If you write down everything you have to get done for you to do your job well, what does the list look like?
If you’re like most of us, your list of duties will have a wide variety of tasks that require different kinds of attention and focus. We have to play multiple roles: communicator, planner, creator, administrator.
Each of these roles requires different skills, and different parts of our brains.
For example, when we check email, jump into the work chat, or scan social media, we’re working in the context of communication. Research and learning are in the context of information gathering. Design, development, and writing are in the context of creation.
If we spend a little time looking at our list of duties, we’ll start to see that our jobs expect us to work across multiple contexts to get things done.
The variety of jobs we’re expected to do adds a new challenge for us: we have to shift gears in order to get our work done. And while we all know that constantly shifting gears slows us down in our work — in the same way we know that we should exercise more, and we know seeing the movie based on a book we love will let us down — we don’t do much to fix the problem.
And it turns out, trying to do all the different jobs at the same time is a big problem.
I Used to Be Terrible at Working
When I first started freelancing — and worse, when I started hiring subcontractors and employees — I was awful at getting things done effectively. I felt tremendous pressure to be everything to everyone: if I wasn’t available on Slack, I was holding up my team; if I didn’t respond to an email within an hour, my clients would hire someone else; if I didn’t finish a project by the deadline, I’d lose the project.
This led to a horribly unsustainable working style.
Before my eyes are even open I’m reaching for my phone. The lock screen is loaded with notifications, and a knot starts to form in my stomach. Oh Christ. Here we go again. Scan the email for emergencies. Check Twitter. Only 1 new follower. Note to self: suck less as a person. More email. Mash out typo-riddled responses with my thumbs as I walk to get coffee — “Hey, Heidi. Nice day, huh? … Yeah, I’m good. You? … Good to hear. Well, see you later!” — and scan calendar invites on the walk back. Open a code editor. Chat beeps. Forget what I was working on. Remember. Email beeps. Forget again. Start working on the issue in the email. Chat beeps. Remember what I was supposed to be working on. Email beeps. Forget. Look at the clock. Goddammit, I forgot to eat again. Order delivery. Move to the couch. Put on Fringe. Remember today’s deadline. Panic. It’s after nine so chat’s quiet; finally, I’ll get some work done. Close the computer with four half-finished emails and two of three projects incomplete. Fall asleep checking email.
Most days, I did a lot — I just didn’t get much done.
Most of my time was spent on things that weren’t very important, and very little of my effort was spent on what I was supposed to be doing.
If I had to guess, about 75% of my working hours were lost to fumbling between tasks and trying to ward off the onslaught of realtime communication with all the sad determination of a cartoon character plugging holes in a sinking boat with his fingers.
My target for each week is to spend fewer than 40 hours on the computer total,1 so I needed to be way better at this if I wasn’t going to end up jobless.
The Productivity Supercharger: Separate Tasks by Context
My friend Phil Caravaggio is one of those people who optimizes everything. It’s necessary for his job — he’s the CEO of Precision Nutrition, a multi-million dollar company — if he’s going to live a life outside the requirements of the company.
Phil introduced me to Dan Sullivan’s time management ideas, which center around context. He has a trademarked approach to time management called The Entrepreneurial Time System™ that’s worth looking into.
Phil has implemented this system into his working style with massive success. Encouraged by Phil’s experience, I decided to try out the broad strokes of the system in my own planning.
In simple terms: the best way to maximize your productivity is to separate tasks by context.
We have three kinds of tasks as entrepreneurs: high-impact tasks that require all of our attention and produce big results; regenerative tasks that allow us to recharge and let our subconscious work on new solutions and ideas; and low-impact tasks that just have to be done in order to allow us to perform the high-impact tasks.
Meaningful Work Days: Focus Exclusively on Big Tasks
Meaningful work days are reserved for high-impact work only. The act of actually writing, developing, or designing something after all the preparatory work is done. If working is an episode of MTV Cribs, Meaningful Work Days are the bedroom, because, “This is where the magic happens.”
Off Days: Relax, Recharge, Let Your Mind Wander
Off days are technology-free. Or at least work-free. I aim to have at least one day a week where my computer isn’t opened at all, and I use that day to do something adventurous, like heading out to a water fight or taking Thai cooking lessons.
Bullshit Days: Prep Work, Busywork, Chores
Bullshit days are for all the things that are required for us to do our important tasks, but that aren’t necessarily the sexy parts of the job that we look forward to. This can include email, accounting, research, outlining, setting up development environments, or collecting inspiration for a new design.
All Three Days Are Necessary for Maximum Productivity
It may be tempting to think, “Since all the best results come from Meaningful Work Days, why don’t I only have Meaningful Work Days?”
There are two problems with this kind of thinking.
1. All Work and No Play Makes You Suck at Work
It turns out that human brains just aren’t all that good at sustained periods of focus. We can cram for a while, but it’s a game of diminishing returns.
