MORE responsibility means LESS availability

Background

If you’re looking for a one-liner for this article, here it is — by taking more responsibility and higher roles, you are NOT supposed to be MORE available but quite the contrary! You have to DEFEND your time as if your life depends on it! Or else, a burnout is a guaranteed. Choose your battles wisely.

There, assuming that you are too busy to read the full article, that oneliner should do it. Jot it down. Print it out. Just for the heck of it – remember and stick to it; and do thank me later.

Now let’s discuss this in more details.

This is something that I’ve noticed both in myself and others. We start taking more responsibility and higher roles, hopefully by choice and for good reasons. But a funny side-effect of getting a higher role, except for higher salary, is that more and more people start requiring your assistance. And as someone who has never had to deal with this before, you most likely assume that, well, a higher role means higher responsibility, which further means that you should help every single person who contacts you.

It’s all cool and dandy in the beginning. You enjoy helping here and there, seeing other people solve their stuff. But the problem is that you start getting tired. Yesterday you were focusing on ONE problem only, but now it’s more people with more problems; and every problem takes a mental toll.

But all cool, you’re a nice person and you want to help and it’s probably your job to assist everyone. You’re getting more and more tired but hell, you are getting paid more so you probably HAVE TO to endure, right?

Well weeks pass and now your boss is bothering you because something that you promised to deliver is being late. But all cool, you’re a nice person and you want to help your boss as well, but since you already spent your whole day helping others, the only reasonable thing to do is to work at night.

Well weeks pass and now you are both tired and sleepless and you probably don’t need me telling you how lack of sleep affects your energy, mood and, as a direct consequence of the two – your productivity. Your boss is bothering you because more stuff is being late and those that you helped before are now a bit frustrated because you are not helping them like you did before, so now they are late as well.

But that’s all cool, you are being paid more than before and this is your job and it’s OK to be tired and, hell, at least you’ll go for some super-expensive 10-day vacation in couple of months and it will all be worth it.

Well more weeks pass and now you are tired, sleepless and fucking frustrated. You become angry. You start hating all those contacting you. You start hating your boss, your colleagues, your work, … your partner is probably suffering in this process as well and you might take out some anger on them as well. Now your partner is pissed with you as well.

All of a sudden, it’s not freakin’ cool any more. You are tired, sleep deprived, angry and not fun to be around. All your projects are late, people are blaming you and you just can’t take this shit any more. You say “to hell with it” and you quit your job because those suckers sucked all the life out of you.

Funny thing is, you started this journey with ZERO people being pissed and as a direct consequence of being nice and helpful, you ended up with BUNCH of people being frustrated – your boss, your colleagues and your significant other.

Oh, do I need to tell you that this is what a burnout is? No? Good.

I’ve been there. Well, once in a full burnout and multiple times on the verge of it. Therapy and a lot of reading helped; a lot. And in order to help your future self to avoid the same scenario, hereby, I bring you the “wisdom” that I’ve collected. And it boils down to one thing – taking MORE responsibility should make you LESS available!

You are responsible for your team as a whole

This might be a rather hard pill to swallow. I certainly found it as such. But here’s the thing – if you spend majority of your time assisting one or two members of your team, what you are effectively doing is:

  1. Ignoring other members who might need help. And yes, it’s a fact. The more time you spend assisting a single person, the more tired you become and the less helpful you are for other members
  2. Putting your job at risk because, again, the more tired and worn out you become by breastfeeding some people, the less of your daily tasks you will do, and, as a direct result, the less productive you will be, putting your job at risk
  3. Putting EVERYONE’s jobs at risk because, again, by not being there to assist others when needed and by not doing your tasks, you are endangering the whole team which puts everybody’s job at risk!

So, let me put it as blunt as this:

By making yourself available all the time to everyone, you are doing a disservice to everyone in your team by putting both theirs and your job at risk!

If your team members get fired because the project got endangered due to you parenting certain members of the team – that goes on you!

Does that make you scared? I hope it does!

Defending your time as if your life depends on it

I know, it sounds brutal. But still, someone has to say it. And yes, it is brutal.

