Attention management for writers, part 2: Plan your week, then your day

We tend to focus on planing one day at a time. And sure, we need to look at our plan in the morning (or the previous evening) and tidy it up. But we should also plan each week , either on Monday morning or, if you like spoiling your weekend, on Sunday evening. Some people use bullet journals for this. I, it may not surprise you to learn, just use my to do list app.

This is where attention management and time management meet: in actively setting aside time for us to pay attention to hard things. Our goal here isn’t just to vaguely know what time we’ll be working; it’s to make sure we put the right tasks in the right place, so that we’re doing our hardest work when we’re at our best.

One thing you can do this week: plan the week, then derive your daily plans so that you have time to focus. And… yeah, calling a post “one thing” when it’s over 2,000 words is a bit of a cheat. But breaking this down to different weeks will only make it harder to implement.

The week

Remembering on Monday that we have five days, not one, is very relaxing; rather than trying to get through all of our tasks by Monday lunch, we know we can push some of them to later in the week, reducing our headless chicken stress.

When are we at our best?

We need to schedule the big, complicated, focused tasks for our best hours, and for when we have substantial amounts of meeting-free time.

I’m a morning person. Obnoxiously so. I think being able to start work at 0530 is one of the great things about working from home. Which means that I’m not going to plan any difficult work for 1400, because by then my brain is done with the day. I schedule my hard, focused work for early in the morning. If you’re not a morning person, do yourself a favour and don’t force a morning thing. If you’re not going to be awake until 1000, there’s no point getting up at 0500 and bumbling around like a Shawn of the Dead extra.

We have to block our quality hours on our calendars as much as we can, or people will drag us into meetings. Go look at your calendar, and start finding the empty bits that correspond to your good hours. Now block them. Work well into the future – block the next four to six weeks. If we do this every week, we’ll not be fully submerged in meetings just when we could and should be doing our best work.

Bonus point: blocking out the time we need to do quality work helps us see, with one glance at our calendar, that we really don’t have time to keep saying “yes” to every request.

When are we at our worst?

This is when we do our splinter tasks. This can be our weak hours (afternoon for me) or those annoyingly small gaps between meetings. We’re not going to get quality work done here, so we don’t even try. It’s best to get on with some unavoidable admin work.

I try not to prioritise these tasks because then it’s tempting to push out the lower priority ones but really, that’s just delaying the pain. So I just blitz through them, in whatever order the to do list app shows them.

Scheduling time for these tasks can reduce the temptation to do them when the alternative is harder. Many of these tasks are classic procrastination fodder: small, easy, and brimming with a false sense of progress. We need to know they’re not on the menu for when our hard tasks are just a bit too hard.

It’s time to list all tasks for the week

We’ve covered the general idea of good times/bad times. Now it’s time to populate them with tasks.

One way to go about this is to enter the due date of Monday for every task that came in or that we didn’t finish. Monday morning, they’ll all be waiting for us as a giant list. We figure out what their actual deadlines and priorities are, and order them top-to-bottom. We need to be conscious of sub-tasks here; the parent task may not be due until Friday, but do we need to start the first sub-task today? This is why I give sub-tasks their own due dates.

This is also a good time to review the week’s meetings (tip: you should have reviewed Monday’s meetings on Friday) to see whether we need to prep anything for them. It’s really easy to accept a meeting invite and not notice the required reading or that we’re supposed to present in it.

We need to indicate, for each task, whether it’s a focused task or just a little splinter task, as that will impact where in the daily plan it falls.

Once we have the ordered list, we can start dividing it into five daily plans.

How many days in a week?

An alternative to planning five days is planning four days, and leaving Friday free for anything that spilled over, or got added during the week but can’t wait until next week.

The day

So we know when we’re able to do focused work, and when to pile up some little admin things. And we have the weekly task list all nice and tidy, with the tasks (or sub-tasks) that have to happen first at the top of the list, and the ones that can wait at the bottom. There are just a few things worth remembering when we plan our days.

Never waste your big blocks on little tasks

Well, “never” is a strong word and there will be exceptions, but the general idea is that if we have a big chunk of meeting-free time, we find a big task and work on it – and only on it.

We’ll look in a future post at how to get rid of most distractions, but what we need to remember right now is that the time we’re working on a big task is never the time we’re jumping between Slack messages and email, or between our little admin tasks, or even two big tasks.

