In the first episode of our brand new podcast Workpuls Productivity Talks, we talked to Amie Devero, the managing director of Beyond Better. Amie has more than 25 years of consulting experience, and she is a huge fan of time blocking.
We touched base on general productivity tips, but Amie also shared some insights on what managers can do to shift their productivity culture in order to maximize it. Check out the video recording, or read the full transcript below.
Workpuls: Hi everyone, Bojana here from Workpuls. I am here with Amie Devero.
Amie Devero: Devero, Amie Devero.
Workpuls: (Devero, sorry about that.) So she is a managing director of Beyond Better but she is also an executive and personal coach and a managing consultant. We are here today in Workpuls Productivity Talks to discuss productivity, of course. To learn a little bit more about Amie and what she is doing and how she is helping companies increase productivity, but also for her to share some tips with all of us on how we can all increase our own productivity or help our teams increase their productivity. So let’s start off, you can tell us first a little bit about what it is that you do, what kind of services you provide and then we can move on from there.
Amie Devero: Sure, so Beyond Better is a strategy consulting primarily and executive coaching firm. And I work primarily, not entirely but primarily, with High Growth Tech Starts-Up companies but not like early early stage startup, those that already have series A or series B. So they are in the process scaling a team and making that transition from being a tiny little intimate family, if you will, to being an enterprise. The reason that I think I actually ended up doing this with you is because one of the things that becomes a bigger and bigger problem as companies grow, is the demand on the leadership for their time. And so they are really really challenged by how to be able to meet all of these demands while also attending to their teams but not failing to do the important and deep work necessary to execute the strategies, which is what I work with on the consulting side. So that’s what I do and most of my coaching clients are those founders or executive team leaders, boards of directors of those companies, and then the consulting work is done with those teams, but then is executed throughout the organization. So there is a strategy piece, a measurement piece and the culture piece and productivity has a role in all of that.
Workpuls: Yeah, that’s definitely true. So you mainly work with, in the software industry, in the IT industry but you also, I have seen you also been doing with in different industries, with teams of different sizes. Would you say that there is some kind of productivity increase method that could be a one size fits all or it’s a tailored approach for everyone of them? Is there anything, like are there any universal tips everyone can adapt to their company or it’s just a matter of trial and error, and trying out different things?
Amie Devero: There are universal tips but they are not universally embraced. The truth is, is that there are certain best practices that it would be great if all organizations did them but there is a lot of variation in how much you can expect either an organization to flex or if you are not the very top leader, you are limited in how much impact you have on what the expectation are for you as an employee. So for example, one of the things that I recommend, is I recommend that people surrender completely to their calendars and utilize their calendars as their to-do-list, but not just as a list. So they actually allocate specific duration of time for specific activities like working on projects, or writing content or coding new development. And a lot of this, all of these recommendations dovetail with the kinds of software that teams use, like Trello, and all the software they would utilize to execute a scrum sprint and so on and so forth. But the truth is, if you have a boss who constantly interrupts you and makes impromptu demands then your calendar efforts get interrupted constantly which means your train of thought gets interrupted which means your productivity gets essentially eroded. So the tips are the same but the degree to which they can be implemented is not.
Workpuls: Yeah, that makes sense. You mentioned that when we first spoke via email, the surrender to your calendar. As I could understand, it’s sort of like time blocking?
Amie Devero: It is, time blocking is a crucial part of it. Time blocking is fundamental.
Workpuls: I wanted to ask how would you define productivity? What would you say productivity is, actually?
Amie Devero: I would say productivity is having a correlation between how you use the time that you have and how you accomplish the things that you want to do, so for most people it’s not a strong correlation. They mean to do a lot of things but their time gets eaten up in a way that isn’t conscious, it’s not deliberate. It’s not a match between what they think is most important, what they are most committed to, and most concerned about, and what the time gets used for. In fact, it is not unusual for me when I first begin working with a founder or a leader, or anyone to say, “Let’s look at your calendar for next Wednesday,” and if they don’t have specific appointments with other human beings, there is nothing on their calendar. The calendar has nothing in it which means that the day will get completely consumed with reaction. Or it will get consumed with things that are a function of recency bias the thing you though of yesterday that you should do, instead of the thing that is going to make the biggest difference to the organization.
