Conclusion to Themed Work Week Experiment; Looking Forward

My themed work week experiment concluded last week, and now I “normal” scheduling. have to say I’m not looking forward to the change back, because I found themed weeks to be remarkably productive. However, maybe some of the new insights into my working patterns will help me cope. Strategic thoughts follow!

Contributing Factors to My Productivity

These days, I measure my personal productivity by the number of difficult projects I complete with my own resources. When I am not completing the work, my motivation suffers, and this affects my ability to do other projects even if they’re simple. In other words, I get bummed-out, and productivity drops due to flagging morale.

Themed work weeks were concocted to address the “completion of difficult projects” aspect of that formula. Note that I’m not just talking about any project, but ones that I find particularly tough because they require me to fully engage all of my mental faculties, some of which are not particularly strong, to make something happen. This is the uncertain creative work where I need to learn on-the-fly and progress through trial-and-error.

Anyway, the big advantages of a themed work week come from the increased efficiency gained with projects of this type. From the past six weeks of themed working, I believe that there are two main factors that contribute to improved efficiency, and hence to my feeling of progress and well-being:

  • I have enough time to prepare for complex project work and then do it. This kind of work requires research, synthesis, and decision-making in the face of multiple unknowns. Because of this, the path to completion is also unknown and blocked by unknowable challenges, requiring me to map the territory slowly as I learn it, building tools on-the-fly, seeking the path that seems to bring me closest to my goal. It takes me half of a day just to pack my brain with everything I need to know. Using that mental prepwork for an entire week instead of just part of the day is much more efficient.

  • A single main project focus is more resilient against interruptions, which increases the quantity and quality of my work. Since I can retain the prep I’ve done on Monday for the entire week, returning to project work after a non-project chore/meeting is much easier. Before, I was trying to do meaningful work on three different projects every day to keep them all going, and I used scheduled meetings/meals as the transition point between them. While this sounded good in theory and was possible, it was NEVER satisfying. Furthermore, I found that I spent little time on the truly difficult work because I was spending most of my time trying to remember where I had left off. I was constantly thinking about the next project to get done. A single project focus for the week eliminated the mental thrashing, quieted the noise, and yielded far greater progress.

I find it interesting to analyze these two observations for the presence of specific personal traits and reactions:

  • It’s hard for me to maintain “complex project state” in my head. Switching between complex project state is very expensive in terms of time. If I want to maintain greater productivity, I need to make efficient use of the project state I have, or make project state switches cheaper. The current cost of a project state switch, which I define as having to recall the context and goals of the work I was doing, is about 4 hours if I am being dilligent.

  • The most valuable work I do is the HARD work, which requires me to maintain complex project state. It is the most rewarding work, because it gives me new capabilities that allows me to move toward my goal. Of course, this isn’t the only kind of project work I can do; I also create work of value by doing stuff I already know how to do (forms, writing). However, building my creative independence requires me to create even more valuable work (packaged goods, books), which requires greater effort for an extended period of time. It’s that first time is the hardest and requires the most energy.

  • Meetings of ANY kind are destructive to my productivity, unless they are true WORKING meetings related to the project at hand. There’s two reasons for this. Firstly, meetings often require me to do a “complex project state” switch-a-roo, which means I have to spend time remembering where I was before. Secondly, I find that anticipating meetings destroys my focus until the meeting has happened. I find my thoughts wandering to what we’ll be talking about, wondering what I should prepare anything, whether there’s something I should re-read first. Meetings generate more distracting work for me, and this disrupts the current work.

  • Working with a sense of time scarcity is very draining. With the difficulty of the hard projects and the additional work generated by meetings, time pressure exacerbates the situation by making me aware of how little time I have. I am learning to control it by “turning off my emotional center” and drawing on my “rational principle-driven inner voice” when I become aware of the negative chatter in my head. It’s the worst when time pressure a product of manager-driven desire to have something now VERSUS being able to do quality work. Oftentimes, that manager-driven pressure is coming from my own expectations, which is not helpful either. I really dislike this type of conflict. Ultimately I want people to be happy with the work I do, but I also want to meet their expectations too, so dealing with this situation is stressful and productivity-draining.

  • Working around inconvenience is very draining. Another personal trait I have is a strong negative reaction to anything that I think should be more “convenient” given its “relative value” to me. I can be somewhat irrational about this, and it is a significient source of resistance. From what I’ve read and have heard anecdotally, I share this trait with people who identify as ADD or AD/HD Inattentive Type, and it is possibly related to some hiccup in my executive functions. It’s something I just have to work around.

Designing a New System

As I said earlier, this week I’m returning to the normal multi-project schedule. This is largely because everyone else is on this schedule. So last week I tried running two projects over a week to see how the experience would be different from my single-project weeks. In hindsight, it was fairly productive as I got a few significant bits of foundational work done:

  • Built a CodeKit 2-compatible Bootstrap 3 framework that used more modern web development components, which will make it easier to work with the client and coordinate our code changes.

  • Co-designed an animation and piece management system that made sense at the authoring (not developer) level, so we have a focus and a metric for success for the coming weeks.


p>From the point of view of personal satisfaction, though, it didn’t go well. The theme was still attached to a single client, but my major project was also kicking-off that week for its second year. On top of that, I had a large number of meetings, 2-3 a day, from Monday to Thursday. I was constantly switching between project contexts, constantly having to think about meetings that would be occurring in the next few hours. By Friday, I was mentally exhausted and dissatisfied with my progress, because nothing significant seemed to get done. In hindsight, maybe it was just the mental tiredness and my impatience that colored my impression of the week.

