Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He was previously the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, and is now the co-founder of lifestyle magazine Lagom, the founder of typography magazine (and soon-to-be book) 8 Faces, and an electronic musician recording as Other Form.

Working for half a day to be more productive

Posted on 14 March 2016 Comments

Article illustration for Working for half a day to be more productive

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to be more productive with my day. (Might this be related to my recent return to independent life, with no more guaranteed monthly paycheques? Make of this what you will.) Specifically, I’ve admitted to myself that I have a real problem when it comes to concentration.

This could be attributed to the endless opportunities for distraction that come from working on the web, but I think it’s also highly likely that it’s a symptom of juggling so many projects at any given time: co-running the magazine (by far my primary focus), doing design work for clients, running (or consulting on) external projects, attending meetings, writing for publications, making music… it’s fair to say I probably spread myself too thin. But I’ve also come to realise that that’s never going to change. I’ve tried taking on less, I’ve tried streamlining my workflow, I’ve tried limiting my side projects — but what even is a side project when you’re your own boss, anyway? I do a bunch of different things, all across multiple disciplines, and there’s not really a typical day other than knowing that each and every day will have a ton of admin involved, and by a ton of admin I really mean email. And that’s okay. Accepting that this is the way my professional life rolls these days has brought about a small sense of calm.

But, having accepted that my attention is and always will be constantly split between multiple projects on a daily basis, how do I then try and improve the situation? The answer I finally arrived at last week is perhaps somewhat controversial: from now on, I’m only going to work for half a day.

Alright, alright, that was a bit clickbait-y of me to say. Sorry. It’s a little more nuanced than that, as you’ve probably already guessed. In fact, I’m working for the entire day — and then some. What I really mean is that those tasks that fit more neatly into what most people consider to be ‘actual work’ — designing for clients (or our own projects), having meetings, etc. — get their own allotted slot: the morning. Then, all those other admin-centric tasks — emails, marketing, project management, Slack messages, etc. — get the afternoon slot.

Deciding what happens in the morning and what happens in the afternoon is important. For me personally, I tend to be able to get my head down in the morning; I’m more prone to distraction in the afternoon. And although once upon a time I was able to start getting ‘into the zone’ in the late afternoon and early evenings, these days I stop dead on 6 every night to have dinner with my family and then do the bedtime routine with our daughter, so it’s probably wisest to not even attempt it. Sam and I both usually then start working again in the evening (again, usually just admin tasks related to the magazine) and finally stop to relax properly around 9.30. If that sounds late, don’t feel too sorry for me: I get up late-ish and I usually take the best part of two hours for lunch so we can all eat together before going for a decent walk with the dog.

Anyway, all this is to say that I’ve actually found myself to be drastically more productive now that I’ve got this plan in place. I’d tried implementing my own version of Jessica Hische’s ‘Ultra Schedule’, but found it almost impossible to stick to my own calendar appointments. My ‘Day Plan’ calendar now pretty much just consists of two main productivity periods: morning for client work and afternoon for admin. (Here’s the large version of that image.) Sure, things still get moved around all the time, but in general I’m sticking to this way more than any other plan. And it’s not like my clients are only getting 50% of my time, by the way: I’m being way more productive in that morning session than I would be in a whole day of client work — with all the admin inevitably squeezed in and causing constant disruptions to creative work — and there are still plenty of afternoon admin-y tasks that are, of course, work.

One last point: many years ago, when I first went freelance, I wrote a post called ‘Write off that first hour’ , and I find that still holds true, by and large. Even with the morning set aside for creative work, it’s realistic to accept that there will be emails in your inbox that need attending to straight away. So rather than wallow in guilt as you let them sit there, or see your most productive period disappear as you lose your entire day to your inbox, accept that giving yourself an hour or so to deal with the important stuff is probably the most sensible option.

Somewhat ironically, I’ve written this post during today’s allocated client time. I guess this is a work in progress.

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