Context switching doesn’t have to be draining

My day is defined by context switches. In addition to consulting and occasional Witful development, I am responsible for our business operations and strategy. In practice that means on a given day I might have calls with attorneys or new clients to discuss contracts and work with our accountants on a variety of issues from payroll to tax planning. Most days I have several meetings with Real Kinetic consulting clients and sales meetings with new prospects. I frequently participate in internal Witful development discussions and of course business strategy discussions for both business lines. My day is fragmented to say the least.

This is not wildly different from my day at Workiva where I oversaw a department. There were budget planning and review meetings with my department leadership team and with the company finance group, vendor meetings, company-level strategy meetings, product development planning meetings, my department’s operations meetings, 1:1 meetings with my team and their reports, and various other meetings. It was constant context switching.

Image courtesy of Yi Liu

Both roles require me to be able to switch context quickly and continue discussions from prior meetings. It makes a huge difference in terms of efficiency for everyone if I can track threads of conversations across meetings and not have to rehash the prior meeting at the onset of each meeting. In order to be a good manager it is also crucial that I’m tracking action items and follow up on them before the next meeting. I’ll come back to this point in a bit.

I’ve tried finding solutions that allow me to track all the context and action items effectively. Personally I love taking hand-written notes, and I’ve found several techniques that really helped me with retention. Unfortunately I wind up lugging around notebooks and inevitably I don’t have the one I need when I need it. I actually like my Rocketbook a lot because it is just one thing to carry. Taking photos of my notes is great, but then those images need to be organized to really have much value. That organization is hard when you’ve got a packed schedule. It was from using this process that I realized I could find many notes based purely on date. Images of my written notes didn’t help with longer term search because my handwriting is terrible and OCR never does a good job for me.

The importance of role

The next challenge is that I have different needs from my notes depending on my role. Because of that, I take notes in different ways based on the type of meeting and the role I’m currently playing. For instance, when I wear my software engineer hat I take very few notes. I’ll capture notes on design choices, questions that we need to answer, timeline targets, and so forth, but I rarely track much else. I mostly jot down those notes because writing them down helps me remember those points. It can also be helpful to scroll through the last few meetings and refresh myself on those details. Honestly, in this role I take fewer notes than any other and Witful doesn’t provide me nearly as much value.

When I’m wearing my sales hat I take notes about a prospective client’s challenges, their goals, their company in general, and details about the person I’m speaking with. In these situations I’m capturing lots of context clues because those details help me better understand the prospective client, their needs and goals, and ultimately they help me build a better relationship so that I can do my job more effectively. These notes are very important because the work they support pays the bills. It was for this that I needed note organization by person or domain and date. We built this functionality into Witful so that I can instantly resume conversations.

In my manager role I capture notes related to individuals, about teams, items I might want to follow up on, needed action items, and often questions I would like to research more before discussing it with a team. This is critical because it is how I best support my team. If I miss following up on an administrative item, someone might get an incorrect paycheck. For those new to management stuff: Folks don’t like messed up benefits or paychecks. We’re actively working on features to better support people whose meetings are mostly internal. If that’s you, I would love to talk about how you work—I have some ideas I’d like to validate—please email me

Preparing

Effective and efficient meetings have agendas. In many cases a shared agenda isn’t essential, but people coming with their talking points and questions written makes all the difference. Simply capturing your talking points in advance will turn 5 minutes of on-the-fly stream of consciousness into 90 seconds of well stated thoughts. I have found this to be true of most, perhaps all, types of meetings. Honestly, I think it is why many groups don’t like meetings. If everyone shows up without knowing what they’re trying to accomplish it is hard to accomplish anything. I try hard to put thought into what I want to get out of any meeting I attend. I ask people on my team to take a few minutes and write down, in advance of the meeting, their questions and talking points.