So…extrapolating from last week’s negative feelings and what has worked about themed work weeks, here’s a couple of lists for me to follow:

From Themed Work Weeks

  • Make meaningful progress by overcoming executive function malfunction early in the week.
  • Reduce project context state switches as much as possible, and ride them for as long as possible before having to dump them out.

From Last Week’s Negativity

  • Ruthlessly eliminate meetings and non-critical projects, and FEEL GOOD ABOUT THAT instead of GUILTY.
  • Focus on work that I think is meaningful and important.
  • Work on my own personal projects (blog, business) as well as other people’s projects, with equal important assigned to both.
  • Work toward tangible steps that feel like foundational, reusable assets.

There’s one more thing that I think is missing, and that is a source of energy. I’ve written extensively about this in the past, theorizing that it’s related to meaningful feedback and aligning my values with my works, but a new thought is that it’s actually related to having meetings: I need a minimum amount of connectedness with people. It may not even matter what kind of connectedness it is, but it has to be experienced free of direct work. I have edited a lot of that out of my life over the past three years or so, as I’ve been rather heavily focused on getting my rag-tag creative enterprise off the ground. But that’s a topic for another day.


  1. Bryan Burns 1 year ago

    Boy Dave, we seem to think alike. Great post and I have a comment. You wrote:

    “This kind of work requires research, synthesis, and decision-making in the face of multiple unknowns. Because of this, the path to completion is also unknown and blocked by unknowable challenges, requiring me to map the territory slowly as I learn it, building tools on-the-fly, seeking the path that seems to bring me closest to my goal. It takes me half of a day just to pack my brain with everything I need to know. Using that mental prepwork for an entire week instead of just part of the day is much more efficient.”

    That’s usually my MO but I like to keep in mind what Robert Pozen wrote in Extreme Productivity that “You should focus your time on your most critical goals…Finally you perform your high priority goals more efficiently by QUICKLY REACHING TENTATIVE CONCLUSIONS, INSTEAD OF SPENDING DAYS OR WEEKS RESEARCHING BASIC FACTS.”

    Something that’s hard for us perfectionists…

  2. Cricket 1 year ago

    Actually, not everyone else is on the many-a-week schedule, although it can feel that way. I have one deep thinking project at a time, although my coworkers don’t think so.

    I try to keep good notes, so when we connect I just have to read a few words, not reload the entire project. I have all that I need for the conversation loaded, so it looks to them that I have the entire project loaded. I also split my days. Mornings are routine, brainless, mosquitoes, and triaging. Afternoons are either current project or mosquitoes. (Sometimes clearing mosquitoes is the current project.)

    One danger of one project at a time is it going over time. I need to do enough planning to know if the current project is cutting into time another project will need, so I can make the tough decisions early enough.

    Seeing good progress on a project I’ve spent several sessions on is good feedback for me. If I need more of a boost, I can show people progress they recognize, not just a little behind-the-scenes tool. (After 16 years of writing HTML and CSS, I’m still more thrilled when I change the colour of Hello World than when I get an entire form working.)

  3. Author
    Dave Seah 1 year ago

    Bryan: Nice to meet a like-minded thinker, and thanks for your comment! Working on my most critical goals is always at the top of my mind (see my concrete goals tracker for my thoughts on that), but I suppose I maintain multiple definitions of critical, which dilutes its focus. For example, my current top-level goals fall into “personal/business development” (which are blogging and product making), “current client responsibilities”, and “maintaining connections with people”, because these are all critical to my sense of balance and well being. I would also add a caveat to the notion that “quickly reaching tentative conclusions helps perform ALL high priority goals.” I’ve been doing that for a long time, wriggling my way around obstacles and cheating complexity, and what I have found is that for some cases, there is NO SHORTCUT except to spend the days and weeks doing the basics to achieve a higher level of quality. If one’s task list is filled with routine and the mostly-known, I think Pozen is right on the money. I want to be sure, though, that people also realize that when facing the UNKNOWN, it’s OK to realize that you have to take it slower and that things may take time to achieve the level of mastery one needs. I’m probably more cautious than most people when it comes to building my knowledge base, though, which has its plusses and minuses!

  4. Author
    Dave Seah 1 year ago

    Cricket: All great suggestions! Kudos for secretly maintaining your own “deep project” in a workplace. That’s an excellent strategy. I maintain several terse continuity journals to help with the reload, but it doesn’t help as much when I’m ping-ponging between design thinking and development, or even development between one of three similar-but-different environments (Javascript, C#, PHP) each with their own specific configuration. On one level, programming in these languages uses the same type of procedural thinking so that part is easy. However, each one uses different libraries and best practices, which requires an adaptation period as I remember mundane stuff like, “Oh right, Javascript arrays work this way, and use this syntax”. To some degree I can compartmentalize languages by adhering to my own best practices and reference documents, but it’s still slower than what I consider ideal. You perhaps are more facile with the context switch. I am not, and I am learning to be OK with it as just one more idiosyncrasy to work around. Your point about being aware of time to completion is a great one, but I am curious if you apply the same criteria to your non-deadline projects? In my case, I already have to deal with the deadlines of my client work. For my business development work, though, with no hard deadlines? That’s where I struggle to maintain forward momentum. There is no outside feedback to energize and connect me with the group. I can’t do a color change and fool myself into seeing that as groundbreaking progress. I have had some success in recasting these as “experiments” so I can make more rapid iterative process (similar perhaps to what Bryan was talking about before), but there still needs to be periodic “big milestones” for it to feel like it’s going somewhere. That’s the context of the problem I’m trying to solve.

A message from Dave:

I really believe we all benefit when we share our own perspectives on common experiences. It would be great if you added your own anecdotes and comments, even if you don't necessarily agree with the premise of the post; that's just good conversation in my book. The house rules are "treat each other with kindness and respect" and "enjoy the flow of ideas!"

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