Last week I was talking to my cousin about the work we’re doing together for UCLA, and he suggested devoting a week to the project to renew momentum on the project. I loved the idea; he looked up which weeks in July would work with his busy schedule, and I was able to allocate the same weeks.
This got me thinking about the other projects on my plate. Right now, they are comprised of work for another client and the stuff I’m doing for myself via blogging and product-making. I wondered if I could also devote a week to each of these projects as well, which might help resolve some ongoing issues with distraction I’ve been having.
Thus was born the idea of themed project weeks to replace the themed days appraoch I have been using for the past year. Details follow!
What I like about the idea of Themed Work Weeks
The idea of a “weekly work theme” appeals to me because of the issues I’m having with my current system. I’ll start by describing the current approach.
About a year ago, I started allocating specific days to specific projects to help add more structure to my week. This, I thought, would help me focus. I structured the days of the week as follows:
- The specific days are based on regularly-scheduled call-in times on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
- Mondays are usually my podcast recording day with buddy Sid Ceaser, though this depends on his schedule.
- Tuesdays are for a call-in with a long-standing client, so we can keep track of what’s going on.
- Wednesdays are the call-in day for the UCLA project with Inquirium.
- Thursday morning is an overflow work day, and the evening is a regular “study hall” with local friends to work on stuff that we’re stuck on.
- Friday is an overflow work day.
- The weekends usually unscheduled, because I really like unscheduled time.
The original intent behind this day-based schedule was to make it possible to LIMIT the number of things I thought about every day, because every thought is a new distraction. Additional tasks are pulled from my Trello board, but they would be addressed only after a “main task of the day” was complete. For example, on “UCLA Wednesday”, I set some goals for the day for the project, and when I get one done I can do something else before going back to the next one. If it happens that I get into a groove, then I may just do only UCLA stuff.
That’s the ideal. Maintaining the required focus to pull it off is a difficult trick. I’ve got a few that I use.
- The first trick I use is to avoid face-to-face meetings as much as possible, since any kind of meeting, virtual or otherwise, is an unstoppable momentum-killer for me. Currently, I try to limit interactions with other people to just two a week, scheduling them also before a weekly Tuesday or Wednesday call-in since I’m already going to be distracted that day. If I have to, I will schedule interactions on Thursday or Friday during my precious “open work time”.
- A second trick I use is to not read email very frequently, since email pushes me into a non-productive “reactive mode” where I’m solving other people’s problems instead of my own. I have a powerful desire to help people figure stuff out, which will knock me into distraction land.
- Building on the “don’t read email” trick, I also do not conduct any business over email if possible, because I find it is draining and inefficient. This is when the excitement of a face-to-face meeting becomes productive, because I can harness it as we work on a problem together. For example, I now only do graphic design now “live” with the client to channel the initial burst of shared energy. If a meeting is not possible, then I try to at least get immediate feedback ; I need to know what the reaction is of the person I’m working with to know how to go forward. It’s just occuring to me now that I have to make this very clear for future design side projects.
After a year of doing this, I have come to realize that the system isn’t working because the real world is difficult to structure cleanly. I know, duh-doy! Here’s a list of the issues I’ve come across:
- The project-based day focus just doesn’t work for me. A single day isn’t enough time for me to completely get into the mindset needed for doing the work. A lot of what I do for money requires this kind of thinking, and the smallest distraction kills my momentum dead. From experience I know that even a single email will do it, and a meeting is guaranteed to render me unfocused for the rest of the day. I just don’t multi-task very well without use of tools like Trello and a plethora of continuity journals. While it’s effective, I really hate having to do it by myself. In essence, the continuity journal is a replacement for an office environment, where talking to my self is harnessed to create the conversational context that helps keep me motivated.
- It is hard to schedule people into my week AND stick to my distraction-management principles. I have a natural desire to accomodate people, particularly when they seem excited about something that I can help them with. If they can’t schedule immediately in the next available slot (of which there are only two per week), I will open up a Thursday, Friday, or evening slot. As much as I have tried not to let these extra meetings derail me, I am the type of person who cannot stop thinking about the upcoming meeting until it is over. It is an immense distraction. Every meeting, and particularly cancelled meeting, blows a hole into my productive mindset. I wish it wasn’t the case, but that’s the way it is.
In summary, the “project theme for the day” focus hasn’t worked. I have too many meetings that I let into my life, and the day is too short to really get dug-in with a project. I could cut myself out of many of the community-oriented meetings, but I also know that it is these communities that allow me to retain my connection to humanity. As a single entrepreneur working at home, it’s all too easy to lose that connection and spiral into a kind of darkness. When I am participating in communities that are bringing joy and interesting ideas into the world, I am buoyed by the collective spirit of the group! I am NOT willing to sacrifice that anymore, so the meetings will have continue to be an unruly challenge for me to tame.
