The writer Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
Yet, we let our weeks happen to us instead of proactively designing our time. We don’t block off our calendars to do heads-down, focused work. We participate in meetings without clear agendas or purposes. We work without a plan. We let the constant barrage of notifications distract us. We convince ourselves that our busy work is our most important work, even when we know better.
The fundamental building block of a workweek is how each individual spends their time. But surprisingly, little attention is dedicated to how we design our hours and workweeks. For example, when do you do your best work? How many meetings should you schedule on your calendar? Do you allow notifications and respond immediately, or do you turn notifications off to work uninterrupted?
Here are four steps to design your week
Put everything you do on your calendar for two weeks, from meetings and time blocks for emails to special projects and preparing for upcoming meetings; then conduct a time audit by reflecting on the data.
- What do you notice about how you spent your time?
- What percentage of your time is dedicated to each project? To meetings?
- What days of the week are you most focused?
- What time of day are you most energized?
Use the insights from your audit to take the following steps:
- Identify small changes: Making small improvements can add up to big differences. What are the simplest, easiest steps you can take to proactively design your workweek? For me, it was blocking off my calendar to do heads-down deep work time 3-4 times per week and turning off notifications.
- Identify significant changes: Making big structural changes to your week can also lead to more time for the most important work. When I completed my self-audit, I realized that there were weekly standing meetings that could either get canceled or that I didn’t need to attend.
The Australian software company Atlassian conducted research into distractions, and the results are staggering:
- 36: The number of times we check email per hour
- 16 minutes: Time it takes to refocus after an incoming email
- 10: How many IQ points you lose when fielding constant emails (the same as losing an entire night’s sleep)
- 56: The number of times we’re interrupted per day
- 3 minutes: Spent working before switching between tasks
- 2 hours: Spent recovering from distractions every day
Here are a few steps to reduce the time lost to distractions:
- Email: Turn off email notifications and set aside 2-3 blocks of time to check and respond to emails throughout the day. Then, ignore email for the rest of the day, knowing that you have time allocated to get to it.
- Notifications: Turn off all notifications (email, internal team notifications) for certain “deep work zones” scheduled throughout the week. I blocked off two deep work zones each week where I could work uninterrupted.
- Create goal-based calendar blocks: I often create 30 or 60-minute calendar blocks where I challenge myself to complete a specific task or reach a particular goal. Like the pomodoro technique, using time constraints to reach a predetermined goal can increase your focus and empower you to tune out distractions.
Finally, consider what you gain when you reduce distractions (time with your children, ability to go to the gym after work, work-free weekends, etc.).
Boundaries are a crucial step in reducing distractions, burnout, and work stress. With 79% of employees reporting work-related stress in 2021, we need to take personal ownership and reclaim our time.
Boundaries can be hard to create, but consider using the results from your self-audit to help you determine what boundaries will be most valuable. For example, is it protecting your time? Limiting new, additional tasks? Blocking certain times of day for important work while you’re at your best? Avoiding company events that aren’t required?
When communicating your boundaries with others, focus on the benefit they create for the task at hand.
When your availability is limited:
“I prioritize time with my family on X day or after Y time, but I’m fully available [list commonly available times]. How can we leverage that availability to reach our deadline?”
When the project isn’t in line with your priorities:
“I am working on several projects right now and want to ensure I’m effective. Given that our quarterly goals are [insert goals/metrics/objectives], it seems like Y project and Z project are less essential and timely than x project. Is this right? How do you propose I best prioritize?
Start with designing just one workday. How might you proactively structure a workday that has a high chance of being focused, productive, and healthy? Make 2-3 small changes across notifications, deep-work time, emails, and boundary-setting. Then at the end of the day, review what you learned. What worked? What didn’t? Then try again for another day. Double down on 1-2 practices you already implemented and select 1-2 more to test.
If you find it harder to make changes daily, consider looking at a whole week and focusing on identifying 2-3 small changes you can make weekly. Then at the end of the week, reflect on what worked and what didn’t, and try again for the following week.
It can often feel like our calendar is predetermined for us; we just need to respond and make the best of it, striving to fit everything in. But we have more power than we sometimes give ourselves credit for. One of the best ways to find more time in our schedule is to recognize the agency within us and begin by taking a few small steps.