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Welcome to the next profile in our Work Styles series! In each profile, we highlight one person's untraditional workday. You'll get an inside look at alternatives to the traditional 9-5, Monday-Friday schedule (and maybe pick up something new to try).
Today, we're featuring my workday! This has been much requested since I first started the Work Styles series. Beyond this newsletter, I run a company called Remote Work Prep that offers fractional Head of Remote services and educational resources to provide a healthy, positive, and effective remote work experience. I also work as a creator and locally elected district official.
In this profile, I share an inside look at what a workday in my life looks like, how I've used experimentation to optimize it over the last 7 years working remotely, and my recommendations to you. Let's dive in!
What does a day in your work life look like?
Each day is different, but I have a high-level structure in place that remains consistent.
The structure looks like this:
- Morning ritual
- Quick wins
- Deep work
- Loose ends
(One thing to keep in mind, even though I've included times below, this is just for example purposes. I take a hybrid task + time-based approach to my end of workday. So it's either when I've completed my planned tasks OR by 4 pm. I don't like solely tying my workday to time because I've found it encourages fluff work.)
I wake up every day without an alarm clock. We've installed automated shutters in the bedroom that close at sunset and open at sunrise. I typically wake up between 6:30-7 am (even on weekends).
I'm religious about my morning ritual. I shared a brief overview of it here and plan on sharing a longer version soon if you're interested (let me know). Without this intentional transition from sleepy mode to ready work mode, I cannot start a workday.
Next, I have my first scheduled block of the day - the research block. I read saved articles in Pocket for 30 minutes to help me stay up to date about news in my industry and spark new ideas. I then spend 30 minutes jotting down thoughts and notes. This gives me consistent content to pull from, so later, I don't have to start from a blank page when I'm writing an article.
My second block is reserved for quick wins. I split my work into five types: Service, Product, Audience, Network, and Growth. I then use these types to theme my Quick Wins and Deep Work blocks.
I do this because, as a solopreneur creator, it's easy to get overwhelmed by everything on my plate. When I get overwhelmed, I tend to shut down and only do things absolutely required (typically asks from other people in the Services and Audiences categories). This makes my progress stagnate and leaves me unhappy. I combat this by implementing individualized structure and constraints.
However, when I go too far with this, I become too rigid, can't adapt as needed, and struggle with boredom. The trick is to find a balance between structure and freedom. For me, that perfect balance is theming work blocks. I know what type of work I need to do, but I have the freedom to choose my specific tasks.
The Quick Wins block is where the goal is to build momentum. It's a shorter sprint split up with one break. I have defined tasks listed in Todoist for each theme, and I pull what feels right from there.
This is where I start my lunch routine, but I don't immediately jump into lunch. Instead, I begin with 15-minutes of chores to break my mind from work. On Monday/Wednesday/Friday, that means a cleaning cycle - doing laundry and tidying the house. On Tuesday/Thursday, that means a to-do cycle - handling those small tasks that start adding up (ex. scheduling a doctor appointment).
I enjoy this part of the day because 15-minutes doesn't feel like a lot of time, but compounded over the weeks, it makes a big difference. It also helps me disconnect from work to properly enjoy my lunch break. I always appreciate it when I come back later since I start my deep work cycle with a tidy workspace and cleared to-dos.
I always eat lunch at 11 am. I don't enjoy cooking, so it's typically a quick plant-based meal I can put together, like veggies with rice. I eat it while watching Instagram stories and checking socials. Then, I like to take an extended break to chill. I play games on my phone (like Diner Dash or Soduku), chat with my husband, or play fetch with my dog. I don't timetable my lunch block, but it tends to last around 90 minutes.
It's time for deep work mode. This block is typically filled with Product or Audience work which means I'm usually creating. It might be content for my newsletter, resources for a client, or building a product to help people avoid burnout. This is my longest block, and I typically take a minimum of 2 breaks during this time. If it's nice out (and my foot is feeling up for it), I'll take a walk with my dog. Or, I might take a shower. These breaks are a critical part of my creative process.
It's now time to wrap up my day with a tidy bow. First, I have a scheduled synchronous block to check email, Slack, Discord, etc. I reply to anything that takes less than 5 minutes and save action items for anything that will take over 5 minutes. This is also the time when I finish items leftover from earlier blocks. At the very end, I spend time planning tomorrow, so everything is set up for me already as soon as I wake up.
The next part of my day is split between dinner, a learning cycle, a wide-open space for randomness, and my night routine. I transition out of work mode by eating dinner at 4 pm (I do daily 16-hour intermittent fasting) and immediately follow with a learning cycle.
Learning is one of my favorite things to do, and I'm constantly taking various courses. Currently, I'm using this time to be a peer mentor for Sahil Lavingia's Minimalist Entrepreneur course. Keeping up with new discoveries and industry trends is undervalued. When you don't make time for this, you slow down your work and limit yourself. Even though I see this cycle as hobby hours rather than work hours, I think it significantly impacts my work success.
Other than my night routine and date nights with my husband on Wed/Fri/Sun, I leave the rest of my day wide open to whatever I feel like doing. After seven years of tinkering with my routine, this is the closest I've been to my perfect workday schedule.
What approach did you take to optimize your work schedule for you?
When you start your workday optimization journey, you start with a limited mindset. Most people have only been exposed to the traditional 9-5, 40+ hour, Mon-Fri workweek. I'm a firm believer that when you're in the "I don't know what I don't know" phase, experimentation is the way to go. Through experimenting, you gradually accrue important knowledge that helps you learn more about yourself.
