From engineer to first-time manager, need some app/workflow productivity tips

So I recently became a manager at a software startup and my day to day work did a full 180. Instead of coding I am now sitting the entire day in meetings, hold 1on1s, have to process what is being said in those meetings, aggregate things and either make decisions based on that or do follow-up meetings.

The job is now all about information management and staying on top of things. I am an avid GTD user and was able to organize most of my life with Things (previously Omnifocus) but most of that is now out of the window.

I started with plain markdown apps Drafts and tried to have meeting notes in Drafts, then a rolling document where I just jot down what’s going on. That quickly didn’t work because my private Drafts (even with the paid workspace feature) mixed with my work drafts. The amount of new notes became too high, it became messy and the rolling document didn’t scale.

Then I checked Notion. It’s the app I keep coming back to and try to find a usecase for but it’s web interface is a bit slow for my taste. It’s also a bit too easy to accidentally hide information or spend too much time messing with things instead of actually using it (had the same problem with Omnifocus). I liked that it gave me a bit of structure and aggregated things in one place, but in the end a quickfind feature in iA Writer or any other markdown editor gave me the same.

Now I am at Agenda and adjusted a bit. Instead of the rolling document I now have a weekly rolling document in my “weekly” project.

The idea that every meeting note is “on the agenda” first is a lifesaver because it forces me to go through each and every meeting note and process what has been said before I can remove the note from the agenda.

I copy and aggregate things into the weekly rolling document and that somewhat works. If an action action is needed I use my existing GTD flow and get it done through that. The “Pint to top” and “Pin to bottom” is exactly what I need to stay up to date, but the app has a lot of shortcomings, mainly the UI and lack of quick jump.

I also still fight with 1on1 meetings and staying on top of that. I have for each of my peers a shared rolling 1on1 google docs document in that we jot down whatever we discuss. It’s also being used for the peers to write down things they want to discuss, or for me to remember key points I want to bring up.

When I have something from other meetings or my rolling document that matters for a person, I copy it into the google docs document to not forget.

… and then I forget lol (until I open the document again, usually at the 1on1)

So yeah, in general any tips for a new manager that is struggling with the information load? What are some kickass information management apps I should take a look at to keep myself organized?

2 Likes

Rather than tools/Apps you might want to check out a (tool agnostic) method/system first?

(Or maybe you already did?)

I personally like (aspects of) Getting Things Done by David Allen.

I agree with @Wolfie that hand written notes would be better. Here’s an article that discusses why. In your situation, meetings replace lectures.

Since Nietzsche said our tools participate in the formation of our thoughts, I recommend good paper and a good pen. (Note that the meeting book linked has a David Allen endorsement :slight_smile:)

1 Like

Are you perhaps trying a little bit too much with all that note taking? I found that much note taking sits in the way of having the discussion in the meeting. Taking minimal notes of action items only was enough for me to survive many years (decades actually) as engineering director. With just action items to take, electronics to write them down with are fine.

I used Notability, in part because i could record the meeting and be fully immersed knowing that i would never miss a thing. Recording a meeting is not always appropriate or allowed of course, i always asked first. The side benefit you have from listening to the recording is to listen to oneself - you will be surprised what you learn!

Clean up after the meeting meant for me to go through the notes, move them into omnifocus, summarize them on email to participants and set a date to review any replies. I would generally listen to a recording in the car driving home and delete it afterwards. Action items in omnifocus were grouped by projects with people being projects also (for 101s). You may want to do the omnifocus related tasks during the meeting but i found that sort of thing too distracting. Having a bit of dedicated time after the meeting for clean up also gets ones head more clear on the specificity of the task.

And don’t forget that you should not be the only note taker, your colleagues should do as well. They too should have a means to take and share action items.

1 Like

I manage development at an agency where I might go months between thinking about a client, and effective work just doesn’t happen without people understanding the context of it. Agenda has helped me quite a bit after I ramped up on it in 2018. I think it can be a good choice!