This is where the last 2.5 blog posts have been leading us. It’s where the magic happens. A block of time, free of distraction and context switching, in which our mind can sink into a single task and work entirely in that context. Where we don’t spend 15 minutes getting immersed in a topic and then toss it all away because an email came in. This is what we needed to produce our highest quality work.

Use timers, not stopwatches

When we start a day with a plan, we know the following:

  • When our meetings are.
  • When our focused work time is.
  • Our break (or coffee) intervals.

We use this knowledge to set timers. For example, if we have two or three hours of focused work time available, we’ll set a timer for 60 or 75 minutes. At the end of this block, we can check Slack and email to see if anything urgent has happened, then take a break. Ideally, breaks should end at least 45 minutes before the next interruption (like a meeting). A break should be about 10 minutes, but we should listen to our internal voice, whether it’s saying we need a longer break or just raring to get back to work.

Note: If you don’t have a standing desk, you may find that you can’t work for 60-75 minutes without a break (I adjust my desk from standing to sitting and back once or twice in each block). Do what’s right for your body, not what looks good on paper.

Remember that the timer tells us how long we now get to focus, not how long we have to complete something (time blocking, not time boxing); it doesn’t add a deadline – and pressure – to the current task. This is really key: the timer isn’t a stopwatch making us work quickly, just an opportunity to work well.

One advantage of the timer is that it tells us not only when we’re going to focus on work and ignore Slack and emails, but also when we’ll get back to Slack and emails. Knowing we have a set time at which we’ll respond to people helps reduce stress and guilt when ignoring them. More on this in a later post.

I also find that just knowing “I have x minute to focus” really helps me focus. I’m not going to try and explain it.

Track our focus: The 10 minute planner

I don’t really recommend a 10 minute planner for planning work. I think it’s better for students, whose tasks are often not open-ended in any meaningful way, who don’t have last minute meetings, and who shouldn’t really get too many surprises during the week. A product’s release date is far more likely to shift than an exam or paper’s submission date. However, tracking our work for a few day to see the patterns of focused and unfocused time can be quite useful. A black and white view of how little of our workday we actually spend on solidly working, distraction free, is often sobering.

Three tips:

  • Don’t write down sub-tasks, just the parent task (sub-task management is what to do list apps are for).
  • Don’t write down individual splinter tasks, just the category (again – the actual list and its management is in the to do app).
  • Clearly note the difference between a proper break and clicking around emails and Slack, to further quantify what the day went on.

If we do want to use this type of planner to plan, rather than track, that does bring its own benefits. For example, it can help us establish the pattern of timers from the previous section, because our meetings, breaks and tasks will be laid out together (mind you, a lot of to do list apps can put your tasks in your calendar, achieving the same result). It shows us how little time we have free, so we’re less likely to say “yes” out of guilt; there’s no reason to feel guilty when we can see we’re genuinely swamped (though again, our calendar can do this). It can help us see we’ve schedule too many things for today and should move a couple of tasks to tomorrow. And it can help us commit to getting something done in a certain time-frame, which is one way to fight procrastination. But I think it carries a really high risk of adding stress by suddenly adding time pressure to something that really didn’t need it. If you planned to be done with a task by 1000, how much of 0900-0959 will you spend stressing about that?

Unplanned work

  • “If a task takes two minutes, do it when it comes in” is actually a pretty good rule, provided “when it comes in” isn’t “the second it popped in our inbox”. If we are outside of a focused work time, for example because we’re about to go on a break, and we go over our inbox and get out some super quick email responses, that’s great. If we’re trying to focus, but let incoming emails tempt us with “just a quick reply” or “I’ll just look into this for a moment”, we’ve lost focus. We’ve ruined what should have been a solid block of quality work for the sake of a two minute tidbit. That’s wasteful.
  • It’s the nature of our job that our plans won’t always last a week, a day or even an hour. Something will come in with a big sign saying “on fire” and we’ll have to drop everything and take care of it. One great thing about to do list apps: it’s easy to start today again. As soon as the fire’s out, we circle back to what we were doing and see if we need to make any adjustments. Maybe we toss the bottom of the priority list to tomorrow. Such is life.

Coming up…

Next week, we’ll tackle the emotional toil – as opposed to any real objective cost – of ignoring people.

Recommended reading

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