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My 90-minute workday

December 20, 2011

They say that when you’re your own boss, you’ve got the worst boss in the world. It’s true. To myself, I am like the Attila the Hun of bosses. (To others…well, I won’t put words in their mouths. But I imagine Attila the Hun wouldn’t be the one they’d compare me to. I’m probably more of an Annie Oakley.)

The culture is the easiest thing to blame. We say that we value slowing down and appreciating life, but our actions indicate otherwise. Exhaustion is modern-day martyrdom. We puff our chests as we admit that we worked 62 hours last week with nothing but a camelbak of coffee and a good attitude. That’s responsibility. That’s work ethic. Hiyah!

After six years of owning my own business and marveling at my own vast production capacity, I became aware of the onset of a strange disease. Not workaholism, though that could have been the cause. No, this was much worse. Suddenly, I was unable to do anything required of me. Once I committed to a project…once I was obligated to do it, I could no longer muster the energy. And it did not go away.

It’s like the motivation part of my brain became a rebellious teenager. This wouldn’t have been too much of a problem since I have a good amount of control over my days, but suddenly my brain started tricking me into thinking that everything was an obligation. Excited about my website re-design? Oh, well as soon as I start planning for it, now I have to do it. Want to re-invent my digital program? Well, forget it. The minute it comes out of my mouth, I feel obligated. I couldn’t even plan on baking cookies with my kids…I’d always just say “we’ll see”, and hope that the motivation part of my brain wouldn’t freak out on me and make it seem like an unalterable chore.

Instead of completely shutting down (which I’ve tried before…it doesn’t help), I embarked on a workflow soul-searching mission. I put aside my culturally engrained definitions of productivity and responsibility in an attempt to find true freedom in my work life. And this is what I’ve come up with.

Type Z

All my life, I’ve identified with the Type A personality. I’m a doer. I feel good when I get things done. It’s exhilarating. I don’t understand people like my husband who can sit and watch TV for hours. An hour a week is pretty much my limit, and it better be Tivoed, because I have no patience for commercials. (Wow, I must be a total thrill ride to be around.)

But it’s not just doing “stuff”. It’s using my time for things that matter. I will spend hours whiling away an afternoon with a friend, because I see the value in meaningful relationships. Spending time on that counts as “doing” for me because at the end of the day, relationships matter more than anything else. I read a ton, which is also not technically “doing”, but I value being a well-read person. And also, I love it. So it’s productive for me.

So I never questioned my Type A-ness. (A-ness…haha…I’m also five years old.) But one day, I started thinking about my natural gifts and abilities, and I realized that with all the enjoyment productivity brings me, it is really really hard for me to be a responsible person. I’ve always had trouble forcing myself to do things like wake up in the morning and go to work (when I did the 8 to 5 thing). Or go to church on the weekend, which I resist interminably (even though my faith is important to me, church apparently isn’t, or I bet I would go more often).

I heard someone say once that “I guess I’m just not one of those job people you hear so much about,” and I knew that was me. As much as I love the idea of schedules and task lists and action steps, I have never been good at putting them into practice. I do it for maybe two days, and then I feel like a caged monkey. But I do love projects. I love to dream something up and then bring it to life. I even love big, giant, toothy projects (digital nation-building, anyone?). I do not get overwhelmed. I get inspired and I can conquer the world.

So then it occurred to me. Maybe I’m not a Type A after all. And I’m definitely not a Type B (whatever that is, but I’m guessing it’s the opposite of Type A). I’m going to make up my own type. I am a Type Z. And maybe I’m the only person in the world who’s a Type Z, but that’s okay. Now that I know that I’m a Type Z, I will never go back to my old ways of scheduling and task mastering and whip wielding, because I know it will backfire (even if it takes six years of self-flagellation to do so).

But I needed something to replace the whip. So I did what any self-respecting former Type A would do. I made a list.

I am happiest in my work when…

  • I have loads of freedom to do whatever I want to do.
  • I am not avoiding or procrastinating on anything.
  • I have a time limit for things that feel like an obligation.
  • I know everything that is on my plate, and I know it is all digestible.
  • I get to dive deep into the projects I choose to take on.
  • I know what the very next thing I need to do is.
  • My goal is to maintain enthusiasm and momentum, rather than put unnecessary pressure and deadlines on myself.
  • I don’t spend much time in meetings, but I do spend time building real relationships.
  • I’m not worried about keeping up with my email inbox or my social media accounts.
  • I’m not doing things because other people want me to; I’m doing them because I want to do them.
  • I know when I’m “done” and can stop work for the day without feeling guilty.
  • “Done” is easily attainable.

For kicks, I took a look at how my current Attila the Hun style of self-management was attempting to get me to that place of work bliss.

Attila likes me to…

  • Schedule meetings within a day or two of when people want to have them, with a maximum of 3 meetings a day. (I was spending like 2-3 hours a day in meetings. And I’m an introvert!)
  • Respond to all email right away.
  • Schedule milestones within an inch of my life, because Attila hates when people have to wait on me for stuff that she feels “should” take less time.
  • Schedule blocks of time for specific projects, so that it is immediately apparent to me that I have no free time whatsoever.
  • Schedule my fun time and my social media time and my reading time and my family time, so my life feels like one big giant chore (but at least I’ll get to have fun time…).
  • Cram all of my work into normal work hours so that I can have a clear separation between work life and home life (which sounds like a good thing, except for all the unnecessary pressure and long monotonous stretches of work)
  • Work 8 hours a day. At least. Because if I’m not, then Attila’s pet guilt monster is going to chew me up and spit me out.
  • It was suddenly very clear why the motivation section of my brain was rebelling. I sucked as my own boss. I needed to fire Attila.

