The older I get the more I value slow, quiet, and focused intensity. It’s why my phone never rings. Not because people don’t try to call. I just don’t have it set to make a noise. The reason is simple and fair: no one gets to monopolize my time or attention over someone else. If I’m working on something for someone, they deserve my attention. They’re paying for that, and they deserve the best I can produce. But if I’m interrupted, that’s how things fall apart, typos get made, and technical debt builds. It’s also costly, since shifting back into a good flow takes the average developer about 20 minutes.
And because almost all of my clients pay roughly the same amount as everyone else — a lesson and benefit that’s taken me years to get to — no one higher-paying person gets to monopolize my time, either.
I spent some of the holiday break looking at time logs, lists, reports, and thinking about how I work, not just what I work on. Because for a brief period in December there was a time when I could sit down at my desk and really work. It was amazing, efficient, I felt good, and I want to replicate that more often.
With 2024 just days away, I’m challenging assumptions and using the tidy start of a new year to try some new routines.
Maintaining separate to do lists for each client
I have a separate to-do list for every client. I collect new ideas constantly. Sometimes I’ll see a webpage and think, “That’s a nice feature. So-and-so could use that.” Sometimes I’ll be mowing the lawn and think, “I should look into this more. It might be useful to people.” I probably raise my Watch and say, “Hey Siri, remind me…” a dozen times a day.
The problem is these lists have grown to include dozens of items. My average to-do list for any given client is about 45 items long. I’ve got about 500 items juggling around right now. And almost all of them require time to think through each.
And they keep growing without much time for me to slash through. This has a vicious impact. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote in Flow:
How we feel about ourselves, the joy we get from living, ultimately depend directly on how the mind filters and interprets everyday experiences. Whether we are happy depends on inner harmony, not on the controls we are able to exert over the great forces of the universe.
I may not be able to exert control over the great forces of the universe. But I ought to at least be able to exert control over what I do on a Monday afternoon.
The inbox as a first-place to-do list
Speaking of great forces of the universe. Email.
My email is probably under way more control than the average person’s. I’ve had the same email address since I was 15 years old. I don’t use any fancy spam prevention systems, but I am relentless about using filters or systems that separate out emails from humans from “everything else.” I don’t feel overwhelmed by email most of the time.
Still, emails from humans stack up. Quick questions here, a thread to read there, here’s this photo we’d like to do something with, and requests for upcoming projects or events are common. I know from other reports that my busiest email days are Tuesdays and Wednesdays, usually in the morning. My busiest times of the year are April and October, with early December a close third.
Thing is: I know that. I know what’s coming up in those months that drives demand. I know what people are going to want, more or less, and I know to prepare for it.
And I’ve learned that email is how a lot of people shunt things off their plate temporarily. “Hey, we need this thing” is a common refrain. And, “Thoughts?”. But, come on, we all know I’m going to need to know times, places, who is involved, etc. Sometimes I know that, but a lot of times people toss the email hot potato from their brain to my inbox just to push it away for a day. They might not know that, but I do, and I’ve learned to recognize it’s a stress response from a lot of people. I don’t like playing that game. It creates work for other people when this happens, and I try very hard to be the person that stops that hot potato and actually eats it.
Email also has a way of derailing much of the bigger ambitions I want to get to for people. These tasks, while sometimes necessary to keep wheels turning, don’t really move the cart in a way that gets people to say, “Wow, this really took off.”
Starting new 6-week cycles with 3-hour blocks.
I’ve done the math to come up with a plan based on my current client load that I want to try in 2024: 6-week cycles with 2-week buffers and twice-weekly 3-hour time blocks.
For the dozen clients I currently have, I can prioritize two, maybe three, at a time for a 6-week period. Across two days of the week (I’m thinking Monday and Wednesday) I’ll block off 3-4 hours to work exclusively on one client at a time. The remainder of the day and week is for “everything else” and the usual email detritus.
3-4 hours is not a made-up number. I’ve actually trained to get here.
I’ve done Cal Newport’s time-blocking method for a couple of years now, scheduling out when I’ll work on what through the week. The research on this is pretty clear and backs up what most of us instinctively know: An 8-hour workday really only has about an hour or two of actual work in it. The rest is just meetings and meta work. If I can hit 3 hours twice a week, that’s a huge win.
And like running a marathon, most people can’t just sit down on a whim and say, “I’m going to work on this for the next 3 hours” anymore than they could run 26 miles. Distraction, like muscle fatigue, is a lot to conquer. You have to train for that. It’s why my students, like a lot of adults, are so anxious and rattled.
I’ve done this long enough I can easily go 90 minutes like it’s 10 minutes. And I can go about 3 hours without getting fidgety or having to check my email (the average American checks their email every 5.5 minutes. That’s not working, even if it feels like it’s work).
We also know that most people, no matter how “fit”, can’t reasonably work their brain for more than about 4 hours a day on bigger problems. Anyone’s who waited until the last minute to work on a grant, a report, or some big body of work knows that.
