"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Productivity
March 24, 2014

Work Blocks – How To Organise Your Working Day

Inspired by some articles on creative process and productivity I’ve decided to fine tune the way I organise my working day. These are the work blocks that are helping me be more focussed and productive.

How do you organise your working day? For a lot of smart, creative people, organising their working day can be a struggle. Musicians, designers, entrepreneurs, writers, stay at home moms running small businesses, work from home “telecommuters,” photographers and so on all face challenges to organise their working days in a productive way. I know for myself, I’ve tried many approaches and most haven’t been successful.

It’s tempting just to mimic the 9-5 ideal, to block out whole days (or nights) in big chunks. But, 9-5, Monday to Friday emerged as a way to (fairly) organise workers in large organisations in the industrial age. And, while it’s tempting to pick a number of working hours out of the air, 40, 50, 60 or whatever, the reasons why these numbers work and what the week they represent means might not apply to those someone who works alone, from home, running a creative business.

If you work alone, then your day is unlikely to have as many meetings, or moments around the “water cooler,” as a typical office worker might experience. And, while working from home saves you time on commuting, you will face the challenge of having your work literally on you doorstep, 24/7. The lack of stimulus from others and potential burnout from never being able to walk away from the work are a real challenge for many of us.

One Possible Solution

A year ago Chase Jarvis posted Do Less = Do More. The Art of Being Creative + Productive, which outlined some thoughts on these issues. The idea of “work blocks” immediately jumped out at me as something I could implement. As Chase’s writer friend Ben Schwarz put it,

“The coolest take away from the article concerns what I now call “work blocks.” In short, after that 90 minutes of work, our bodies and minds need a break. But our 9-5 (or 7-7) work culture demands focus for much, much longer blocks of time, so many of us fight that urge to break by filling up the mug with more coffee, rubbing our eyes and refocusing on the screen.

No more.

Inspired by Schwarz and the studies he cited, I created a Daily Schedule that broke up my day into 90-minute Work Blocks, separated by 30 minute Breaks and, in the middle of my day, a 2-hour lunch. I know some of you just spit your coffee out. But you read that right. I take a 2 hour lunch to get a long run or workout in, eat and read from a book or write a few lines in my journal.

During the 30 minute breaks I read, clean, walk to the post office and complete those little, once distracting tasks that now actually kill two birds with one stone. Sometimes, if I didn’t get enough sleep the night before, I’ll even knock off for a cat nap.”

I read the article a few times, made some notes, talked it through with a few friends and put it into practice myself. After some tweaking, I came up with a plan that suited my work, personal and family commitments, with the same principles of four work blocks a day, two hours for lunch and half hour breaks all in place. It worked for me and looks like this,

07.00am to 08.00am – Wake, breakfast, get dressed
08.00am to 08.30am – Coffee, plan day, get set up
08.30am to 10.00am – WORK BLOCK ONE
10.00am to 10.30am – Break, coffee, email, reading
10.30am to 12.00am – WORK BLOCK TWO
12.00am to 14.00pm – Lunch, exercise, exploring, reading, watching
14.00pm to 15.30pm – WORK BLOCK THREE
15.30pm to 16.00pm – Break, afternoon tea, email, reading
16.00pm to 17.30pm – WORK BLOCK FOUR
17.30pm to 18.00pm – Break, relax, prepare for dinner
18.00pm to 21.00pm – Dinner and family time
21.00pm to 21.30pm – Relax, assess day, prepare for tomorrow
21.30pm till late – Chill out, sleep

Being Realistic

The younger version of me used to find working crazy long hours and late into the night kind of attractive. It spoke to some misplaced bohemian ideal of what it meant to be an “artist.” But, it’s not sustainable. Partly because, if you have family and relationship commitments, you need to carve out time to be there for other people. But also, you won’t always have the energy to put in those long hours and if you are not careful, after a while you’ll only work when you feel “inspired.”

The work block approach is realistic and sustainable and I think that’s why it’s worked for me. If my day gets interrupted I can manage my time in a clear way. Say a block working on photos becomes a wresting match with a printer. Rather than feeling I’ve lost my day I can contain the damage to my schedule and just pick up at the next work block.

Or, if I need to dedicate an afternoon to helping my kid with their homework, I can reschedule that work block to later in the evening or on the weekend, and know I’m committing to just a focussed 1.5 hours of work in my off time, rather than committing to open ended amounts of work at night or on the weekend.

Two Hours For Lunch – Really?

One thing I refuse to be apologetic about in this programme is the two hour lunch break. I know it probably sounds like a total indulgence. But, this has given me a routine where I can regularly exercise or do Pilates two to three times a week. And, exercising in the day gives me a huge mental and creative boost – it makes me more productive.

The long lunch break gives me time to shop to for fresh food, which means I eat healthier and gives me time once a week, to lunch in a new and different part of Tokyo, helping me feel more connected to my new home town.

Also, depending on my schedule, two hours is enough to watch a (shorter) film, visit a gallery or do a big chunk of reading – all of which fuel my creative engine and help me feel less confined while working from home.

And, the planned half hour breaks in the day, which for me happen at 8am, 10am, 3.30pm and 5.30pm not only give me a nice buffer between each block (and family time), they allow me to catch up with email and social media, check my calendar, change guitar strings, buy bread and milk, tidy up, sharpen pencils, have coffee and get ready for the next task without eating into my actual working time.

How Much Is Enough

Four work blocks of one and a half hours yields thirty hours a week. Is that enough? Well, remember this is really focussed work. And, for me, having the defined blocks of time gives my work a sense of urgency and focus. Plus, 30 hours on your own, uninterrupted can’t even bee compared to 40 or more hours in a noisy office, with meetings, calls and other distractions.

Being able to get through the tasks you need to complete in a sustainable and healthy way is what matters; not the hours you spend doing them.

If you liked this you might also enjoy my recent piece on Working From Home.

Toni 10 years ago

I shall attempt to re-read this again soon.

It’s an interesting approach, and one that seems to have developed more naturally for me over the last few years. Sometimes with the kind of work I do this isn’t practical, and it may be necessary to simply get my head down & run until the task is finished, snatching a quick lunch on the way. However there have been occasions when I’ve had major jobs that have stretched WAY outside the working day, and using a modified version of this has allowed me to work effectively 24 hours while still being effective at the end.

A rule I learned as a teenager working in a production lab was that you always made sure you got your breaks: as well as relieving tedium, it allows one to bring the concentration required to perform a dull but demanding task well.

Fernando Gros 10 years ago

Toni – thanks. I certainly wasn’t trying to say “lead with your marketing plan.” My point is more if it feels like the right thing to do – do it. If not, or you are unsure, don’t fleece, examine yourself more deeply & keep working. 🙂

Toni 10 years ago

Hi Fern, thanks for replying, but I think you meant this for my comment on ‘Fleeced’. 😉

I would generally agree with you.

Toni 10 years ago

BTW love the shot of the (dancing?) woman – the combination of blur and sharp, the haze of yellow against the dull background.

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