Focus Time Saved Me from Burnout

As a staff engineer, I’m expected to write and review code, give interviews, design and review one-pagers, groom tasks, participate in meetings (standups, planning, project syncs, check-ins with mentees, one-on-ones, design reviews), be on-call, and have a presence on Slack. However, because you’re an engineer first, the main item that you’re ultimately held accountable for is writing code.

Without effectively managing your time, these responsibilities can quickly leave you feeling defeated as constant context switching initiates a downward spiral that has negative effects on your mental health. In this article, I’ll discuss the changes I made to effectively manage my time to avoid inevitable burnout.

In the 15th chapter of Gary Keller’s book, The One Thing, he implores us to utilize time blocking to ensure we have time for our “one thing”. He writes,

My recommendation is to block four hours a day. this isn’t a typo. I repeat: four hours a day. Honestly, that’s the minimum. If you can do more, then do it.

He recommends doing this as early in the day as you can. For my schedule, this was 11 o’clock after a two-hour block comprised almost entirely of recurring meetings. Simply having the resolve to block your focus time however does not magically make existing meetings disappear. In fact, I was not able to experience my first full week of focus blocks until 3 weeks later. The implementation strategy that worked for me was to hold off scheduling a full week of focus blocks until the week where advanced scheduling was at a low. Implemented this way, you refrain from aggressively declining existing meetings. If you’re like me and have an above-average meeting load, you might have to make an additional compromise and reserve one whole day for meetings. For me, that happened to be Thursdays.

For those who use Google calendar as I do, a recently introduced feature allows you to set up focus blocks with the option to decline conflicting events. I include the following note when declining meetings scheduled during my focus time.

This meeting has been scheduled during my protected focus time. Either utilize the other four hours of the day or Thursday for scheduling. [Additionally, I have proposed a time that appears to work for both of us.]

In order to take full advantage of my focus time, I ensure all of my notifications are turned off. I then create a quick list of things that would define a successful block.

Something I have yet to figure out is how to escalate the proposal to have no “non-declinable” meetings in the mornings. This would enable me and other colleagues to have our focus block between 9–13 o’clock allowing for an even more productive maker session (maker is defined in the following essay). In an essay written by Paul Graham, a co-founder of Y Combinator, he tells us how he implemented this by pushing all meetings of this type to the end of the day.

The positive feedback loop this has introduced into my life has been amazing to watch unfold. Knowing that I’ll have time for my one thing that would otherwise cause stress if I didn’t have time to complete it has allowed me to give myself permission to do other things every day. I now read, run, and go to the gym every morning; I take naps or relax if I have nothing scheduled during the hours outside of my focus time; I never work at night. All of this was made possible by the absence of stress due to knowing I was guaranteed to have dedicated time to get my one thing done. I think this seemingly indirect benefit is one of the main drivers behind a deceleration of feeling burnt out.

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