December 13, 2019

How to stay productive when you are understaffed

Editors Note: Software engineer or not, there are times when you have more on your plate than you can handle. Running away here is not an option. Ex CTO of ProGlove and tech entrepreneur Valentin Sawadski shares valuable tips on how to make the most out your day while watching out for burnout.

I guess we 've been there. The moment where your backlog grows faster than you can work on it. Where we are putting in extra hours and weekend shifts every week. Where you’ve been waiting for this extra person to join to the team. In short where you are overbooked and understaffed.

In this post, I want to share my own personal experience of how I put myself back together after quitting my last job due to burnout. And hopefully, help someone avoid it.

My Burn-Out

Without going into to much details I just want you to know one thing: You will not know when you are close to a burnout, so trust the people around you.

In my case, I thought I took precautions.

  • I worked moderate hours (< 50 per week).
  • I did not work on the weekends.
  • I took regular breaks during work.
  • I got 6–8 hours of sleep every night.

With that kind of “maintenance”, I should have been fine right? Yet I still found myself spending a night in the hospital on a Friday night after I left work late.

Therefore, what I should have done is listen to my friends, my partner: They told me I look terrible after work. That’s the most significant clue you should not ignore!

How did it come to this: My team was overbooked and understaffed!

What to do when you are overbooked and understaffed?

Looking back I realized I should have done a few things differently. Here’s what I think I should have done and then. “Better late then never”, I implemented these changes now and I feel they make a tremendous difference!

Step 1: Self-Care

This one might sound counter-intuitive but you need to step back in order to make a leap forward.

It is hard to fight an uphill battle against backlogs and deadlines. And most likely you have been fighting it for a while. Which means your body is busy with Cortisol, Adrenalin and a bunch of other hormones. The hormones trigger a lot of different reactions in your body such as increased pulse and metabolism. Unfortunately, while they prepare your body to fight of dangerous animals, your brain gets sidelined (who needs logic when they are running for their lives?) To get your concentration and focus back you need to go to a safe space, relax, exercise, meditate. All of which you can not do well in the office. Therefore: Make sure you spend enough time outside the office

Step 2: Realistic Planning

The fastest way to not be overbooked is by reducing your backlog. So take a look at your backlog and ask yourself how much of those you can really get done. To make planning more realistic I constantly do “Macro” and “Micro” Reality Checks.

“Macro” Reality Checks are done by digging through past releases. Have you done something similar before at work? How long did it take? What learnings can you use for your estimates? It looks very unaccurate, but by looking at past projects you exclude wishful-thinking and best-case scenarios and get a proven number of how long things took in the past. And while this will not tell you if you are done by Feb. 10, it can tell you if weeks are a realistic timeframe or if you better plan in months.

“Micro” Reality Checks are very similar to sprint plannings but there is a important difference. Instead of planning in Jira and looking at velocity charts, I look at my calendar. Every task that I have (including tickets but also non-sprint related stuff like travel expenses) I put in my calendar to see how long I would need to work to finish them all.

This reality check shows me how much I can get done this week and allows me to consciously drop a few items from my list.

Step 3: Optimize Efficiency

Since “Work More” is no longer on option I focus myself on “Do More With Less”. So here are a few tips I picked up, that might help you

  1. More Focus Time, Less Gaps Coding, Debugging, Reviewing, all require high concentration. As it takes me some time to get into “coding flow” I’m very careful about gaps in my coding time. Mirror is a very useful tool that does this automatically for me.
  2. More Preparation, fewer Meetings I always allocate the duration of the meeting a “Prep” and “Follow-Up” time. By being prepared I am able to reduce the time spent in meetings. Instead of having “quick syncs” with everyone I first prepare what it is I need to know. Most of the times this can be answered via email. And if not, I know exactly what to discuss and can keep the meeting time short.
  3. More Biorythm, Less Power-Through I am always tired after lunch. Instead of fighting it and trying to work nonetheless, I now go with it. It’s part of my schedule now, where I only schedule “shallow work” that does not need enough concentration and ideally contains some physical excercise. (Cleaning up drawers and sorting stuff is always a good idea for me).

Step 4: What Is My 10x?

As they say: “What brought you here, won’t get you there!” Therefore I spend some time every week to understand what my “10x” is. What can I do that will make everything else easier and can be a permanent solution? Most of the time your first 10x will be making time for “finding your 10x”.


When you find yourself in a situation where you are overbooked and understaffed remember:

  1. Take Care of your Self, get enough time off work
  2. Be realistic, learn from past experiences and put your tasks in your calendar
  3. Don’t try to work harder, instead ask yourself how you can do more with less?
  4. Remember that “what brought you here won’t get you there” and plan some time for experimentation and “finding your 10x”

Originally published at