How To Intelligently Design A Workday
I've come to see work habits as one of my biggest competitive advantages. I'm constantly refining this system, but overall it's proven incredible effective and I hope it can do the same for you.
When I first started applying this stuff, I felt pretty eccentric. But over the following months it became clear to me that the majority of people have no idea how to work, study, or sit down and do anything even remotely cognitively demanding for a prolonged period of time.
Take a look around. Notice the lack of thoughtful constraints and structure.
Why do companies completely switch to open offices?
That tells me you want employees to socialize more. But we know that real work happens in periods of deep distraction free focus (more on that later).
If you were smart, you'd have both, and schedule both. Go into your pod or cubicle to get in the zone for 2-3 hours. Hang out in the open office while doing non-critical work like answering emails. Or even better, have 2 hours, even 1 scheduled day of preset collaboration time where people hang out and exchange ideas. Constraints= clarity of purpose.
Why do startups incentivize new hires with gyms, lounges, and ping pong tables?
That tells me you plan for your employees to be spending free time at work. Here's a better idea. Pay your employees well and let them leave once they get a certain amount of work done. Work hours should be like internet bandwidth. Limit it to what's needed to get the job done for the day, and then let them go live their lives. Don't call them outside of work hours.
I've worked like that before. It's glorious. You have to silence your phone and put it in a box while working, but can access it during breaks and lunch. My day started at 8 AM and I was finished by 2pm most days. There'd be an occasional day or 2 where we'd go from 8 AM to 6 or even 8 PM because of a deadline. I didn't mind because I'd always be back to my 2pm schedule right after.
This schedule subcommunicated to me that my company understood I work to make money so I can go live my life. I respected them for that, and I worked my ass off while I was there. Being employed in this manner felt like an even trade between two mutually respecting partners.
Other places I've worked just want me to log hours. This tells me they don't think deeply on the processes that run their business and are afraid of making changes. In these institutions I feel less like a valuable employee and more like an indentured servant. It's no surprise these companies did mediocre work.
Why do "productive" people have access to distractions while working?
As you grow up, garbage study habits become garbage work habits. It's considered normal to study with music, netflix, and your phone next to you. These habits don't magically go away once you get a job. Working with your phone on your desk is like eating chicken breast and broccoli on a strict diet with a plate of fresh brownies in front of you. You've set yourself up for disaster. But it's the norm.
All of these ideas aren't directly relevant to every industry and type of work, but for knowledge workers, students, and people working online it's the rule, not the exception. We don't put effort into constraints and structuring work. This makes it incredibly easy to get ahead.
The dynamic is doubly critical when you work for yourself.
Work is a thing you do to produce your desired outcomes. And then you get the hell out.
As a freelancer/business owner, my desired outcomes are to make as much money as I can by working on projects that are interesting and meaningful to me. The first constraint I set up is the number of hours I work. I'm vigilant about shutting it down every day.
You have to make room for life.
When you don't know how to shut down, you can end up isolating yourself. I've seen it happen to others. I've slid into the habit more than once and it's never pretty.
The worst case is you end up alone. No social life, no meaningful relationships. You forget how to socialize.
Your work suffers because you don't know how to step away. It's a shit way to live!
If you're planning on working for yourself for the long haul, treat yourself as if you were your best employee. Have that respect. Set maximum hours. Set a definite start time and end time.
How to fill those work hours
Say you want try this out. You decide the hours between 8 AM and 3PM are going to be when you get all of your super focus work done. What do you actually do in that time?
I prefer breaking up my time into a few blocks. I like working in 2 hour blocks in the morning, and 1 hour blocks in the afternoon.
I fill that time with tasks in order of long term importance, not urgency.
My schedule might look like:
- 8-10: Write couragelab content
- 10-10:15: Walk around, stretch, get off my bum
- 10:15-12:15: Write a bit more, then shift to planning/executing couragelab growth
- 12:15-1: Lunch
- 1-3: Marketing, scheduling, and reading for Courage Lab.
- 3: Plan out my work schedule for the next day. Grab my phone from the other room and take it off of silent mode.
