May we suggest...


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

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.

  • pmusolino

    Thanks for the share Katie, i added some songs to my playlist codingMusic() check it out: i think that can be of your interest ;)

  • Jose Bautista

    Music as a context-switch, really good! We might try to include something related to this into our Steer to help remote managers manage better their teams (!

    • That’s super neat, @disqus_QfenNSImUf:disqus! Would love to know if this does end up getting included in Steer. :) Really great product!

      • Jose Bautista

        Will do Hailley!

  • Dani Gaitan

    Great playlist for Engineering Leadership ! Here’s mine for developing mood >> “Creative Impulse”

    • Jane Anderson

      Great way to enJOY your work.

  • Jane Anderson

    Every time I read a post by someone from buffer, I am immediately impressed by the creativity, unique ideas, and interesting techniques you share through writing. I love your topics and how you present the interior of Buffer.

    • Awh, thank you for the super kind words about the Open blog, Jane! I always love Katie’s posts, filled with awesome opinions and experiments. :)

      Would love to hear if you end up trying to write with music! Personally when I’m writing with music on, I need it to have no words hehe. :)

      • Jane Anderson

        Definitely wordless music that I haven’t memorized the words of at some point

  • Maike Gericke

    This is such a great idea! I use music in so many ways to influence my mood and have the right background for different tasks, but never thought about it as a means to context-switch between meetings. Thanks for this, will give it a try! 😊

    • Hope it goes well for you, Maike! :)

  • Edward Rose

    If you want to transfer files between two devices, be it android, iOS or windows really quickly and securely then you must use SHAREit app which allows users to transfer files really fast.
    Check out My Website for more information and how to download and install the app.

  • Anita Kianek-Edwards

    This is a wonderful idea! Never thought of that and although I don’t manage a team, it can certainly be used outside of ordinary work too. As a stay at home mum running two online businesses plus managing our household, I could certainly benefit from this! Over to creating some amazing playlists ;)

    • Wahoo! Glad you left with lots of ideas. Hope they are helpful for you. :)

  • Alicia Donovan Brainerd

    Wow, what a fantastic idea to create work playlists!

    I have several playlists that I listen to throughout the day:
    Mornings- Yoga Playlist (New age type music)
    Mid afternoon- Learning Leader podcast (inspirational leaders and stories on how to improve professionally and personally
    Way home from work- Upbeat pop music
    Dinner- Jazz and Classical Music

    But I never thought of creating actual “leader” playlists. Epic. Well done; Buffer. Well done.

    • Very cool to see how you segment your playlists. Thanks so much for sharing, Alicia! :)

  • Great Post with new information.

80,000+ social media marketers trust Buffer

See all case studies