How to make more time for deep thinking (even when you’re drowning in support requests)

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Every support team plays a balancing act between being proactive and reactive. But when the tickets start rolling in, it can feel like you’re spending all day putting out fires without making any progress on the other meaningful tasks on your plate.

There’s no denying that real-time support is important. Yet it’s arguably just as important to spend time on proactive support—the process of identifying and resolving issues before your users encounter them. In other words, you need time to explore, think deeply, and work on larger projects.

But who has time for that? According to recent research, most workers don’t go for more than 6 minutes without checking their inboxes. Our workdays are busy. There’s always an urgent issue that needs to be solved.

So how do you make time for deep thinking when you’re drowning in support requests?

The importance of “Maker” time for support teams

Good customer service doesn’t just “happen.”

What feels like a great experience to users is actually the result of hours spent creating in-depth support docs, hosting educational webinars, identifying bugs and UX issues to be solved, coming up with efficient processes, and mastering your tools.

As entrepreneur Dane Maxwell explains, your customers don’t care about the mechanics of your business. They only care about getting the result they came for. But here’s a scary stat: For every customer complaint there are 26 other unhappy customers who have remained silent.

Being proactive with your support is the first line of defense in keeping all your customers happy.

The problem is that being proactive takes focused time and attention. It’s also a cross-company initiative. When your team grows too much or too quickly, it can be difficult to know who to talk to and get the help you need, which means even small tasks take more time than you feel like you have.

In a now-famous essay, Y Combinator founder Paul Graham proposed two ways to schedule your time:

  • The “Manager’s” schedule is set up around small intervals of time for meetings and calls. As Graham explains, “When you use time that way, it’s merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you’re done.”
  • The “Maker’s” schedule, on the other hand, is set up around long periods of focused time. Usually half a day at a time. As Graham writes, “You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.”

Most support teams operate on a modified “Manager” schedule. Your day is broken up into small intervals devoted to closing tickets and answering questions. But in order to be proactive and work on projects that will eventually reduce the overall tickets coming in, you need to have “Maker” time as well.

1. Know where your time is going

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it!”

This is one of those business quotes that won’t go away. And for good reason.

Any behavior change, whether it’s saving money, changing a habit, or making time for proactive support requires awareness of how you’re currently acting. It’s why financial advisors make you track your spending and dieticians make you track your eating habits.

But tracking where your time goes is slightly more difficult.

In a recent survey of over 500 office workers, only 10% said they felt in control of their days!

Humans are notoriously bad at overestimating our abilities and underestimating how long tasks will take to complete. So while you can try and use your calendar and to-do list to manually track your time an automatic time tracking tool like RescueTime might be a better option.

Once you identify the gap between what you want to do (i.e. spend more time on big projects) and what you’re actually doing (i.e. running around all day answering support tickets) you’ll be able to use the following strategies to spend more time on deep thinking even when you’re busy.

2. Schedule “offline time” in your day

Maker time will never happen unless you schedule it. And your schedule doesn’t matter unless you stick to it.

Set aside time on your calendar for Maker time and plan in advance what you’ll be working on. When that time comes, do as much as you can to protect your focus. This means closing your inbox (or at least muting notifications) and doing everything you can to put yourself in “maker” mode.

As productivity trainer Maura Thomas writes in Harvard Business Review:

“Try organizing the days of your support staff so that each person has time away from phone and email to thoughtfully address problems and get other meaningful work done.”

If the thought of going offline during the workday is terrifying there are a couple of things you can do.

First, start small. Maker time doesn’t need to be hours every day. You’re building a new habit and what’s more important than the quantity of time is consistency. Start with 15 minutes or half an hour and build from there.

Next, let other people know what you’re doing. Talk to your manager about what you’re working on and create a communication plan so everyone knows how to get in touch with you if something is truly urgent.

3. Use batching to your advantage

Finding time for deep thinking is usually less about spending more time than it is about being more efficient with the time you already have.

Most of us waste a ton of mental energy jumping between tasks and different projects throughout the day. In fact, studies show that context switching—even just between your inbox and another project—can kill anywhere from 20–80% of your productive time each day.

To make the most of the short time you have available, batch similar “deep thinking” projects together. For example, spend a few hours rewriting an out-dated section of your knowledge base or spend your maker time digging into known UX issues and writing a project plan for dealing with them.

Not only does this help your brain get into a certain mode (and be more productive) but it also helps reduce what’s called attention residue. This is when your brain can’t help but keep thinking about the task you were just working on (or the open support tickets you’re purposefully setting aside!)

The more you can put yourself into “maker” mode, the more productive you’ll be with that time.

4. Try theming your days

You might not be able to spend time on deep thinking each day. And that’s totally fine.

Even if you only have a few hours a week to focus on deep thinking, it helps to be purposeful with that time. One way to do this is by theming your days. Try practicing “Admin Tuesdays” or “Deep Thinking Thursdays.”

Again, this helps put your mind in the right context before you get distracted by incoming urgent issues. As productivity consultant Mike Vardy writes:

“By doing this, I gave my mind clues as to what to place precedence on each day before I even have to look at my to-do list.”

If you’re looking for some added structure, a timeline maker can help plan your ideal days within each week.

5. Get the help you need with Heroes and Housekeepers

Finally, deep thinking and proactive support are rarely an individual effort. You need help from developers, designers, and other teams to make sure the changes you propose are actually getting done.

Unfortunately, it can be hard to get the support you need from your own team. Everyone has their own priorities and small bugs or fixes aren’t as exciting as working on a new feature.

At doist, they use a system called Heroes and Housekeepers to make sure other teams are balancing the needs of support with their own priorities. Here’s how they explain it:

“Each month one person on each product team becomes the ‘Hero’. Their main responsibilities are to communicate with the support team, triage bugs, file them in our bug tracker, and fix the most urgent ones.”

Rather than let the results of your deep thinking gather dust in a product backlog, try and propose a Hero system like this. Build a schedule and workflow that gives your support team regular access to development resources (and ensures everyone’s on the same page with their definition of done.) Not only will it make progress in proactive support, but it will help the rest of your company know where customers are having issues.

More Maker Time can help you solve support issues before they even come up

While 82% of consumers say the number one factor that leads to a great customer service experience is having their issues resolved quickly, it’s probably safe to say 100% of customers would rather just not have an issue in the first place!

So whether you call it Maker time, deep thinking, deep work, or anything else, there’s no denying that you need space away from the nonstop flood of tickets in order to do your best work.

Start by understanding where your time goes each day and then set up a schedule, system, or themed week to make sure you’re balancing reacting to upset customers and proactively keeping them happy in the first place.

Jory MacKay
Jory MacKay is the cybersecurity editor of the Aura blog. He’s written for and been quoted in Fast Company, The New York Times, Quartz, Inc. Magazine and more.

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