The underappreciated need for a self-management system

The Backlog is a bi-weekly newsletter about the undervalued and overlooked in modern product development. It covers product development, self organization, and productivity. I include methods, books, and write about my own experience. The target audience are Product Owners, Scrum Masters, Developers, and project leaders. The Backlog is about getting the most out of product development.
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Raise your hand if you have been in the following situation. A colleague comes to your desk (or nowadays: they call you on zoom) to discuss something. You are busy. You quickly open the Calendar to find a time slot for a meeting. Unfortunately, you have no time right now and are also fully booked in the next days. Thus, you schedule a meeting in two weeks. Right before switching to the Calendar, you were able to catch a very brief glimpse of your e-mail inbox with the approximately 700 flagged or otherwise highlighted items that still need to be taken care of.

How did we get here?

The person described above was actually me not that long ago. Earlier in my professional life I had so many flagged and highlighted E-Mails, that I couldn’t keep track anymore. Nowadays, this is different because I am using a defined system to manage myself.

Today I will write about exactly that, effectively managing yourself, a topic that is far too often overlooked in my point of view. I am talking about self-management mainly in the business context but many of the ideas are applicable also to personal life.

Many highlighted emails and a completely full calendar, I think, are often a symptom of a missing or insufficient self-management system. (To be clear, there are surely many good reasons for having a full calendar if done deliberately, for example a self-management system, but equally often there is no good reason, it just happens).

My explanation for the situation is that for some reason the topic doesn´t seem to be thought of as important. Think about it. How often have you discussed with colleagues about how they manage their work? Now compare that to how often you have discussed other current business problems or processes within the company.

Many start off with some simple way of managing their work, for example flagging emails. This is certainly how it was for me. It was fine in the beginning as I was starting out with less tasks and responsibilities. Inevitably, increasing time working in a given role leads to more projects one contributes to which leads to more tasks and responsibilities which leads to a more complicated workday. All of a sudden, without realizing the moment it happened, I was constantly trying to remember and manage an ever-growing number of commitments, deadlines, and meetings still using the same method as in the beginning.

During that time, I was often times extremely stressed and seemed extremely busy as I was running from meeting to meeting. Meetings were usually not prepared, efficiently conducted, or followed up on. Instead, they seemed to be used as a reminder that something needed to get done. Generally, however, things didn’t get done or only very inefficiently. I was not productive.

Somehow, this seems to be normal and only natural. It is extremely hard to keep track of all lose ends in an increasingly complex work environment. And for some reason, the topic of self-management also doesn’t seem to be of great importance in corporate trainings. People are left to fend for themselves.

We have options

The thing is, there are plenty of systems out there that one can use for self-management. However, due to the situation they are in, many don’t seem to find the time to evolve and change how they work. Some methods are:

I am personally using getting things done, slightly modified to fit my needs. I also recently read the book “make time” which I found very pleasant. I am very intrigued by the idea of the daily highlight and I am currently experimenting how to integrate some of the ideas into my system.

(For those that are familiar with getting things done. This is how I have adapted it to fit my needs
I have two inboxes: an email inbox and one where I take notes with OneNote. When checking the email inbox, I either answer or do the work right away if it´s less than 5 minutes or move it to one of the only four folders I use: To Do, Waiting For, Someday Maybe, Reference. In OneNote, I have the same folders and additionally two more: regular meetings and projects. I essentially put all my notes into the inbox and then move them to those six folders when I conduct my weekly review on Friday afternoon. When moving I check for to dos that I track using the software “Remember the Milk” (any to do list or note taking application will work).

Setting up the self-management system

I started setting up my personal system when I took over one of my first major projects and realized that what I had been using before (a hybrid of flagging and to dos) was insufficient. I actually took a day and completely restructured everything. I will encourage anybody who will listen to do the same. Far too seldomly, do we take a step back and figure out how to improve our daily work because we think we need to be productive in that time not realizing the productivity gains over time far outweigh the few hours or days lost in the short term (this is a blog post for another day). If it is not possible to take the time out of a busy schedule, I have found that a job or role change is exactly the type of break to use in order to set up, rework, or refine a system that one can trust, especially since new jobs and roles usually start slowly anyway.

I can for sure say that the one day I took out of my busy schedule paid dividends not only for my personal well-being. It also greatly benefited the company as I probably gained that much more in efficiency down the road.