This post is part self-reflection, part sharing my story, part advice about how to manage time on extra-curricular work. The reason for me putting it together is that I had a couple of crazy weeks where I felt my 80/20 balance was at 80/50 and this was not sustainable. This led me to look for opportunities to reduce the 50% back to 20%, and I feel like I’m there now.
Let me start by explaining what I mean with 80/20 time. To me, 80/20 time means that I invest 80% of my time in my primary job-related responsibilities and 20% of my time in myself and my own personal development. Although this isn’t an official policy in Microsoft, I still apply it to how I spend my time. This isn’t an exact science, but it’s a general principle I apply to time management.
In January, I started work on the third edition of the Hands-on Kubernetes on Azure book. I remembered from last year that this was a lot of work, and that I’d be likely stretching my 80/20. One rule that I devoutly follow when writing for the book is to not do this during work hours. I’m getting paid by the publisher to write the book, and I clearly want to clearly separate both to stay within Microsoft’s policy. So this already meant the writing would be more like 100/20 time, rather than 80/20 time.
However, in the meantime, I also had a number of speaking engagements planned. I appeared on the 425 show, presented at developer week, and led a keynote for the Computer Society of India. All three of those talks were new talks, reusing some existing material, but each of them required hours of preparation of content and demos.
At the same time, I was also working on an internal hackathon project called Bellhop. Although I didn’t write as much code for this as I would have liked, I still worked with my peers Matt and Tyler on design, testing, and the presentation for this project. We now also have 90 minutes a week for joint hacking for the project, meaning this takes up a significant part of the 20% time (not complaining, joint hacking is one of the most fun times of my week).
Coincidentally, two of my customers were having major go-lives of new solutions on Azure. As with every go-live, there were issues after the initial end-customer adoption of the solutions that went live. This didn’t impact my 20% time – but it did cause additional stress and work to try to get those issues resolved.
All of this was happening in the midst of a global pandemic. I don’t know how you feel when you’re reading this, the only thing I can say is that I hadn’t seen my friends in 5 months, I missed my dad’s 70th birthday and I was mentally feeling exhausted.
What I did to overcome this
There were a couple of things I did to overcome this and get my balance back to 80/20:
- Stop taking on new extracurricular work.
- List priorities and focus on the priorities.
Let me explain each one of those in a bit more depth:
The first thing I did was make a conscious decision to not take on any new extracurricular work. This even led me to pass up on a number of interesting projects and initiatives internally at Microsoft. It always feels difficult to say “no” to interesting opportunities. However, saying “yes” to opportunities when you don’t have the time to commit to those opportunities is bad for both you as well as for the people you’d be working with. If you only have enough peanut butter for 5 sandwiches, don’t spread it out any thinner and try to force it over 10 sandwiches.
After taking on no new work, I prioritized my current commitments. I listed out all my commitments, from writing the book to the speaking engagements to some internal “20% work” I was doing. After creating the list, I made sure I attached the right priority to the right task.
Let me give you a tangible example of this: writing a book involves both writing content as well as reviewing content. The reviewing had a lower priority on my list than writing the new content. So, if I decided to write for 2 hours one night, that meant I prioritized writing a new chapter vs reviewing one I had gotten back.
Interestingly, this also meant that I didn’t write any new blogs for about 2 months. I had a rhythm where I tried blogging weekly, but I allowed myself to break that rhythm and focus on other priorities.
The final thing I started doing – and am still doing – is journaling. I had heard about journaling for a while, and about its benefits. It felt a bit weird at first, but it’s become a habit right now. Every night, before I go to bed, I write three positives about that day and what my priorities are for the next day. This takes less than 5 minutes every night but has helped me gain more positive energy and helps me prioritize the next day. I actually write this in a small physical notebook and using a parker pen.
Things happen. Sometimes your time will get stretched, and if you don’t take action you’ll get buried. It certainly was the case for me. By not taking on any new extracurricular work and prioritizing my commitments I was able to reduce the 80/50 balance back to a healthy 80/20.