“Focus Days” Changed My Life – A Fresh Take on Block Scheduling
I’ve always been interested in productivity, self-improvement and that seemingly illusive nugget of gold they call “the success habit.” In fact, having lots of irons in lots of fires has given me a reason to study the psychology of success and productivity for the better part of a decade.
Here’s the thing though, MOST of the things I’ve tried over the years didn’t work for me AT ALL. I have read all the books, watched countless YouTube videos and listened to all the TED Talks. I have joined the groups, spoken to the experts, watched hours upon hours of lecture and for the most part, my big takeaway was that NONE OF IT worked for me. Apparently, I don’t fit the mold of what a productive person should be. I knew all the things; none of the things I knew actually fit me.
Don’t get me wrong, I still got A LOT done; more than most in fact – but only because I’m surrounded by great people; and only because I apparently work well under the weight of possible crushing disappointment. I have always managed to do what HAD to be done, sometimes at the expense of what NEEDED to be done, and without even acknowledging what I WANTED to do.
Last year, I was named one of the “Top 100 Productivity Experts Online,” by an independent industry publication. But at the same time, I felt like a total fraud. Why? Because all the tips I shared with others, all the systems I spoke about, well, they all worked great – for other people. But they didn’t work for ME.
I was externally hyper-organized but internally DISASTROUS. I could help other people navigate modern life with no problem, but for all my lists and color-coded goodness, I was a frazzled mess on the inside – never quite measuring up to the standard I set for myself. I used to teach an online organizing class for busy women, and the feedback was tremendous – the PROBLEM was that, despite all that great feedback and the huge successes of my students, I, the teacher, the “expert,” the advice giver, felt like I was DROWNING in a sea of too much to do and too little time to do it. I was a cliché. I was the walking embodiment of the phrase “those who can’t do, teach.”
Not long ago, I was staring at my desk covered with organized chaos, thinking about all the things I needed to get done, and I had an epiphany:
An EXPERT is defined as a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge in a particular area. That means if having the knowledge qualifies an expert, APPLYING the knowledge does not… necessarily.
I decided then and there it was time to cut myself some slack and stop trying to fit someone else’s mold – instead it was time to make a mold to fit ME. I knew all the techniques. Plenty of people found success through what I taught them, even if I didn’t. So why not take all the things I knew and create my own path?
This transition in thought required a hard, introspective look at my own issues when it comes to managing all the things going on in my life. I had to be honest with myself – and that is way harder that it sounds.
During the process of pinpointing all my issues, COVID-19 became a thing. Suddenly, my kids were going to be learning from home and all their sports and activities would be cancelled. That meant everything that kept me “pressured” into managing life appropriately would disappear.
No more “have to” get to school on time, no more “have to “ make it to my morning workout, no more “have to” for school pick up, football practice, soccer, lessons, trainings, sleepovers, dances, parties – NOT EVEN CHURCH would be in place to anchor my weekly schedule. Literally, I’d have ZERO “scheduled” events to bookend my crazy and keep me moving from one task to another.
At first, I panicked. I still had work to do. How would I meet a deadline if I didn’t have the pressure of something on the calendar to keep me moving forward?
I took the first two days of “homeschool” to focus solely on a new normal for my boys before I found the willpower to return to my “be honest with yourself” project.
Here’s what I finally admitted to myself about, well, myself:
I CANNOT “MULTITASK” – Not well anyway. I DO multitask, because it earns me that “modern-professional-mom badge of honor,” but I pretty much suck at it. When I try to multitask, all the tasks tend to suffer in some way – it may be a small way, but it’s still a way. Plus, I HATE multitasking. I hate it. I don’t want to help with science while I bread the chicken. I want to help with science then bread the chicken. The only kind of multitasking I want to do involves an audiobook and household chores.
