Adventures in Productivity Scheduling – Part Two

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In Part One, I explained my reasons for designing my current work schedule, based around the concept of 3 C’s: Create, Collaborate and Chill. I’ve been keeping this schedule pretty constantly for a couple of months now, so in this post I’m going to go into each phase in more detail and give some reflections on how productive it’s been so far. First, here’s a visual reminder of how it works for me:

5-9am 9-10am 10am-1pm                    2-5pm After 5pm
Monday Create Fitness

Food

Fix-up, look sharp

Create Collaborate Chill
Tuesday Create Create Collaborate Chill
Wednesday Create Create Collaborate Roscoe/Chill
Thursday Sleep/Roscoe Review & Wrap Up Chill/flex Roscoe/Chill
Friday Sleep/Roscoe Yoga (9.30 – 10.30) / Chill Chill Roscoe/Chill
Saturday Sleep/Roscoe Unplugged Chill Open Open
Sunday

Create: Eliminating the temptation to mentally ‘look busy’.

I noticed on my sabbatical just how many of the gaps in my attention I was filling with twitter, news and mindless information scrolling. These days this is mainly on my phone. I found myself pining for the days when I used to put my internet router on a time-switch, to basically kill the internet during the mornings. I’ve found these days with a kid, I feel the need to be ‘on call’ a little bit, and also my music (which is one of the most important things in my life!) is all through Sonos these days, which requires a router.

The solution for me has been an app called Quality Time. What this allows me to do is dictate, in advance, periods of time where my phone will only allow me to perform certain functions, or only have access to certain things. Everything else is blocked (unless I turn off Quality Time, which takes a deliciously long five minutes to do!):

Create time: What’s blocked, what’s not

Blocked Access to
All incoming calls, with exceptions set for my family, Roscoe’s nursery, my assistant. Incoming calls also receive an automated text reply saying I’ll call them back in the afternoon. Outgoing calls
Twitter, YouTube, Instagram (this alone reclaims so much time!)
Google Chrome
Outlook (emails) Calendar app (So I can still see and edit my schedule)
Podcasts app Sonos controller app, so I can access music while I work.
All Whatsapp notifications Whatsapp for outgoing chat or proactively looking at it.
All other phone notifications

The app has its own ‘home screen’, to which I’ve added the motto “The Work Can’t Done”. It comes from one of my favourite songs of 2017, Speech Debelle’s The Work. It’s a tune that inspires me to be the best version of myself, but also to acknowledge my own imperfections, and be kind to myself on that journey. It’s been a near-constant soundtrack to my last few months, and every time I see that phrase on my phone’s home screen, it gives me a better reason to ignore the phone than to pick it up in the futile search for instant gratification or distraction.

The ‘Create’ phase has meant 5am alarms. I roll out of bed (more easily most days than I expected, actually), and by about 5.10am I’m stood at my desk with a cup of tea, putting my full focus into something. I’ve been winding down much earlier and I’m generally in bed by about 9-9.30pm. The only issue is that because my week is very much a game of two halves, I’ve had a few occasions where my brain is wide awake, jet-lag style, at 5.30am on a day when I have no reason to be up ‘til about 8am. That’s annoying and has been a little tiring, but that’s only happened two or three times.

There’s something beautiful about the silence of the early morning, and the knowledge that no one else is even thinking about interrupting me. There’s less anxiety, somehow, than when I know I’m  almost certainly ignoring an email or a whatsapp chat (which happens in the 10am-1pm bit).

I do a full Weekly Checklist review on a Thursday, and at that point I tend to set out what I want to achieve during my ‘create’ periods. I write these on post-it notes and try and stick to one thing per period, so a perfect Monday to Wednesday means making significant progress on six things. I keep it agile enough and move the post-its around to follow my attention and motivation through those days.

