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.

My 3 Modes: Adventures in Productivity Scheduling

Returning to work after a long absence is an interesting experience. Returning to work with almost 100% autonomy and the freedom to choose both your work and hours is a hard-fought but deep luxury. It’s given me the ability to reset, start from scratch and work out what ‘productivity’ best resembles in my life. Here’s the story so far.

What I’m going to share with you is a mix of old and new. I’m returning to a few concepts that have been good to me over the years, but accentuating them and going ‘all in’ on what I know works (for me). It’s also taking into account two really important ‘problems’ I needed to solve, that are certainly newer and nuanced:

  1. The smartphone problem. I noticed in my sabbatical time that I’d become morbidly fascinated with Trump and Brexit, leaving me regularly sat at home with a vague sense of doom. It’s just not healthy for me (read: anyone?). Twitter has become a cess pit and gets me down. Yet phones offer the easiest route to ‘looking busy’ when your brain feels idle and most people fill in pretty much every gap in their attention these days with a bit of shiny scrolling. But I know I need to occasionally dream, think or just be silent and bored to be creative and useful in my work. I had to solve this mild phone addiction to give me my focus back.
  1. The child problem. Well, it’s not a problem as such, but I realised on my sabbatical that, for various reasons, I needed to put Roscoe first. Like, actually first. Before anything. I’ve always found parents who say “my kids come first” vaguely annoying. I think it’s a bit pious but also that it lacks a bit of imagination (like “I used to dream of professional successes or visiting all the football league stadiums, but now my biggest priority is buying Lego for a child’s birthday party”). Can I plead special circumstances? I’m a 50-50 single dad, with a special needs kid who requires A LOT of admin and is at a critical stage of his learning and development. I know, its still pious and annoying. He comes to me on Wednesday evenings and he’s either here until Saturday lunchtime or Sunday evening, depending on whether it’s mum or dad on the weekend shift. So being useful at work and showing up for him means maximising the first half of my week.

Luckily in solving these problems, I remembered I teach this stuff. I’m aware of the law of diminishing returns of attention. Most studies point to something like a 40 hour threshold as being the sustainability point for peak performance in more manual roles, hence Henry Ford’s designing of what we now refer to as the ‘typical 9-5’. Yet studies of knowledge work jobs tend to point to diminishing returns after around 30 hours a week.

I also work with an awareness what psychologist Roy Baumeister called ‘ego depletion’ – the idea that every act, every decision, every little effort to focus your attention or emotion onto something useful helps chip away at your ‘ego’ or self, until the well runs dry and you need refilling. It’s why you can sit at your desk at 4pm and just stare blankly at a screen when you’ve a list of useful stuff you should be doing. This operates for me on a daily and a weekly level, so broadly speaking I need to be doing the hardest or most skilled work earlier in the day and preferably earlier in the week, too.  This is basically the ‘proactive to inactive attention’ concept from ‘Productivity Ninja’.

So you can probably see where this is going. Here’s my new ‘business as usual’ week:

  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

The timings here are largely irrelevant, but the 3 distinct ‘modes’ are useful:

Create

This for me is my ‘big rock’ time. My time to get down and work solidly on something where I can really add value. I tend to focus on one thing for each ‘period’. Think of it like school! It’s total focus, total solitude (I’m a natural introvert so luckily this doesn’t bother me or scare me, as it seems to other people – it feeds me). The key to making this work is to massively limit the capability of my smartphone during these periods, via an app called Quality Time.

Collaborate

This is where I open the doors, (metaphorically speaking, as I’m usually still in my shed). This is where my job switches to being about supporting other people in the work they do. It could be via emails, skype calls, meetings, coffees, or something else.

Chill

Chill is the one I find the hardest. I noticed during my sabbatical how guilty I would feel just curling up on the sofa to read a book and enjoy a moment. It’s something I struggle to do when all the temptations are nearby. Baumeister’s work makes clear not only how important it is to recharge, but also that self-control is a muscle, so developing my ability to chill, actually builds increased self-control in my brain, so that ‘ego depletion’ happens at a slower pace in future. The mindset that ‘chill’ is as important a priority as ‘work’ might seem strange – since it’s usually the thing we promise ourselves in that mystical never-land of ‘when the work calms down’ – but it was one of the hardest and most profound lessons the sabbatical time taught me. Seeing the energy of ‘chill’ as something that adds fuel to the fire rather than ignores or wastes the flames has been a mindset shift, and has helped me get a better balance.

In part two of this post, I’ll look at the 3 C’s and their practicalities in more detail, offer some reflections on the first few weeks of implementation, and answer that “fuck, but 5am, seriously?!” question. Stay tuned.

