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Becoming a Better Manager: The 4 Playlists I Use To Help Me Context-Switch

May 11, 2017 4 min readSelf-Improvement
Photo of Katie Wilde
Katie Wilde

VP of Engineering @ Buffer

Before you say context-switching is the worst, hear me out — being a manager, I’ll often have several calls back to back and need to shift emotional context quickly. I sometimes carry the mindset and energy of one meeting through to the next and it leaves me less emotionally attuned.

I was getting tired from the effort of context-switching and sometimes would be visibly drained or stressed. This is a catching disease: second-hand stress is a problem for a team and getting energy and focus right is core to managing yourself.

Stress gets everywhere. Like sand.

When context switching was a battle, I would feel confused and overwhelmed about how to engage, what to share, when to listen versus coach, or when to push back or advocate. I worried about boundaries, and about transparency. At one point, I remember consciously trying to “just act human” and feeling utterly paralyzed. It’s really hard to read a situation and use my intuition when my mind was only half-way switched to the new scene and I was trying to brute-force/think my way through an emotional process.

I needed a way to effectively play each role I have — engineer, engineering manager, engineering leadership team and senior management team — when there are sometimes only minutes to switch my mindset and get on the right wavelength. I needed a quick experience. A special hat? Too distracting. A special hairstyle? Too slow (those Pinterest 3 minute up-dos are lies). A special playlist?

Creating Specific Playlists for Every Role

I created a playlist for every role, and then some. It’s really powerful to hear the music and feel my mood shift. I found that I instinctively knew how to handle myself in most meetings. I get into the zone much faster and am much more able to bring the right energy to the situation. I feel my productivity have been higher since I stopped trying to brute-force this switch cognitively and tapped into the feeling of a song.

1. A Playlist for Engineering Work

For engineering work (I don’t ship product anymore, but do keep my hand in so I can better understand engineer’s context) I have a trusty coding playlist. The first three notes are almost pavlovian; I switch into deep focus very quickly. It once came on at a cafe where I was eating lunch and I immediately stopped talking and pulled out my laptop.

2. My Engineering Manager Playlist

I chose brighter, calmer feeling songs for my engineering manager playlist because that’s the energy I seek to bring into the 1:1 relationship.

Go your own way is a bit different and has a special purpose to me — the chorus is to remind me that each engineer will one day go their own way, so it’s something of a judgment day for a manager: people leave managers, not companies.

In the best outcome, moving on is the result of a lot of growth, and the next step in a journey onwards to new bigger challenges. This relationship has a timeline, and it’s my mission to be fully present today so that when the day comes they go their own way it’s a celebration.

3. The Playlist for Engineering Leadership

For my engineering leadership playlist, we’re navigating a transition, and so the energy I need there is to step up and fill some big shoes.

Short Skirt/Long Jacket, because there I’m a woman in an all-guy team with fingernails that shine like justice, and I want to own that. I also really admire Caryn, although I’ll be sticking with my own name for now.

4. The Buffer Leadership Playlist

The Buffer leadership team playlist starts with Devlin’s All along the watchtower. I’ve chosen a remix of a remix of a classic — you can recognize Hendrix’s guitar riff, the pace of Dylan’s cryptic lyrics. It’s a collective work but also a very different song. The mindset is one of holding my own, but learning and absorbing the wisdom of experienced and talented leaders.

This track has no lyrics, but I can’t forget that all along the watchtower, princes (and princesses) keep the view.

Bonus: A Motivational Playlist from the Team

We even have a team at-bat playlist for the team, with all our most motivating songs. It’s amazing to listen to what my teammates listen to to get pumped up, and I get so meta-motivated.

In a remote team, these small chances to feel close and connected throughout the day are what hold it all together.

Over to You

I’d love to hear what you think of this technique!

  • Have you ever tried playlists, props or other mental tricks to context switch and get into the zone?
  • What are some of your favorite playlists?

This post was originally published on Medium.

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