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Working in a Long Hours Culture (Part 4): Some Practical Tips and Strategies

Patterns, rhythms and cycles

Let’s state the obvious; we are not designed to run 24/7. Research suggests that we operate better if we establish a rhythm to our day and our week.

For example, an LSE study from 2008 suggests that Tuesdays and Wednesdays tend to be the more productive days. If that is true, why not do most of the heavy lifting, work requiring focused attention, on those days, and corral meetings (unless it is high level negotiation, for example) into the other days, along with less demanding tasks? That makes sense to me; by Thursday my energy is starting to wane anyway.

What is true of a working week is also true of a working day in terms of energy; no one can sprint all day so why not use high energy points, e.g. first thing in a morning, for the more demanding tasks that require focused attention. It is not always as simple as this but that is no excuse for not trying.

Maintenance and consumption

So what happens to the elements of work we described as maintenance and consumption? If we schedule deep work sessions with ourselves, when do these get done? Following Parkinson’s Law, these are the sorts of things that expand to fill the time; by prioritising the important work you have already set up some boundaries.

Managing your inbox

Let’s start with email. Why not set aside a couple of times a day, no more than 30 minutes each, to review email, eliminate the dross, delegate what you can and then define clearly the work required of you from the rest?

It helps if you see these times as when you process email not when you actually do the work, unless you can deal with them in two minutes or less. It also helps to signal to colleagues and educate others about your approach to email. Put a message at the bottom of your signature block along the lines of, ‘I check email 2 or 3 times a day. Here’s how you can contact me on an urgent matter…..’ At other times turn it off, stop notifications on your phone and give yourself chance to do the work.

Meetings are by definition a concession to a deficient organisation. For one either meets or one works. One cannot do both at the same time - Peter Drucker

Managing meetings

For those regular ones that you run, reduce the allotted time by 15 minutes and see if you can’t get through the business. For others, question whether you have a contribution to make; if not, ask to be excused, or excused early, or delegate attendance to one of your team. If meetings cause you particular grief, email me at and I’ll send you a free copy of my ebook, 'A Sideways Look at Meetings: Why They Don’t Have to Ruin Your Day.'

There’s a very simple equation for producing high quality work. It’s a function of how much you focus and how much uninterrupted time you can give a task.

Here are some other things to consider:

  • Where you have some discretion, never say ‘yes’ immediately. Offer to respond to the request the next day when you have had chance to think about how it fits in with your other commitments.

  • You know how you focus better when you have a deadline? Set some deadlines for your own work.

  • If you don’t plan your days and your week, it will be the latest and loudest that grab your attention. Try this. On a Friday identify the three ‘big ticket items’ that you want to focus on next week. At the beginning of each day that week, come up with three tasks that will move you closer to the big three.

  • Campaign to eliminate back-to-back meetings in your organisation.

  • Contrary to what you might have been told, lunch is not just for wimps. Schedule at least a 30 minute break in the middle of the day because being effective is as much about managing your energy as it is managing your workload.

  • Set aside 45 minutes at the end of the week to catch up with yourself, review what you have on, what you are already committed to, and when you are going to do the work.

  • Pepper your day with short breaks; a trip to the kitchen to make your own coffee, a walk around the block kicking leaves. 90 minutes is the most time that anyone can focus on real work.

  • Pick a day, or two, initially, when you are going to leave the office at a sensible time to give you chance to eat with the family or your partner, catch up with friends, or go to the gym. Set an alarm for 15 minutes beforehand.

  • Think about the behaviours you are modelling to your teams. What are they picking up from the way you work?

  • Sure, you may have to catch up on some reading at home for example from time to time, but you can do it on your terms; music in the background and a glass of wine for a start.

Don’t try everything at once. Why not pick two or three things you could try to work on; actions turn into behaviours that turn into habits. When you have mastered those, pick some others.

Next time:

We will pull this all together, I’ll suggest that systems and smart ways of working are not the whole answer and there’ll be a call to start a conversation.

Science corner:

If you are shortchanging yourself on sleep because of work or for other reasons, the impact over time can be severe. Check out these TED Talks:

Thoughts, comments, questions?

We would love to start a conversation. Are there any ideas that appeal to you? Do you have any other tips that others might benefit from? Leave a comment in the box below.

John publishes a monthly blog which you can find by following this link

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