You'll notice there is zero client work in the schedule above. Because I'm in the process of shifting from freelance worker to online business owner, I dedicate as many days as I can solely to my site, and batch all client work for 1 or 2 days of the week.
That lets me focus most of my time on building a business, which is going to give me the long term results I want. But even on client work days, the first 2 hours is still spent on my highest priority work for my site. That never changes. Prioritize what's important to you over what's urgent. The difficult work that moves you towards your ideal future outcomes has to come first.
I largely created this work system from observing the podcast host and author Srinivas Rao. Over the last 2 years, I've worked with him on developing his online brand into an online business. In the process, I've had multiple opportunities to observe his work habits, often for days at a time.
In the last 2 years I've seen him produce 2 podcasts a week, an article a week, write and publish 2 books, read 50 + books a year, experiment with every productivity tool on the planet, book speaking gigs, and work with me on creating and delivering 5-8 different products. He does all this despite having ADHD.
The craziest realization for me was understanding that if he wanted to, Srini could do nothing but surf and play video games after 2 pm most days and he'd still be just as productive.
That's the beauty of scheduling a start and end time to your work hours. You know the rest of your time is completely guilt free to spend as you wish, because you've already accomplished your most important tasks for the day.
Before moving on, let me say that I currently spend 2 days a week working an additional 3-4 hours, sometimes more if I'm feeling sharp. If I start getting tired of it I'll ease up, but for now it's manageable long term and doesn't interfere with my social or personal life.
Protecting Your Attention
If you synthesize your ideas, emotions, thoughts, and feelings into something tangible to share with others for a living, your job is to create.
Coding, businesses, art, writing etc...it's all creative work.
But distracted, procrastinating creatives don't create.
If you're consuming content, you're not creating.
Your attention should be focused on creating. There are 4 methods I use for this. The first is prioritizing important tasks over urgent tasks, which we tackled above.
2. Have total clarity
For those work blocks, be very clear about what you're trying to accomplish. What I work on today is dictated by what I scheduled yesterday. Scheduling tomorrow is the last thing I'll do today. I'll go deeper into identifying your most important tasks in another article, but the general idea is to "design your days to automatically make progress on your long term goals."
3 months from now, I want my site to have a certain number of articles and subscribers. My mission critical tasks are the small, daily steps I take to climbing that mountain.
And that daily clarity allows me to focus on execution. There's no thinking about what to do next, no ambiguity. Just creation.
The next method of protecting your attention is-
3. Eliminate what doesn't matter.
"You can do anything you want, but you can't do everything you want."
Focus, attention, productivity, time management...it really comes down to choosing a few things you want to do, and then having the courage to ignore the rest of everything.
There's serious FOMO. We're addicted to our phones. We think being perpetually plugged in is normal and acceptable.
I think that's bullshit.
Being perpetually plugged in is toxic and will jack you up, so I'm going to help you examine your relationship with technology.
Here are my ground rules.
- This is a dictatorship, and technology exists for my convenience.
- My phone and computer should never be able to distract me when I'm working. No calls. No buzzing. No push notifications.
- My phone isn't in the same room as I am when I work, so there's no temptation to check messages and stuff.
- My tech is set up by design, not by default.
- Being informed is overrated.
The problem with phones and social media is it's all designed for you to consume and react. If you hear about a tragedy 7000 miles away, you can do ZERO about it except feel bad. That's going to impact the quality of your work. If you're busy reacting in the moment, you're losing sight of your long term plans. It's self sabotage.
Emails and calls are demands other people are putting on your time. Just because you've hung up the phone and gone back to your task doesn't mean you're mind isn't still lingering on the call.
You are the creator. While you work, no one should be able to casually intrude upon your conscience and cause you to react. Schedule it later. Emails and calls can wait.
And the last strategy-
4. Tailor your physical work environment to getting stuff done.
I used to love working at the coffee shop down the street from my place. Getting out of the house made me feel productive, and I knew that was something I wanted to continue to do. The problem was I made friends with one of the baristas. She would introduce me to all of her friends, and then I'd see them all regularly in there.
This was very good for my social life but when you're single, It's terrible for getting stuff done.