Workpuls: Yeah, I get that. I still haven’t tried time blocking, I have been promising to myself that I will and just as you said now, they have nothing except meetings with other human beings and their calendars it’s the same for me. I have nothing besides meetings on my calendars. I have my task in Trello and I have deadlines there and notification there. It sounds like it’s a more efficient technique to have everything in the calendar or maybe the quarantine is a good place to start and test out that to see how it will work for me.
Amie Devero: I will share something with you, it’s more than just for productivity. There is a psychological or cognitive component in this that’s really important so if you think about the demands on a typical founder of a company or leader in a very fast growing company. They are constantly thinking of things they need to do, things they ought to do, things they want to make sure they don’t forget to do, and that constant in our brains demands cognitive horsepower. So if you imagine your brain has a certain amount of energy and horsepower, and then you are allowing that horsepower and energy to be cannibalized by what is essentially a completely unnecessary thing. Which is worrying, and wondering, and hoping, and meaning and anxiety about, “Oh, my gosh I might forget to do that.” Then anything you can do to reduce that anxiety means productivity goes up because cognitive bandwidth, is all of it is available instead of just a part of it. The reason that I say to surrender to your calendar and to time block everything you need to do, it’s because if you have surrendered to your calendar and you know that you are going to do what’s on your calendar. And then you take all that stuff in your brain and you put it in the calendar, you can stop worrying. It literally eliminates all of that background noise so now all you have to focus on is, what’s the next thing on my calendar, and you just do that.
Workpuls: It seems to me, maybe I am wrong, but it seems to me that this is more of a tip for individuals, you can go ahead and tell that to the founder, the founder can try and do that with his employees. What will be the first thing that employers, or managers or team leaders could do if they want to increase productivity in the workplace?
Amie Devero: If the culture of the company is one that doesn’t respect the calendar then what needs to happen is a culture shift. So if I talk to a founder and I am talking to them about this kind of culture shift, I am not talking about necessarily what they do, I am talking about the way that you could implement that on an enterprise level. And so it requires some very specific principles, while people's calendar are available and visible to each other that when somebody actually blocks out a chunk of time for something, regardless of what it is, unless there is something emergent that needs to superseded that, people don’t cannibalize their time and it doesn’t work all the time because there are organizations where they have a culture of what I would consider to be boundary-less scheduling on other people’s calendars. So I have one CTO client of a very large company, they call it a startup but it’s not really a startup, it’s huge. His time gets completely eaten up by other people putting him in meetings. So there are a lot of subordinate rules that go with this, like have the fewest possible number of people in a meeting. The only person that should be in a meeting are the ones who are extremely consequentially important to making whatever decision that meeting is meant to produce. Meetings should have an agenda and a specific outcome even if the outcome is we are going to come up with 10 ideas for something, then you have the agenda, you have the outcome and then you really very rigorously select who is in the meeting and you can make other people optional. So if they feel like they could contribute a great deal and they have this space on their calendar, great, they are included or you can create a process where you say, “These people are optional but listen, if you can’t make it to the meeting we are going to send out a summary after the meeting so you can carry on with what you need to do, what’s on your calendar.” Believing and understanding that you will not be left out of this, but you are being left out of the meeting for your own state of mind really. So these are company wide principles and practices that can make it possible for everybody in the organization to get their calendar respected, their time blocking respected and to not have their entire day eaten up with important but not, well I would say urgent but not important activities.
Workpuls: Okay, and in your experience what do you think how long does it take for a company, let’s say between 50 and 100 people to implement a thing like that, to make that culture shift and to actually start respecting the calendar and time blocking for everyone?
