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Six-hour workdays for focus and productivity

Sometime in 2018 I experimented with a strict 6-hour workday. I negotiated this with my manager who at the time said it was worth the experiment. The idea would be for me to be at the office by 10am and be out by 4pm. This didn't preclude me from continuing to work while I was in the train, or at home. It was an experiment where I can remember some good and bad parts and this is a post looking back at that time.

Ruthless prioritisation

The first thing I needed to do as an individual contributor was to ruthlessly prioritise all the tasks I have to accomplish. This meant I had to put a budget on the amount of time I'm spending doing certain things. Additionally this meant I needed to remove  all unnecessary meetings from my calendar. This was defined as whether it was something I was needed to make a decision on anything. Being an individual contributor at the time the answer it turns out for most meetings in my calendar was "no". Some examples of things I've stopped doing at the time are:

  • Participating in large "team meetings" where the goal was to have everyone say what they were working on. I instead sent status emails and maintained a status doc which I updated as soon as I was done working on tasks.
  • Attending optional "tech talks" that were recorded anyway. An hour a week is very valuable time when I am forcing myself to only have 30 hours available to do work.
  • Taking long lunches and frequent breaks. When I only had 6 hours in a day to work, 15 minutes becomes really valuable. So I'd have lunch with the team quickly then head back to whatever I needed to do. I'd also have coffee right after lunch. At Google cold drinks were almost always nearby so whenever I got thirsty I'd grab fizzy water and be back at the desk in under 2 minutes (no making coffee or hot drinks required).
  • Accepting "interrupts" as they come. I've learned to ignore IM for a time and handle interrupts in batches, between tasks. I also invested in noise-cancelling headphones to ensure random outside noise didn't distract me too much.

What I also learned to do really well were:

  • Stopping when my time budget for a task was up. This was a little harder but I learned to work in quick spurts, and I'd gotten better at estimating how long certain kinds of tasks would take if I were doing them.
  • Having more meaningful one-on-one meetings. I came prepared with things I want to talk about, and made sure the time I spent with whoever I was meeting with was uninterrupted and focused. Even if it means I listen most of the time.
  • Writing documents with enough context for the reader. I learned that if I spend the extra time early in the process of writing a document (meeting agenda, project proposal, design document, etc.) and anticipate the questions people will have about the contents, the less requests for more information was required. Readers of my documents appreciate the time I took and the time they don't spend asking questions. Some of them complain that they're a bit long though so I'm still working on that. 🙂
  • Writing better actionable email. This one was important early on because my time was valuable so I needed to be able to write them quickly but I recognise that the reader's time is as valuable if not more so than mine. So I've developed some habits and checklists for how to draft quick and actionable messages.

In this experiment I felt really productive (more so than if I stayed longer in the office and got in more meetings) and the outcomes were speaking for itself. My projects would finish on time and the output would be useful to users and readers. I may have gotten a promotion out of it too. 😄

Techniques and tools

It's not all will-power though. I did have a few tools that were helpful in my journey to make the most of my time.

  • A timer. I used the timer app that came with the iPhone. I'd set a timer for 50 minutes and when it goes off I'll step away and take a 10 minute break. Nowadays I use the Focus App to get on top of tasks and track time.
  • A journal/logbook. I had a dedicated work notebook for logging the things I'm supposed to do in a day followed by what I actually did get done. This evolved into a self-made checklist that I printed out and would fill out when I was at my desk. This template helped me plan my day and see what I needed to accomplish.
  • A project notebook. This physical notebook contained free-form notes, anything I think about that is occupying my mind that I can act on later. I'd usually use the 10 minute breaks to write down incomplete thoughts or ideas to "get it out of my head" before I get to the next task. Sometimes this would include illustrations, questions, problems, epiphanies, and meeting notes. This was purely for me and for when I'm drafting documents to refer to.
  • Sticky "Post-it" notes. This one might be just a personal preference but it turns out I like ripping paper up -- so that becomes a reward of sorts for completing tasks that are written down in those notes. This also lets me focus on one note at a time by allowing me to write those tasks in notes, then only putting the task I'm working on front-and-centre.
  • A good pen. For I while I used a gel pen with a fine tip because it didn't have as much friction and it lets me write more freely (ball-point pens seem to get in my way when writing). This evolved into buying my first fountain pen and haven't gone back since.

By the end of the experiment which lasted a quarter (12 weeks) I had a workflow down that works for me. This workflow has been the same workflow I follow up to now (3 years on) and it's been working wonders for me. It turns out this workflow is portable (I can bring the notebooks, pen, my phone, and sticky notes along with a laptop) which means I can work with the same structure whether I'm at home or at the office. I've also started doing the same even for non-work projects!

End note

After the experimental period and my role has changed from individual contributor to technical leader, I still follow the same workflow albeit with very different tasks. My notes include strategic thoughts and bigger picture ideas. The problems I'm solving with the team are larger and my responsibilities now include ensuring that the team is being productive as well. I realise that everyone operates at a different pace and that's fine, not everyone works well with structure and rigour -- some are more like artists doing free-form creative efforts, some like scholars that want to dive deep into a subject, some like scientists running experiments and recording observations, some like engineers will understand what's good enough and optimise later. What I shouldn't be doing though as a lead is slowing everyone else down which is why I stick to my routine because it lets me be productive.

Do you have a workflow that you've settled on and have found to work for you?

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