Overcoming information overload

Engineering leader, father, bike racer, nerd. Coding and tinkering with computers since the age of 11, I love everything tech. But most of all, I love helping smart people and organizations achieve their goals, build remarkable products, and improve daily.

I still remember my excitement when I stepped up to an engineering manager role. I will make sure my team is happy. We will roll out the framework in no time. I will touch base with our stakeholders regularly and everybody will always be up to date. I will ramp up hiring for my team. I will learn new things daily, read articles, and attend conferences to do a better job and subsequently increase my impact on my company!

It all sounds great, right? What I did not realize was that all of this would be happening all at once, over the course of eight hours. Each member of our team has a different set of needs. Software projects are complex by definition, more so if the goal of the project is to completely revamp a 12-year-old user interface. Everybody wants to have a say. There are tens (maybe hundreds) of various topics that more or less relate to our team and I need to stay on top of them. Endless discussions about dependencies on other teams, coordination, tech dept, developer efficiency, the list goes on.  

Sounds familiar? My experience was not unique by any means. On the contrary, when looking at it in retrospect, I was quite lucky that I had a supportive manager who guided me through all of this and acted as a safety net for my numerous screw-ups. Thanks, Petr!

I’ve come a long way, or at least I like to believe I did. Starting with a painful meeting with reality, pushing through, making mistakes, learning from them, making some more, and severely burning out, to having peace of mind, a system that supports my work, and enjoying it and truly loving my role. 

This post is mainly for people who have recently started facing the reality of being an (engineering) manager, but my hope is that everybody will find some inspiration here. And if not, the simple validation that it’s not only you might come in handy too.

First, let’s talk about the effect information overload and context switching has on one’s performance, motivation, and mental health. Once we understand it, we will define what needs to be done in order to manage it. After that, just before we wrap up, I will share the toolset that has been working for me, with the hope that you might find inspiration in it.

Multitasking is a myth. We might feel like we are able to do multiple things at once, like responding to Slack messages while listening to an ongoing meeting, but that is simply a lie. What is actually happening is we are moving our attention back and forth, trying to hold multiple contexts simultaneously. Yes, it is possible and sometimes necessary, but also inherently wrong. The quality of information we get, as well as the output we are creating, suffers. We are simply not doing as good of a job as if we focused on just one task. But, most importantly, switching contexts is costly to our mental energy and drains us. The result of this is the all-too-familiar feeling of being really tired but also frustrated because we feel like we have achieved nothing. 

It stems from the internal reward mechanism everybody has. Getting things done is rewarded by a dose of dopamine, thanks to which we feel happiness and a sense of accomplishment. Obviously, this does not happen when we are trying to do ten things in parallel and not completing any. We may be able to progress in all of them, but we don’t get the closure we need. Of course, some tasks cannot be “just done,” we may need to wait for input from other people, for instance, but that does not mean we cannot set intermediary goals that give us that needed closure, but more on that later.

So, context switching is bad, we know that now. What we also need to mention is that the amount of effort to get to a context is proportionate to its complexity. Absolute numbers are different for everybody (e.g., the amount of time to “get in the zone”), but the proportion is there.  

Interruptions hurt

A prime example of that is software development. Coding very rarely looks like it does in the movies; developers usually don’t frantically type code without any interruptions for hours. Development is more about building a mental model of all levels of abstraction, all constraints that have to be obeyed, and many other things. The ability to build and retain a complex mental model varies wildly from person to person. There are great devs who are able to jump to it in a matter of seconds. On the other side of the spectrum are people like me who need even 10 or 20 minutes of staring at the code and building that model in order to be able to create something reasonable.

So, let’s say the average person needs 5-10 minutes to switch context from, for example, a discussion to deep work. Let’s call that person Alice. Alice’s calendar for this day looks like this:

Alice is a developer. Considering Alice works the usual 9-5, Alice has around four hours for deep work. However, this is not true. The reality looks more like this:

So, from a theoretical four hours of uninterrupted work, we only get around two hours! That doesn’t mean that Alice isn’t doing anything for six hours of course, but it demonstrates how toxic interruptions are to our ability to get things done.

Now let’s say Alice is not a developer, but a new team lead. She still codes, but she also participates in crafting strategies for her team, works with her reports, is involved in various initiatives, etc. She still needs time for doing deep work, but her tasks are usually on various topics and most of them touch different domains. So, in order to do her work well, she needs to be able to switch to completely different contexts many times throughout her day. That can be very tiring. To add to that, team leads get their tasks from various sources—be it a ticketing system, a PM system like Asana, and of course from e-mails, Slack messages, and talking with colleagues. And a lot of them are “self-inflicted.” Sounds like a horror story? No wonder many new managers fail without proper support from their organization.

So, does this mean every manager just fakes being on top of things while constantly on the verge of a systemic nervous breakdown? Maybe. Jokes aside, there are thousands of books about cognitive load, how not to get overloaded, task management, getting things done etc. Some of them are excellent, others not. I myself read probably two dozen of them because I find this topic both fascinating and scary. However, I don’t follow any of them. Or, I do, but none to the letter. Over the years, I’ve come up with a set of rules and techniques that help me stay sane both in my professional and personal life, and I would like to share them here.

