How I Get My Focused Work Done

In management, we can become very “interrupt driven.” We get so used to distractions that we count on them. This dependency can make it very hard to focus when we need to. My calendar fills up with meetings. My unscheduled time is full of people stopping by to ask questions or chat. If I am not careful, I will find myself doing a lot of work at night.

Over the years, I’ve tried many different ways to improve my focused time. Here are the things that work best for me.

Defrag your calendar

Every six months, I review my schedule. Recurring meetings tend to accumulate over time. This periodic review makes it easier to identify meetings that are no longer necessary. I also will try to reschedule my recurring meetings so that they group into blocks. That 30 minutes or an hour between meetings is a waste of time. It isn’t enough time to work on anything significant. Grouping my meetings gives me larger blocks of time that I can use for focused work.

Block out your focused and loosely structured time

Now that your calendar has larger blocks of time add recurring calendar entries to protect parts of your week for focused work. For me, I need at least two hours to engage in a task, so I don’t block out less than that. Ideally, I will block out more.

Putting it on the calendar prevents other people from scheduling you in that time. Likewise, I also block out time for unstructured work, like reading e-mail. Reading e-mail or returning phone calls work well in those one-hour blocks between meetings. Having dedicated unstructured time also means that I’m not tempted to do unstructured work in my focused blocks.

Do make sure you leave some gaps in your schedule to allow folks to add in a meeting if they need to. I made the mistake of filling my calendar almost entirely for a while. People started to ignore my free/busy time because they couldn’t find any empty meeting slots.

Set out a “do not disturb” flag

In an open-plan environment, create a sign, so people know not to disturb you.

I have a weird lamp on my desk. People know that when the lamp is on, I am trying to concentrate. For the most part, they will let me focus. When I worked in an office, I would put a post-it on my door with a note asking people to send me an e-mail unless it was urgent.

Get out of the building

Sometimes to get focus you need to go elsewhere. I will sometimes go to a nearby cafe, co-working space or a library if I need a few uninterrupted hours.

Turn off the notifications

There is a reason that you see this advice shared often. I turn on “Do Not Disturb” on my mac and my phone. I have a separate Chrome “Person” that only has the extensions I need for focused work and no notifications enabled. I quit all apps that are not the ones I need for my task. My phone goes in my pocket. I don’t want any electronic distractions.

If I have to write something, I will sometimes do it longhand on paper first to eliminate distractions. Writing on paper works exceptionally well for me if it isn’t a topic I am excited about but need to get done. Once I have the first draft on paper, it is much easier to edit and refine on the computer without being tempted to do something else.

Set a goal and reward yourself

We are so unfocused these days that gamifying your focused work may help. For example, when I finish the first draft of this post, I will spend 10 minutes on Twitter to reward myself for getting it done without interruptions.

Set aside a whole day for your focused work.

It is sometimes challenging as a manager to have an entire day clear. If I have something vital to do, especially something time sensitive, I will clear the whole day to focus on it. Usually, I will also get out of the building to avoid other work distractions. I give myself a one-person offsite with the goal of getting something done. I turn on my “out of office” e-mail responder with a note letting people know that I am working off-site and asking them not to disturb me unless it is critical. I will also schedule these “focus days” up to a quarter in advance, to make sure I have them in case I want to use them.

Clean your desk

Cleaning the clutter in your eye-line is also very common and useful advice. Things tend to accumulate on my desk: mail, tchotchkes, magazines, books. When you are trying to focus, they can be distractions or the general clutter can be a distraction. You don’t need to clean your desk thoroughly. You just don’t need to see that stuff. Put it all somewhere you can’t see it when you are trying to focus.

Clean your computer desktop

Just like your physical environment can be a distraction, your virtual one can be too. All those files on your desktop are like a big to-do list of fun things instead of the work you need to focus on. Create a “clutter” folder and move everything into it.

Create your focused playlist

Some people like to work in silence. I find that music helps me focus better, especially in busy environments. I have different playlists that help me focus on various tasks: reading, programming, writing. For reading, I like ambient music. For programming, it is post-rock and electronic music. When writing, I favor modern classical music. You may prefer silence or music may help you. One important thing for me is that the music that is on my playlists is music I know well. I find listening to new music can be too distracting for me in these situations.