Amie Devero: I will tell you something, it depends entirely on how committed the leadership is; there is no right answer to that. A leader who is truly committed and surrenders to this kind of process can make it happen in two weeks by simply saying this is how we are going to do it and it’s going to start with me. I am going to be the first one who stops basically stealing other people’s time, and a software like you guys produce would be really effective in sensitizing people to stick with it because if people are not just in meetings all the time or having what are essentially inconsequential interruptions, they will be doing the things that you are tracking and that will mean amp results for the organization. It also means people will be able to focus because important work doesn’t get done without real focus and if the focus is broken every few minutes, or every 25 minutes, or every 30 minutes or whatever it is, or for every email that comes in and every Slack message that comes in. If you are constantly bombarded by all of these interruptions in your mental focus, you are less productive. You are unable to produce the most important work that the organization needs from you.
Workpuls: Okay. And we are obviously right now in a weird time, we are working from home. Some people have already worked from home. A lot of companies nowadays, especially in the IT industry have been remote since their beginning. And they were sort of the first ones who really embraced the remote culture and started working that way. Right now, how does it work. I am not sure if you still working, if you are still consulting. How does it work in this environment?
Amie Devero: It’s probably in some ways easier in this environment because you don’t have a door where people can just walk in or a desk where somebody can just walk up to you and interrupt you. There is some kind of basic work hygiene things that make this easier to do even when you are remote. So for example, while I tell people to turn off their email alert and not respond to every email as it comes in, not even read it. I also tell them how to set specific times of way when they will do. And if you can implement this at a company wide level then you can actually keep Slack going or keep text going because people have internalized the message that we’re only reaching out to you if it’s important. We are not trivially reaching out for nothing. So if you are checking your email, let’s say every two hours, then that’s not an unreasonable amount of time to expect people to expect a response. And if you are publishing your calendar then people know where the breaks are, where the gaps are and when they can reach out to you. The other thing is, is that while we are working at home it’s really important for leaders to ensure that they don’t let people, sort of not provide to people the kind of support they need to be productive. And that may mean that people need to go walk the dog in the middle of the day just to have a mental break because they don’t have the break room and they don’t have the ability to do the things that normally break up our focus on the course of the working day. They give our brains a break and allow us to shift what our cognitive function is doing at that moment. So you need to provide that which means you need to provide an opportunity for people to hang out and just chat or to get away from the screen and do something else. If leaders don’t say that, workers won’t do it because they'll be afraid of appearing not to be working.
Workpuls: I guess that depends on the culture as well in general. What was the culture in the office and what’s the culture right now. It sort of gets transferred from the office into our homes. I feel like in the office if we felt like that then we can only go out on a break if it’s, I don’t know if what’s happening we would go for lunch and maybe go on one other break. But if we have that environment we take breaks more frequently because we finished what we were doing, where we just need a couple of minutes to rest from the screen and go outside, then I think that also transfers into our homes when we are working.
Amie Devero: It does, but it’s not a perfect transfer. Imagine you are in an office and you see somebody go to the kitchen to get a cup of tea, as the worker, you don’t necessarily feel like you are slacking off because your boss is in the building and can see that you are getting a cup of tea and you are in the office, it’s obvious. But if you try to translate that to the home environment, all the boss would see is nobody on that screen. So that leaves a lot to the imagination, right? Did he just go to the bathroom? Did he just leave and go for a jog? There is a lot of latitude for imagination and so obviously the culture translates to a large extent but I don’t think it’s a perfect transfer. Enterprises into which people are very autonomous, which is most of my clients, it's actually even harder. Because the leadership is used to people working on their own and being completely self sufficient which means that if they are suffering, struggling, lonely, bored, finding it difficult to focus, worried about their grandma who is in a nursing home and the boss doesn’t actively, proactively reach out and say something about that, then the quality of work will suffer.
Workpuls: Again, it all comes back to the communication within the team and within the leadership and the team members and how it all goes from there. Tell me this, what are some of the tips you would have for managers and leaders who decided that they want to introduce a technique such as time blocking to their company to introduce it to themselves and their teams – what would be some tips on how to make it possible and make it as successful as possible?
