Structuring your work day

How do you structure, or try and structure, your working day?

What tools, techniques, rules or rituals do you use?

How to structure your working day

The key here is to develop a routine, a series of ‘golden rules’ and coping strategies that you work you in the job you do. We are all different, so it is difficult to be too rigid here. However, there are six key principles that are known to be effective in most cases if applied well, perhaps with a little adjustment in some cases. They are:

  1. Parkinson’s law
  2. Grouping tasks and time-slicing activities
  3. Silent hour
  4. Opportunity time
  5. Expect the unexpected
  6. Eighteen-minute plan

The most important thing is to plan your day in advance, no matter how optimistic this is. Use your diary or planner to schedule activities not just to put in fixed meetings. ‘Make appointments’ with yourself to work on important activities, to get things done and remember to do things.

Parkinson’s law

Parkinson’s law is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. It is also sometimes applied to the growth of the bureaucratic apparatus in an organization.

Grouping tasks and time-slicing activities
Batch similar tasks together in 20, 40 or 60 minute sessions. This includes reading and replying to emails, meetings, visits, etc. Avoid the ‘butterfly effect’ that wastes time and reduces your energy levels, concentration and attention to detail.

The Pomodoro Technique: The Pomodoro Technique is one method for batching tasks. Here’s how it works:

  1. Plan and prioritise the tasks that need to be completed, by writing them down.
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes and devote that time to a task, or to a group of similar tasks. Larger tasks can be broken into multiple blocks or “Pomodoro’s,” and smaller tasks (responding to email, returning phone calls, etc) can be grouped into a single block. After completing each Pomodoro, you put an “X” next to it and mark the number of times that you were distracted.
  3. Take a 5 minute break.
  4. Begin another block of time or “Pomodoro.”
  5. After completing 4 Pomodoro’s, take an extended 20 minute break.

According to the Pomodoro website, you should see noticeable improvements in your productivity almost immediately and mastery of the technique in 7–20 days.

And what about the name? Pomodoro means “tomato” in Italian. The inventor of the technique, Francesco Cirillo (Italian), initially used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer when he developed the technique.

Silent hour
Create an hour a day, ideally early in the morning, with no interruptions or distractions. This might mean getting in early or find a place where no one can ‘find’ you. Switch all your communication devices off and get on with really important and high-priority tasks. It is highly productive and motivating.

Opportunity time
Look for small moments of ‘opportunity time’ when you can work on things, make calls, plan, think and work on things. Do not use it for social media, socialising, small talk or simply checking emails.

Expect the unexpected

Leave around 30-50% of your daily plan ‘empty’ for the numerous requests or demands on your time that are likely, or may occur, from time to time.

Eighteen-minute plan
This technique is developed and tested at Harvard Business School. They found that the most effective ‘time managers’ (those got more done on purpose) used this ritual or one like it. It contains just three steps that take less than 18 minutes over an eight-hour workday:

STEP 1 (5 Minutes)

Set Plan for Day. Before turning on your computer, sit down with a blank piece of paper and decide what will make this day highly successful. What can you realistically accomplish that will further your goals and allow you to leave at the end of the day feeling like you’ve been productive and successful? Write those things down.

Now, most importantly, take your calendar and schedule those things into time slots, placing the hardest and most important items at the beginning of the day. And by the beginning of the day I mean, if possible, before even checking your email. If your entire list does not fit into your calendar, prioritise your list. There is tremendous power in deciding when and where you are going to do something.

If you want to get something done, decide when and where you’re going to do it. Otherwise, take it off your list.

STEP 2 (1 minute every hour)

Refocus. Set your watch, phone, or computer to ring every hour. When it rings, take a deep breath, look at your list and ask yourself if you spent your last hour productively. Then look at your calendar and deliberately recommit to how you are going to use the next hour. Manage your day hour by hour. Don’t let the hours manage you.

STEP 3 (5 minutes)

Review. Shut off your computer and review your day. What worked? Where did you focus? Where did you get distracted? What did you learn that will help you be more productive tomorrow?

The power of rituals is their predictability. You do the same thing in the same way over and over again. And so, the outcome of a ritual is predictable too. If you choose your focus deliberately and wisely and consistently remind yourself of that focus, you will stay focused. It’s simple.