As an Engineering Manager, one-on-ones with your team members are a core responsibility of your role, and often one of the largest consumers of your time.
As a leadership coach, I often work with individuals who are struggling with their calendars. One of the most effective ways to improve their effectiveness is to re-evaluate how they are scheduling their one-on-ones.
The “30 minute One-on-One” Anti-Pattern
One way managers try to “save time” is by scheduling 30 minute one-on-ones with their directs, often every week. Common reasons include “being available to the team” for the weekly cadence, and “managing my time on a tight schedule” for the short time slot.
Both of these are mistakes by themselves, but together they create a significant problem.
It’s Not About Time, It’s About Context Switching
Whether you’re an Engineering Manager, Director, or VP/CTO, the key to unlocking the value of your time is to preserve your energy and your ability to focus on what matters most. Context switches kill both of these things very quickly, which is why we find meeting heavy days extra exhausting, as every meeting is a context switch. Paul Graham wrote about this effect on engineers over a decade ago in his essay Maker Schedule, Manager Schedule, but it’s also true for managers.
The key to solving this starts with the fact that not all context switches are the same.
Major vs Minor Context Switches
Not every context switch costs the same, in fact it’s kind of like your CPU’s cache. The more data you have in common between the tasks you’re switching between, the smaller the impact of the context switch, and the less stress that’s created. If you’re coding and you come across a bug, then decide to fix it in place, that’s a pretty minor context switch. If you’re coding, and you have to stop and do an interview, that’s a major context switch.
Organizing tasks to minimize context switches is also called task batching. By batching our 1:1’s together, we can load all the common team context into our head once, and then only incur minor context switches when moving between individual one-on-ones.
Advantages of Longer Meetings
When you schedule a 30 minute meeting, how much usable time do you actually have? For most people working at high growth startups, the answer is: not very much. It’s common to have one or both participants held up in the previous meeting, and if you’re in an office, you might not have your room clear right away either. So most meetings start up to five minutes late.
Then, it takes a little time to get settled into the meeting. Maybe you just had an intense product discussion. Do you immediately start talking about that big, heavy career thing that really needs to be talked about? If you’re like most people, you probably spend a little time transitioning into the meeting with some lighter chat before diving into the conversation. At which point the meeting is already halfway over, and who can talk about big stuff in 15 minutes anyways?
The point is, if you schedule short meetings, you optimize for short topics, and often that means big topics don’t get time at all.
Not a winning plan.
By scheduling a longer, less frequent meeting you send the opposite message: this meeting is substantial, it’s for what matters. There isn’t a meeting waiting for us next week to handle all the carry over either, so let’s make it count.
Schedule Like a Therapist
Another advantage of longer 1:1’s is that you can make them shorter.
Consider how to set yourself up for success. When you’re most effective in a meeting, what does that look like? It looks like: you are prepped, you are present, you are energized. Giving yourself 5–10 minutes before the meeting sets you up for that success. Those precious minutes give you time to: take any notes from the previous meeting, use the restroom, move to the meeting room, read any prep notes for this meeting, etc.
But if you have a 30 minute meeting, shortening it by 5–10 minutes is basically impossible. If you consider it might take 5–10 minutes at the beginning to settle into the meeting, then chop some off the end too, you’ve lost over 50% of the meeting time to overhead! What a waste!
By having a longer meeting, the ratio of overhead to substance is much better, yielding more return on the investment.
As an added bonus you’re more likely to be on time for your next meeting too.
Before & After
Let’s look at one-on-one schedules for someone who’s using a weekly 30 minute meeting approach to one-on-ones without batching, vs someone who’s doing 50 minute one-on-ones every two weeks, with batching:
With 30 minute 1:1’s, not only is there little time to handle prep, or taking notes, there are 14 major and 1 minor 1:1 related context switches every week. That’s 14 times you need to load and unload both an individual and the team’s over situation into your head. No wonder it’s exhausting.
In contrast by using these methods, the following calendar can be achieved when managing the exact same team:
This calendar has 1 major context switch at the start of the day, which is also where prep is performed (the first context switch is the easiest, since we’re not unloading another subject, but we’ve made it even easier by integrating it into our solo prep time too), followed by 9 minor context switches then winding down at the end of the day with review and reflection across the team. Keep in mind, this only happens every two weeks, leaving 9 days clear of 1:1’s to focus on deep work.
What a relief!
One-on-One Mastery: Time of Day Variation
As you’ve experienced yourself, everyone’s energy fluctuates throughout the day. One of the less obvious implications of this is that when we schedule our one-on-one with a team member using a recurring meeting it’s at the same time of day each time. Obvious, right? What’s not obvious is that means you give them the same energy level version of yourself each time. If it’s late in the day, you may always give that person a more tired version of yourself than someone who happened to get a morning one-on-one slot with you.
By batching your one-on-ones, you gain the ability to rotate your one-on-one order, which will benefit both you and your team members.