I almost never use On the Agenda (new notes default to today’s date with OtA off.) Most notes are created by dragging a calendar event from the right to the appropriate project on the left to make a new note with the meeting details pre-filled. I have about 60 projects on the left in 6 folders (clients/subprojects, internal, vendors, people, etc) and I’m slowly starting to expand into sub-projects on some major clients and internal work.

Notes aren’t copious but I am constantly editing and shaping linear bullets into non-linear topics/objectives while listening and talking (I’m a fast typist, don’t look at the keyboard and notes help me pay attention to people.) My goal is to have the conversation shaped into an organized artifact that I can turn around to my team, new issues, a SoW, etc. This is not something I could do with hand notes or iPad + Pencil.

If we’re creating a SoW live during the meeting, I’ll just work on the shared doc and just link to it on Agenda. My goal is to be done with the notes right after the end of the meeting, which is why I don’t go through and review them later using On the Agenda. I’ll often look up a note a few days or weeks later, but when I do that I just search or go to the project to get it.

I also use it to take notes on future meetings. Eg we do some different quarterly reviews. I’ll create a note in advance (linked to a calendar event if it’s available, otherwise best guess date or pinned to the top of the project) and add items as I think of them. Same for some 1:1s although I hope to move this to shared Google Docs soon so both sides can participate. For annual planning meetings this is especially helpful.

I’ll use the task formatting for NAs but I don’t try to manage tasks in Agenda. It’s too simple. Usually I’ll just turn actions into items in our work tracker. I use OF quick entry for ad hoc to-dos or followups.

Our work trackers are some Kanban-style tools that save a ton of time and some big shared docs with longer-term planning/architecture/specs. A lot of your management work should be public/shared information artifacts somewhere like that because you organize and communicate at the same time!

Hopefully some of this is helpful.

2 Likes

One of the pressures I felt when I became a manager from being a direct contributor was not getting enough deep work time.

I wrestled with being a manager because I wanted to be a maker at the same time, but that’s not possible.

Let’s be honest – there’s a difference between a maker and a manager. Makers primarily need deep work and focus; managers primarily need flexibility, availability, and the ability to make quick decisions.

This took me a good six months on the job to figure out because most of the productivity advice out there is written by makers.

For example, common productivity advice says, “Check email once per day.” But as a manager, likely you’re going to be in email more often than that. I tried to hit it at least 3 times per day, but often it was more than that.

In thinking through the information load, you’ll probably need to focus some time on capturing what’s relevant to you (action items, information relevant to your team, ideas, etc.) instead of grabbing everything you possibly can.

From there, the most important thing to do is review, and frequently. Toss out what’s not relevant (or archive it somewhere), and keep the rest in the system where it will be used and reviewed.

I’m personally of the persuasion that a tool isn’t going to help someone who is stuck or needs something different, but a mindset and process change most likely will. Once you have the mindset/habit/process going, find a tool you like that works with the way you work and think, then go from there. It can be paper, Notability, Notion, Apple Notes, text files, or even sticky notes. Whatever you choose to land on will be a part of your system you need to review!

A side note: I highly recommend www.manager-tools.com as a resource for being a manager. They also have some great manager-focused productivity tips as well as more businessy, leadership stuff.

4 Likes

Funny, I used a bulletjournal for over a year. I had a nice Leuchtturm journal and invested into a good pen. It was very satisfying but the reason why I stopped is because on one side duplicated information with my digital calendar that reminds me about meetings, on the other side because I either forget to update it or can’t use it on the go when I’m in the train.
What also was a big shortcoming were updates and future scheduling. The month/year views that the author suggests are very limited and with stuff like Things I can schedule something for in a month and absolutely won’t forget it.

