I live by my To Do lists. During the craziest times in my Ph.D. I had my To Do list broken down not only by day but also by time of day. It sounds a little, or a lot, hyper-Type A, but it kept me calm in the swirl that was getting my dissertation research done. I’ve always relied on actual written lists. A recent article in the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/22/business/laptops-not-during-lecture-or-meeting.html) highlighted the advantage of writing over typing in terms of retention in our memories. To me, there’s something about the tactile pleasure of checking an item off my To Do list (always with a different color) that is motivating.
Recently though, my tried and true strategy has been failing me. I think that there are two reasons for this. One is that I haven’t had time in the past few weeks to update my To Do list which means I definitely haven’t had time to get through the list. Secondly, which is a consequence of the first problem, is that I constantly feel as though I’m just fighting fires instead of having time to sit and think about the larger items that need to get done or review my notes from meetings or piece together various bits of information I’ve gotten throughout the day. Compounding this issue is that I’m still trying to learn both what the organization does and how to be a manager. I know, I know, waa, waa, waa, complain, complain, complain.
We’re all super busy. Every manager has days that are packed with meetings and less and less time for reflection and to gather thoughts. Everyone feels underwater as they adjust to a new job. None of this is front page news. I have felt some of this before in the many transitions I’ve made over the years. I feel that the magnitude of this transition is what is overwhelming for me. Currently, there are two main pain points for me in the transition, learning and time management.
I’ll tackle the learning component first. I’ve heard the first six months to a year at an organization described as “drinking from a fire house” and it can definitely feel that way. My current struggle is trying to find the line between how much I need to learn about the technical details of what my team is doing and how much I need to learn general management skills. Now, I know the answer to this question. I need to focus way more on learning general management skills. I have a team of middle management that are very skilled technically that I can rely on and others in the organization that I can go to with questions. It is much more important that I learn how to manage and lead. While I know that is true, every single scientific bone in my body is saying “you have to be a technical expert. That is the only way people will respect you”. That message was driven into me so many times throughout my career so far that it’s a hard one to silence now. It is a message that I still get. Even though I have a PhD, the fact that I don’t know all the ins and outs of this particular field still results in some skepticism that I can feel and that sometimes is voiced. The result is me feeling pushed and pulled in different directions and spinning my wheels instead of focusing my energy into the activities that will most likely result in my success. Aside from talking to mentors, my boss, etc to get feedback on what I should be focusing on (something I do regularly), one item that has helped as been “The First 90 Days”. I really can’t say enough about this book and since this is a new blog, you can rest assured that I’m not getting paid to promote it. Even if you have been in your current job forever, you should read this book. It is a super practical guide to how to set yourself up for success coming into a management position, what to focus on, how to go about learning, etc. I read the whole thing through and now I’m going back through to implement certain parts……if only I had the time. It does advocate for learning only what you absolutely need to know to effectively manage your team, and contribute to the organization. This has been and will continue to be a difficult lesson for me as a battle my inner scientist screaming to be the smartest person in the room. Swallowing the ego would be so much easier if it wasn’t quite so big.
Which brings me to the second struggle, time management. I used to watch the managers and leaders I worked for flit from meeting to meeting, the better ones always being on top of what the meeting was for, always having germane and insightful input, and never seeming to have time to do anything else. And, I still wonder about that only now I’m locked in that cycle too. My days are packed with meetings. I filled my office with things I like to make it a nice work space and I’m rarely there. There are several solutions to this such as blocking out time on my calendar, answering emails before bed, etc that are fairly easy. I think what I’m struggling with more is how to time manage my brain. How to be able to shift gears relatively quickly. How do I go from meetings, to down time, to meetings again and retain everything, synthesize everything, pull it all back up together into an overall vision for my team? These are skills and strategies that good leaders learn along the way and I’m at a loss for how to learn them. I’ve been toying with the idea of hiring an executive coach for some time now and I’m thinking more and more that that is the way to go. I will of course continue reading books and articles (Harvard Business Review is a fav) and attending courses at work but I think I need individual coaching from someone outside my organization, someone who has worked with other professionals before and can provide an objective opinion. I will of course continue to use my tried and true strategy of To Do lists but I know now that, as with much of what I carried into this job with me, they are not enough. That is one of the chief lessons of “The First 90 Days”, the skills and qualities that got you to this new management position are not enough to allow you to succeed in it. It’s more than a bit sobering and I’m hoping it will also be motivational for me soon too.
So no snappy things I’ve learned bullet points to end this post. Just a plea for help/suggestions. If you have any tried and true organization/time management/how to restructure your brain tips you use, I would love to hear them.