Last year was the year that felt like a decade — it was the year of "Blursday," Zoom fatigue, and working from home in a pandemic. For those of us who were used to working in an office, getting used to the homogeneity of working from home, living from home, and just being home for an entire year was quite an adjustment.
Recently, the NYTimes published this post about languishing that describes this feeling many of us are familiar with — of feeling “blah.” Not in crisis, not thriving, just existing.
At work, that feeling of languishing might look like not feeling motivated, having trouble focusing, having trouble getting things done, and just feeling “blah” about work.
These fluctuations in motivation level are normal even when the world is less exhausting and restrictive. One of the strategies I’ve leaned into this past year is to be more flexible about how and when I get work done. Since I can’t depend on always feeling motivated and energetic, I’ve found ways to optimize my work (and non-work) activities around the ebb and flow of my energy patterns, and it’s made my life a whole lot easier.
Here are a few ways to better interweave your work with your natural energy patterns throughout the day and the week.
Are you an Owl, a Lark, or a Third Bird?
Understanding your body’s energy patterns throughout the day can be useful to plan your work. Daniel Pink writes about how to time your day for peak performance.
To find out which you are, figure out the midpoint of your sleep cycle on what are called “free days,” the days when you don’t have to wake up to an alarm clock. This will most likely be on your days off or during the weekend.
- If your midpoint of sleep is 3:30 a.m. or earlier, you’re probably a lark.
- If your midpoint of sleep is 5:30 a.m. or later, you’re probably an owl
- If your midpoint is somewhere in between, you’re probably a third bird
If you’re a lark or third-bird, you’re better off doing analytical tasks in the morning, while owls would be better off doing them later in the afternoon.
I’m a third-bird, so I’ll often do a short burst of intensive work in the morning, have some meetings, and then find some solo rote work that I can jam on in the afternoon when my energy is lower.
Defrag your calendar
An ideal calendar looks different for each person, but most engineers and other makers will need some uninterrupted blocks of focus time. Figure out when you’re most productive, and try to clear your recurring meetings. Create a new recurring meeting for your focus time!
You can use the above analysis of your bird-type, or just experiment with when you most like to have heads-down time for focused work. For some people, their focus time may be in the morning before the rest of the team starts working. I personally like to have my meetings in the morning, and having an uninterrupted block of time in the afternoon to crank on some work tasks.
Also think about what your week looks like. Do you prefer to have fewer meetings as the week winds down? Do you prefer to have all your 1:1s the first week of a two-week cycle, so that you have one week with more meetings, and one week with more focused time?
Experiment to find a cadence of recurring meetings that works for you and your team.
Figure out what activities are most draining
Not all meetings are created equal. For me, team meetings and 1:1s don’t feel draining, but meeting someone new (even over Zoom) feels draining.
So I try to schedule my external meetings earlier in the day so they’re not hanging over me all day. I also try to limit them so I don’t have too many days in a row with lots of external meetings. If I get scheduled for an afternoon interview, I make it work, but I also expect that I’ll need a bit of time afterwards to regroup — I may find some solo tasks that I can get done with little effort, or go for a short walk. Being intentional means I have time to recharge my batteries.
Next week, notice and keep a log of what meetings or work activities you find most draining? What activities do you find most energizing? Which activities do you need to space out, and which would you prefer to cram together to reduce context-switching?
Use your insights to plan your work. Perhaps you find spinning up new creative work takes a lot out of you, so you limit that to one chunk a day, and fill in with some more rote administrative tasks to round out the day. Or perhaps you decide that having back-to-back 1:1s for a full-day works for you. This will look different for everyone.
Give yourself flexible work options
We are not machines. You may have identified that you’re an owl, so you’ve carefully planned your calendar to optimize for peak performance, but when the time comes around to pick up a piece of work...well, you’re just not feeling it.
Especially in the past few months, as pandemic fatigue has worn me down, I have found myself with plans to start on a new engineering task, but when the afternoon rolls around, I just can’t imagine doing it. In one instance, I completely switched gears to knock out a bunch of email outreach to engineering leaders. In another, I went to Twitter to kick off and build some interest in Lead Time Chats. As an introvert, both of those tasks are also ones that feel incredibly tedious if I’m not in the right mindset or mood for them, so I was happy to have adjusted my plan and knocked them out when they felt easy!
