Tech executive Vicky Volvovski shares thoughts on managing a busy life with a centralized system, and on brainstorming solutions to challenging projects.
Building and relying on a centralized productivity system
Vicky Volvovski is part of the executive team at productivity software company Zapier, serving as its Head of Platform. She’s also an award-winning food blogger and a wife and mom. Vicky lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband and young son.
A typical day
Vicky usually starts her day around 6:30 a.m. with four shots of espresso. By 7:30, everyone is out the door. While her husband takes her son to daycare, she takes a quick walk around the neighborhood and listens to podcasts. She likes to get her podcasts in first thing in the morning because once she’s sitting down for work, she’s unlikely to get up until her Fitbit reminds her to move a little bit.
By 8 a.m., she is back in her home office ready to start her workday. Zapier has about 180 employees spread all over the world, so she has to stay all the more organized since she doesn’t have a co-worker to tap on the shoulder to remind her of something. She uses Google Calendar and Todoist to centralize all her tasks. She starts by reviewing what is on her calendar and the tasks that she designated for that day and lightly prioritizes the things she needs to get done.
Once she’s done prioritizing, she likes to jump right into the task that has the highest priority. The mornings are the quietest time for her so she likes to get something of substance done before meetings start. When she gets some downtime after her various meetings, she goes back to tackling her to-do list and also triages incoming messages on Slack, which is the communication tool her company uses. One thing she’s become quite good at doing is not allowing new things that come in during the day to derail what she is doing. Sometimes there are things that absolutely take priority over what she has planned over the day, but she is okay with that.
Her best strategy to deal with potential distractions is to turn off the notifications entirely, and she’ll check it every hour or so when she comes up for air from the work she’s concentrating on. If it’s something she can answer immediately, she’ll do it right then and there. If it’s something she has to weigh whether it needs to take priority over what she’s working on, it’s easy for her to compare since all her tasks are centralized in one place.
Vicky concentrates on work until 5 p.m. Then she picks her son up from daycare and plays with him, and makes dinner. Cooking is her reset activity, so she likes to pour herself a glass of wine and relax while cooking. She likes to eat as a family, but if she’s cooking something for her blog, she’ll feed her son first and then spend time plating and photographing the meal. Twice a week, she’ll try to get a workout in with either boxing or yoga. Once her son is in bed, she’ll watch a show with her husband or use her evening to write her blog post. Sometimes, she hops back online to finish up some loose ends for work, but she tries to keep that to a minimum and focus on her family.
Biggest Productivity Challenges
As Vicky’s career progressed over the past 10 years, her work has changed from a well-defined list of tasks to a much more ambiguous type of work such as “figure out a strategy for x” or “find a solution to this organizational problem” and items like this cannot go on her list next to “send email to Laura.”
When a task she needs to do feels too big or full of unknowns, she tends to procrastinate because she isn’t sure what that first step is. In situations like this, she allows herself to simply jot down a few notes even if she doesn’t have all the answers or ideas. The idea is to get any related information down in a document and start organizing what comes out in that first pass.
Once she does this first random brainstorming session, she starts to get some clarity and the next steps become a little more apparent. For example “research x” is now a task she can put on her to-do list in comparison to the whole problem she is trying to solve.
She is trying to be more iterative when addressing the challenge of acknowledging “this is a difficult thing and I don’t know where to start,” and also trying to not hold onto things until she has the perfect solution but rather to get the bad first draft out there for feedback. These strategies usually help her get unstuck and she is working on getting better at doing this.
She says it is harder to connect the dots when all the thoughts are loosely in your brain, but when you get it on paper, you can look at it and get one step closer to figuring out what the first step should be. This can be powerful to unblock momentum or productivity. Depending on the problem she’s trying to solve, her brainstorming sessions are different. Usually, it is messy and it evolves as the thoughts come out.
Vicky would love to say she’s got everything figured out, but there are days when even her greatest plans fail. On those days, she and her husband play a little game between them saying, “I’m going to give you your card.” They share a running joke that each of them should write themselves a personal card that they want the other to give to them when they are really stressed out or acting irrationally. So when one is very stressed and needs to be snapped out of it they say, “I think I’m going to give you your card.” This is their signal to take a step back and re-evaluate where your head is at and switch gears.