Amie Devero: So there are some things that you can do, for example, let’s imagine that I am a leader and I convene a meeting and we are going to start some kind of a new project. One of the things you can do to encourage people to utilize time blocking to do that would be right there in the meeting, have everybody take out their phones or their laptops or whatever they have with them, and block the time over let’s say the next four weeks to accomplish this project. So that, you are not just saying we are going to do time blocking, you are actually providing the leadership and guidance on how to use it and when to use it… You are not going to tell people which hours to block but you are going to say, “Alright, let’s estimate how many hours of work this is going to take. We want to have it done by September. Let’s back into our calendars and all block out the time to do that.” And that way you begin this way of thinking because it’s a very different way of thinking. And one of the things that people really need urgently to change when they start thinking about time blocking as they need to greatly expand our horizon on their calendar. We tend only to ever think about the next two weeks, even sprints are two weeks. But the truth is, if you are going to accomplish significant profound projects they need to take longer, they will take longer than that. They may take six months. If a leader doesn’t necessarily model that behavior and encourage that behavior and guide people about how to do that – how to go out six months to a deadline work back block the time so that you have insured the progress of the project that won’t happen. Another thing that leaders can do, is they can encourage people to block out time for specific projects and specifically say, please turn off your alerts for email. If I have an urgent need I will call you on the telephone. It sounds so insignificant but we don’t use our phone very much these days, for telephone calls, which means that if you designate telephone calls as the way to interrupt somebody and say we are only going to this when we really need somebody, right now we can’t wait for that two hours window for a response, then when the phone rings it’s an apt interruption. So the boss can train people in that and say everybody is going to have their alerts off so don’t expect instant response. Those are a couple tips that I think are really useful.
Workpuls: Yeah, I like that blocking of notifications. I think that my email notifications are blocked all the time. My email is open in one of the tabs always but I really stop going through it and checking it. I am not the person in a team that actually gets a lot of emails. On a company wide level we communicate through Slack, we are a small company so we still afford to do everything we need to do through slack and I just know that sometimes it would happen that I even just go and shut out Slack notification because I want to get this done. I want to sit down and write the article…without any interruption. Without jumping around different tabs are whatever and just shut down slide notification and I found that that’s a very simple thing. As you said it seems so insignificant but it actually helps a lot because we have no…something is going to happen, somebody is going to send a message in a random chat just something funny as a joke.
Amie Devero: Right.
Workpuls: And my mind would wander off and I start talking to some people or I started browsing through something else online and it’s just that it’s so small but it can do so much; it’s really incredible.
Amie Devero: Yeah, and imagine if you just only checked Slack five times a day and had it off, gone. I am an enemy of Slack because I think it is a recipe for constant interruption and a complete lack of concentration. Because even if you are not actively checking slack the awareness that it’s there and that something could be happening is distracting. It keeps you from the kind of focus necessary.
Workpuls: Yeah. I think it’s like that with any instant messaging app. It’s not like have anything against Slack. Any instant messaging app will have the same effect on people. Okay, I think that we have covered everything that I wanted to cover. I don’t know if there is maybe that you wanted to share regarding productivity or time blocking that we haven’t mentioned yet.
Amie Devero: No, I think, I am sure you will hear other tips from other people. I do think though that maybe the unique thing that I think is really important is the degree to which leaders need to be the catalyst for this kind of change. I see a lot of individuals and organizations really struggling with having their own individual culture of productivity and when it’s in competition with what the organization is doing, it might not be an epic failure, but it’s a somewhat of a failure, and it’s really to the benefit of an entire organization to make it possible for people to work with this kind of focus and energy.
Workpuls: That’s definitely something of a lead by example sort of thing in this case.
Amie Devero: Yeah, very much so.
Workpuls: Okay, well, I would like to thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me today. It was lovely meeting you and discussing all of this. And thank you everyone for listening, and will be back with another Productivity Talks episode of Workpuls.
Workpuls Productivity Talks is a podcast about productivity brought to you by everyone’s favorite time tracker - Workpuls. With every interview we’re bringing you new tips from people who are experts on productivity, but also from managers and founders who have found a way to really master productivity in their teams.