Witful’s deep calendar integration makes capturing agenda items trivial. No other note taking system I’ve tried makes it as easy to capture questions, thoughts, or talking points relevant to an upcoming meeting. Just click on the relevant upcoming event and type into the note to capture those thoughts. I use this to build “agendas” from my phone all the time; it makes it trivial to go for a walk and capture thoughts as they flow. This helps me go into meetings prepared.

Agendas are important for defining the purpose of meetings as well. Some are for collaborative brainstorming, now called ideation. Some are for alignment, which simply means everyone has shared understanding of what and why. Both of those types need space for discussion and sufficient time for people to work through threads of thought.

Some meetings are for making decisions. Ideally everyone walks in with their background research done, prepared to discuss the decision in sufficient depth, and with their questions written down. Hopefully you capture that decision and why / how it was made too. Does anyone actually do this effectively? If you do, I would love to hear how you manage that.

Here’s the key thing: some meetings don’t need to happen. If you can’t figure out what a meeting’s purpose is, I would suggest you ask if it is needed. Maybe it could just be an email conversation.

Tactics

So, how do I capture and organize my notes? How do I minimize the number of action items I drop the ball on?

First, I catalog notes by person, or team, the notes are associated with. This is the most important and also the hardest with most tools. Second, I date stamp everything so that I know when a note was from. This sounds silly but I occasionally reference notes from multiple years ago. Ensuring I can order notes is important for understanding how conversations flowed and how decisions were made. With that information I can usually find what I’m looking for or at least get a start. In Witful we just built these in as core mechanisms. After two years of real world usage, this has been working well. We’ve got some ideas to make Witful’s simple model even more powerful. Again, if you have similar days, and especially if you’re meeting with lots of internal people, I would love to talk to you about how you think about organizing your notes.

The next thing I do is ensure action items are clearly called out. This is easiest when I’m taking handwritten notes. In that case I use three colors of pens: black for general text, blue for questions I’d like answered or action items that don’t need immediate attention (things like “research X before next meeting” or “remember to ask ___ about ___ in our next 1:1”), red for action items that need follow up. What’s great in my paper notes is that a quick glance lets me parse that information out immediately. I can skip the context to find the action items, then read the surrounding text only when I need that detail.

We built an initial version of this into Witful as well. It works, but it isn’t as powerful as I’d like—yet. Right now the development team is working on the next generation of this which will give all the benefits of my black, blue, red model except make it even more powerful. If you have many “action items” that are effectively agenda items for other meetings, I’d love to get you into the app. As we roll these features out over the next month please send us feedback. I am extremely excited for this work to roll out because I think it will help a lot of people.

Lastly, I structure individual notes in a rough outline form. My notes are often organized like this:

Big Topic

  • Sub topic.
    • Key point.
      • Action Item.
    • Question I’d like an answer to.
      • Answer
      • Key aspects from discussion.
    • Name: Question
      • Name: Answer to that question.
    • Name: commentary.
    • Name: commentary.
    • Action Item.

In practice, this might look like this:

Kubernetes

  • Base Images
    • How are base images selected and vetted?
      • Connect with their security team and ensure they’ve got scanners in place.
    • How many base images are in use?
      • They currently support 2 slim images, and use Distroless for Java and node apps.
    • Joe: Are there other practices we should put in place?
      • Tyler: Yes.
    • Pat: We’re moving to two stage image building in order to trim down the production containers.
    • Angie: The biggest concerns we have right now is that we’re introducing changes that could let unapproved images be deployed.
      • We need to explore this to better understand why this change is being implemented.

That lets me capture key points, important context from discussion (such as names), questions that came up, who answered them, and my action items. It is also pretty light and easy to quickly type. Most importantly I can easily search these notes and I can quickly skim them to get context as I prepare for meetings. With Witful’s automatic organization and shortcuts, I can quickly find things while I’m in a meeting.

If your day is similar to mine, lots of context switching, lots of meetings, we’re building Witful for you. We get lots of great feedback from existing users. We take it all seriously and discuss it. What’s your biggest challenge? Send me a note – I’d love to hear from you.