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How I Work In Chunks

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Lately, I’ve been focused on arranging my schedule and splitting my work into chunks so that I can be productive for longer periods of time, while still having some flexibility in my schedule for the other things that I enjoy doing. One of the big benefits of being a consultant is that I can rearrange my schedule to do something fun, or to accomplish an activity by taking advantage of off-times. Working out is a good example. By scheduling my workouts during off-times, when the gym isn’t as crowded, I can get them done more more quickly. This week, my Mom is in town, and I have been able to arrange my work into some defined chunks so that I can spend more time with her while still getting my work completed.

I have a couple of specific techniques that have been working really well for me.

Chunky CalendarMeetings: I schedule all of my weekly client meetings on Monday, after 10am whenever possible. Meetings are very disruptive for me, since they interrupt my flow and make it difficult for me to fit work into the smaller spaces between meetings. By putting as many meetings as possible on one day, the rest of the week will have larger blocks of time available for work. However, I am now questioning the wisdom of using Monday for my meeting day. While starting my week by checking in with my clients helps to make sure that the work for the rest of the week is on track, Mondays are a big day for holidays. As I scrambled to move all of my meetings because of the Labor Day holiday, I’m thinking that if I had to do this over again, I might pick Tuesday.

Get up early (or stay up late): I have started getting up by 6am every day and starting work right away. This has resulted in huge gains in productivity for me, since I can work with fewer disruptions from meetings, incoming email, IM or other distractions. Specifically, I try to reserve 6am-10am every day for focused work, which means that I can get a huge pile of work done and have half of my day completed before many other people have started work.

Take advantage of off-hour chunks: After getting four hours of work completed before 10am, I feel better about taking a break before lunch to work out at a time when the gym isn’t as crowded. Think about those tasks that seem to take forever because of the crowds of people (groceries, errands, etc.) and find a time to fit those in when you can complete those tasks more quickly. Make sure that you can fit them together into a chunk of non-work if possible. For me, I tend to work out, shower, and eat lunch all in the same chunk of time, which reduces the switching time between work and non-work activities. By taking this little break in the middle of the day, I can start the afternoon feeling refreshed and ready to get back to work.

Chunky work blocks: I also batch my client work and other tasks into similar chunks. I save my tasks for a specific client and work on them all at once, which helps me stay focused on that client for a period of time and helps to avoid getting projects confused by jumping too quickly between clients. I also put my other work into chunks of similar tasks. Right now as I write this post, I am in a writing chunk, and this is the third of four pieces of content that I am hoping to finish before my next meeting. I also chunk some of my routine daily tasks together to keep up with email, feeds, Twitter and similar activities while not letting myself get distracted by those tasks while I do my client work.

Be Flexible: Let’s face it; reality and theoretical best practices do not always make a perfect pair. While I try to get my work to fit into these nice little boxes, there are plenty of days when everything falls apart for any number of reasons: client or personal emergencies, holidays, meeting schedules, etc. When my first choice doesn’t work, I have to be flexible and move things around to accommodate other people’s schedules. I still try to re-establish the chunks after moving activities; however, with this type of work, you need to be prepared for flexibility.

What are your tips and tricks for working in chunks?

26 Responses to “How I Work In Chunks”

  1. I can very easily follow these chunks at work but any freelance works tends to fall by the wayside. The main reasoning I can think of is that at work the business is very focused and they have spent a lot of time blue-sky thinking, wire-framing, doing usability studies etc so once the work comes to me I have a very clearly defined set of tasks in front of me and estimating times is easy. We have regular meetings (Both team and client) and we work in an Agile (scrum) environment which is excellent for this kind of chunk work.

    Now forward onto my freelance clients who all have VERY limited budgets, tight deadlines and cannot possibly devote that much time, expense and energy in getting online. They also tend to continuously come up with new ideas as the work is being completed. In 12 years I’ve only had a handful of clients who came to me with exactly what they needed with no further deviations.

