Modern life has been geared around the regimentation of time through work. The nine to five, Monday to Friday, has become the universal machine for production. It was hard to think of life outside of this rhythm. Grab a coffee to kickstart the brain so you’re ready to go by 9am. And then it begins—the endless stream of meetings, phone calls, letters, emails and repetitive processes. The gears turn.
Everyday, the same grinding routine. The great difference was between work and life outside—the work day and the weekend.
But this seems to be threatened now by the introduction of the smartphone and the capacity of emails to appear at any time and anywhere, not just at our desk but on the train home, in bed, even in the bathroom. This is usually seen as a negative intrusion, making it difficult to sustain a work-life balance. The world of busyness colonises more and more of our waking lives.
But there are other changes afoot with office work. The introduction of the standing desk has given information labour a more active form of engagement. Telecommuting has enabled work outside the office environment, especially in the comfort of home.
It is natural that this opening up of possibilities has encouraged increasing interest in personal productivity regimens. Systems like Getting Things Done have spawned thousands of versions, apps and routines. These are mostly geared to keep us focused and prevent our time being wasted by confusion or uncertainty. But they still mostly involve a linear sense of time that essentially is spent processing repetitive tasks.
I’ve been working independently for a number of years now. I miss the random interaction that an office can bring, but I’ve found myself increasing impatient with the obsession around process that can be found in formal workspaces these days. I can’t imagine being as productive in an office as I can on my own.
But working independently has involved developing ways of staying on track. Over time, I’ve begun to realise that there are different areas of focus necessary during the course of the working week. You need to spend some time thinking about long-term possibilities, not just worrying about latest email request. Of course, the GTD method recommends a series of weekly and monthly reviews to cover this. But I felt I needed to integrate it into the working week itself.
I began to sort out the different areas of focus in their distance from myself. At the most distant were ideas for future projects that required non-urgent development tasks such as concept notes. At the other end, the closest was my “team”, involving colleagues who were actively engaged with me in current projects. The natural way of arranging this was to order it in a sequence that went from outside in. This led to a week that starts in the distance, then gradually moves inwards like layers in an onion. Here’s how mine goes:
Monday: projects in development, future deadlines, up to three years in the future
Tuesday: new partnerships and audiences, research into new competing/partner platforms, promotion and media, email newsletter
Wednesday: resources necessary to continue, funding applications, following up subscriptions
Thursday: existing audience and relationships, keeping subscribers engaged and improving their experience
Friday: colleagues and peers, collegiate activities, advisory panels
After having arrived by the end of the week, the weekend is spent reviewing and filing, with some intellectual activity for its own sake.
There are some tools that I’ve found useful to keep this kind of focus. As email is my “coal face”, I find the Active Inbox gmail extension useful in sorting out emails according to tags for each of the days. For drilling down into projects, I’ve recently moved from Workflowy to Dynalist. Dynalist have introduced documents, which means I can put each day in a distinct outline.
The main weakness in this system is that it’s easy to lose a day in the week with a series of meetings or travel. I try to date my weekly tasks so that they appear as overdue if not completed the previous day. Sometimes I have to combine two layers in one day.
My week as a whole is still relatively similar to the modern office routine, but it has a narrative arc that I find useful in ensuring that I cover the full scope of the enterprise. The “journey home” is hardly a novel story, but it has an enduring appeal. It extends what happens daily in the office life into a week-long process.
While technology may be seen to flatten our sense of timing, turning every moment into work. But with a little imagination, we can bend it to the shape of rituals that give greater meaning to what we do. Trade your steam engine in for a sailing ship.