Mostly we have a ‘minutes’ section in meeting documents where someone takes notes of what is being discussed so I personally don’t write anything down unless I find it very essential. But during meetings I am usually talking and discussing, so I still have to sit down later and aggregate what has been said and pull actions out (GTD + Things for me). That’s one part

The other part are 1on1s in where almost all of the stuff is somewhat important and I’m the one writing it down (in a shared doc with the peer). Some people talk about their career and ambitions, some other people about frustrations. So I have a lot of input from a lot of people and need to do something with it once I have some buffer time to process it. Not acting on it gives people the feeling that what they say doesn’t matter.

I guess both of that processing time is what you called “clean up after the meeting”.

But now I have things that can be acted on right away, but other things that are just information or part of some other projects that is still in information gathering phase. For example “this person wants to change his career” which is now a project. I have to talk with different parts of the company, collect what is possible, find out more details and make sure that all isn’t getting lost somewhere. (Currently I use Agenda and let the “XXX project” note sit on the agenda until information gathering is done, tasks have been created and there is nothing from my side to left)
Other projects could be events that we are thinking about doing, team structure going forward, improvements in the company and so son

1 Like

This. I use a simple version of Bullet Journal (as in not the decorating kind) for my notes. At the end of a notebook, I’ll often scan each page (with my iPhone) in case I lose that notebook. But due to my work, there are areas I can’t take electronics. So it would kill me to have to have two note systems. But even when I could bring everything with me, I revert to a notebook. Hand-writing helps me remember, and it keeps everything in one place.

My schedule is purely electronic (outside of the month overview in the notebook). I live and die by Outlook.

One thing I have started recently is checking my e-mail three times per day. I was finding myself getting lost in Outlook and always stopping what I was doing to read the most recent e-mail. My work phone has a special ringtone for two people in my organization who I would have to immediately respond to…that helps. I found my productivity went up immediately upon making this change.

Since you also use Agenda, can you go a bit into detail how you structure your projects and meetings inside it? I have a 1on1 project in where I pin things that I want to ask in all of my 1on1s but you seem to have projects for each person.
I find On The Agenda + Pin to top + Footnote the main reasons why I use the app because it forces me to review meeting notes before I clear them from the agenda.
The Today view is useful but I rarely go back to previous dates to see what I wrote down

I didn’t know you could do that lol

I have to disagree with this a little. In my former (working) life, I used my notebook numerous times to be able to say “Hold it, on {date}, you said {this}, and now you’re saying {that}. Which is it?” Of course in those day (which were not really too long ago) we were “encouraged” to keep our notebooks forever.

1 Like

A good counter example is a lab notebook, which is always considered the ground truth, and can persist for a long time (years, decades).

Of course, notebooks can be what you want them to be, and this can vary by person.

1 Like

I agree; notes can be worth preserving, even though they also become something else. I don’t regularly review my notes but I do go back to look at particular notes sometimes.

Yes, that’s about it. My Clients folder has a project for each client. Now that nested projects are a feature I’m starting to break clients up into major initiatives. People I regularly meet with each have their own project. Same with internal projects or initiatives that span all of our work. I plan notes for future 1:1s in either a pinned note or in a note associated with a future meeting. The idea is that when I scroll down, I should be looking at a relevant history. It has taken me awhile to arrive at this so I’m sure you’d do it a bit differently (e.g., if your 1:1s across your team have a lot to do with each other, I could see keeping them all in one project. Mine don’t so they are separate projects.)

So at any time, I have maybe a dozen notes that are slowly being built as I think of things and most of them are at the top of their own project because they’re either pinned or associated with a future calendar date. Much less work, especially for brainstorming.

Finally I guess I would say to ramp up your Agenda use as slowly as possible. I got excited when it came out and tried to do too much and lapsed. The second time I built up my use over months, only as I saw actual need. That’s resulted in organization and use that closely fits my job and that has made me much more effective.

Hah! To be fair, I think they only added it several months ago, or perhaps that’s just when I discovered it? It’s a game-changer and makes it way easier to search for attendees because entering names each time is a hassle. Before that I was clicking the gear to manually associate with a calendar date. Huge pain.

1 Like