Optimize and Prioritize

Updated: Aug 17

We are lucky to have guest author, George Bezerra, here to share how he optimizes his time in the never-ending world of tech. George is currently the Vice President of Data Science at Metromile and prior to becoming VP, had 7 years of experience in the tech industry that sharpened his prioritization skills. A true time-management pro whose tips we're so excited to share!

A few years ago I realized that working more in order to produce more was coming at a dear cost of my personal time. I was passionate about my work and willing to put in the effort to be successful, but the more time I spent working the less I had to spend with friends, take care of my health, and just enjoy my life. Working longer hours wasn’t cutting it for me anymore, so I decided that I would organize and optimize my work life so that I become more efficient and productive. The system I came up with and the learnings that I gained in the process are what I’m about to share.

"Working longer hours wasn’t cutting it for me anymore, so I decided that I would organize and optimize my work life so that I become more efficient and productive."

Four pillars of productivity

Increasing productivity has to do with systematizing the tasks and needs around your core work so that you can spend more time thinking about what matters and less time being distracted. I have identified four areas responsible for most of my “unproductive time”: calendar maintenance, emails, note-taking, and task management. Those are areas of the job that require no training: any person is expected to handle those tasks. However, as time goes by and you advance in your career, the workload associated with those tasks will likely increase and less time is available for doing productive work.

Take emails for example. When you start at a new job you might receive, say, 5–10 emails a day. You can read them between meetings or first thing in the morning and continue with your day. But when you have hundreds of emails flooding your inbox each day you can easily spend hours just reading, writing, and finding emails. We will get into more detail on this later but the good news is that a small amount of thought into how we perform our routine tasks can have an incredible impact on making us more efficient at them. Now let’s break down the four pillars.

Managing the calendar

Fact: if you don’t manage your time, others will manage it for you. This is especially true if you have a lot of meetings and are not lucky enough to have your own executive assistant. In my work, people can create meetings directly on my calendar, and they pick any free slot they can find: lunch hours, after hours, and even double-book meetings. If I don’t actively manage my calendar (and trust me, for a while, I didn’t) my life quickly becomes chaos.

However, managing the calendar is not hard and can actually be fun. The trick is to put in a little effort each day to keep things neat. Here are some tips that I use to keep my calendar organized.

Using Colors

This is perhaps the most important part of keeping an organized calendar. By color-coding your calendar slots you can distinguish at a glance the different types of meetings you have in the day or week, their relative priority, and how much time you have for individual work. Before I started using colors, I would jump from one meeting to the next without knowing what to expect. Now I know what meetings are one-on-ones, which ones are interviews, and which ones are group meetings that can’t be moved.

For reference, this is the coloring system I currently use:

  • One-on-one meetings (green): There are two primary reasons I like to label one-on-one meetings: 1) So I can prepare for them in advance when I need to; and 2) Because they are fairly flexible meetings and can be moved around to make room for more pressing things.

  • Recurring group meetings (red): A large fraction of my meetings are group and company meetings. Those are hard to move around and by labeling them as a separate color I know how much flexibility I am dealing with for the week.

  • Work and personal time (grey): I set aside time for work (see below) by blocking chunks of time on my calendar and assigning them their own color. I also use the same color for personal time, such as lunch or other breaks.

  • Out of the office (purple): For when I am out of the office during business hours, such as a doctor’s appointment.

  • Interviews (yellow): I consider interviews very important meetings that I need to be prepared for and not be late to.

  • Ad-hoc meetings (blue — default): I use the default meeting color for all ad-hoc meetings of the week, that is, anything that doesn’t fit in the above categories.

Block time for yourself

Being in control of your time means that you can shift things around and save some time for yourself to do individual work, think, and even relax:

  • Work time: Being at meetings the whole day will make your life very busy but not very productive. It’s important to set aside some time for individual work. I try to find a few blocks of time each week, some of which are recurring but most of them are ad-hoc. It’s hard to find contiguous chunks of time, but I move meetings around when I can so that I have at least one or two hours of uninterrupted work.