Mondays to Wednesdays have two break periods of an hour. 9-10am is for the 3 F’s (because without alliteration, how can this be useful productivity advice?): Food, Fitness and ‘Fix Up Look Sharp’. The latter is a Dizzee Rascal reference, and just means showering and getting dressed. Fitness tends to be either a short meditation or a brisk 15 minute run. The second break, 1-2pm, is much more relaxed. I tend to just eat and maybe watch a documentary on Netflix, read, dick around on Twitter, and generally have a nice hour of sofa time. It sometimes gets delayed so I don’t start it until more like 2.30pm if I don’t have scheduled meetings, but I still try and keep to it being an hour’s break.

Perhaps you’re thinking at this point, “but this doesn’t apply to me, I’m not creative”. I disagree. My own definition is that I’m creating ‘words’, ‘change’ or ‘good in the world’. Those last two are broad enough to include signing off my company’s annual accounts, writing new powerpoint slides for one of our workshops, sketching out new book ideas, rehearsing for a keynote, managing my podcast and lots of other stuff. Whether you’re creating Word documents to move a project forward or a masterpiece for sale, your job involves the need to create.

Collaborate and Constraint

Meetings and email can be a huge time-suck, and we all know that it’s not where the real work happens. I tend to think about a good open door policy as being a good closed door policy too. If it’s communicated clearly, then everyone knows when they can schedule things in with you. You make yourself available, and by default, create the times when you’re unavailable (or much less available). My own version of this – limiting all email and all types of meetings, conversations or collaboration to no more than 9 hours a week – is pretty extreme, and I’m not suggesting you need to adopt exactly the same timings or structure, but I think there’s definite value in delineating between ‘create’ and ‘collaborate’ time, otherwise the default (particularly in open plan offices) becomes spending the whole week in ‘collaborate’, pining for two hours of ‘create’ time. I mention this stuff when I’m running what’s been described as time management training on speed. It’s of course the principles that matter, not the exact practicalities.

Collaborate is, by definition, much more open and my access to technology is less regulated:

Still blocked But access to…
Instagram, Twitter, YouTube Google Chrome
Whatsapp group notifications Whatsapp, including receiving notifications on most chats
Email notifications Outlook, emails
Phone calls (incoming and outgoing)
Podcasts app

My only worry so far is for the quality of my collaboration (as opposed to the quantity!). I feel like it’s suffered just because by the time I get into a ‘collaborate’ period, my brain feels pretty tired and beaten up. That, of course, was completely by design, the thinking being that the obligations to collaborate would force me to push myself harder for those last two or three hours of the day, but there have been a few instances of me feeling a little grouchy, or not quite thinking as clearly as I might. Has it been noticed, and has it affected anything? I’ll leave the team to comment on that below (!), because that’s simply not for me to say. Perhaps it has.

Chill… and working on it

Working on my ability to chill has been a vital aspect of the last few months for me. The ability to fully switch off and be present, rather than a half-hearted, edge-state of light distraction has been some profound learning. It’s hard. And hence, even in Chill mode (which kicks off at 5pm Monday to Wednesdays, from lunchtime on Thursday and from waking on Friday to Sundays), I still use the Quality Time app. I have a period akin to a halfway house between ‘create’ and ‘collaborate’ for my evening mealtime routine with Roscoe, so that I’m focussed on him instead of getting angry with politicians on Twitter. And I have a lighter, ‘keep away from the internet’ routine on a Saturday and Sunday mornings, just to help me focus on more quality activities. But there’s still plenty of time in my waking week to explore the online world, and I genuinely haven’t really missed being there more regularly.

The Balance

Ultimately, whilst of some of the scheduling here may seem extreme or confining (again, this post isn’t to suggest you should copy me), I feel like I’m succeeding so far in creating the balance and the quality of lifestyle that I promised myself during my sabbatical. So far (and it’s still early-ish days, being 7 or 8 weeks in), I feel productive, motivated and generally well rested. There’s definitely a crunch point on Wednesday afternoons and Thursday mornings, but I’ve noticed myself feeling saner and happier during those points in the last couple of weeks, as my body and brain adjusts to the schedule. Travel and evening events have conspired a couple of times to jolt me off-rhythm, but so far I’m being kind to myself – if I have a late journey back from London, I’ll start at 7 or 8 instead of 5 the next day, or on the rare occasions that I have a heavy social weekend or am traveling (only once so far), I’ll just cancel the Monday’s first ‘create’ period.

