Time was a connecting theme between two books I've read recently: one focused on simplicity; one on remote workplace culture. Both prompted me to think about how I spend my time. Read on for tips on taking back control of your time, including asking for a sleep package from your employer.
Time is the sixth side in Julia Hobsbawm's 2020 The Simplicity Principle, in which she presents a hexagonal template for simplicity. She offers six time fixes that she suggests will simplify life.
Hobsbawm's suggestions are the six headlines below. I've drawn some connections with Sean O'Meara and Cary Cooper's 2022 Remote Workplace Culture, which reflects on what a healthy culture looks like in organisations that have adapted to remote working as part of the pandemic response.
1. Don't do deadlines
Having worked as radio news editor and reader, this advice triggers a stress reaction. Anyone who has written a briefing for a Ministerial bag may have a similar response. After deep breaths, I can consider this again.
Hobsbawm is prompting me to ask who is setting the deadlines, and what happens if they are not met? Am I setting myself up for repetitive cycles of anxiety to meet what may be arbitrary deadlines?
O'Meara and Cooper are clearly not thinking of hourly news bulletins or Ministerial briefings when they imagine a remote workplace. They suggest the focus is on deliverables. If you want to deliver something to a deadline, consider these things to help you meet the deadline: limit ad-hoc tasks, use systems that support collaboration (e.g. Google Drive), and outsource jobs that are outside your expertise.
2. Keep control of your calendar
Most of us have at least heard of if not used a calendar hack: blocking time for reading, putting buffer zones around meetings, setting meeting time to 30 minute by default.
Hobsbawm's advice is a great reminder that my calendar should reflect how I want to spend my time. Once that is in place, I can see the time that may be available for other people's priorities.
Now let's think about calendars in a remote workplace. Does a sparsely populated calendar look like someone who is underemployed? Does a full calendar become a default sign of high productivity?
O'Meara and Cooper push back against what they call 'performative productivity', when people go to great lengths to be seen to be present, while perhaps not actually achieving very much. If working remotely means sharing your calendar with a team, it's worth having a team conversation about what gets recorded, why, and who can add things to your calendar.
3. Get in the time zone
I answered Hobsbawm's challenge: what time of day am I most productive, and what do I need to do to make the most of that time?
I have two times of day when I do my best thinking. The first is a window of about three hours from 7.30am, and the second is about 90 minutes from 4pm. To make the most of that time, I need to know my space and tools are set up, that the room is warm enough, that I will be alone, that I have had breakfast and lunch.
You'll have different times and unique factors that impact your productivity. Knowing what they are is the first step to making the most of them. For me, that early morning commute cuts in to time that is potentially productive. Remote working makes that time available. Remote working also increases our ability to create working conditions that suit us best (for me, the temperature and the food!).
O'Meara and Cooper push it further by keeping the focus on outputs. Consider this scenario: a person produces something in less than the expected time because they could work when they were 'in the zone'. Do you reward them with time off, or punish them by keeping them 'at work' for the expected time? If you are that speedy worker, how easy is it for you to negotiate getting the time off?
4. Obey your body clock
How about negotiating a new bed and pillows as part of your remuneration?
Hobsbawm's reminds us that managing our physical wellbeing is part of keeping things simple. Knowing how much sleep and exercise you need is part of self-management. Establishing routines to satisfy these needs means you obey your body clock, and will work more effectively.
O'Meara and Cooper take it further, honing in on the issue of sleep. Who hasn't turned up to work feeling sub-par after a poor night's sleep? They suggest that could be fixed if employers invested in sleep packages to keep employee body clocks in sync. This is a truly universal benefit because we all need sleep.
5. Offices are for water coolers
What is it about your work that means it has to be done in an office? The immediate pandemic response proved how much of our work can be done from remote locations. Despite that, many are now back in offices, adapting to guidelines for hybrid work, negotiating team days, working to a new set of rules.
Hobsbawm says 'don't bother with an office unless you have to'. Some of us have to, and some of us want to. Learning systems, building rapport, and understanding culture can be easier face-to-face, especially in the first weeks or months with a new team or employer. It seems like a good use of our time.
For those inclined to over-work, a healthy office environment creates boundaries that can prevent burnout. O'Meara and Cooper point out that an office environment provides cues for break times and finishing work. These cues might be missing from a remote working environment.
If you are doing most of your work remotely, think about how you can create boundaries on your time. Scheduling after work catch ups or activities as you would in a physical office will help you recognise when it is time to stop work.
6. Live today as you want to live tomorrow
You are probably paid for 37.5 or 40 hours per week. And you are expected to be present (in real life or virtually) a certain number of hours per day and days per week.
For most us, some pattern of expectation about how much space work takes up in our lives is established early on. And it becomes ingrained as the normal.
Hobsbawm encourages us to challenge ourselves on how we want to live today, rather than continuing to live as we did yesterday.
Which brings me to this question: what would it be like to think about work as an annual commitment rather than a daily or weekly one? That's what O'Meara and Cooper suggest as an alternative to the five days on / two days off pattern.
Annualised contracts create the space for people to make lifestyle choices that deepen both life and work satisfaction. What would you do if you could choose which of the c.1750 hours a year you want to dedicate to work? You could fulfil your contractual obligations with shorter weeks throughout, or with fewer months of intense activity.
Time is precious. How do you spend yours?
Hobsbawm, Julia (2020). The Simplicity Principle: Six steps towards clarity in a complex world. GB/USA: Kogan Page
O'Meara, Sean and Cooper, Cary. (2022). Remote Workplace Culture: How to bring energy and focus to remote teams. GB/USA: Kogan Page