Thinking Days: Tasktop Product Management 5% Time

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How do you deal with the important but not urgent activities in your job? Like most people, we used to push them out until they decided to morph into very urgent and then, well, that’s when we get to them. We’ve all heard about the need to sharpen your axe. Taking time to sharpen the axe is important, but not very urgent. So what do we do? We swing harder. We swing faster. What we don’t do is swing smarter.

The Tasktop Product Management team decided to change this.
We decided to implement a ‘Thinking Day’.

I’m sure our organization is similar to many of yours. About half your day (if not more) is taken up by meetings and the rest of the time gets interrupted by emails, Skype calls, Slack chats, in person interruptions, and urgent requests from other departments. There’s barely time to get your day-to-day work done, much less carve out time to work on non-urgent, but important projects.  

You also know that not all time is created equal. One 60-minute block is not equal to four 15-minute blocks. Thinking deeply requires time…and quiet. I’m sure we all feel a bit like Harrison Bergeron at the office. The continual interruptions drop our IQ by 20-30 points. Plenty of studies show the harm of interruptions. Our company was founded on the idea that context switching destroys productivity.

 

So what did we do about it?

Each member of the product team takes one day off per month. Actually, “off” is not quite accurate. We take one day out of the office to “think.” You could call it a special projects day. It’s our version of Google’s now defunct 20% time. It’s our 5% time (one day every four weeks). 

As I said, this is not a day off. This is not a time to stare at the clouds and meditate. This is a time to jump off the work treadmill and blaze the trail everyone wants, but no one has time to clear. It’s the chance to build a better chocolate wrapping machine. It’s the time to work on that cool visualization your sales team needs. It’s the chance to tackle that Technical Debt that lives outside of the development world. It’s the freedom to work on process improvements and fix the small problems we live with because other louder issues take priority.

Reaction

We didn’t ask permission to try this experiment and we didn’t advertise it internally. It was odd to explain that, “No, I can’t meet on Friday. That’s my thinking day”. There was the inevitable, “Huh?’ and head cocking. When we’d explain what it was and why we did it, the reactions were unanimously positive. Other teams haven’t adopted the policy quite yet, but I won’t be surprised when my meeting invites are declined because someone else is taking a thinking day.
 

How we’re able to do this

We have a very cross-functional product team. We also have very smart engineers. We realized the engine of our company would continue to run if one of us isn’t at our desk ready to answer a question via Skype (since another Product Manager can answer in our stead). We’ve worked hard to ensure that the other members of our team can hold down the fort while we’re out thinking. Our engineers are empowered to make decisions. We realized that the company doesn’t shut down if one of us takes a sick day, so it definitely won’t shut down if we take a day to sharpen our axe. As a matter of fact, taking these days will eventually mean fewer frantic calls. It will mean we can work on bigger issues that will help the company in the long run.

 
Results

The results have been very good. It has given us time to work on an internal reporting dashboard for management. It has given me the time to work on this post…and to think of three or four other blog posts. I sent out a proposal for our next demo day, which isn’t happening for another three months. Other members of the team have been able to get to the stuff that always gets pushed off due to daily activity. Even after the short amount of time we’ve been practicing, thinking time is paying dividends.

Problems

We’re still in the infancy of our 5% time. So far, only 20% of our thinking days have been fully utilized. The other 80%? Well, we had meetings. We had customer calls. We’ve had to come into the office for half-days. We’re still feeling the pull of the urgent. Even today, I went into the office until lunch and in three minutes I’ll be on a call with our Director of Engineering and my boss (who’s quite irritated that I’m meeting on my thinking day). It can be challenging to stick to your own schedule. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying…and we’re getting better.

So how about you? Could you show this to your boss and start your own 5% time? Or will you decide to ask for forgiveness instead of permission? What could you accomplish in a day? What are those things that you’ve been waiting to get a “round tuit”  to work on? What could your team accomplish? It’s working for us. Why couldn’t it work for you?