Line up a few other high priority tasks that you can pick from when you have focused work time. I personally keep my task list in Range (http://range.co/) for each day. In the morning, when my mind is clear and my decision-making is sound, I plan what I want to get done that day. Later, when I’m losing steam in the afternoon, I can consult that list and pick something up that feels doable. It may not be exactly what I had planned, but it’s still important.
Give yourself the option to pause
It is really awful to know you’re not being productive, yet feel like you still have a few hours of work left, and since you really should be working, you stay at your desk, being unproductive for a few more hours.
Give yourself permission to get up, go for a walk, run an errand, do a quick workout or yoga flow — whatever you need in that moment, assuming you don’t have important meetings. Sometimes just a walk around the block, or getting up to make yourself a cup of tea can completely shift how you feel about the work ahead of you. You’ll get way more done later if you listen to your body.
And beyond mid-day work breaks, take your PTO. Plan ahead for PTO, and take it more spontaneously when you need it. I heard this analogy recently that I think is so apt: right now, we're all like phones that can only charge to 40%, so we need to re-charge often. Try taking a Wednesday off for a mid-week break. Take a few Fridays or Mondays off for an extra long weekend. Take a week off, even if you're not going anywhere.
Be kind to yourself
It’s been an extraordinarily difficult year. Sometimes when I’m feeling extremely low and unproductive, I extrapolate my current experience and think, What if I am never productive again? What if I’ve lost all my motivation to do work?
During these times, I find it useful to remind myself that this will pass. The above tips are good things to try, but honestly, sometimes my body just needs some time to be lazy. I focus on making sure I’m eating well and getting enough sleep, and try to disrupt my downward-spiraling thoughts. Sure enough, sometimes even just after a nap, I’ll feel like doing something again.
Build a supportive and flexible team culture
None of these tips will work at all if people don't feel agency over their schedules so that they can adjust their work to the ebb and flow of their motivation and energy.
It only works if people feel comfortable going for a spontaneous afternoon walk and don’t feel fearful that they need to respond immediately to prove that they’re working during “work hours.”
That means that we need to fundamentally rethink the 9-to-5 work day, and embrace more flexible work options.
Build a flexible and supportive team culture that also holds people accountable for getting work done by:
- Setting core hours for meetings — outside of those times, let people work flexible hours when it suits them. Have them communicate a general plan so people know what to expect, but know that the plan may change. For example, our core hours are 10am - 3pm Pacific time. Someone on the East Coast may work best starting at noon, taking a break for dinner, and logging back on from 8pm until midnight. Someone else in San Francisco may prefer to work straight through from 10am to 6pm.
- Lean on asynchronous communication — if it doesn’t have to be in a meeting, use asynchronous tools like Range to share status updates and stay in sync with your team. These updates also have the added bonus of being quickly skimmable and create a rich textual history to look back on.
- Find a meeting cadence that works for your team — e.g. a cycle kickoff, mid-cycle sync, and cycle recap. For ongoing meetings, opt for recurring calendar invites over ad-hoc meetings, so that people can plan around them.
The proliferation of post-COVID surveys have made one thing abundantly clear.
Employees want flexibility.
They no longer want to commute 1.5 hours everyday to spend 8-10 hours with their butts in seats, only to commute another 1.5 hours home. Whether companies return to a hybrid office, an entirely in-person office, or a default-digital office, workplaces will be vetted on their ability to support flexible work. Flexibility in this new normal is key, and it’s also the way to help people do their best work.
At Range, we’ve built tools to support flexible work and foster team identity and belonging (even if you’re not having lunch together in an office). To help you and your team do your best work, the way that works for you, the Range experience centers around asynchronous check-ins that keep you in sync with your team. When you do need to have meetings to check-in with your team, Range’s meeting tool makes it easy to have structured and efficient meetings, so that you can make the most of your time together. With asynchronous check-ins and synchronous team meetings, Range is the best way to embrace flexibility and get what you need to get done, done.