She noted that when people are stressed, self-care is usually the first thing to go, so at a certain point you need to figure out how to make these things non-negotiable, such as scheduling it in your calendar and not allowing others to schedule over it, or taking your gym clothes with you as you commute.
Tools Vicky recommends
Vicky uses Todoist as a centralized catchall for everything that needs to get done and does not rely on her brain to remember them.
Another tool Vicky uses is Zapier, which allows you to move data from one app to another. If you define one event in one app, you can set it up to trigger action in the same or different app. For example, if something is communicated in Slack to follow up on, she has a workflow automated that when she stars something on Slack, Zapier will put it into Todoist for her. It can be customized so that you don’t have to do tedious tasks or simply allow you do work more productively.
As far as being productive, Vicky was very much interested in figuring out what systems and philosophies worked for her. However, once she started honing in on what actually worked for her, she realized she references systems presented by other people less and spends more time adjusting her own system. She still enjoys listening to podcasts and reading articles to see what others are doing and getting inspired, and perhaps change out her system if it could be more efficient. But she does not actively seek out productivity resources in her day-to-day life.
Vicky points out that sometimes people can fall into the trap of wanting to try the next new thing. She says, “If it’s because you haven’t found a system that works, keep searching! But more likely than not, the system is probably not working for you because you haven’t made your productivity system whole. Your system may not be working for you because there are parts of your life that aren’t included in that workflow. Switching to the new tool may fix things here and there but the true issue is that your system isn’t complete.” Whether her tasks are personal or for work, she puts everything across her entire life in Todoist, so it makes it very easy for her not to feel like part of her life is unrepresented or de-prioritized.
How does Vicky make time for self-care?
Other than workouts, Vicky considers spending time with friends and family as a form of self-care. She has a group of friends who like to gather at least once a week and makes sure she has time allotted to these social gatherings. This is a driving motivator for her to finish up the other things at work.
What happens on a day when everything gets away from you?
On days like this, the first thing Vicky does is to recognize that it is just one of those days. Usually, she recognizes it is one of those days when she has a hard time not getting distracted. For example, if she is on Slack answering every message or reacting to everything, that is usually a good sign that she is overwhelmed and cannot focus. Some days she is able to pull out of it just by recognizing it, but other days she simply has to declare bankruptcy and look for administrative type tasks or household chores that are not as meaningful and don’t take a lot of thought such as submitting an expense report or do the laundry. Alternatively, she doesn’t look at her task list at all and spends her day reading.
What’s on the horizon for Vicky?
Thanksgiving is Vicky’s favorite holiday because she gets to cook for two days straight. At the time of recording, she was brainstorming what to cook for Thanksgiving because her family’s tradition is to never cook the same thing twice. There will always be turkey and potatoes, but how it is prepared changes every year, so a few weeks before the holiday, her family has a conference call to debate the merits of recipes that people suggest.
At Zapier, there are lots of interesting work brewing, and she was working on the 2019 calendar at the time of the interview.
Last thoughts on making a life that matters
The most important thing is to define what matters. Oftentimes people can get caught up in the details of the day to day and feel like they aren’t getting anywhere, but defining what matters most to them is important. Once that is defined, you can prioritize the work you’re doing by asking yourself if you’re actually doing work that supports your priorities or work that isn’t even on your list of being important. It’s not a novel idea, but it is definitely a powerful one.
What do you think?
Any questions for Vicky or me, or comments on the topics we discussed? Please share them in the comments section below this post or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or send me an email.
Connect with Vicky
More about Vicky
Vicky Volvovski is Head of Platform at Zapier and leads their largest SaaS integration platform with more than 1,300 apps. As a former business owner, Vicky is dedicated to helping make small businesses more efficient and productive. Prior to her role as a product leader, Vicky helped to grow the company’s support organization and built Zapier’s first internal issue tracking system. Vicky’s career began as a project manager for a leading healthcare company. Outside of work, she writes an award-winning food blog called Things I Made Today.
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