My Productivity Experiment That Resulted In Doing More In Less Time

October 1, 2019

Confession time: for much of this year I struggled with getting my work done during my typical work hours.

To be fair, a lot of it had to do with the sheer amount of client work, especially in June and July. But client work is just one part of the equation. I also:

  • write (for my newsletter and this blog);
  • am trying to get my YouTube channel going;
  • have various side projects from time to time, and other marketing-type tasks.
  • Oh, and I have to find time to learn stuff too – this industry moves fast!

The way I would schedule all of that other stuff was similar to how I’d schedule my client work. I’d put a project that would fall into one of those groups on my to-do list and – if I’m being honest with myself here – hope that I’d get to it before the end of my workday. If I didn’t, it’d get moved to the next day. Or I’d re-schedule it for the following week, timeline permitting.

My day was scheduled basically like this:

  • 7 am - 8 am or so: gym
  • 8:30ish - 5 or 6 pm (sometimes later): - work in blocks of 1.5 to 2 hours, with 10-15 minute breaks (longer for lunch)

Perhaps needless to say, it didn’t work. At least not on days where I was crazy busy. Or as my partner likes to call them, “no breathing days.”

As you can imagine, this meant longer workdays and working more weekends than I care to admit, which all meant my life outside of work suffered. And truth be told, sometimes the quality of my work suffered.

The experiment

As part of my larger, overall effort in getting better at organization and staying up to date on stuff, I started using Instapaper to save articles to read later. One of the articles I read early on in that process was this post by Zell Liew. I was immediately inspired by his schedule experiment, so I decided to do my own experiment based on his schedule to see if it could work for me.

This is how I set it up initially:

  • 7:00 am - 8:00 am: gym
  • 8:00 am - 8:45 am: breakfast
  • 9:00 am - 10:30 am internal project rotation (more on this later)
  • 10:30 am - 11:00 am: break
  • 11:00 am - 12:30 pm: work
  • 12:30 pm - 1:00 pm: break/lunch
  • 1:00 pm - 2:30 pm: work
  • 2:30 pm - 3:00 pm: break
  • 3:00 pm - 4:30 pm: work
  • 4:30 pm - 5:30 pm: wrap-up

I set this up in early August, which also happened to be during a time that my partner and I started working out together rather than separately. She’s more of a night owl so the early gym session doesn’t work for her. So I switched up my schedule like so:

  • 7:00 am - 8:30 am: internal project rotation
  • 8:30 am - 9:00 am: break
  • 9:00 am - 10:30 am: work
  • 10:30 am - 11:00 am: break
  • 11:00 am - 12:30 pm: work
  • 1:00 pm - 2:30 pm: gym, lunch
  • 3:00 pm - 4:30 pm: work
  • 4:30 pm - 5:00 pm or so: wrap-up

That worked great for a couple of weeks until I started noticing that my afternoons weren’t quite lining up right. Sometimes a gym session would run longer than anticipated or lunch would. So I had to modify it ever so slightly. It now looks like this:

  • 7:00 am - 8:30 am: internal project rotation
  • 8:30 am - 9:00 am: break
  • 9:00 am - 10:30 am: work
  • 10:30 am - 11:00 am: break
  • 11:00 am - 12:30 pm: work
  • 1:00 pm - 2:45 pm: gym, lunch
  • 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm: work
  • 5:00 pm - 5:30 pm: wrap-up

Not a huge difference – on the surface.

The breakdown

So just what does each time block entail?

The breaks are pretty obvious, I think. I cover them a bit more later on.

With the work blocks I simply refer to my Bullet Journal for what I need to get done. I decide what I'm going to work on for that ninety minute block, set a timer, and get to it. Pretty simple. I'll cover my Bullet Journal method in a post sometime in the future.

As for that internal project rotation block, it's the key to allowing me to have time for side projects and marketing endeavors. Basically each week I rotate among the following:

  • portfolio and marketing
  • writing
  • side project
  • video

Each one of those is done four days per week. For example, in September my weeks looked like this:

  • W1: portfolio and marketing prep
  • W2: writing
  • W3: side project
  • W4: video

On Monday through Thursday I work on tasks that cover one of those four categories. Fridays, however, I use that ninety minute block to either schedule social media posts or do a quick learning session, be it on design, development, or some other non-work area of my life.

Now the question is, do I follow this schedule down to the letter (or second as the case may be)? Keep reading.

The results

Changing up and solidifying my work schedule was something I looked forward to. But honestly, the time blocking aspect made me feel a bit apprehensive. I've never liked scheduling my work in blocks. It just always seemed so contrived. But I embrace and welcome change, so I had that going for me.

There were three important mindset and behavioral changes to this though that have made me feel a lot more comfortable with time blocking.

Flexibility

Hello! I work from home and can work pretty much whenever I damn well please. I choose to have set work hours because I like structure and discipline. Plus, it just makes it easier for client communication and expectations, not to mention it benefits my life outside of work. And let's not forget scheduling calls and meetings. This system allows plenty of room for that (see my post on how I schedule meetings) while not entirely hijacking my day.

The mindset change here is that the world will not suddenly blow up because I worked later or skipped a working block. In fact, reorganizing my schedule has made me more productive so there’s not a “hangover” the next day if I didn’t get task X done. Sounds counterintuitive, I know, but trust me - that’s exactly what this has done.

Generic work blocks

Somehow, somewhere, my brain decided that time blocking meant you set a certain task to a certain time block. 🤦‍♀️ Yeah, that was daft. When I forced myself to stop and think for more than a second I realized that that didn’t have to be the case. Duh. I could do any kind of work in those time blocks. Don’t feel like working on code at 9:00 am? Fine, do it later and instead work on some UI design. The important part was simply giving myself specific, focused time blocks to just work while also having ample breaks. Speaking of which…

Breaks!

Read just about anything on productivity or time management and you’ll no doubt learn that breaks are important. Really important. Working hours and hours at a time can have the opposite effect of productivity.

What I’ve known about myself for several years now is that working in 90 minute blocks allows me to get into the zone - that place where you’re super focused and super productive. That said, if I don’t take breaks, it’s like I deplete the battery that allows me to get into that zone. And I used to be terrible at taking breaks. I’d force myself to take them, but they’d last a few minutes. Not good enough! Now I make sure to take fifteen minutes at a minimum, but usually my breaks end up lasting the full half hour. During my breaks I’ll do little things to get my mind off work, such as: fill up my water bottle, have a snack, review the physical mail I’ve received, chat with my partner, wash the dishes from lunch, listen to part of a podcast, or whatever. As long as it’s not work.

What next?

After having had this in motion for roughly two months, I can say it's working really well. It gives me a solid structure to start from that I can then bend and rearrange based on how my week might look. (That's where daily and weekly reviews come in handy.) It has helped my focus and productivity. More importantly, I’m definitely a lot less stressed out about getting stuff done and no longer feeling like I don’t have time for side projects or learning. This sort of thing may or may not work for you, but hopefully you can get something out of it to help you get a bit more productive and a little less stressed.