So I’ve listed what I think has happened with theme-based days. Abstracting up a layer, here’s the list of issues that I want to overcome:
- I find meetings, virtual or otherwise, very draining. I do enjoy them, but they suck all the energy out of me. I have to spend significant time pulling myself together; the last time I measured this was in 2011, and I think the numbers still hold: for every hour of interacting with people, I require four times more time to recover. This time includes drive time to-and-from a venue. So if I spend an hour interacting with someone, I need four hours to get back to the point where my head is clear enough to focus again. That is, if I am still awake.
- I am not a great multi-tasker either, when it comes to focused work. By focused work, I mean work that requires a “deep dive” with great concentration. It requires the clarity that comes with a quiet, distraction-free place to think. When that is not availble, I can do lower levels of work: writing an email, gathering data, providing immediate feedback, writing a blog post like this, maybe sketching out a design, but these are not the tasks that actually create anything that can produce useful works by itself. Real work, for me, is about creating complex systems along with the infrastructure that supports them. This entails discovering the set of principles that drive the systems, which are found by sifting through reams of experiential data to extract valuable insights. It is highly detail-oriented and demanding work that produces tangible assets or benefits.
- It takes me a long time—several hours, sometimes—to gather the energy and materials necessary for me to do that “real work”, because of the need for clarity. With unbroken focus and solitude, I can get to the point where I can see the next step and how it relates to everything else in the project. That is when I can take the first productive step.
- I dislike switching from task-to-task. This negative feeling is amplified greatly when I feel another unrelated task (such as a meeting) breathing down my neck.
The original motivation to have theme-based work days was to address all these issues, and while it yielded good ideas like “limit the number of meetings” and “focus only on a few tasks a day”, I don’t think it went far enough. I feel slightly more structured, but not particularly more productive due to it.
- I will have only ONE MAIN THING to think about during the week. Progress can be measured using the kind of metrics I have developed for The Concrete Goals Tracker: it’s “progress” if I can show what I did to someone and get a reaction.
- With only one thing to focus on, maintaining continuity—that is, remembering what I was doing, and where I was in the process of doing—should be easier because I’m looking at it every day. More than a day of not working on something, and I lose continuity, which makes it that much harder to get started.
- Likewise, maintaining context—the specific reasons WHY I’m doing the project in the first place, as opposed to the WHAT—should be less demanding on my limited working memory.
- I can allow myself to continue to participate in various community goings-on, and also continue to take some meetings. However, I am going to try to schedule the meetings so they support, not distract, from a particular week’s theme.
- Likewise, I can continue to work on other projects, but they will be more of the shallow work tasks rather than the in-depth hard stuff. Although there is a context-switch penalty, I’m hoping that it will feel more like a “healthy break” from the main project. My mind craves variety, and this will be one way to do it.
The idea of devoting an entire week to a single project theme at first seemed audacious, a daring blow against the establishment of work expectations! However, on further reflection I’m thinking that this is how an effective company delivers quality work, letting workers focus on singular tasks free from distraction, but not from regular assessment. In particular, my planned approach reminds me of a “one week sprint” in the SCRUM methodology of “agile” software development.
The Weeks Ahead
Here’s what I’ve got planned:
- Week of July 14 is Blogging Week! I’m going to do blog-related stuff, such as writing more articles and restarting the work of transitioning to the new website design. This week may also include updates to the various forms and calendars for 2015, but I may save that for a subsequent week.
- Week of July 21 is Client Week for a particular client who prefers not to be named. There is a ton of web development work that I can do, and it will be interesting to see how much I can actually get out of the way.
- Week of July 28 is Inquirium Week! Inquirium is the company that I’m working with on the UCLA web app project. The project has been kind of in a hiatus for the summer, but it would be good to pound out some code. It’s my fault that we haven’t been moving faster, as I have not been able to get into the “deep dive” to effectively write code more quickly. On the one hand, maybe slowness is to be expected; it’s kind of tricky code for me, involving the invention of new conventions that fit within existing systems, like trying to retrofit a house from 1920s with modern central air conditioning without kicking out the inhabitants.
- Week of August 4 is Free Week! I didn’t schedule anything here yet, so this might be the week of more social interactions, community involvement, and maybe the aforementioned updates. Or it’s another Blogging Week. I plan on scheduling all speculative meetings this week, so I can do more than the “2 meetings per week” limit.
- Week of August 11 is another Inquirium Week! We picked the Inquirium weeks, incidentally, to coincide with the periods of time that they have available for closer collaboration. Having that collaboration has been essential for making progress. This week may involve travel to California for on-site intensity.
So that’s the plan. Wish me luck!