Maker — that’s how I’d like to be known for. But I am also a manager — my job title clearly says so. Paul Graham, the co-founder of Y! Combinator has written about two types of schedules of the two different kinds of people: maker’s schedules and manager’s schedules. It’s pretty clear from his article that as a manager, whether you are a front-line team lead or a CEO, your working days will mostly be filled with meetings. It is true for me too, as a Senior Engineering Manager at an enterprise software company; my time is mostly spent in meetings, be it 1:1’s, customer research, planning, strategy, agile rituals, status update, or interviews.
For as long as I remember, as a maker and a manager, I’ve been living a double life, so to speak. I perform my manager’s responsibilities during the day during business hours and my maker’s responsibilities at nights and on weekends. I was satisfied with that because my day job kept me busy and intellectually challenged and my night job (for lack of a better word) kept me creatively fulfilled.
The other day, as I was listening to this podcast on productivity and creativity, it hit me. It hit me hard. Since Covid-19, I’ve been struggling to feel satisfied with what I do and hence, feel like a maker. Even when I am trying to make something at home, like cooking a new dish or baking, I would be doing something else at the same time — answering to my daughter’s question about her home learning exercise, listening to a recording of a meeting I missed during the week or something else. Multi-tasking is an enemy of creativity and producing amazing work as a maker. There have been multiple researches and whitepapers done on that topic. As a result, it’s no wonder my maker genes have been feeling unsatisfied recently.
We are going to have to get used to this new normal way of living and working so I decided to put this guide to help myself and other makers-manager get much needed “maker” time and more importantly, a sense of satisfaction, during an unprecedented time.
Be ruthless with your calendar and theme your day so you can reserve focus time
As mentioned in my article, A Day in the Life of an Engineering Leader, I usually theme my day and organize my calendar carefully so I have at least one day during the week where I could have a block of focus time. I also have other creative outlets and side-projects that I like to devote my time to. More often than not, they are indirectly related to my full-time job as an engineering manager.
My personal goal now is to have at least four hours of uninterrupted time every week to create. Yes, life is busy and I’ve read well-meaning advice like productivity is not something to be strived for during a pandemic, but I personally need this time to fuel my soul and make me feel alive. As they say, each to their own.
Observe your creative energy levels throughout the day for a week and take note
It’s not enough to just reserve the time for creative work, it’s important to understand how your creative energy levels differ throughout the day. While I have been getting up an hour earlier so I could have uninterrupted alone time in the morning, I found that I couldn’t use that time for creative work. My brain is too pre-occupied with what I’d have to accomplish at work to have the headspace to think about anything creative in the mornings. As a result, fostering habits like waking up at 4 am in the morning to do creative work, as you’d have read in many stories and biographies of successful creative artists, does not work for me.
For me, my most creative time is usually after dinner time, after I had fulfilled my responsibilities of being a homeschool teacher and a manager for the day.
If you don’t know how your creative energy levels work, my recommended approach is to observe what you are doing and how you are feeling at each hour and write them down in a notebook for the whole week. At the end of the week, review your notes, and hopefully, you will be able to identify a pattern.
Understand what sparks your creativity and do more of that regularly
Before working from home, my commute time to and fro work was what sparked my creativity. I’d be sitting on public transport, sometimes with my eyes closed, and I would have a flood of ideas flowing through my mind. These days, my commute time consists of walking a few steps from my bedroom to the living room, which takes less than 2 minutes. So I needed to find something new that will help spark my creativity. After a few weeks of working from home, I am glad that I’ve found it — it’s my daily walk time, where I walk around the neighborhood for 45 mins to an hour, enjoying the nature, trying to be grateful for what I have and filling my mind with creative thoughts. Before Covid-19, I used to walk 5k steps a day at most, but now, I am averaging 10k steps a day.
Don’t rely on your memory — Record your ideas within 20 seconds
While I was glad to discover that daily walks fill my mind with creative thoughts, I found out quickly that they left my mind as quickly as they came. And then I would be sitting at my desk, with a blank canvas (or more literally, a blank Medium Story page) not knowing what to write about. Then, I ended up just working on my managerial tasks, be it reading up about a project, or following up on the status of delivery. You could argue that it’s not a waste of time, but that’s not how I’d like to spend my maker time.
Since then, I have found a trick that worked for me — to jot down ideas as they come into my mind, usually within 20 seconds. If I had my phone with me, I’d write it in my notes app, or if I had access to a physical notepad, I’d write it there. There is something writing things down in paper which I found quite satisfying.
Feed your mind with good knowledge
Albert Einstein once said that, “If you feed your mind as often as you feed your stomach, then you’ll never have to worry about feeding your stomach or a roof over your head or clothes on your back.” Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We need to constantly feed our mind and soul with new ideas, new ways of thinking and new information. In this day and age, we have no excuse not to learn. Information is at our fingertips; whether you prefer to read a book, read a magazine, listen to an audiobook, listen to a podcast and even browse social media, as long as you choose what you consume mindfully and carefully, you’ll be feeding your mind with good knowledge.
Do nothing for a period of time and let your mind wander
If you’re like me, this is going to be something that you struggle with the most Do nothing? Really? Can I at least listen to podcasts? The answer is No. These days, we are constantly on the go and it is very easy for our mind to be occupied, either with useful activities like listening to an audiobook, or useless activities like scrolling through our social media feeds. I believe this is one of the reasons why mindfulness practices become very popular. Researches have found that if you can try and meditate for a few minutes each day, it does wonders to your creativity. Unfortunately, I still find it very hard to meditate so I found something that works for me. I do repetitive and methodical physical labor that doesn’t require me to think; for example; ironing clothes or sweeping the floor.
I often find myself getting ideas or having the urge to sit down and work on a creative project that I’ve been putting off after doing a boring repetitive physical task. Even this article is also a result of such activity. So if you’re like me and you find it hard to meditate even though you understand all the theoretical reasons why you should, then this may be the answer you’ve been looking for.
Being a manager doesn’t mean you’re no longer a maker
I love being a manager, and being able to make a positive impact on people through the work that they do, their career, and personal goals. However, becoming a manager doesn’t mean I had to give up my innate desire to be a maker. I am and I will always be a maker, as it fills my soul with joy and it makes me feel alive, which are fundamental to being a good manager.
If you enjoyed this article, you might like to check out my latest book on engineering management. It's a practical guide for engineering managers at tech companies.
The Engineering Manager’s How-to Guide is very targeted for engineering managers, and in this book, you won’t find generic advice like having regular 1:1’s, giving feedback, etc. Yes, those things are absolutely important, but they are not specific to an engineering manager’s role. It’s my goal to make sure this book provides a concise and actionable guide for engineering managers, the specific and niche content for engineering managers that you won’t find in other leadership and management books.