  • Lunch: When you have a full day of back-to-back meetings you might not have enough time for lunch. I try to get around this by setting up daily 30min lunch breaks on my calendar. Sometimes I need to move those around, but I always try to make sure I have time for lunch (almost) every day. If you’re not fueled properly, you cannot work optimally. 

  • Take breaks: A full day of meetings can be exhausting and it is difficult to be alert and productive when that happens. I like to set aside 30 min breaks in between large blocks of meetings. Honestly, sometimes that’s the only way I get to go to the bathroom.

Groom the calendar daily

The secret to an organized calendar is to spend time grooming and organizing it each day. Accept and reject meetings in advance (try to reduce double-booked slots), move meetings around, set breaks, block time for work, and color everything in the next few days in your calendar. That way you’re also constantly aware of what you have scheduled for the day and the week.

If you’re curious, this is a picture of what my calendar looks like on a regular week.

Managing emails

The sad truth about emails is that our efficiency in handling them decreases rapidly with the number of messages we receive. This certainly applies to me. I reached a point where emails were a massive distraction throughout the day and consumed more of my time than active work. It wasn’t until I implemented a system for handling emails that I realized it doesn’t have to be this way. I’m surprised by how little time I now spend on emails and how much more focused I am at work. This is also true for my personal email, which gets bombarded with messages daily.

The basic principles I use for emails are: 1) Filter and categorize automated messages so I can go through them in bulk; 2) Label important messages so I can find them later.

Filtering automated messages

A large number of emails I receive each day are automated messages and notifications of different kinds. While some of those are useful, they are usually not urgent and tend to clutter my inbox. I’ve learned that the secret to handling automated messages is to filter them into a separate folder and then look at them in bulk once every so often. They don’t even hit the inbox. This reduces distractions and the time it takes to go through them. Here are some of the filters I use:

  • Calendar/meeting messages: I receive lots of automated messages associated with my calendar each day. Invitations to meetings and events, notifications of when meetings are accepted, rejected, rescheduled, etc. I set up filters such that all of those messages go to a separate folder and I look at them once a day. This de-clutters my inbox and reduces the total time I spend dealing with them by looking at them in bulk.

  • Automated reports: Working in a corporate environment, I receive a number of automated reports each day which also help clutter my inbox. Almost all of those reports I never look at, but I like to keep them saved in case I do need to find something later. I set up a special “Reports” folder and a filter that automatically sends those messages there. I then quickly scan those messages once a day in case there is something important.

  • Jira and Confluence: If you’re in the tech world, then it’s likely you receive way too many Jira and Confluence messages. All my Jira/Confluence email goes to a separate folder and I look at them once daily.

  • Subscriptions and newsletters: I keep a folder in my personal emails for all newsletters and subscriptions. Those are things I want to read and stay up to date with, but they are not urgent and I shouldn’t have to deal with them in the middle of the day. All such emails are sent to the “Subscriptions” folder automatically and I review them once a week, usually during the weekends at my own leisure.

Labeling messages to find them later

The primary reason I use labels is to categorize messages I may want to find later. Those labels can be set automatically using filters or in some cases they can be set manually on a case by case basis. Here are some of the labels I use:

  • Travel: I use a “Travel” label in both personal and work emails for things such as flight tickets, itinerary, hotel, and car reservations, etc. This comes in handy when I’m traveling and need to quickly find those documents.

  • Bills and orders: I keep a label for “Bills and orders” in my personal email for all receipts and associated messages. Some of those are filtered and labeled automatically (e.g., all Amazon orders, Uber rides, etc.) while others are labeled manually (e.g., a new store or company I just bought from).

  • Documents: I also use a “Documents” label that stores all messages that contain important documents that I may want to retrieve later. I set this up after wasting too much time trying to find old documents there were buried inside threads. 