Getting my house in order: a few reflections on my 2017 sabbatical

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Roscoe arrives at my house every week at 6pm on a Wednesday after spending the first half of the week at his mum’s house. His is a life of self-narrated rituals that form perfect groundhog days:

“Shoes off, coat off”.

“Get the red chair”.

“Have Shreddies”.

“Watch the red trains on the iPad”.

Then he finds all the trains that I’ve put away in the toybox and carefully positions them back on the space where the top of the sofa meets the wall. The magnets create a train of a dozen or so engines whilst the sofa provides the track and he improvises on a tunnel to go over the top with whatever he finds laying around.

When the trains are all in order, I know he feels like he’s home again.

Towards the end of 2016, whilst travelling on a long promo tour of Australia and New Zealand that felt like it completely broke me, I took a big decision to have an eight month sabbatical from all work (except the work of parenting, obviously). I spent all the plane journeys writing a long piece about why I planned to not have any plans, and in January 2017 I set about creating space: my agenda being to truly have no agenda.

This isn’t a blog post to document what happened – because no one needs to read about the long road to Aston Villa’s Champions League success on Football Manager, the endless winter days spent attempting to leave the house, or my failure to grow aubergines – but it is an attempt to share some of the things I learned along the way.

For a while at the beginning, I replaced work with other kinds of work.

Like a reformed smoker who still needs something to hold in their hands, I created to-do lists of all the things I needed to get my house onto Airbnb, what was needed in the garden, what social events needed planning and – my favourite – a list of things I should be doing because I’m (feeling guilty about) not working. Yep, “work withdrawal”. It lasted a good couple of months.

The work withdrawal wrecked my confidence.

I would go from having some pretty exhilarating business ideas to within minutes telling myself I have no skills to make anything happen. I guess work becomes a constant feedback loop where the little voice in your head says “this is good”, “that worked”, “that was worthwhile”. And other people agree, too: ”thanks”, “that was great”, “your stuff really helped”. I was genuinely surprised by how insecure I felt in myself when I detached myself from my work. And it’s useful learning because now I know I need to work on me, not just me-at-work.

With the changing of the seasons came a change in my mood.

I felt brighter and more relaxed. At peace, somehow. It was as if the winter was never meant to bring me any abundance or answers, but the summer had it all mapped out. One evening, I found myself deciding to go to bed without having asked myself what I should feel guilty for not having finished that day. I was just going to bed because I was tired, totally relaxed. Imagine that. I think this was the first time that’s happened since school didn’t involve homework. It was a small thing, but one of the most profound moments of gratitude I’ve experienced in a long time.

As I found the sabbatical time drawing to an end, I started to worry about finding narratives.

I guess this is a guilt thing too: “well if you’ve taken all this time off while we’ve all still been working, then you’d better have something to show for it”.

I had nothing. I’d planned nothing. It was supposed to be nothing.

I guess part of that voice in my head is worrying what others think and part of it is that thing where when you decide to become your own boss, you don’t realise that your new boss can be a bastard sometimes.

And towards the end of the sabbatical I realised I was OK with not having a perfect narrative for everything.

Life’s messy. I experienced so many small breakthroughs during my time away. I dealt with a lot of personal stuff, came up with some great ideas for the future and reminded myself what makes me tick. But the most important part was to let go of my desire to start a new thing right now. To be content with not needing to define myself as the founder or creator of some new thing. Just to show up and do good work, be a great dad and see how the next year pans out.

I realised the main thing right now is just to have my house in order.

Roscoe’s approaching his first fork in the road on his own journey too. He’s coming up to being 4 years old, finally developing the language to express what he likes and doesn’t, thanks in part to his amazing parents, obviously, and in part to an incredible team of professionals that he is blessed to interact with on a regular basis. Everything we’ve been told as parents is that the continuation of that level of support is far from guaranteed through his school years, and it’ll mean a battle to get him the funding he needs, as the effect of savage cuts to Local Government funding take hold. His transition through to school next September feels like a process that’s already started and needs to be followed through with care and precision.

So my plan for the next few months is just to do lots of small things, but no big, shiny new thing. No startling new ocean to explore, or nuggets of gold to mine. I do have some ideas for future businesses that I think are pretty solid, and a few passion projects bubbling underneath the surface too. But for now I plan to add value where I can: helping the Think Productive team with upgrades to our core products, scoping out and starting work on some future book projects (watch this space!), delivering some keynote talks for clients and continuing to make the podcast.

For now, like Roscoe’s little trains, it’s all about keeping it all in order. One step at a time.

It’s been a fun first few weeks back. And it’s nice to be home.