Sam Radford

April 27, 2021

Taking control of (some) of your working day

I enjoyed Oliver Burkeman’s recent article in The Imperfectionist, his newsletter. 

He reflects on the one seemingly universal truth of productivity: That, no matter who we are, three to four hours is our limit when it comes to work that requires intense mental focus. 

But what are we to do with that information? Most of us – sadly – aren’t in a position to do three or four hours work and then call it a day. Nor do we have the option to just take three to four hours of uninterrupted time for ourselves. So here’s what Burkeman suggests:

The real lesson – or one of them – is that it pays to use whatever freedom you do have over your schedule not to “maximise your time" or “optimise your day”, in some vague way, but specifically to ringfence three or four hours of undisturbed focus (ideally when your energy levels are highest). Stop assuming that the way to make progress on your most important projects is to work for longer. And drop the perfectionistic notion that emails, meetings, digital distractions and other interruptions ought ideally to be whittled away to practically nothing. Just focus on protecting four hours – and don't worry if the rest of the day is characterised by the usual scattered chaos.

That last sentence for me is key: Just focus on protecting four hours – and don't worry if the rest of the day is characterised by the usual scattered chaos.

We don’t all have control over our own day though. And ring-fencing three to four hours is unrealistic for many – probably most – of us.

But we can all take small steps. What if we blocked out an hour in our calendar each day? No email, Slack, Teams, calls, meetings. Nothing. Just time to focus intently on a piece of work we need to do.

We can let colleagues know we’re doing this. (Or not. Will things actually fall apart if we’re off the grid for an hour?)

Maybe in time, we can make it a longer block of time. Perhaps we can discuss with our colleagues ways to support each other in getting this uninterrupted focussed work in our days.

We may not ever reach three to four hours of uninterrupted work each day, but most of us would be glad of an hour or two. Spending entire days responding to others is not the way to either enjoy work or be productive. We need to make time where, to the extent our work context allows, we are taking the initiative; we are being proactive about what we’re going to do with a portion of our time. 

It can feel strange at first. Irresponsible even. But we’ll all start producing higher quality work. And that’s a win-win scenario.

Having control of our whole working day is unlikely to ever happen. But maybe we can seize control of some of it. It’s worth a try isn’t it? 

–Sam

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@samradford | samradford.com