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Productivity, not activity. How I try to ensure I am focusing on the right priorities.

Jehad Affoneh
Jehad Affoneh
4 min read
Productivity, not activity. How I try to ensure I am focusing on the right priorities.

A few months ago, I had a conversation with a designer on my team about managing her work. She was subtly hinting to me that she’s overwhelmed with the level of work she’s been handed and is trying to figure out how to manage it. As we went through it to get a better understanding of the work, she half-jokingly mentioned that she felt nervous sharing this with me considering how busy I must be. In comparison, her level of work might seem like nothing, she said. I somewhat missed it at that moment but have been thinking about it more deeply since then.

We often assume that the higher up the “career ladder” you go the more work you have to do. The reality, however, is that it’s different work. The issue with “more work” is that it focuses on activity instead of focusing on productivity. Being busy is a function of time more than anything else, it simply is dependent on the level of activity you’re able to do in a certain amount of time without much attention to the outcome. Many people spend hours in meetings with little to show for it, that’s not leadership, that’s a waste of time.

Leadership, on the other hand, is about managing your time effectively, building the context to make informed and sometimes difficult decisions that you’ll be accountable for, and having influence in the areas where you can make the most impact on people, process, and product. It’s about enabling others around you to be more productive and to do their best work. Being busy on its own is simply detrimental to your mission, if anything.

As I thought more about it, I started thinking a bit more of ways to be more open about the work I do so it’s not invisible from the team I lead. I believe sharing a summary of my work or where I am focusing is beneficial because it increases transparency and allows people to think a bit deeper about the priorities I am setting for myself in the context of the priorities I’ve outlined in my OKRs. Doing so increases my accountability to the team. In addition, being clear about the process allows me to get more honest feedback from the team and hopefully makes me more approachable knowing the types of things I am focusing on.

But wait, where am I spending my time?

Here’s the thing though, as I started thinking about this, I started thinking if I am actually clear on where I am spending my time. I have priorities that I start a quarter, a month, and a week planning to achieve. I do measure the outcome of these priorities every week, month, and quarter. That said, it isn’t clear how much time am I spending on achieving each priority.

How much time am I spending on achieving the outcome is important to help me figure out how productive am I in each of the areas I am focusing on and how much work am I delegating to my team.

To do so, I started actually measuring where I spend my time. I divided it into four core priority areas matching our three outlined priorities this year in addition to a cost of doing business category:

  1. One experience-led VMware: this focuses on the time I am spending on end to end story reviews. It also focuses on working with cross-functional teams to bring an experience-led process, and on the time I am spending with the leadership team in bringing end to end experiences to focus instead of focusing on feature or product-specific roadmaps.
  2. One continued focus on user insights: this is focused on the work and discussions we’re having with customers and on the work we’re doing to get the design team itself closer to customer.
  3. One global, empowered, and inclusive team: this is focused on the work and discussions we’re having to build a better, stronger, and more inclusive team.
  4. Cost of doing business: these are the meetings and discussions that I have to be in but don’t really fall under the stated priorities above. Think of all hands meetings across the company, advice to individuals and teams outside of the three priorities above, and more.

To measure time spent in each of these categories, I used a quick notes app and my calendar. The tool itself didn’t work very well but it was enough to get an overall understanding. Categorizing my meetings was a good easy first step. It was difficult to measure the rest of activities I do on daily basis. Walking around chatting with team members, ad-hoc conversations that I engaged in, thinking and writing sessions that help me make decisions on top priorities, and more. Getting a real understanding of time spent was actually a difficult experience.

That said, the overall time I counted was enough to get me a better understanding of my time.

I have yet to share this internally in a good format and I am still figuring out how to do so, but the whole experience has been beneficial to me and people who I have shared this with. It has helped me prioritize my time in a way that matches my outlined team priorities and balances the focus between the short term and the long term value.

My goal has generally been to lower my cost of doing business and figure out how to spend more balanced time across the board. I’ve also been using this as a way of figuring out which priority is falling behind by figuring out where am I spending my time cumulatively every month. It’s also been helping me in delegating more in areas where I am obviously not doing an excellent job of delegating.