This is a concept that I actually heard about from a completely different area. During my post-motorcycle crash period, I spent hours browsing other people’s experiences. And I came around a comment that just stuck with me to this day. “What you want to do is act as if every single guy on the road is a crazy drunk bastard whose primary goal is to try and kill you”.

It’s brutal, I know, but rear-bumping a guy who randomly decided to hit the break in the middle of the highway, sending you flying towards the sky, kind of changes your perspective.

And you know what? I honestly think this is true about time as well. If you are a nice and helpful person who wants to help every living soul out there, the only way to shatter that stupid perspective of yours is to actually go brutal on it. You have to start acting as if every person out there is a crazy maniac whose only job in the world is to suck out all of your time making you unavailable to others, eventually leading to all of them being let go!

Heavy, right? It is. But it should at least make you think!

Does that mean that I should be unavailable all the time?

Absolutely not! I’m sure that many will read just the first part of this article and be like — hell yeah, I’ve been an ignorant jerk and this article just proves that it’s exactly how I should remain! Ha Ha! Jokes on you!

No. Just … no. Just like with every single thing out there, balance is the key. And just like with every thing where finding a balance is the hardest thing in the world, this one is no different either. Finding that balance is HARD! Or maybe even impossible.

So what do you do if you know that you can’t strike that balance and yet you want to make yourself available enough to your people?

As with every other thing out there – you rely on wisdom of those who have tried, failed and learned before you. And as luck would have it, by reading this article, you happened to stumble upon the wisdom of a guy who failed, and keeps failing miserably, but has learned couple of tricks along the way. And as you can imagine, I’ll be happy to share these wisdoms with you.

Techniques for making yourself available without burning out in the process

Let me be as candid upfront as possible. Some of these techniques I’ve read about, some I’ve derived from all my previous failures, and some were recommended to me by my manager.

But one thing is true about all of them – they are proven to work and yet can be challenging to implement. They take practice and some mental effort, but the more you apply them the more you will enjoy the journey. And hell, probably the more responsibility will you take along the way.

1. One on Ones

If you’ve never had these with you manager, I can tell you firsthand that you’ve been robbed. Yeah.

One on ones are usually short 30-min meetings that happen every week at the same time. As simple as that. You schedule these with the people you work closely with and you dedicate first 15mins of the meeting to whatever it is that they might need.

The true power behind these is that they give people a time slot where they know they have 30mins of your full attention. And frankly, most of the time, whatever the issue is, it can wait for up to 7 days to discuss it.

Even though it might feel as if you are SPENDING more time, the effect is quite the contrary. First, you have a full command of your time and you can PLAN the time to assist. Second, people can better prepare to ask questions and as a direct result of it, they don’t have to ping you ad-hoc all the time. And third, it’s a great way of building a great rapport and relationship with those folks.

Now one might say that these are reserved for team leads and managers. I disagree. Yes, this IS a management technique, but you don’t have to go full protocol here. You can dedicate 30-mins weekly for every person and if they have nothing to discuss, then you simply cancel it. It’s all about giving YOU the control over your time.

2. Open Doors

For those unfamiliar, concept of Open Doors refers to an idea where your door is always open and inviting to anyone who wants to enter and discuss.

The way I suggest people applying this is by scheduling specific times in your calendar when anyone can jump in and ask whatever it is they need.

You really have to experiment with the timings here, but the idea should be clear I hope. Give people time when they can discuss things with you.

3. Handling ad-hoc interruptions

Look, I know that it’s all nice and dandy when you write about it, but then you go out and the real life slaps and KOs you down.

Shit happens. People need you urgently and for valid reasons. They can’t always wait for that Open Door or One on One. Sometimes they REALLY need you NOW and you can’t simply brush them off with “wait for your time slot”.

