Using Technology to Timeshift: How Asynchronous Tools can Change the Game

The longstanding desire to have more time can be partially achieved using “timeshifting” technology.
May 19, 2022
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It’s rare that you meet another person that doesn’t wish they had more time. It’s been called the most precious commodity and cited as more important than money. Time is also one of the few things that no one can acquire more of, no matter how much power or importance they have.

In an increasingly complex world, where many of us collaborate with colleagues across time zones and where the world between home and office has been forever blurred, it can constantly seem like there isn’t enough time.

This is especially acute for tech leaders. We often work with employees and partners around the globe and jump from one virtual meeting to the next. What seems like it might be a wonderfully productive day is suddenly lost to video conferences, emails, and chats that break through our best intentions to focus on important activities and individuals.

One could argue that technology is largely to blame for this uninterrupted parade of disruptions. There is undoubtedly some truth to the fact that we can now be reached nearly anywhere, at any time, and through a half-dozen digital channels. However, technology can be combined with some smart practices to provide potential cures for this seeming lack of time.

Remembering the TiVo

You might remember the TiVo or even the VCR before if you’re of a certain age. These devices were revolutionary and cultural touchstones since they allowed individuals to shift an activity from one time to another.

In the dark ages before ubiquitous streaming entertainment, if you wanted to watch a television show, you were forced to “tune in” at the assigned time or hope that the network would air the show again at a more convenient time. My children still can’t quite mentally process an era where “every show was like a sports event,” and you freely pause and rewind.

Both TiVo and VCRs allowed people to engage with activities on their schedule rather than someone else’s. This is an extremely valuable proposition. Despite that, the TiVo and VCR now seem rather quaint—we subject ourselves to dozens of pre-scheduled meetings during the workday, spending most of the day “tuning in” to preordained “programming” like a television consumer in the 1950s.

You can apply similar time-shifting technology to your current meetings through a 2-stage process. First, just as you wouldn’t allow any employee unfettered access to the company treasury, you shouldn’t allow anyone unfettered access to your time

This doesn’t require you to be rude or difficult. Instead, give the requester a quick call when your schedule allows if a meeting request doesn’t appear relevant. They’ll be surprised at the rapid and personal reach out. More importantly, you’ll find that more often than not, you’re either not required for the meeting to be successful, or you can resolve their request with a 5-minute chat rather than a 45-minute meeting.

Secondly, for video meetings of questionable value or that are primarily informational in nature, ask the host to turn on the recording feature present in the major video conferencing tools. Other participants, or even the host, can tell you if there were areas that would be important to you, or you can watch the recording at your leisure. You can even replay it at 1.5X-2X speed, compressing the information into a shorter time window.

Master Asynchronous Work

Too many activities at work are synchronous, requiring multiple people to engage at the same time to perform a task. Working asynchronously, by contrast, allows you to work at various speeds and with multiple people.

If you’ve ever done asynchronous development in a language like Node.js, you’ve seen the power (and forethought required) of asynchronous programming. Just as this requires some extra work, so too does asynchronous working require some additional management to free you from being subject to someone else’s timeline.

Most competent managers do some form of asynchronous work. They delegate tasks to multiple team members, manage any conflicts if some work remains undone, and trigger additional work once a job is done. If you can perfect this ability, you’ll find yourself orchestrating how you spend your day instead of feeling like a pinball constantly being jarred between flippers that someone else is operating.

Focus your “engaged time” with other team members on equipping them with the information, tools, and data they need to perform some discrete activity. Rather than wide-ranging meetings or endless “stand-ups” that turn into little more than gossip sessions, focus for 10-15 minutes with colleagues on which discrete activities each person must perform and the interdependencies between those activities.

Allow the team members to execute these tasks. Should they have difficulty, ask them to contact you via chat for minor clarification, email for more elaborate communications, or via phone for time-sensitive or complex inquiries. Note that none of these alternatives include scheduling a meeting!

Every hour or two, check your email and chat tools and respond to any inquiries to keep team members working. These discrete bursts of synchronization should occur on your timeline and ideally through non-real-time tools so that you can allow your collaborators to work asynchronously as well.

This may seem logistically complex, but like learning a new programming approach, learning a new working system requires some initial loss in productivity and learning curve in exchange for long-term rewards. Making this transition successfully will put you back in control of your schedule and cause the technology that seems to have stolen all our time to shift work back onto our terms.

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