Several weeks ago, I made a substantial change to how and when I do various work tasks and non-work activities. It seems to have not only boosted my productivity, but also improved my mental health (both completely subjective and N=1). FWIW, I thought I’d share.
Before the change, here’s roughly how I spent my weekdays and how I felt about it:*
- ~5:30AM-6:30AM: Catch up on email, news, Twitter. If time permitted (which was rare), also write blog posts.
- ~6:30AM-8:00AM: Cycle among podcasts, email, news, Twitter on my commute. If time permitted (which was rare), also read. Already there’s a problem here. Writing and reading were the things I felt I should get to, but clearly I was permitting other tasks to take priority in the early morning hours. This made me feel bad and immediately “behind.”
- ~8:00AM-4:00PM: Cycle among email, news, Twitter, and various work tasks. This caused me to feel generally scatter brained and unfocused. I didn’t like it, but felt I needed to “keep up.” I had alerts for email going on my computer and phone, which encouraged me to switch to it whenever someone sent me an email. Why I should let someone else dictate my work flow never really crossed my mind … until recently.
- ~4:00PM-9:00PM: Cycle among email, news, Twitter, family stuff. If time permitted (which was rare until after 8PM), try to write blog posts. Basically more of the same scatter brained nonsense.
Not surprisingly, this is generally dumb behavior for two reasons. First, I was trying to cycle too quickly among tasks, which is inefficient and made me feel (and, I think, caused me to be) relatively unproductive and unfocused. Second, there was zero attempt to match times of day to tasks for which my brain is best suited. I was not happy, but I didn’t really recognize it until recently.
I changed all this, so my days are now closer to:
- ~5:30AM-6:30AM: Write blog posts because this is the absolute best time for me to write. It’s what my brain wants to do. If no topic is available, I read papers.
- ~6:30AM-8:00AM: Catch up on email, news, Twitter, after which, read. Podcasts are reserved for the walking part of my commute during which none of those are optimal.
- ~8:00AM-4:00PM: Segment into a long, morning work time (~2.5 hours) and another afternoon work time of the same length during which I do just one work task at a time, to completion or the end of the time period, whichever comes first. Compress all email, news, Twitter checking into a midday and afternoon check. Turn off all alerts. No dings. No vibrations. Nothing. Try to schedule meetings and calls during the remaining times. In other words, protect some large chunks for focused work. Also, only respond to emails requiring responses. Save the rest for later or delete. Do a lot of deleting without even reading. Unsubscribe from lots of stuff. Create filters to trash for the unsubscribe-able. 🙂
- ~4:00PM-9:00PM: Read on my commute (or podcasts while walking). Then family stuff until 8PM or so, at which point just deal with emails I’d put off and easy, brainless home and work administrative tasks. (We all have lots of this crap.) Read if time permits. Don’t do any other work. This is the time of day during which writing is much harder. I’m tired. So doing the stuff with low cognitive demands now is optimal.
Having done this for a few weeks, I feel dramatically less scatter brained (more focused). I think I’m getting more done more efficiently, and I’m happier. I no longer go through the day thinking I need to get to this writing task or read that paper. I get to what I can get to when it makes most sense. I don’t worry about anything else but maintaining the discipline of my schedule. (Sometimes meetings and other demands intervene, but at least I’m not causing additional interruption through bad behavior anymore.)
It’s no longer about what I have to get to, it’s about simply doing the thing right now that I have dedicated right now for. When I find my mind drifting toward “you’ve got other stuff you have to get to” I push that thought away and keep focusing on the task at hand. When my writing time or my allocated chunk of work time is over, I put the job away, and do the next thing I’m supposed to do. It’s the difference between managing the time (good) vs. juggling the tasks (bad).
For me, it just works. Your mileage may vary.
* I also made a big weekend change, which amounts to not checking email/news/Twitter except once in the morning and once at night.