Public library. 3 days a week, my local library opens at 10 and closes at 7. The remaining 3 days, they're open from 10 to 4. I play a mental game with my self to set a challenge to finish my work 2 hours before they close.
Your surroundings really matter, but optimizing your work environment goes deeper than location.
If it's too cold or hot, you'll be distracted. If the chair is too hard like those steel and cinder abominations at starbucks, or the table too high, you'll be distracted. If your pants are too tight or your shoes uncomfortable and your nails too long to type comfortably, you'll be distracted. If people are talking, you'll hear it.
I called these "micro-tolerations" - the little things that get in our way every day but we just gloss over them. Changing one may not be significant. But if you have 5, 7, 10 things you tolerate, you're at a distinct disadvantage.
My biggest lesson with this was finally investing in a wireless mouse and getting off the touch pad on my laptop. My beautiful Logitech MX Anywhere 2 made working online sooo much more enjoyable. I was clueless as to how annoying the touch pad was because I didn't know any better.
And because I'm a maniac, I bought some $20 slim profile shooting ear muffs on amazon. When I'm at the library, I'll put a 2 hour ambient track on, put my in-ear buds in, and put the shooting muffs over them. BAM, noise canceling headphones for cheap.
And the last thing I do is use an app called Forest to block all distracting websites for up to 2 hours.
At that point, I am the most unreachable man on a computer. No one can distract me through the laptop. My phone is silent and out of site. I'm comfortable. I can't hear any nonsense. I'm plugged in for 2 hours and start hacking away at my pre-scheduled list of tasks.
Life is good.
Making Room For Murphy
Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.”- Helen Keller
There is one strategic weakness to this new way of working. By ritualizing and controlling every factor in your work habits, there is a chance you make yourself vulnerable to chaos.
Think of it this way. Let's say you have a habit of going to the gym or for a run, and you always wear your headphones. What happens the day you forget your headphones or you leave your phone at home? Are you going to be able keep up that level of intensity without your music? Or is it going to ruin the whole session for you?
We know there are no constants in life. Things are ever changing, and the security of our routines is an illusion. Eventually, something does go wrong and Murphy's Law will come in like a wrecking ball. It is a bit dramatic to think of a workday in the context of life going wrong, but you get my point.
If you have family over, or are traveling, or have to work from an over air conditioned, uncomfortably furnished Starbucks for a week, are you still going to be able to get what you need to done?
Intelligently designing your workdays means optimizing how much you get accomplished every day for as long as you have to work. The key to this is being adaptable. Bear Grylls every situation-
Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.
Use your environments to your advantage, but don't become dependent on optimized environments. Your favorite tools shouldn't ever become a crutch. Make sure you aren't taken out of commission when your meticulously designed workday gets a wrench thrown in it.
An interrupted workday is a pretty mild form of Murphy. Things can always go wrong in far worse manner. But in general when things don't go to plan, I find this quote from Marcus Aurelius particularly useful to remember-
“It is my bad luck that this has happened to me.' No, you should rather say: 'It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without pain, neither crushed by the present, nor fearful of the future.'Because such a thing could have happened to any man, but not every man could have borne it without pain. So why see more misfortune in the event than good fortune in your ability to bear it?”
Working towards a dream life means methodically designing your days to get you there. Being poor and distracted isn't going to allow me to live on a ranch near Yellowstone or drive a Jaguar E-Type around the Isle of Mann. It all boils down to what I take action on daily. In order to best do so, I design my work days.
- Set constraints on your work hours so you're at your sharpest every day for the long haul.
- Have complete clarity on what your mission critical, long-term tasks are.
- Fill your day in order of decreasing importance. Lowest value activities come last.
- Be kind to your body. You're not Elon saving the world. Take breaks.
- Protect your mental state, time, and attention.
- Set up systems to eliminate all the easily avoidable digital/analog nonsense everyone else assumes is normal.
- Remember to stay adaptable and think flexibly when things don't go to plan.
- Do whatever you want for the rest of the day 🙂
Questions? Suggestions on how to make this better or other topics to cover?
Just shoot me an email. king at courage lab dot org.