Interested in how our engineering, work and life looks like?

Read more about life at Mews, what technologies we use and how we work.

Rule #1: Write it down or it never existed

If there could be only one takeaway from this write-up, it’s this: WRITE.IT.ALL.DOWN. No really, it doesn’t matter if it’s a meeting that is “just FYI,” make notes. And make it a habit to write everything you might need to recall after a period longer than 30 minutes. For three reasons:

  • You never know when you might need it.
  • Making notes (ideally by hand) keeps you focused. How many times did you check Slack during the last meeting? What do you remember from it? 
  • Most importantly: Your notebook is like your backup hard drive. Once you safely store it there, you can safely let it go from your head. I can’t stress enough how relieving that is!

Of course, one thing is making notes. Being able to find the right notes is another thing, and it requires having some kind of system. It doesn’t matter if you choose to use Notion, OneNote, a pen-and-paper bullet journal, or an e-ink tablet, notes are worthless if you can’t find what you are looking for. There are many great guides and techniques for note and task management, but going through them would need another article.

What I use:

Over the past ~10 years, I went from pen and paper, “only doing what I remember” (yes, really), Evernote, OneNote, Notion, and a physical bullet journal, to an e-ink tablet, and I swear by it. For me, it is an ideal combination of writing by hand while also being able to organize the notes, which is crucial. You need to revisit your notes and action items regularly, update them, move them to the right place, and strip off the garbage. Not only does this make your notes searchable, but it also enables you to revisit them and actually remember what you wrote. The structure of notes and tasks is very personal. I somehow follow a bullet journal scheme as described here, but fine-tuned for my e-ink tablet.

Rule #2: You are not alone in this

In a healthy organization, you rarely work in a vacuum. More likely, even as a manager, you have peers and a team with which you collaborate. You can discuss, ask for help, share your tasks, and delegate. It all sounds so obvious, yet even many seasoned managers struggle with it. Many people see this as a sign of weakness. Of course, company culture is a huge benefactor to this—a healthy organization (<ad>such as Mews</ad>) wants people to collaborate. Toxic culture promotes “powering through,” blame culture, and a fear of being seen as weak. So ask for help, ask a colleague to be your rubber duck, and share responsibilities with your team. Not only will you prevent yourself from getting overwhelmed, but delegating work the right way makes your team feel involved. Also, delegation is a great tool for getting people to tackle new things and grow.

Rule #3: Pick your priorities

I still remember a remark from my manager during my first month in the EM role: “Every time somebody asks for a volunteer or someone who wants to be involved in something, I just know you will raise your hand.” Yes, it was true, I wanted to be involved in everything. But the outcome is obvious—in many different contexts, nothing gets done. I felt important because I had my nose in every topic there was, but I hardly contributed to any of them.

Pick your battles and learn to say no. Do you have ten tasks in your backlog, and all of them have to be done? Do the biggest ones first. I stand by the pickle jar theory. In a nutshell: you have a couple of big rocks (big tasks), many pebbles (small tasks), and a heap of sand (everything else). If you want to put everything in a jar (aka your work day), you have to start with the big rocks, add pebbles, and then sprinkle sand there at the end. If you start with sand, there will be no room left for the big rocks.

Rule #4: Reflect

We all do retrospectives and post-mortems. But have you tried regularly reflecting on yourself? The mechanism is exactly the same—it makes you realize what you managed to do, what you are happy about, and what might have been better. This is such a powerful tool. It makes you recall things that would have otherwise been lost and gives you the “closure” you might need at the end of a busy week.

I personally like to reflect on every month, week, and day. I close my day just before I go to sleep, organize my task list and notes, look at how I spent my time, and occasionally write some thoughts in my journal. It helps me overcome the occasional feeling of “nothing getting done” and prepares me for the next day, which makes my next morning much less stressful.

Weekly and monthly reflections are about evaluating my weekly or monthly goals. I like to put together a goal for each week and revisit it occasionally. It makes me focused on the right thing and helps me with the correct course of action in case I need it. 

Wrap up

Learning how to work with one’s time, get organized, and not get overwhelmed is a process without an end. It will never be perfect; everybody will have ups and downs and occasionally drop the ball. That is all a part of the process.

If there is one thing I would like everybody to take from this write-up, it’s this: be proactive. Try new things, learn from them, talk with colleagues, read books, anything. Everybody will eventually develop a system that suits their needs, but it requires a conscious effort. There are a ton of resources and techniques that solve one or more of the described issues (e.g., GTD, Eisenhower Matrix, the already mentioned bullet journaling, etc.) and I believe it’s great to experiment with them. That way, you will eventually find your way of doing things, and when you look back a couple of years later, you will wonder how you could have ever lived in that state of constant overload.

Engineering leader, father, bike racer, nerd. Coding and tinkering with computers since the age of 11, I love everything tech. But most of all, I love helping smart people and organizations achieve their goals, build remarkable products, and improve daily.

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