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How to avoid context switching with Meeting Time vs Flow Time

Published on
October 20, 2022

You know the feeling. You're in the middle of writing or coding and suddenly your concentration is broken by ::that:: sound. A ding from Slack, the sing-song chime from Teams, or a buzz of your phone. Someone is asking you a question about the status of the thing you are trying to work on right now. You open it.  You go back and forth. They ask you to "jump on a quick call" to discuss it.  Before you know it, an hour has gone by and you've accomplished nothing on your original task.

This phenomenon is called context switching, and it has a negative impact on everyone it touches- especially development teams. Every time you switch context- from coding to answering Slack messages-  your brain has to reorient itself. According to Harvard Business Review study, context switching actually releases cortisol in your body, which stresses you out and makes it hard to focus. It's not just annoying, it's unhealthy.

At Spinach, we are entirely remote. And when we first formed as a remote team, we had zero agreements in place to manage the scenario I just described.  When are we working collaboratively and when do we leave each other alone?  Because of this lack of agreements, we noticed we were constantly interrupting each other's flow time with meetings or "quick" questions.

Our main problems areas:

  1. Meetings scattered throughout the day
  2. Constant Slack interruptions
  3. Context-switching making it hard to focus

So, during our quarterly Summit when we were all together in Nashville, we decided to make some agreements to ease some of these pain points. By consolidating the amount of time we spend in meetings (or otherwise collaborating), we can free up more flow time and more importantly, reduce context-switching throughout the day.

Step 1: Set specific hours for collaborative work

We call this "Team Time"

Team Time is a block of time where we work collaboratively. During Team Time blocks we will schedule meetings, jams, and respond more quickly to each other's Slack messages. Team Time does NOT mean we are glued to a desk; it simply acknowledges when others are most likely to be available and active (including our customers). During Team Time, it's up to each individual to block their calendar and set their Slack status.

For us this, this looks like:

  • Team Time is Mo, Tu, Th, Fr between 11am-3pm CT (~16 hours a week)
  • Meetings and jams are only scheduled during Team Time
  • If you will not be responsive within ~30 minutes during “Team Time”, just set your status.
  • If you know you have set plans, just block your calendar in advance.
  • If you need to miss a meeting that was already scheduled, it’s your responsibility to let the organizer know ahead of time.
  • No ghosting. 👻

👉🏻 Examples of "Team Time" in action

We found it really helpful to go through some examples to pressure test our agreement before we committed to it. So here are a few examples.

  • Josh is scheduling a design jam. He should do it during “Team Time” only.
  • Emily picks up kids from school at 2:30pm every day. She should block her calendar.

Before, our "Team Time" was spread all throughout the day (the yellow). After, we have consolidated our meetings into "Team Time" hours as much as we can, which gives us longer stretches of uninterrupted "Flow Time" (the green).

Step 2: Set specific hours for independent work

We call this "Flow Time"

Flow Time is a block of time dedicated to heads-down working. Flow Time does NOT mean you cannot talk to your teammates. If you have a blocker, a question, or if you need something from the team- don't wait to ask. The responsibility lies with each individual to control their notifications during their Flow Time. For us this looks like:

  • “Flow Time” is 8-11am CT and 3-5 CT M, Tu, Th, Fr (~24 hours a week)
  • Wednesday is a meeting free day (aka 100% Flow Time)
  • No company-wide meetings or jams are scheduled during “Flow Time”

👉🏻 Examples of "Flow Time" in action:

  1. We don't do live standup on Wednesdays; we use Spinach async standup feature
  2. Karin should not schedule user feedback sessions on Wednesdays or during Flow Time (block the external Calendly)
  3. If Derek is heads down on something, he is responsible for turning notifications off

Step 3: Make sure meetings have clear outcomes

At Spinach, when we get together for a meeting we focus on the following outcomes.

Commitment. Whether it's Sprint Planning, Jamming, or even Daily Standup, when we get together we make sure we walk away with clear commitments. We do not get together to share status. We get together to make decisions.

Context. A JIRA board, Slack message or email often lacks important context, learnings, or ideas about the work that we are doing. Context is often easier communicated face-to-face. Status updates and documentation are shared asynchronously. During our time together, we focus on connecting dots and providing meaningful context.

Connection. High performing teams trust each other. When we come together, we invest time in human connection- whether it's a short group meditation or a simple icebreaker.

With these outcomes in mind, here are the company-wide meetings we committed to and their structure. All of these meetings are facilitated in Spinach leveraging custom categories.

Weekly Kick Off- Monday (60 minutes)

  • Icebreaker, Game or Mediation
  • Roundtable, up to 2 minutes each
  • Weekly Goal, Today, Blockers
  • Team Topic 1: Share highlights or Wins from Prior Week
  • Team Topic 2: Demo any new feature or comp
  • Team Topic 3: Share new Data or Test results
  • First Monday of the Month: KPI read out from prior month

Daily Standup - Tuesday + Thursday  (15 minutes)

  • Roundtable, up to 1 minute each
  • Yesterday, Today, Blockers, Mood, Appreciations
  • Team Topics - Questions or discussions that concern everyone

Daily Standup - Wednesday  (Async)

  • No meetings on Wednesdays
  • Use Spinach async standup feature
  • Same roundtable questions as our live standup

Weekly Wrap Up- Friday - 30 minutes

  • Icebreaker, Game or Meditation
  • Roundtable, up to 2 minutes for each person
  • Today, Rate Your Week, Weekend Plans

Step 4: Take a daily pulse on Meeting Time

COMING SOON! We have a beta feature we are using to keep a daily pulse on the amount of time each person spends in meetings every day. This helps us determine how much work is actually possible and if we need to adjust our calendars! Stay tuned for more details!

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