Staying organized with ticklers

Engineering managers get a high quantity and variety of inbound requests. At any point, you can be on the hook for the status of individual projects, career growth questions, support issues, and more. Questions and expected follow-ups can pop up in many contexts, be it 1:1s with reports, standups, or cross functional meetings. Managerial triage and delegation are commonplace that makes handling asks from all sides especially important.

However, none of this was apparent to me in my first engineering management role. Even when I caught up with reality, I naively expected to handle the increased load without issue. I organized my to dos in a trusted app setup. I could juggle taking detailed notes while simultaneously participating in meetings with ease. But at some point, a few months in as my number of reports increased and work volume spiked my system started to break down. I was dropping follow-ups. I would bury away action items in notes I would forget to review later. It was at that point I realized I had to adjust my workflow. One of the biggest lifts came from adding ticklers to my routine.

I define a tickler as a reminder of anything that I need to review on a future date. For example, a Slack thread where I’m waiting for a response. Or a good idea that comes up in a meeting that I don’t have time to process now but potentially will later. I generally structure ticklers in the form of simple questions:

  • Talk to engineer X about Jira ticket Y?
  • How is PRD A shaping up? Chat with PMs B and C?
  • Any follow-ups on Slack thread XYZ?

Ticklers may not force any immediate action; the goal is to jog my memory and require a review of the situation. Afterward, if I have a clear next step to capture elsewhere or to otherwise “solve” the matter, I’ll mark the tickler as done. If not, I bump back the reminder date of the tickler to get notified again at a later date.

Let’s jump into my example “talk to engineer X about Jira ticket Y?” to go over this in more detail. My work ticklers show up as a reminder notification on my computer as I start the day. For this tickler, I’d start with opening the Jira ticket. There are several possible next steps:

  • Jira ticket Y is in a resolved status. No follow up needed, so I check off the tickler as done.
  • The ticket is open. After a scan, it’s clear I should reach out to engineer X to ask follow-up questions. I have a few Slack messages back and forth with the engineer and check off the ticker as done.
  • The ticket is still open, but I already know engineer X is too swamped today. A follow-up now on this issue isn’t that important. I’ll keep the reminder but bump the notification for later in the week when we’ll have more time to chat.

If that example sounds undercooked, I at first had the same skepticism. I considered ticklers clutter that would distract from other more concrete tasks. But I warmed to the workflow after making my tickler capture and review process feel effortless.

My hunch is ticklers will only work for most by taking a trivial amount of effort. Today my process is so fast to be effectively instinctual. Todoist is my to do app of choice, and on my work Mac I invoke a universal hotkey shortcut to bring up a quick task entry window in any context. Before I’ve got a fully formed thought, my entry window is up and ready to go.

I happily embrace messiness for the sake of speed. Each tickler rarely gets more than a sentence, filed away against one of two projects. If I make a few spelling or grammar mistakes along the way, so be it. If there’s a single weblink to an email, doc, or Slack conversation that jogs my memory, wonderful. The goal is to capture just enough detail so I can review the item.

Adding tickers to my workflow bumps up the volume of to do items and reminders I have to wade through daily, so I streamlined my review process. One session to pull through a day’s worth of to dos, inclusive of ticklers, rarely takes more than five minutes. Each morning, usually after checking Slack and email as I start the day, I open every due tickler to take action. Possible outcomes are:

  • Yes this matters now. Keep the tickler around and file it in a subproject to mark it as “read but relevant”. Check off when completed.
  • Yes this matters, but not today. Bump the due date at least a business day or two back.
  • Not relevant, confusing, or already done. Check off as done or otherwise delete.

By adding a tickler system that’s fast and easy to manage I’ve improved my overall productivity. My follow-ups rarely fall through the cracks. Ticklers get so trivial to process I end up adding explicit reminders for the most minor of follow-ups. The end effect is less stress during my workday and subtly improved relationships with my coworkers. It’s all thanks to what effectively are a few new to do items that I fly through at the beginning of each day. Consider giving ticklers a try yourself.