So what do you do in such scenario? I can tell you what I tend to do:

  1. You ask how URGENT the thing they need is. 9 out of 10 times, it’s never critical and whatever it is, it can be dealt with at some later point in time. In that case, you go and find a time slot where you can discuss this matter and you schedule a meeting.
  2. If the thing is REALLY URGENT as in – production system is on fire and customers are burning alive, then yeah, shit happens and you have to stop whatever it is that you were doing and start solving the problem that somebody asked you about. But this is REALLY rare and, as one of my colleagues once told me – if everything is always urgent, then nothing is really urgent

The whole point is that you always try to de-escalate the situation first by asking about the importance and then promising to help but at the time that fits you. Because otherwise, as I said above, you are endangering your whole team and that’s not OK!

4. Handling impolite and pushy people

Well hell, there are always cases like this and I hate to tell you that there’s no easy way of handling this.

What I found to work for me here is being self-aware on the importance of whatever it is that I’m doing at the time of interruption. So if anyone interrupts me while I’m doing something that is REALLY IMPORTANT, I really don’t have to pretend much but tell them that I really can’t assist at this time because hell – I just can’t.

If they keep pushing and disrespecting you, just pretend as if they called you a dick and an asshole, because that’s what they did. They are trying to insult you. So you are free to be assertive here and say NO without any further explanations.

Summary

  • Advancing your career after the Senior level can be a daunting experience; primarily because the rules start to change now and more and more people require your assistance
  • Assuming this is your first time dealing with it, you will surely want to help every poor soul out there; get them unstuck!
  • That’s where the danger lies! Unless you invest proper planing for this upfront, helping others will easily suck up all of your time, leaving you drained and frustrated
  • This further makes you unhappy, tired and restless, eventually leading to a burnout!
  • What you have to do is defend your time as if your life depends on it! As simple as that
  • As for helping others? Well, there are multiple proven techniques that you can rely on:
    • Weekly 1:1 meetings where you meet your staff for 30min and discuss any issues they might be having
    • Open Door sessions where you schedule specific times where others can freely approach you
    • For ad-hoc interruptions – you first de-escalate and then ask on the urgency of matter; end result should be a new meeting properly scheduled in your calendar
    • As for pushy people – well if they are disrespectful to you and your time, there’s no need to be nice here!
  • For more references and ideas, check out the Useful resources section below

Useful resources

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve learned most of these lessons the hard way, but getting myself to the verge of burnout. But I’ve also read a lot of books that helped tremendously and I’d like to share them here:

  1. Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin — amazing read and highly recommended. Discusses bunch of concepts on taking ownership of whatever it is that you are dealing with, but, most importantly, teaches the lesson of you being responsible for your TEAM. Funny enough, I seem to never have written a review for this book, which is a pity!
  2. Become an Effective Software Engineering Manager by James Stanier — don’t be fooled by a title. It’s not book about management only, but, rather one that teaches you the principles of time management and handling assistance to others. Here’s my review of it
  3. Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss — don’t be fooled by the subject of this book, which is about negotiation techniques. What I found extremely useful about this book, which I’ve read twice so far is all the ways on how to TALK to people and how to de-escalate heated situations. Plus you will learn a trick or two on human behavior. For some reason, I never wrote a review of this one either.
  4. The Manager’s Path by Camille Fournier – similar to previous one but whereas the former one focuses on management only, this one focuses on different stages of Tech Leadership – from senior engineer, through lead developer and tech lead, towards principal engineers, etc. Amazing read and here’s my review of it.
  5. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Mansom — I’m sure you’re wondering how the heck did this book end up here, right? Well let me tell you – I’ve asked a colleague of mine who the heck does he manage to stay cool even when people are constantly bothering him all day long. What he told me sort of boils down to – stoicism and this book. Yeah 🙂 And here’s my review of it.
  6. Radical candor blog post by Kim Scott – there’s a whole book named Radical Candor and I read it and, as such, I’d rather recommend you to read the blog post only. The whole idea is that you just need to be candid with people for mutual benefit. Don’t bother with book though, the blog post is enough to get essence of it
  7. If you feel like exploring the subject any further, feel free to take a sneak peek into my “management” and “self-help” Goodreads shelves where I keep bunch of books related to the subject.

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