    My solution was to never quote £££ for a freelance job. I would give rough hours based on what I think it might take but I have a hourly rate and the task will take/cost as much as the changes they keep making. I keep good time-keeping so they get billed exactly for the time it took. I set out the times I can devote for each site and if the blue-sky ideas suddenly pop-up I can say it will take more hours and I need to reschedule them more time in.

  2. This is a great article and an interesting approach to managing your day. However, that being said, scheduling a day like this would be difficult for people like myself who do website work, but for a large company. I’d love to be able to have time to workout during the day, or have free chunks of time, but between meetings and various web projects, I’d either have to forgo lunch or work extra time, which makes my carpooling a problem. This is a good idea for freelance or work from home though. I like the balance you are creating between work and play so to speak.

  3. Dawn, that’s a GREAT article.

    I advise my clients of something pretty much identical, and at the end of any analysis it comes down to something simply: multitasking is an easy recipe for failure at all your tasks.

    Even if it feels unnatural to do what you’re doing, and even if you can’t/won’t do it QUITE the way you do, marking of territory for each task is the only way to get any of them done.

    Jeff Yablon
    President & CEO
    Virtual VIP Business Coaching and Virtual Assistant Services

  4. hi! Dawn please answer to me :)

    I think this is nice stuff, i’ve thought of it several times but didnt name it. My problem is when organizing, i’m very perfectionist about everything and when planning one thing it can turn into several tasks or ideas. I’m actually using Google Calendar and made 6 calendars there (very cute, diferent colors for each) one for my schedule, one for meetings, one for holidays and birthdays, another for season reminders(don’t ask), bill due reminders, and so on.

    Please tell me of this magical thing that would actually turn me into a more messy guy who gets things done. Thanks.

  5. Thanks for the article Dawn. I always enjoy your posts! I recently read about a similar method from Dave Lakhani (author of “How to Sell When Nobody’s Buying”)…he call’s it the 45/15 formula. You work and focus for 45 minutes, say from the top of the hour to 45 minutes after the hour, on a specific task or project. No interruptions, like checking emails or Twitter or Facebook. Then, at 45 after the hour, you get 15 minutes to check those things or do whatever. Wash, rinse and repeat. :)

  6. Great article and a wonderfully gentle nudge to someone like me, who uses a similar principle, but sometimes allows unexpected events to waylay her routine a little too often.

    I’m more a night owl, so I find getting the most complex brain work done when the moon is up works best for me. That frees up my days for meetings, coaching sessions and taking care of more routine tasks.

    My partner and I are both self-employed, so we use our online calendars (in our case: AirSet) to sync our schedules as much as possible. By scheduling in everything from late evening international teleconferences, plans to do something together or visits from my kids, we can structure our day flexibly without having to discuss every potential conflict in schedule.

  7. Doug,

    I’m glad that you enjoyed the article! I’m not really a morning person, but I feel better when I can get my work out of the way early, so mornings seem to work better for me. It seems like most of the people that I know with children at home use their evenings, instead of morning as focused time.

    I have to admit that the calendar is a mock-up. I wanted to be able to illustrate the idea behind what my day actually looks like when I work; however, I don’t normally put quite that much detail on my real calendar. I use Google Calendar as my actual calendar, but it had too many specific client details and confidential information to use as an example, so I used iCal on the mac to create the image above. I usually put meetings, workout times, and sometimes I add client work blocks for tasks that absolutely must get finished., but not quite as much detail as in the image.

    In the past, I have sometimes used my time tracking app to track the amount of time spent on all of those tasks. When I feel like I’m spending too much time on less valuable activities, I’ll sometimes track my time obsessively for a week to see where I am spending too much time, and then I adjust accordingly.

  8. Great article! I wish I could work 1/2 of the day from 6-10, but family gets up around 7 and things don’t lighten up again until I drop the last child off at school at 9. Then the first child gets back home at 2:40! Evenings are a time I need to catch up.

    Is that your actual calendar above? I try to chunk my time, but don’t write it all down in a calendar (except client meetings). Perhaps recording every chunk would help me stay on task better. What calendar program do you use, Dawn?