Start with a mindfulness exercise

Especially on my focus days, I like to start with a ten or twenty-minute mindfulness exercise to help me clear away the other things on my mind and help me focus on the task at hand.

Make your exhaustive to-do list

One of the exercises I like from the “Gettings Things Done” book by David Allen is exhaustively writing down everything you can think of that you need to do. It is very freeing for me. I find that if I need to remember to do something, it will nag at me the whole time I am trying to focus. If I write it down on a piece of paper or in a to-do app, it helps me put it aside for a while so I can focus.


These are all things that I do that help me focus. I hope that you find some of them useful. I’d be interested to hear other tips that people have as well. Please leave a comment with your focus tools.

Answering some questions about Agile Transformation

I was given a set of questions from a consultant working with a company about to begin a transformation to Agile. They asked if I record my answers for their kick-off meeting. That video is above, but I had written my thoughts down as well for clarity, so I am including that text as well.

How hard it can be to implement an agile model in a company where the old model was more hierarchical and conservative?
It can be extremely challenging if only part of the organization is interested in making the change. If the rest of the company are expecting detailed plans and delivery date commitments and the product development team is working with a more iterative approach, that will create a lot of organizational friction. For any agile transformation to be successful, the whole company has to be supportive and committed.

I don’t think that company hierarchy is necessarily an impediment to a successful agile transformation. As long as the responsibilities and expectations of leadership adapt to the new way of working and that leadership is also committed to the agile transformation. Many organizations with more traditional hierarchies build their products successfully with agile methodologies.

What would be your advice for this team to successfully implement the model? What should they be aware of? Basically, the DOs and DONTs.
Do commit to making the transformation, and understand that it won’t be easy. This will be a culture change for your company. Any culture change follows a path where the excitement of making the change is followed by a period where the individuals and teams struggle to understand how to be productive in the new model. During this time (sometimes called the valley of despair), it seems like the best idea would be to go back to the way things used to be. Push through this time and don’t give up. Bit by bit, things will improve, people will figure out how to operate in the new world and you will end up in a much better place.

One of the ways that teams make the transition to agile is to use a known structured methodology like Scrum. At first, the processes and ceremonies will feel strange and not what you understood agile was supposed to be like. Stick with it. As your teams get better at agile thinking, you can start to decide which elements make sense for you and which you may want to change or drop altogether. Each of these things has a purpose, and understanding the purpose and the value when it works well is important before you decide not to do it. Teams that abandon the parts of the process that they don’t like early on often end up with a very poor understanding of agile. They gain very few of the benefits and may be a lot less efficient.

What are the foundational measures they should follow in your opinion?
Like any organizational culture transformation, there should be some time spent by the whole organization understanding why there is a need to make the change, what the expected outcome from the change is and what the plan is. Time should be spent to make sure that all parts of the organization (especially the teams dependent on the team making the change) are committed.

If there is a smaller team that is mostly independent, that team might try to pilot the switch to agile first, to develop some expertise ahead of the rest of the organization and learn from their experience.

What should they anticipate to succeed?
Anticipate that this may be a longer process than they expected, but the effort is worth it! Anticipate that the change may too big for some people to make, and they may choose to leave or try to prevent the change from happening. Anticipate that it will get progressively easier over time.

Other relevant points you might find useful.
I have been working Agile exclusively for almost 20 years after having spent the first 8 years working in a more traditional way. The reason that I have continued to work agile is that I have seen no better way to deliver software efficiently. I am inherently pragmatic. If I saw a better way to work, I would switch immediately. I haven’t found any yet.

The hardest part of adopting agile is learning the agile mindset and understanding that it doesn’t mean abandoning quality, accountability, documentation, process, planning or tracking to deliverables. It is about finding the right amount of each of those things for the project and no more.

In the end adopting agile is adopting a culture of continuous improvement. A culture of always looking for better ways of doing what you are doing. The way we practice agile today is very different from the way that we did it five years ago. Its adaptability is part of its strengths. It’s fluidity also makes it very difficult to learn. It is absolutely worth the effort though.

I wish you the best of luck on your journey!

Slides from my talk on Distributed Teams

Compare the Market was nice enough to invite me to speak at their tech managers’ off-site about distributed teams. This talk reflects my own experience leading distributed teams.

