekly. The shorter cycle will allow you to react faster if it's dynamic.

Another essential consideration is whether your retros should be public or private. It goes both ways. You either make your retros and reports public or keep them private.

Share with your boss, team, or whoever can help with your productivity journey. It's easier to keep it going if you make them public. You would have someone who expects to receive them regularly.

However, keeping your retros just for yourself makes them more honest, and you'll be able to add more sensitive things.

Processing Information

Write It All Down

You have much more information to deal with now that it's simply impossible to remember everything. Save yourself from the mental drain by not trying to remember everything.

Instead, follow a straightforward productivity method used to process vast amounts of information — make lots of notes. Taking lots of notes is dull and boring, but it works.

Ideally, you want to categorize things as you go so that it's easier to return to them. When you revisit them at any point, you won't have a hard time locating them. Use categories, tags, collections, and whatever your tool supports.

Sticking to a single app to store your notes will make your review process easy. But if you already use different apps, use one as primary storage and move the notes there when you have time.

At some point the company I worked for was going through a reorganization, and I was having 40 meetings during a regular week which is a hurdle on its own. There was also a new team to manage, and I needed to put some effort into building a strategy that works.

Writing everything down helped me get through the chaos without losing information.

When you take notes, you're collecting pieces of a puzzle that can be connected later when it's time to process all the information.

Make Meeting Notes

Making notes before your meetings is the best way to organize your thoughts. It prevents you from diving into discussions blindly. Meetings are much more productive when people take some time to prepare.

They're faster, more effective, and even feel more professional, which is noticeable from the first few minutes. You'll be having loads of meetings, and previous notes will come in handy when you want to track action points and share relevant outcomes with others.

There are three types of notes, and asking the right question will help you put things in perspective.

Meeting Preparation: This is where you note what your goal is for the meeting. Put down what you want to achieve and why you're attending the meeting. Knowing what you want to discuss beforehand means taking time to research extra information to support your points.

Meeting Log: Include interesting thoughts, insights, and ideas you can take note of during the meeting. Add things to share with other people too.

Outcome and Action points: Ideally, action points should be tracked as tasks with checkpoints such as deadlines.

Make private notes. Many teams use public agenda documents to log only key points, which makes public notes hardly a replacement for private ones. Sometimes there are sensitive topics, and you just want to note your ideas and insights based on the discussion.

It also helps to categorize those notes as you make them.

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Review Your Notes Regularly

Like I said above, we make notes to unload our memory and free some mental energy. This means we also make a promise to ourselves to return to this information later. We must keep to the promise.

Going through notes helps build mental links between different pieces of information. It's how we discover new ideas and angles to look at the bigger picture. Think about it as training your internal neural network.

When reviewing your notes, ask yourself valid questions to boost your quest for productivity. You can carry out your revision regularly– daily, weekly, or monthly. Whatever rocks your boat.

Here are questions to consider:

  • Is it an action point? Convert it into a task.
  • Will this information be useful to someone else and impact their work? If yes, then share it with relevant people.
  • Is it something that belongs to a particular category (project, area, group)? Then add it there.
  • Is it still relevant? Archive or delete.

Staying Focus

Set Daily Goals

To set daily goals, you need to identify what you want to achieve and how closer it brings you to achieving your weekly goals. Remember to return to your daily goals regularly throughout the day.

Keep it short – about 1-3 goals a day will suffice. So if you accomplish them, you'll feel good about yourself and your day even if you didn't do everything else on your note. Make your daily goals about things we tend to postpone and require lots of mental effort.

In many cases, such things drive our teams and careers forward.

Know the difference between goals and tasks. Tasks focus on actions. Goals help you stay focused throughout the day and are results-based.

Use Focus Time

Stay focused on a particular task and try not to switch context during the task. Managers usually are worse at focusing on a single task due to constant context switching. But it's an essential skill, as such periods help you think about strategy and your career and find insights that can drive your company forward.

If you book time for tasks, make it specific and measurable – not just "start writing a document." Put "Write a high-level plan + intro" instead. Turn off all notifications for such time slots. Try to use focus time mode from Apple or an alternative. It helps to know when your focus time ends, to keep everything in your control.

Take breaks – don't book the entire day. You'll need time to switch from one task to another – take a walk, move between meeting rooms, grab a coffee. It's a good idea to place 5-15 minutes between focus time slots.

You can try combining your focus time with the Pomodoro technique to manage your time effectively.

Allocate Time To Go Through Your Inbox

As you turn off all the notifications during your focus time, you need to allocate some slots during the day to sort your inbox. How quickly you respond to texts depends on your company's culture.

In general, it's a good idea to have 1 or 2 such slots a day. Respond to emails and Slack chats, have ad-hoc conversations and note important details.

If there is a task that can be done quickly, let's say in 5 minutes, just do it. If it takes longer, create a task on your priority list.

It also helps to ask yourself how important what you're about to do is. If it's something worth doing or it just feels important. Some things feel really important, but there’s very little you can do about them. What happens if you do nothing about it?

For example, one of your reports just broke his hand on his way to the office. Feels important, but there’s very little you need to do at that moment (just make sure that the ambulance is on its way and he doesn't need any other immediate help).

If you figure there are more tasks to handle, think about delegating the task. When you delegate something, set a task for yourself for checking in later.

Conclusions

Don't feel obligated to use all of the methods. However, utilizing some of them would help you get through your days more productively and feel good about it.

Emery has been built with manager's needs in mind:

  • Capture notes with your goals, results and ideas
  • Create private notes for your meetings
  • Use collections to categorize tasks, notes and events by a project, a person or a direction
  • Set clear priorities every day
  • Block time for your tasks in calendar
  • See where your time goes with weekly reports
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