Always Be Experimenting with Your Daily Routines

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Having been self-employed most of my life, and often been part of a peer-group that tends to be interested in experimenting with self-organization (cough did someone just say life hacks), I’ve had the privilege to be very much in charge of my daily routines for most of my adult life.

So I made a point early on in my career to experiment with them and see what sticks, what helps me be more productive, more aware, more awake, more creative—or simply be in a better mood.

After a period of experimentation, I tend to settle into a pattern that works well—for a while. The last few years, that has been a pretty steady, almost comically traditional day at the office, if with a somewhat relaxed schedule. I’d show up between 8:30 and 10, would have a lunch break (preferably without meetings), and try to leave between 5 and 7. At any given time the details would depend on the current ongoing projects: Higher workload meant longer and more intense hours, a lighter workload meant more time to read, write, and meet with folks. It was almost as if I had the most traditional routing because I didn’t have to. I got pretty effective and efficient with my workflows. This was pretty much a management schedule (as opposed to a maker schedule), optimized for conference calls and meetings rather than uninterrupted periods of deep work time that would allow flow.

Image: Public Domain. Image from page 517 of "Railway mechanical engineer" (1916)

But recently, especially since we had a baby, this has been a little less satisfying: I’ve been doing a lot more deep work (research, writing) that isn’t really all that compatible with a management-style schedule, so I’ve been needing more uninterrupted time to get into the flow. Also, I now need a bit more flexibility to take care of the little one or relieve M even while she’s on parental leave now (I’ll take a leave a little later, too). Still, it’s not like I need to simulate an “orderly” workday for anyone: There’s still no boss to convince I’m working if I’m not. Additionally to the deep work time I need more of, I also want to make a point of allowing me to put in more time to learn and develop new skills: It feels like I’ve been plateauing on my core skills and it’s time for upgrades in adjacent branches of the skill tree. (Yes, I’m nerdy enough that I used to play pen-and-paper role playing games.)

In other words, time for another round of experimentation.

I plan to read some more about opportunities and frameworks to optimize for combinations of deep work and learning new skills, and will seek out some the advice of friends who know more about this than I do.

In the meantime, here’s what I’ll be trying for a while:

  • Spend more time in offline, especially in the morning: No checking emails and social media for as long as possible in the mornings, and absolutely not before breakfast. This should help with mindfulness and to have more control over the way my day starts. I like to be proactive rather than reactive. The inbox is the natural enemy of being proactive.
  • Schedule time for reading, writing, learning. Especially I’ll set aside 1-2 longer uninterrupted blocks per week for learning or upgrading skills, like producing podcasts, Python, machine learning basics, or even notionally boring-but-important management things like better accounting/budgeting/leadership skills.
  • More walks. I often and frequently walk, it’s the best catalyst I know for thinking through challenging problems. Recently I’ve fallen short, I’ve walked less than usual. This will change right away. Walking is the best thing ever.
  • Cluster meetings and calls in the afternoon. Part of this will be to have calls and meetings in the afternoon as much as possible. It’s my least productive time in terms of focused input/output, but it’s perfect for conversations.

I hope that this might lead to concrete improvements and outcomes:

  • Stronger focus for longer periods of time, which should result in more long text output (essays, blog posts, maybe a book or two).
  • Less reactive scheduling, and more productive use of my time.
  • More flexibility to be present in my family as the better use of my time leads to less time-at-desk and rather to better-output-per-day.
  • Both new opportunities and improvements in my practice through new skills.

Are there any techniques or approaches you found very helpful yourself? Give me a shout, I’m curious!

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