I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to get more out of my days. My work involves a spectrum of projects, some of which are very task-oriented, check-the-box type things and others of which require deep concentration and focus. It’s difficult for me to switch back and forth between deep and shallow work. When I do, I find myself trying to apply a task orientation to projects that require higher-level thinking, or overthinking the simpler items on my to-do list.
I recently read the book Deep Work by Cal Newport, which helped me realize that many of what I think of as my own idiosyncracies are actually just facts about how the human brain works in general. While reading, I started thinking about how to adapt Newport’s insights and suggestions to my own work.
I’ve spent the past year or so running a series of low-key cognitive experiments on myself to better understand how to optimize my productivity while maintaining some sense of ease. What I’ve found (shockingly) is that my life works best when I’m getting shit done without bankrupting myself energetically. This is an easy enough balance to maintain when my workload is manageable and/or uniform, but things seem to go off the rails when I have many disparate and diffuse projects on my plate, so I sought a means of thriving under all external circumstances. Here’s where I landed.
- make better use of my time/get more done
- align my hardest, most strategic work with the time of day I’m most alert and firing on all cylinders (for me, this is the morning; YMMV)
- ease the transition from deep to shallow work, and vice versa
- prevent other people’s needs/priorities from interfering with important work — especially the important but not urgent work that often gets pushed aside in favor of what someone else deems a fire
What I came up with: the ombré workday
It occurred to me that one way to deal with the third bullet in the section above would be to arrange my work so that from one task to the next, I’m taking on incrementally more or less strategic projects.
I decided to start each day with the hardest/most strategic task on my plate, then gradually shift toward easier/more operational tasks as the day goes on (and I burn down my energy). Similar to how, in 2014, my hair was dark at the roots, then gradually got blonder toward the ends. Hence, the ombré workday.
Here’s how it works:
- I plan my day the night before, writing a to-do list and coding everything on it as a shape or color based on relative difficulty.
- I arrange them in order of most to least difficult, creating a clear roadmap for the following day.
- At night, I also automate things that are time-sensitive from my easy list. This way I’m not taking a break from, say, writing a blog post (on an advanced analytics solution of which I have only cursory knowledge) to schedule pre-approved social media posts.
- In the morning, I start with the hardest (and usually most important) thing on my plate. Because I know what this is the night before, I can manage other people’s expectations around my availability. If possible, I keep email closed for the duration of the hardest task, and I put my phone on airplane mode to prevent interruptions in the form of text messages and other notifications (my belief in using airplane mode to get things done borders on evangelical).
- I work on a task until either a) it’s complete or b) there’s an unavoidable external circumstance pulling me away from it, like a meeting I can’t reschedule.
- Once that task is complete, I move on to the next one, gradually working from hardest/most important/most strategic to easiest/least important/least strategic.
Challenges — and how to overcome them
FOME (Fear of Missing Email). I have three email inboxes — work, volunteer, and personal — and I regularly hear from people through all of them.
Solution: I put up an out of office memo if needed, sign out of my volunteer and personal inboxes, and switch my phone to airplane mode so I don’t see email notifications.
Lack of complete control over your time. Other people might actually need you, or at least have expectations of you that conflict with what you know to be the best use of your time. Sometimes (especially if you work for someone else), you might have to take their point of view under consideration.
Solution: The key is to set expectations with the necessary parties. I say I’ll be less available (or unavailable) during X block of time, explain why, and provide the time I’ll be reachable again. Even if you have less flexibility than I do, you probably have more than you think. And if the end result is success on an important project, your boss is more likely to allow you to hide out and GSD in the future.
Shiny objects. That white blazer I want might finally be restocked at Nordstrom.com. That bracelet I ordered two weeks ago hasn’t arrived yet; let me track it again. When is alt-J coming to New York, and are tickets still available? Oh shit, I booked flights to Ireland but not an Airbnb, or, like, plans — I should crowdsource on Twitter.
Solution: If you need to have a web browser open, close all tabs except the one you’re using for your current task. OneTab is a fantastic Chrome extension you can use to save other tabs for later. I also like to “go internal” by putting on my noise-cancelling headphones and a white noise app. This reminds me that my focus is supposed to be on making important work happen in my brain, not on whatever’s happening out in the world.
So, what problems has shifting to an ombré workday actually solved for me?
- This process removes my tendency to put off working on a particular task or project, because I understand the implications of breaking the chain
- Which also means there’s less noise in my head/internal drama about whether I “want” to do something
- I experience less decision fatigue because I always know what to do next
- Moving gradually from big-deal, strategic work to simple but necessary tasks eliminates the mental exhaustion that comes from repeatedly shifting between deep and shallow work
- I experience a natural transition from Work Pig to Unwindulax throughout the day, making an easy afternoon feel like a reward for my hard work in the morning
- Compiling and coding the next day’s to-do list is a ritual that signals to my brain that the workday is over, making it easier to shift my mental energy to whatever I’m doing that night
- Starting with the most important task ensures that it always gets done
So far, I’ve used this approach to finally wrap up a blog post draft I’d been stalling on for a month, kill the drama in my head re: “I have so much to do” that was preventing me from actually doing things, and reprioritize my personal life to support my creative work. If you try it out, let me know if it works for you.