But amid my “training” I’d also end up with a jumble of hour-long blocks across several projects. An hour for this person, then 90 minutes for this person, maybe 30-45 minutes for another. That felt pretty good, but by the end of the day I’ve spread my brain across 4 or 5 distinctly different projects, industries, or work types (e.g., design work vs. writing work). I’m not convinced that’s good enough. That’s a lot of “residue” to shift between and I only did that because I wanted to be able to say, “Everyone’s heard from me several times lately.” That’s silly.
In December, as my inbox quieted down in advance of the holiday, I was able to sit down and say, “I’m going to open up my to-do list for so-and-so and just start working.” The results were great:
- I stayed more organized since all my windows, apps, files, services, etc. were all up, running, logged in, and easily accessible.
- I was able to connect and remember more about what I was doing.
- I probably did more in a few hours for a project than I had in 2-3 months.
- The “residue” of task switching was way lower.
- I felt better.
“Everyone deserves this level of attention,” I thought. “And I like feeling this way. It’s just better.”
I was producing work with a higher level of detail, flourish, and nicer touches. All those, “I could do this, but I have to move on” things actually got done. This certainly feels more important as the web gets overrun with AI-generated drivel. That’s my other white whale recently: how to move past “generating content.” This feels like a step in the right direction.
It’s no big surprise, of course. Atul Gawande wrote in his excellent The Checklist Manifesto:
Faulty memory and distraction are a particular danger in what engineers call all-or-none processes: whether running to the store to buy ingredients for a cake, preparing an airplane for takeoff, or evaluating a sick person in the hospital, if you miss just one key thing, you might as well not have made the effort at all.
I’m not flying an airplane or operating on someone here, but it’s important to me nonetheless.
So how are you going to handle everyone’s Very Urgent and Very Important Requests?
I say none of this is a surprise, but it sure is to most people in most workplaces most of the time. I do not do “Let’s just ping pong a bunch of messages back and forth and hop in a Zoom call” well at all. It’s genuinely why I could never stand to work in an office anymore. The way people work isn’t working.
Sometimes, however, that mindset spills into my protected little bubble. Sometimes life just intervenes. Deaths, births, illness, and vacations happen and we have to work around it, fine. But the, “Hey I didn’t answer your email from three months ago and now this thing is due this afternoon,” or, “I sent you an email yesterday at 5:30pm and now it’s 8am and I haven’t heard back and this is really very important because someone on the board randomly texted me about it go go go go” is weak sauce. I don’t have a good way to “fix” that (yet?) but I can at least exert some control.
I think it’s fair to say I get to things pretty dang fast. I have a good sense on what’s genuinely important, too. “Someone’s trying to pay for this thing and their link doesn’t work” is more important than, “My boss found a typo on this three-year-old page that about 4 people visit a month.” Emotions run hot in either case, but the logician in us all can recognize, “Yeah, obviously one is not the other.”
All this to say: I’m shifting a lot of my email “meta work” to the afternoons. Historically I’ve done this kind of work in the morning, but I find it derails the whole morning. That typo can wait until after lunch. Starting with email is simply not the best way to start the day.
For much of 2023 I started the day at 6 and worked for 2 solid hours on my book, which is now at the publisher. That kind of work moved some needles. Yes, it’s nice for some people to have this or that done by the time they get to their desk, but, really, 95% of the time it wouldn’t matter if I got something done at 7am or 2pm.
I’m also reducing the number of time blocks I allocate to each client for longer ones. Historically I’ve shuffled people around in any given month so they’d feel like no more than a week or two would go by without hearing from me about something. But it’d usually be no more than, “Here’s this post we could try.” It’s rarely, “Hey, I had this idea for a new section to the site that could really take off. Here’s a plan and demo.” Because there wasn’t enough time.
This will result in people likely hearing from me less frequently, but when they do I should have more to say.
Task views are likely opening up again for clients. A long time ago I had all my tasks in the Basecamp project management software. It worked well when I had a bunch of moving parts and people involved. But after I pared down my client load the $99/mo. price just for me felt decadent. So, I nixed it.
But Basecamp 4 arrived sometime in the last few months and while I don’t love everything about Basecamp, I do like that it has an easy way for clients to get automatic summary digest emails and peek into their list of things I’m working on without me having to manually write something. And the pricing dropped to $15/month, which doesn’t feel as decadent. So I’m opening that option up again after a short trial run for people who would like to be added.
This also fixes a problem I sometimes ran into where I’d feel obligated to write an email to say, “Hey, working on this! Here’s what I’ve done and what’s waiting on you.” This has always been a “business need” just to explain movement even when something is maybe 30% or 80% of the way complete, but not worth showing yet.
Basecamp also fixes a problem I’ve increasingly run into of not having a “single source of truth.” I had been using the excellent Things app for to-dos, but I find myself stretching notes out over in Bear, documents in files, and Things stubbornly can’t include images which is a feature I desperately need. I’d try linking things together, but it was always clunky and URLs often break between devices.
2-3 people at a time will elevate into the 6-week project cycles. My hope is I can deliver more valuable work and give myself time to chew through tasks. Because everyone pays me a monthly retainer, it’ll work out in the wash if for a month or two one person gets a little more attention than another. Everyone’s time will come.
Judging from my time reports, however, I give people way more of my time already than I get paid for. But because I’m terrible at this part of the business and always have been, I’d rather people like the product (and me) than not. That’ll have to be a problem for 2025.