I was presenting to them over video. Their meeting included people in two different offices and also folks dialing in from home. Ironically, in the middle of my talk, I got disconnected from the video conference. Because I was sharing my slides full-screen and had my speaker notes on my second monitor, I didn’t notice. So I spoke to myself for about 15 minutes before I realized what happened and dialed back into the meeting. It was a bit mortifying, but the folks in the UK were extremely nice about it. I can’t think of a better example though of the challenges around working with teams who have to communicate over electronic means constantly, so it was a good illustration of the issues I raised. 🙂

In 2018 Decide to Work Deliberately

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” – Henry David Thoreau

You may have heard this quote before. Maybe it resonated with you, or maybe not. What does it mean to live (and work) deliberately?

I’ve thought a lot about this over the last few years.

Earlier in my career, I certainly wasn’t deliberate. I “went with my gut” a lot. Some of it was my lack of experience. Some of it was an overinflated ego.

As I got more experience, I looked back at earlier decisions that I had made as a leader and realized how poorly considered some of them were. With just a bit more thought, I could have set myself and my team into a much better position. I’ve also been lucky enough to work with people who have modeled what approaching work thoughtfully can look like.

Consider all the decisions you make in a day at your job. You work on this project instead of that one. You choose the opening phrase you make in your pitch to a customer. You attend this training or decide to skip it. You invite one colleague to lunch and not another. You hire this person instead of that one. How much thought do you put into each of these decisions? Do you know why you made this choice? Do you ever go back and evaluate what worked out well or poorly and what you might do differently the next time?

Some of these decisions might seem obvious in the moment. Next time you encounter a decision that seems trivial, take a beat and just think about why the choice is so clear. Every choice you make means that you are also choosing not to do something. Have you considered both options? Every decision is the start of a chain of events. What are the assumptions you are making about the effects of this choice? Later, come back to your decision and test if your assumptions were correct. Was it still the best option? What did you learn from this that you will bring forward?

Thinking through your assumptions, and the implications of a decision, and evaluating the outcome is thinking strategically. Being strategic is critical for big company decisions, but is also valuable in the decisions you make all day.

It does take a bit of practice to do this, but as with anything you practice, it gets easier and easier. It will eventually become second nature.

So, next time you make a hiring decision or decide to work on project X tomorrow so you can do project Y today, ask yourself “Why is this the right thing to do?” If you can’t answer immediately, spend a minute and consider. You may find yourself realizing that it isn’t the right choice, and the next time you may spend a bit more time in making that decision.

“Look at every path closely and deliberately, then ask ourselves this crucial question: Does this path have a heart? If it does, then the path is good. If it doesn’t, it is of no use.” – Carlos Castaneda


[Thanks to Diane Guerts for editing help]

Building a Management Training Curriculum at Avvo

[This is a repost of]

This week, we kicked off manager training for Avvo technology managers. Before we could build a curriculum, we needed to decide what was important to learn and where we as a group needed the most development.

If I had done this with my organization at Adobe, years ago, I might have made a list of capabilities or requirements for our roles and then assessed each person against those requirements. I’ve since learned that the top-down approach tends to isolate and alienate people. It is something done TO them. They don’t feel investment or ownership of the process. If they disagree with the list or my assessment of them, it is hard to challenge due to the nature of the process.

When I was at Spotify, I worked with Paolo Brolin Echeverria and Mats Oldin to build manager training for my Tribe. They developed an excellent kick-off exercise that I repurposed for my team at Avvo.

The process is straightforward.

We began by individually thinking about the qualities of a good leader in our organization. We each wrote every important quality we could think of onto individual post-its. This effort took about 20 minutes. Then, one by one, we put each of our post-its onto a large board. As we placed each quality, we explained why we believed it was important for a leader at Avvo.

Kyle getting us started
Kyle getting us started

When we finished putting all of our post-its on the board, we affinity-grouped them. Affinity-grouping resulted in 30 groups of similar qualities as well as a few individual post-its that did not fit into any group. The grouping process required a lot more discussion so that we could all agree on the final groupings.

Nic, Ian and Jordan working on cleaning up the affinity groups
Nic, Ian and Jordan working on cleaning up the affinity groups

At this point, we had collectively described 30 essential qualities of a leader at Avvo, which is far too many to effectively focus on. To narrow things down, we each received six votes to put towards any group of qualities that we felt were the most critical. Then, we tallied the votes and took the top eight as our core qualities of a manager at Avvo.