If we try to force focus days every day, we’ll eventually end up hurting ourselves. Too much time on the job results in less output at lower quality than if we’d kept a more balanced schedule.
2. Hard Work Without Preparation Is Wasted
Very few meaningful tasks can happen in a vacuum.
To write a good article, there’s prior reading to be done, research to be collected, interviews to be conducted, and various other prep tasks that need to be completed.
Similarly, to design something for a client, resources need to be collected, the requirements need to be gathered from the client, and marketing content needs to be approved.
Without doing the prep beforehand, you’ll have to do it while trying to complete the task. And there’s no better way to end up down a Wikipedia Hole and accomplish nothing than to try to do research for an article as you write it.
If we want to be effective on our Meaningful Work Days, we need to have all the bullshit out of the way first. Without proper prep work, a Meaningful Work Day becomes a Bullshit Day instead.
How to Split Up Your Todo List
To start MOB-bing,5 you need to go through two critical steps. Schedule these for your first Bullshit Day.
- Write down everything you do for your job. If it happens while you’re at work, write it down.
- Separate your tasks into “Meaningful” and “Bullshit” categories. What makes a big impact in your job? What just needs to be done to get you to the next big task?
Meaningful tasks are the things that make the biggest impact, and that take the most concentration. If we’re in a job we love — or even a job we just like-like — these are probably the things we enjoy doing the most.
For me, meaningful tasks are writing, development, and design. I get a big emotional payoff from these jobs, and they make the biggest impact on my career.
Bullshit tasks are the tasks that have to be taken care of for the meaningful work to have meaning. Tasks like these aren’t necessarily exciting, but they lay the groundwork for the fun stuff.
For me, bullshit tasks are research, editing, email, billing, and code maintenance. I don’t feel particularly enamored with this stuff, but I know that it needs to be done so I can keep the lights on and create more opportunities for my more enjoyable tasks.
How to Give Yourself Permission and Space to Improve Your Scheduling
The idea of taking full days away from email and chat to focus on the most meaningful work may seem impossible. “Sure, you can do that,” you may be thinking, “but I have [clients/coworkers/managers/customers] to consider. I can’t just not check email for a full day.”6
I felt the same way before I started.
At the time, my agency was growing: I had over a hundred clients, a half-dozen employees and contractors, editors, and conference producers, and all of them had questions, problems, and needs that required my attention.
I was absolutely positive that if I wasn’t 100% available, everything would fall apart around me.
Thankfully, my concerns were absolutely wrong.
Here’s how I was able to make the switch, and how you can, too.
1. Start with a Plan
Meaningful work days can only happen after you get the bullshit — planning, gathering resources, asking questions — out of the way first. Otherwise, you’re dead in the water.
Use a Bullshit Day to write out all the tasks on your plate. Then break them down into smaller steps and figure out what needs to be done before you can focus on the meat of the task: if you’re on the hook for an article, you’ll need to research other articles on the topic, find studies that back up your points, and write an outline before you can start writing.
If you try to start without doing the initial prep work, trying to do meaningful work becomes more challenging and — most likely — less productive.
2. Let Everyone Know What’s Happening
The week before I started using the MOB System, I told my team that I was going to start spending three days a week on Meaningful Work Days. This meant on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, everyone would be entirely unable to reach me.
To prepare my team, I set clear expectations that “needing my input” was not a valid excuse for missed deadlines. If they needed me, they needed to get in touch before my Meaningful Work Days.7
To prepare my clients, I created an autoresponder saying I only checked email on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and that they could route their requests to our general email if the request was urgent.8
By being upfront and very clear with both my team and my clients, no one was blindsided by my changed schedule. As a result, no one seemed to be particularly bothered or slowed down. I honestly don’t think anyone noticed most of the time.
I hadn’t realized it before, but by making myself fully available at all times, I had actually made my team and clients worse at things. I was a crutch. A shortcut. As soon as I made myself less available, they stopped looking to me for approval or help.
They remembered their own power and competence, and as a result they got things done.
3. Remove All Distractions
Getting work done means giving yourself a period of uninterrupted time during which you can focus exclusively on the task at hand.
If your phone is vibrating every few seconds, or the work chat is chiming non-stop, you’re not working uninterrupted.
Use “Do Not Disturb” mode, or turn off your network connection entirely. Turn your phone face down and silence the ringer and vibration.
If you work in an office, find a space where you can avoid coworker interruptions. If all else fails, put on headphones and hang a sign off your back that says, “Unless the building is on fire, please don’t interrupt me.”
(Or, even better, convince your boss to let you work remotely.)
However you do it, find a way to buy yourself two blocks of 2–3 hours, at least twice a week.
If your boss has any interest in results, your extra productivity will be noticed quickly, and you’ll find yourself being protected from distractions.
