How I started from scratch to create the perfect workday
In 2015, while we were writing Sprint, for the first time in my professional life, I had days without meetings. We knew it would require intense focus and a lot of time to write the book, so each of us dedicated our days to writing. Not every day or even every week. But for two or three or four days at a time, two or three weeks out of every month, for about four months, we wrote Sprint.
I spent most of those writing days at home, which meant no commuting and no meetings. I had complete control over my schedule. From the moment I woke up, until bedtime, I decided how to spend my time.
So what did I do?
At first, nothing special. I would get up, make coffee, start writing, realize I was hungry, find breakfast, write more, get distracted, and so on. I had plenty of “crap it’s lunch already” days. They weren’t planned and they weren’t intentional.
But I recognized the opportunity: to start with an empty calendar and build up, hour by hour, my perfect schedule for deep work.
I thought about the elements of my perfect workday. I’d start early to take advantage of those “free” morning hours. I’d plan my meals better. I’d set up not-too-long working blocks with scheduled breaks — these would be my “pressure-release valves” for checking email and Twitter. I wanted to be productive, but I also wanted my new schedule to be sustainable. After all, it takes a long time to write a book, and I didn’t want to burn out.
Here’s what I came up with:
5:45am—Wake up and make coffee
7:00am—Feed the cats; shower and get dressed
7:30am—Prepare and eat breakfast
8:30am—Work block and 15-minute break
9:30am—Work block and 15-minute break
10:30am—Work block and 15-minute break
11:30am—Go out for lunch and coffee
1:00pm—Work block and 15-minute break
2:00pm—Work block and 15-minute break
3:00pm—Work block and 15-minute break
4:00pm—Done for the day
After 4pm I turned my attention to chores and housework, inspired by Mr Money Mustache’s idea of “domestic insourcing.” His argument is that, since our daily capacity for deep work is capped, we ought to finish that work efficiently, then handle most of our own domestic chores in the remaining time. This was (and still is) a great way to finish my day, when my mental energy is low and my body’s ready to move after sitting at a desk.
But the big question is: did it work? Absolutely. We finished the Sprint manuscript in about four months. There was plenty more work to do — editing, production, marketing, etc — but the writing itself was fast, efficient, and fun.
Now my experiment is over and I’m back in the office. But I’m still using my new schedule. I moved all my meetings to Thursdays and Fridays, so each week begins with three days of work. It’s a little weird, but this schedule helps me make good use of my time at the office.
I learned some important lessons in my quest for the perfect workday.
The first is that I can only really do about five and a half hours of work per day. When I realized this, I was alarmed: Only five and a half hours?! What’s wrong with me? Am I lazy? Unproductive?
The thing was, I didn’t feel unproductive. On the contrary, I ended each day feeling accomplished and gratified. I started thinking about the typical day in the office, where commuting, meetings, and distractions eat into time available for work. We all know the feeling: “Whew, now that I’m done with my meetings, I can finally get some work done!”.
And then I learned about Anders Ericsson and his research. He found (among other things) that the average person can only do one to four hours of focused work per day. Suddenly I didn’t feel so bad. By minimizing meetings and distractions, I had super-charged my ability to do truly important work.
I also learned a lesson about work itself. This kind of work — real, valuable, deep work — should be embraced. It shouldn’t be marginalized, optimized, or squeezed between calendar obligations. Work should be honored. Whether it’s writing, design, analysis, reporting, or anything else, this work creates real value and makes the world better.
I was fortunate to be able to experiment with my schedule. I know not everyone has that kind of flexibility. But even if you only have one day for deep work, give it a shot. Try putting work first. And if you run your own experiment, please be in touch — I’d love to hear how it goes.