I had one really gloomy day, where I felt tired and my mental health fragile, which coincided with my birthday and the changing seasons (I always hate both!) and was also off the back of a couple of stressful days running around London. That may sound alarming to you, but it’s pretty par for the course with my weird brain, and perhaps the extended periods of chill not only helped spot it quickly, but allowed me to deal with it faster than I might have done previously. One slightly longer sleep and I felt completely reset. I’m also much more open about sharing it with friends these days, which is a massive help.

Whilst I’m still doing my Weekly Checklist review process on a Thursday morning, the idea is that I’m doing the ‘delivery’ part of my work in 3 days of 10 hours’ work a day, leaving me with roughly a 3.5 day weekend.

So far, I feel that the early mornings and attention-discipline are worth it to create enough space for the other parts of my life, and most importantly to ensure that Roscoe has all the time and attention from me that he – and his pile of admin – needs.

So after all that, the questions for you are…

  • What are the points in your week where you need to carve out and protect the space and attention for ‘create’ time?
  • How can you be more mindful with what you let grab your attention?
  • And if you could start from scratch and redesign your working day or working week, what would it look like?

And if you have questions for me, I’d love to answer them – but only after 2pm.

5 thoughts

  1. “My only worry so far is for the quality of my collaboration (as opposed to the quantity!). I feel like it’s suffered just because by the time I get into a ‘collaborate’ period, my brain feels pretty tired and beaten up. Has it been noticed, and has it affected anything?”
    Not noticed any drop in quality Graham! But I will look out for signs of it now haha!

    1. Important (for all of us!) to call this out tho. I remember when I did my fasting experiment I had to say to someone (maybe you?) “Sorry I’m being grouchy, it’s just coz I’m thinking about food”. Personal productivity is full of a hundred personals that aren’t always obvious.

  2. These posts are perfectly timed. Me and my new hubby are on day 2 of returning to work after a 3 month sabbatical and I’m doing similar soul searching about creating the right work life balance. The start of the year was a complete write off health and motivation wise but being off gave us time to focus on our own wellbeing and I’m happier than I’ve been in years. I’m a bit scared being back at work will break the spell so I’m getting back in gently and delving back into my Productivity Ninja book to help set my boundaries. Start as you mean to go on. Thanks Graham for sharing and all your general ninja-ing skills, while I can’t do everything doing some of it is definitely beneficial 🙂

  3. I love the internet timer idea. i’m experimenting with two hours on two hours off, and especially love the rush of the last 10 mins trying to cram everything in. I’ve found the off time very productive.

    Where I used to have quite irrational fear of non-connectivity in offline periods, I’m finding a smart watch useful here. Notifications, read emails, slack DMs at push, but no actual punctuality at all. I have a cellular fancy one, but you get a wifi only device and tether it to a phone hidden somewhere, and still be kept in the loop.

    Though I think the real problem is not having anything pressing enough to do. If the tasks were truly important, they would get done. If I don’t remember to do them, perhaps, they just are not that important in grand scheme of things!

  4. I love the internet timer idea. i’m experimenting with two hours on two hours off, and especially love the rush of the last 10 mins trying to cram everything in. I’ve found the off time very productive.

    Where I used to have quite irrational fear of non-connectivity in offline periods, I’m finding a smart watch useful here. Notifications, read emails, slack DMs at push, but no actual punctuality at all. I have a cellular fancy one, but you get a wifi only device and tether it to a phone hidden somewhere, and still be kept in the loop.

    Though I think the real problem is not having anything pressing enough to do. If the tasks were truly important, they would get done. If I don’t remember to do them, perhaps, they just are not that important in grand scheme of things!!

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