The voting process also led to a lot of valuable discussions as we saw where we had voted as a group. Were these right eight? Were they the most important eight? The eight qualities that we picked were: empathy, develops autonomy, builds good teams, is real and trustworthy, is a big picture thinker, supports mastery, gives feedback, and has a bias for action.

Dot voting in progress
Dot voting in progress

Individually, we then assessed ourselves against the eight core qualities on a three-point scale: “I need training on this,” “need training, but it can wait,” and “I can train others on this.” One by one, we went up to a board that had the eight qualities mapped on a spider graph. We put dots on a line for each quality where we rated ourselves. We explained why we chose that assessment. This led to further good discussion about how to assess ourselves against these qualities.

Our collective spider graph
Our collective spider graph

The group as a whole found this exercise to be very valuable. We had excellent discussions on what it means to be a good leader at our company, including the values we agree on, and the ones that we don’t. We were also able to prioritize those collectively in a way that everyone feels ownership and allegiance to them.

And we came to an understanding of where we need to develop the most as a group. This mutual understanding will inform the curriculum for our management training – my original goal.

A diversity challenge: tech start-ups have a great opportunity

For decades we’ve been complaining about the lack of diversity in the technology industry. We’ve worked on the pipeline problem. We’ve worked on reducing bias. We’ve worked on the sourcing problem. We’ve worked on the retention problem. The net result thus far is that we’ve barely moved the needle.

Most of the companies that are investing in diversity programs are the larger companies. For them, their continuing lack of diversity is a public embarrassment.

At scale though, it is a far greater challenge for a company like Google, Microsoft, or Facebook to get to any percentage of tech workforce that mirrors their customer base. The numbers are too large to move the needle. It’s far easier for startups.

A critical part of building an inclusive culture that supports diversity is reducing the “otherness.” Inclusiveness is also much harder to do in a large company. If Google hired 1000 developers of color across all their offices, those individuals might never encounter another person like themselves on a daily or weekly basis. They may still be the only person of color that their peers see at work. They will be spread too thinly across the population.

Large technology companies should still work consistently to improve their diversity, but startups are much better suited to solve the diversity problem for the industry as a whole.

A startup with a development team of ten, four of them being women, has a ratio of 40% female developers. Any woman who interviews with the company will see that they are welcome. Any man that interviews will understand that they would be joining a company that takes diversity seriously and will be expected to conduct themselves appropriately. This would be the same for any other underrepresented group. If the company is serious about building a diverse workforce, they will find it easier to continue to be diverse as they grow.

Bringing in a diverse workforce at the early stages of a company will also mean leadership opportunities for those employees as the company grows. It will help address the lack of diversity in industry leadership, which further helps build minority representation. It will also eventually mean more startups started by underrepresented industry groups, which will continue to fuel diversity in the industry. Some of these startups may be acquired, putting their leadership into the leadership of other companies and increasing diversity in those companies as well.

According to most surveys, startup founders’ biggest challenge is hiring development talent. Meanwhile, there are ever-larger numbers of coding schools and boot camps graduating eager junior developers, willing to work hard, and coming from largely underrepresented populations in the industry. There are also many experienced minority developers at the larger companies who would be interested in being in an environment that lets them feel free to be themselves.

Unfortunately, most startups neglect the critical cultural aspects of building their company as they chase product/market fit, funding or customers. What many of them haven’t considered is that building a diverse company will help them find the right product for mainstream audiences, that sources of capital are increasingly valuing diversity in their funding decisions, and that diverse teams build better products that attract more customers.

So, I call on my fellow startup CTOs and CEOs to take on this challenge. If we succeed, we will not only build a better industry; we will also create better companies for our shareholders, our employees, and ourselves.

My Talk and Interview from JAX 2017 in Mainz, Germany

My keynote talk is here. The introduction is in German, but my talk is in English.

Afterward, Sebastian Meyen and I sat down to talk about pioneers, settlers and town builders, evolving culture and embracing failure as a means of learning in big and small companies.

Slides from an earlier (and longer) version of the talk are below:

Talks: 1st half 2017

I’ve been remiss in posting since I’ve been back in Seattle. Readjusting to life in the states, and adjusting to the new role has kept me busy. I hope to rectify that in the future. I have been lucky enough to be invited to speak several times this winter and spring in the US and Europe. If you’ll be there or live nearby and want to meet up, drop me a line on twitter and let me know!