Keeping the inbox clean

My advice is that, if you want to keep your sanity, don’t allow your inbox to keep growing indefinitely. Make sure you archive and categorize your emails and clean up your entire inbox at least once a week. For some people, it might make sense to clean it every day.

Regardless of whether these specific labels and tips will work for you, the message here is that by putting a little effort into how to organize and automate some of the email tasks you perform daily, you’ll be able to greatly reduce the amount of time, cognitive overload, and stress associated with them.

Taking notes

For people who thrive on taking notes, a good note-taking system can go a long way to increase productivity. I’m an avid note-taker myself. Taking notes during meetings and just as a way of brainstorming thoughts is a large part of my day. However, without a system for keeping your notes organized things can quickly get lost and chaotic.

It took me a bit of time to get there, but after some trial and error, I was able to come up with an approach that I’m pretty happy with. The whole system is deep and bit complex, but I’ll share some of the insights that changed the game for me.

Organizing meeting notes by date

This simple idea completely changed the way I take notes for the better. Before organizing notes by date, I would (like most people probably do) keep folders based on the name of the person I’m meeting with or based on the topic of the meeting. However, some meetings have more than one person and may have multiple topics. Even if you organize by area (e.g., marketing, sales, engineering, etc.) some meetings are cross-functional and they won’t go into any clear bucket.

By organizing notes by date I can keep all of the meetings for the week (one-on-ones and cross-functional meetings) into a single notes page. Every week has its own page. In fact, I create a template for my weeks’ notes with the names of all the people I meet one-on-one on a regular basis plus a section for ad-hoc meetings. Each week I copy that template note and set the title as the date for Monday of that week.

One huge advantage of this system is that I can very easily review all my notes for the week. I also no longer need to have tens of folders that keep growing organically and are hard to maintain. Just to be clear, I still heavily use folders, just not for meeting notes.

Writing down conversation topics in advance

This is particularly helpful for one-on-one meetings. Throughout any given day, I have many thoughts on relevant topics that need to be discussed with colleagues but perhaps I will only see them the next week. This is where having a template comes in handy. I can create a notes page for next week and add all the topics I would like to discuss. Without this system, I would frequently forget discussion topics.

Reviewing notes

I review my notes weekly and I use a simple system to facilitate the process. When something comes up during a meeting that requires a follow-up or that it is worth putting in some additional thought, I highlight that content. Once a week (on Fridays actually) I review the content of all the weekly notes by focusing on the highlighted portions. It takes me less than 5 minutes to skim through all notes and set up some follow up actions in my task manager (more on that later). This way I never miss out on an important follow-up.

Taking notes on the computer vs a paper notebook

Many people prefer to handwrite notes on a paper notebook. There are a couple of advantages to this: 1) It’s the most silent and polite way of taking notes in meetings, since taking notes on the computer might seem like you’re chatting on Slack instead of paying attention, and 2) Apparently there are scientific studies showing that handwriting creates a stronger association with memory which leads to better learning.

Conversely, there are several advantages of taking electronic notes on the computer:

  1. There is no risk of losing your notes (if make sure they are on the cloud).

  2. You can easily share notes with others.

  3. Typing on the computer is faster.

  4. You can access it on multiple devices, including your phone (provided you use the right app). Don’t overlook the ability to read (or take) notes on your phone.

If you do decide to use the computer, look for an app that stores the notes on the cloud, can be accessed by multiple devices, and is mobile compatible. My app of choice is Microsoft OneNote. While not perfect, it’s free, powerful, and works on multiple devices, including Macs and iPhones.

Task management

Of all the things you can do to organize your life and make it more productive, a task management system is by far what I’ve found the most valuable. A good task management system will keep you in check and make sure you are completing those routine and recurring tasks that are so important to maintaining order (rather than constantly recreating one-off tasks). It will also make sure you don’t lose track of new tasks that come up and helps you separate what is important from what’s less than a priority.