MY BRAIN CANNOT MAKE A “CLEAN BREAK” FROM TASK TO TASK. So, I have tried to force myself into a “block schedule” for a long time. And up until recently, my efforts were only made possible by the fact that I always had somewhere to be. I could set my “blocks” based on the schedules OTHER PEOPLE made. Now, that alone didn’t make me productive, it just got me from one block to the next. However, the in course of this self-admission, I had to face the fact that I do not have the ability to jump from “pay the bills” to “outline the novel” without this muddy, distracted, transition period. Basically, after I “pay the bills,” when I attempt to jump to “outline the novel,” my brain gets stuck in a mode of distraction, almost a fog, for long enough that, cumulatively, I lose too much of my life to it. The WORST part about it is that when I’m in that foggy space, I am very easily distracted by ANYTHING. If I’m in a transition fog, I routinely find myself doing something that isn’t even part of the next block, necessary or even on my list for the day at all!
I HAVE LESS TO DO THAN IT FEELS LIKE I DO. One of the things from my teaching that has actually worked for me is the “brain dump.” I have always brain dumped. It’s cathartic. I have always limited myself to 15 or 20 minutes max. If you try to brain dump for longer than 20 minutes, you start to think new stuff up. But during the course of this process, I broke my own rule and I conducted a zero-time-limit dump. I wrote down every little thing I could think of. I mean everything – from purging the mystery sock bin to creating an ad campaign for Vertu’s editing service to paying off the mortgage. EV-ER-Y-THING. And do you know what, trying to record literally everything my brain wanted to conjure helped me to see that there’s actually less on my mind than I originally thought. I mean, it’s still A LOT, but it’s also less on paper than I expected to see. That alone was strangely calming.
After that, I broke down all my head things into a collection of categories. Each of those categories pertains to a different area of my life or work. Then, I prayed about it. Yep. I prayed about it. I pray about everything.
Once I realized that my categories were fewer in number than days of the week, it hit me. FOCUS DAYS. Block scheduling by DAY instead of by HOUR. Sure, appointments and schedules will still exist, but focusing on a SPECIFIC category for the entire work day totally eliminates the foggy time and minimizes my distraction likelihood. Everything I want to accomplish falls into one of a handful of categories. As I create my tasks list for the week, I can break it down into categories and assign those categories to specific days of the week. For example, I perform all administrative tasks on Mondays. I clear out emails, pay bills, schedule meetings, balance books, go through mail, etc. Anything administrative for home or work takes place on a Monday. The most pressing administrative tasks are prioritized to ensure they get done. For example, I need to clean up a bunch of old files on my computer, but it’s not as urgent as writing the contract for my new client, so if I can’t get to it THIS Monday, I will work on it NEXT Monday, because Tuesdays are dedicated to content creation and strategy. As I set up this new way of being, I also decided I wanted to use as few tools as possible for keeping it all together. SIMPLIFY.
I’m not kidding when I say this has CHANGED MY LIFE. Seriously, this process has COMPLETELY overhauled how I feel, how I process information and incoming tasks, and how I move through the week – best of all, it’s made me HUGELY productive, even without the forced deadlines and schedules. I ALWAYS know what I’m supposed to be focused on in any moment and no matter what distractions come, I can come right back to the SAME category without really thinking about it.
Here’s a bird’s eye view of what my tools and methods are, now that I’ve found my sweet spot. I’m sure this stuff will evolve as I do, but I’m hoping that sharing will help you in some way. Maybe you need to make a mold to fit you instead of trying to fit someone else’s mold – even MINE!
My categories include things like “admin,” “household,” “education,” “fun” among a few others. Yours can be whatever you need to make the system work for you if you want to try it.
Weekly Focus Days Sample Template:
I still keep a notebook and sticky notes on my desk at all times, for rapid jotting of intrusive thoughts. But I am exclusively using Trello as my digital brain now. No more paper planner (and I love paper planners, but I literally don’t need it). Trello was recommended to me by a colleague and at first I just thought it was another thing I wouldn’t use – but after streamlining my efforts into a daily focus model, it is the PERFECT option. It works on my phone and my desktop. I can keep track of every project in every category no matter where I go. Trello even lets me set up cards to fit my daily focus model, it will connect to my calendar, it will let me share things with my team, keep checklists, restructure projects at the click of a button and it definitely gives me the “all in one” function that I crave for my sanity. For the record, I have no affiliation with their organization and I don’t get any income for promoting them or anything — I just think they’re good at what they do.
So there you have it in a nutshell.
1) The Daily Focus Model
2) Paper for intrusive thoughts
My newfound productivity sweet spot and how I failed my way to find it.