Success isn't the experiment working as expected. Instead, success is building on your knowledge of what works and what doesn't, so your next experiment can be even more targeted.
My primary goal is to make work as effortless as possible by reducing friction and increasing intentionality. Taking the experimental approach has led to me discovering how effective the following principles are to achieving this goal:
1. Intentional transitions
Abrupt context switching leaves me disoriented and hinders me from being in a good place to do the work. I like to apply intentional transitions to avoid this altogether. This involves identifying the starting state, defining the optimal ending state, and building a bridge between the two.
An example of this is my morning routine - Taking me from tired, cranky mode to energetic, ready mode. Another example is the transition to lunchtime as described above.
Many productivity gurus recommend the "eat the frog" approach, which involves getting the hardest thing done first. However, I found it led to procrastination and burnout when I attempted this. Instead, if I gradually lean in by starting with a quick wins block, I can ramp myself up to knock the deep work block out of the park. This calm approach allows me not to waste any time forcing myself to work, so I get more done with less effort.
2. Energy management
I find energy management to be way more effective than time management for knowledge work. An hour spent working when you are alert and focused is very different from an hour of work when you feel exhausted and distracted.
Figuring this out feels like a superpower. By optimizing for this, I spend fewer hours working while getting more quality work done without the burnout.
If you want to switch to energy management, I recommend starting by labeling your work as high/low energy and then mapping those tasks to the high/low energy points of your day. Highly recommend reading 'When' by Daniel Pink to figure out when those times are.
A common mistake I see people falling into is scheduling their meetings during their high energy times of day and then forcing deep work into their low energy points of the day. This leads to burnout. Learning how to apply energy management will put you ahead of 95% of everyone else.
3. Leveling (mood management)
In a similar vein, expecting the same output level no matter how you're feeling doesn't make any sense.
While the routine I detailed above works on a typical day, it isn't practical on days I'm feeling low. I use the leveling approach to adjust my routine based on what I'm working with internally. That way, I can get what I can out of the day without setting unrealistic expectations that put me in a worse place.
I have three levels defined for my workday routine: 'ugh', 'meh', and 'let's go!'. The levels adjust work hours, breaks, and task loads to what's appropriate. Instead of overworking myself on a bad day and turning it into a bad week, I'm riding the wave and setting tomorrow up for success.
Integrating rest into work, working in sprints instead of a marathon, using a hybrid end of work definition, having multiple work zones, limiting meetings using meeting frameworks... all these principles (and more) came out of experimentation. My workday is the result of running regular experiments since I started working remotely in 2015.
Why did you choose to go against the standard 9-5 schedule?
The 9-5 marathon schedule is such an arbitrary way to approach knowledge work. It never made any sense to me why everyone followed it by default. I also always hated how it forces you to center your whole life around work.
Also, I put my all into everything I do. When I worked in person, I would often zoom through my entire workload in the first couple of hours and then be impatient and bored for the rest of the day. Bosses often didn't know what to do with me. Working remotely only magnified this issue.
All of this led me to start asking questions:
- Is there a better way to work?
- Can work revolve around life?
- What can I do differently?
Asking questions is an easy way to nudge open the door to new possibilities.
What's one area you're still looking to improve?
I kept pushing off sharing my workday because I'm constantly experimenting and looking for new improvements. So what I publish today will be slightly out-of-date by the end of the week.
Currently, I'm revamping how I do a 4-day workweek. Previously, while I was juggling a day job with my company on the side, I would do a half-day on Wednesday and Friday. That worked amazingly then but hasn't worked well since I started working full-time for myself. I have found that taking off Monday mornings has been great, but still working on figuring out the second half-day.
Another area that I screwed up on when I started working for myself full-time is taking days off. Without a scheduled holiday and time off schedule, I just never took off. This put me in a burned-out, uncreative state. This year, I've designated my time off for the entire year, including holidays and one week off per quarter. It's still in trial mode, but so far, I've taken off more days this year than I did the entire second half of last year.
The last area I'm currently working on is fitting in filming time. This is a new medium for me. Writing is a lot more flexible on where and when I can do it. I managed to get through filming the Avoiding Burnout mini-course, but it took a lot longer than I wanted it to, and I didn't feel like I had the right mindset transitions in place. I have goals of launching a YouTube channel and building more courses, so I definitely need to work on consistently fitting filming into my schedule.
What is your top tip for someone wanting to transition away from the standard work schedule?
Get to know yourself. You're used to forcing yourself to conform to a one-size-fits-all approach. However, individualizing a work schedule optimized for you requires knowing who you are without those limitations.
You don't get to know yourself by sitting around and overthinking. Ask questions, experiment, and take action. Track your energy levels, moods, and productivity levels. Commit to trying something out for a week and then make time to evaluate how well it worked.
Don't try to change everything overnight. It's not sustainable, plus it's stressful. Instead, try out one small change, keep to it for a little while, then add another small change to that. My workday is the result of doing this over and over during the past 7 years.
Finally, have some grace for yourself. I sometimes get mad over the number of years and energy I wasted working in a way that wasn't conducive to working my best. But how could I have known back then? So instead, I focus on celebrating my growth and making it easier for others to have a smoother journey transitioning away from the standard work schedule.
It's not easy to go against the grain, but, in my experience, it's always been worth it.
Thank you for reading this profile on a workday in my life!
I'd love to hear from you! What did you find interesting about my workday? What could you potentially try out yourself?
Feel free to reply to this message or DM me on Twitter @mar15sa.
I truly appreciate you taking the time to read this. Hope you have a lovely day!
P.S. Who's workday should we feature next? If you're interested in being featured, fill out this form.