Task management is very personal and needs to fit your style. I carefully designed and fine-tuned mine so that it does exactly what I need it to. In fact, I have become absolutely obsessed with it, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it’s the algorithm that runs my life!

I will not go into the details of how my exact system works. Instead, I’ll share a few tips that I find helpful:

Using an app

If you are serious about task management, using an app is the way to go. There are plenty of task manager apps out there and most of them provide everything you need. These are some of the things I look for in them:

  • Works on multiple devices: Quick, unrestricted access to your task management is key. I’d look for an app that works both on the phone and desktop and also can be installed on multiple devices. 

  • Projects, labels, and priorities: This is the most basic functionality that every task manager should provide. The ability to create projects and assign labels and priorities helps you organize and browse your tasks. I’d stay away from “task lists” or “todo lists” that don’t have these basic tools.

  • Inbox: Inbox is a special folder that allows you to quickly add new tasks (more on that below).

I use an app called Todoist. It does all of the things described above and with a clean, intuitive interface; I absolutely love it. Yes, I pay about $40 a year for it, and I do so gladly. 

Grooming tasks daily

While I look at my task manager multiple times a day, I spend some extra time every morning to groom my tasks. I label them, assign priorities, schedule and reorder them such that everything is clean and organized and I know what I have in store for my day. Task-grooming is a critical part of the day for me because that’s when I make important decisions about how to spend my time and what to focus on.

Inbox tasks

This is a functionality provided by Todoist that I love (other tasks manager apps probably do the same). The inbox is a folder where you can quickly add new tasks without having to think about how to label, schedule, or prioritize them. This catchall folder makes it easy for me to add new tasks throughout the day. I clear up the additions to my inbox every morning when I’m grooming my tasks.

Backlog cleaning

All tasks that I’m planning to get done sometime soon have a set date on my task manager. Of course, many times things don’t go as planned and dates get pushed back, but I still have them on the calendar. Any tasks that do not have a date go to the backlog. My backlog is simply a filter that selects all tasks that don’t have dates. I have a monthly recurring task called “Backlog grooming” where I go through all backlog tasks, delete those that are no longer relevant, and schedule the ones that I’m ready to work on. This keeps things from growing indefinitely and makes sure nothing gets forgotten.

Routine tasks

Keeping the entire system together (including notes, email, and calendar) requires periodic maintenance. To do that, I set a number of daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly recurring or routine tasks. Those tasks are at the core of my productivity system, they are the glue that connects everything together. Here are some examples of routine tasks I use:

  • Daily tasks: Groom tasks; Groom calendar; Meditation; Pack for work & gym.

  • Weekly tasks: Review notes; Groom personal emails; Budgeting.

  • Monthly tasks: Backlog grooming; Pay rent; Clean computer screens.

  • Yearly tasks: Plan trips with friends; Contribute to retirement.

Developing your own productivity system

There are several productivity systems out there (Getting Things Done, The Pomodoro System, the SMART method, etc.). I have personally tried a few of those, and while I did learn useful tricks here and there, none of those systems worked well for my particular lifestyle, personality, and work demands. Another problem with productivity management systems is that they usually focus on task management and aren’t comprehensive enough to address Calendar, Email, and Notes management.

Everybody is different. Some people are naturally organized and disciplined and might work well with a very methodical system. Others like to go with the flow and trying to impose a rigid structure in their lives may backfire. Finding the system that is right for you requires some honest self-assessment and a bit of trial an error. If you don’t know where to start, it’s worth experimenting with a well-known system and seeing what works and what doesn’t work for you. Ultimately, though, you’ll have a higher chance of succeeding by developing your own.

Final thoughts

That’s it! By putting in a little extra thought ahead of time you can significantly reduce the amount of wasted time and effort you spend on routine tasks and focus on the things that really matter to you. Start with the area that is the biggest pain point for you (say, emails, for example). Once that is under control, slowly move into the next area until you build a more comprehensive system that fits your lifestyle and preferences. Good luck!

By George Bezerra


© 2020 by SortJoy. 

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