Enter Glenda the Good Fairy

Glenda is my new boss. She’s a lot prettier, which you think wouldn’t matter. But remember when you were a kid and you got the ugly Attila the Hun teacher? It matters. A lot.

Glenda is very flexible. She lets me try things, and when something loses its effectiveness, I can figure out why, and then try something else.

First things first: Getting everything out of my head

The first thing Glenda instructed me to do was to write down every project that I was currently committed to, both in work and life. (I imagine Glenda learned this from David Allen.) It really is the most blissful feeling in the world to be able to see every single project written down, and to know…these are the things I am committed to. I do not have to commit to anything else. I will think long and hard before I add anything to this list. And if I start feeling guilty about not committing to something, I will look at my project list and say, “I am doing enough.”

I use Things for iPad to keep track of all of my projects. It’s fun, and it works well for my kind of system. But I imagine anything would work, even just a plain notebook with one sheet of paper for each project.

The main (and pretty much only) principle: Getting to “done” as quickly as possible

The system I developed is very, very simple. The object of the game is to get the “work” (i.e. the stuff that I have to do) finished as quickly as possible. And then I’m free to do whatever I want.

The first thing I do every day is spend one hour on my projects that have time-sensitive expectations. Namely, projects that I’m committed to with other people. I came to the one hour number because a long time ago, I discovered that you can get a lot done in 15 focused minutes. I had four time-sensitive projects going on at the time. 4 projects times 15 minutes…voila, that’s where the hour came from.

Usually, it goes like this. I set my timer for 15 minutes, and I start working on the project that is farthest away from me (meaning: I haven’t worked on it in the longest amount of time). When the timer goes off, I’m free to move on to the project that’s the next farthest away. OR (and this is what usually happens), I’m free to keep working on the first project if I’m feeling in the flow. I keep doing that until I’ve done four 15 minute sessions. And then I’m done with my time-sensitive projects for the day.

After that, I spend 30 minutes on my non-time-sensitive projects. I set my timer and start the one that’s farthest away from me. When it goes off, I set it one more time and either keep working on that project (if I’m feeling good and excited about it), or move on to the next one.

And then I’m done. DONE.

It is the best feeling in the world. In an hour and a half, I give myself permission to completely stop working if I want to. And I am more productive than I’ve ever been in my entire life.

But wait, how do you actually get anything done that way?

You’d be surprised at how much I get done in that hour and a half. I usually beat all of my deadlines (although I’ve stopped setting deadlines…now that I trust myself to fulfill my commitments without them, I don’t need them anymore). If I do happen to have something that needs to get done that very day, then I already have momentum on it, so it’s not stressful to get it finished. And usually, by that time I have most of it done already.

It took a little time for my brain to de-compress from its hyper-stressed, hyper-whip-cracking state. For a week and a half, I only worked for 90 minutes a day. When I was done for the day, I didn’t want to do anything else even remotely resembling work.

Then something magical happened. I got my mojo back. I started loving my job again. Since I don’t treat it like work, it doesn’t feel like work. Side bonus: I no longer waste time obsessively checking email or social media. Since I’m not resisting my work, there’s no reason to procrastinate. Hence, I’m more productive, and I feel like the luckiest person in the world, because I only work 90 minutes a day. (When all’s said and done, I’m usually working on projects for 6-9 hours a day, but that’s because I am so excited about what I’m doing.)

Other principles that I try to remember

First, I have to follow my own rules. When I’m done, I’m really done. I’m not just tricking myself into thinking I’m done. I get to truly do whatever I want. A lot of times, I will want to work on a project that I got juiced up about during my “work” time. Other times, I’ll just want to read or watch some interesting video or maybe even wash dishes or make cupcakes. Whatever it is, I do it. Glenda says it’s good for my future creative/productive self, and I believe her.

During my free time (which is most of the time now), sometimes I get so juiced up about a project that I’ll work too long on it. I’ll start to drift and not be as focused. I know this is happening when I start checking Facebook or Twitter or email while I’m working. At this point, it’s time to stop, even if I don’t want to stop. Otherwise, I’ll get burned out, which is possible even when you’re thrilled to be working on something.

At the end of each day, I try to update my project list and write down the very next step that needs to happen on each one. That way, it’s even easier for me to start my 15-minute sessions the next day. But if I don’t, it’s no big deal. My system’s easy enough that it doesn’t rely on me keeping my project list perfectly up-to-date.

I try to limit email checking to once or twice a day, but I’m not a Nazi about it. I find that when I’ve got the stuff I have to do out of the way, email checking (and everything else for that matter) comes naturally. I don’t have to schedule it in (or out). But if checking too often becomes a habit, then I just notice it and put limits on myself to twice a day at the most.

Social media is another thing that comes naturally when I’m “done” so quickly each day. I only do it when I really want to, and only after I’m done with the “work”. Which is surprisingly more frequent when I’m not trying to fit it into an already crammed schedule.

I have admittedly completely changed my business model in order to accommodate doing fewer projects more deeply; and that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I imagine that if you have more projects with tighter deadlines, then you may need to make room for more time every day for “work”. But if you’re interested in trying this out, don’t automatically assume that that’s the case. Just try it and adjust as necessary. (You may not even need that extra half hour to work on your personal, non-deadline-driven projects…it’s really only necessary if you’re avoiding the work).

All hail, the Type Z! (Z’s?)

Now, this may not work for anyone else in the world. Like I said, it is very possible that I am the only Type Z on the entire planet. I think the reason it works for me is that I really do love my work, and I have a lot of control over when and how it happens. But that control didn’t just happen. I created it. And it was hard. But I did it. So can anyone.

If you have any questions, I’d love to hear them in the comments. I’m also interested in hearing about your workflow…if you feel inspired to write or make something out of what works for you, please share or link to it in the comments. Maybe you’re a Type Q? Or Y?