4. Use a Timer
Using a timer is critical, because without one we’re bound to run over our allotted time slots. I use a simple app called Pocket Cup Noodle Timer to keep track of my work blocks.
I like 90-minute cycles because it’s supported by research into our bodies’ natural rhythms.
Another popular approach with shorter working bursts is the Pomodoro Technique.
5. Follow a Simple Schedule
Scheduling is a touchy subject for me. I hate it when people tell me how to spend my own time. So let me be very clear that this section is just a suggestion, based on my own experience.
There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about the way I schedule my days. The difference, really, is in the types of work being scheduled.
The secret for me has been concentrated bursts of work, punctuated with full disconnection for short breaks.
Here’s the general scheduling template I follow:
- 90-minute timed work block
- 15-minute technology- and work-free break
- 90-minute timed work block
- 60-minute lunch
- 90-minute timed work block
- 75-minute technology- and work-free break
- 90-minute timed work block
This is 7.5 total hours of work, with 6 hours of screen time.
6. Take Real Breaks
Just make sure to leave your technology behind. No phone checks, and leave your laptop closed. Take your breaks like it’s 1991 and phones are only used for talking to people far away.
7. When You’re Done, Be Done
Each day starts with your todo list. Let’s say your goals for the day are to clear your inbox, edit a blog post, and fix a bug in the website; when you’ve finished the list, write your todo list for tomorrow, then stop working for the day.
If you only need three of the four 90-minute working blocks, be okay with stopping early. Productivity is measured in results, not how many hours your butt is in a chair.
(More on this: How Time-Based Management Kills Motivation)
Better Productivity Means a Little Discipline Now and a Lot of Freedom Later
Understanding the role context plays in our work — and its extreme effects on our productivity — is helpful, but it won’t make much of a difference if the knowledge isn’t applied.
All the knowledge in the world means jack if we don’t change after we know better.
The initial challenge of guarding our time can seem daunting. Our coworkers have grown used to the way we work now — changing that seems like it could cause tension.
In all fairness, it might. But only at first.
In a healthy workplace, both management and the workers value results. By giving yourself the freedom to work optimally in a flow state, you stand the best chance of producing truly outstanding results.
This is a win for everyone: the company sees better results, your coworkers have clear guidelines for getting in touch for help and information, and you get more done in fewer hours — which gives you the opportunity to keep your life in balance.
You’re going to do the work either way, so why not find a way that keeps your stress low and your overtime at a minimum?
- After my brush with stress-induced beardlessness, it became critically important to me — a literal matter of life and death, in my mind — to spend the majority of my time disconnected from a screen.↩
- I say bullshit lovingly: “I have to deal with this billing bullshit or I won’t have any money.” It’s the kind of thing that I someday (soon) plan to delegate entirely — once I’ve written out the process in a manner that’s bulletproof.↩
- This is very similar to Dan Sullivan’s Focus/Buffer/Free day approach. He has a whole system built around this which is far more comprehensive than mine — my general approach is to do the least amount of structure required to get good results. If you’re better when there’s a stricter set of guidelines to follow, I highly recommend looking into Dan Sullivan’s Strategic Coach programs. He’s extremely good at what he does.↩
- The referenced study is centered around walking, but the idea is the same: you’re away from the task at hand, and your mind doesn’t have the immediate distraction in place. As a result, your subconscious can roll the idea around and make connections that may not have happened if you were still actively focused on the task.↩
- Holy shit, that was terrible.↩
- If a full day is absolutely out of the question, you can switch it to a half day. If your day starts at 9am, set the expectation that your first email check is after lunch. (Or, if you’re more effective in the afternoon, don’t check email after 2pm.) A three-hour dedicated window for your most important work won’t ruffle too many feathers, and it will have a big effect on your productivity.↩
- Once I was unavailable, my team was suddenly more empowered. I was, in effect, trusting them to make decisions without my approval or oversight. This made them significantly more efficient.↩
- This had an unexpected benefit: clients stopped seeing me as the solution to their problems; instead, they saw the company as the solution, which removed a bottleneck. When I was 100% available, clients might demand to work with me — “the boss” — instead of another member of the team; when working with me meant waiting, they were happy to work with whomever could solve the problem.↩
- Other options exist to do the same thing, like the Chrome extensions Morphine and StayFocusd.↩
What to do next.
As adults, we’re supposed to build careers, build relationships, build futures, build happiness… It’s all pretty fucking overwhelming. It’s easy to feel stuck — like we’re on autopilot, punching a clock, and buried in tasks we don’t really care about.
Wouldn’t it be nice to get some balance back? To have extra time every day to dedicate to the things that actually matter to you?
I want to help: I’ve compiled 5 Habits of the Unfuckwithably Productive, and I want to give it to you for free. These are time-tested habits that helped me break the cycle of overwork and exhaustion; this is how I spend less than 40 hours a week on the computer — while making a living and traveling the world.