I wrote previously about why programming is a part-time job, where I extolled the virtues of having breaks to allow time for my brain to think about problems I am working on. It seemed to resonate pretty well with people, and it is definitely relevant to fields other than programming. In fact, it's probably valuable for all knowledge workers to have quality thinking time.
But how do you make the time to step away from the computer? How can you force yourself to think about things without committing yourself to immediately working on something?
I believe that the secret is to have a routine. A pretty fixed schedule to the day that hard-codes in those vital breaks to allow the brain to fully function.
In this post, I hope to describe how I try to structure my day to maximise my thinking potential. It's an ideal day, and I don't think I have ever achieved the perfection it aspires to, but even a reasonable approximation is extremely valuable.
In the beginning (6am → 8am)
The day starts sometime between 6am and 6:30am when my UP band wakes me at what is in theory the ideal time. As soon as this happens, I get up, put on my running kit - t-shirt, shorts, socks and trainers, get my phone and insert it into the arm-band I have. After having possibly let the cat in and fed him (depending on his whims), I fire up RunKeeper app and the Audible app and set off.
I listen to whatever book I am currently in the middle of. I have mentioned before that Buffer where I work has a no-questions asked policy on requesting both Kindle and Audible.com books. As such I always have something to listen to. Currently I am listening to Delivering Happiness but I have previously listened to Good to Great and Contagious. It's a great way to learn something as well as take my mind off the run.
I actually have a routine of running four out of the five days of the week. Monday to Wednesday I run my regular route which is around five and a half miles. On Friday I run a bit further - something like six and half. On Thursdays, I rest and, in theory I do some blogging, but in practise I haven't managed to get this part of the routine to stick yet. As I say, this is the ideal day, not reality!
Running and "reading" is a great way for me to start the day. It wakes me up, and I enjoy being able to do something while listening to the books. Sometimes my mind will wander a little and think about work. And I let it - I'm not forcing myself to learn and if I miss a minute or two of narration, it's not the end of the world by any means.
When I return about fifty minutes later I am all hot and sweaty and so spend the next thirty to forty-five minutes just cooling down and generally doing various bits and pieces around the house. Making breakfast, doing dishes, generally tidying up - whatever needs doing. After that, a quick shower and then the day starts to begin in earnest.
Winding up (8am → 9:30am)
Typically I sit down at the computer around 8am with a nice hot cup of fruit tea. I then take a look at what has happened overnight. With Buffer being a globally distributed team, there is usually plenty to catch up on. It's great to see what people have done, and also important to see if there is something that I will need to get to work on that day as a result of other people's work. This usually only takes about 15 minutes or so - I try not to reply to anything during this period - it's purely catch-up time. Any replying will be done later. I usually sync up my UP band at this time too and log my run in the app, while looking over the rest of the teams recent activity, making any comments or encouragement I want to.
Once I'm all caught up on what has been going on, I make a list of what my priorities are for the day. Again, this doesn't take too long, but I like to structure it so that I can begin with something small that I know I will be able to do - maybe it's something as trivial as fixing a typo in the web app, or some other task that doesn't require much investigation and where I know the solution. Other tasks for the day depend on what needs doing but will typically either be one of our current roadmap items or else looking into some strange behaviour that we've seen.
I like to have a quick win to start the day. Being able to check something in, deploy it and get that feeling of satisfaction early on in the day is a real boost - regardless of how small and trivial it is. It provides momentum in the right direction and if the worst comes to the worst and I don't get anything else done in the day, I will always have achieved at least one success.
Having caught-up and having made my plan for the day, it's likely to be around 8:30am now. If there are any team emails that I need to reply to, I do this now, if they aren't going to take too long. Likewise if I have been mentioned in HipChat (our collaboration tool) I will probably reply if needed here. I will also reply to any interesting conversations that have cropped up overnight. Nothing too intense here, just chatter really.
Around 8:45am I pack my stuff up and leave the house. I tend to travel pretty light - I have a shoulder bag into which goes my A4 notebook for general jotting during the day, and my laptop. Into another compartment goes the power lead, and depending on the weather my fleece will either go in here too, be worn, be carried or be left behind altogether (the joys of the British weather!). I clip my pen to my shirt, grab wallet, keys and phone, stick my earphones and I'm out the door.
First stop is to grab my lunch. I have recently been grabbing a delicious cheese layered salad from Tesco together with a diet Irn-Bru. I've got quite used to it now, so it makes the choice a lot faster if I don't have to worry about what to choose.
Provisions purchased it's time to make my way to my first pub of the the day which takes about 20 minutes or so. When the sun is out it's great to be out and about in the fresh air enjoying the walk and listening to Spotify as I go. When it's raining it's not quite as much fun, but it's still refreshing. I've not yet had the pleasure of trying this in the winter. I think I will still enjoy it, although my footwear and clothing might become a bit more substantial.
The morning push (09:30am → 1pm)
The Tivoli is my first choice of first pub. It opens early (at 8am) and is pretty quiet. You can even get a beer if you so desire - although I stick with a more traditional coffee. It used to be a cinema, and is pretty large with decent views over the river Cam if you so desire. I tend not to, and instead have my usual table which sits under a nice picture/montage of Charles Darwin.
Upon arrival, I get my coffee, grab my table and get myself set up. Once that's done I immediately get to work on that first quick win task. All being well, that should be out of the way in around fifteen minutes and then I can settle into something more chunky.
Nothing much to say other than that - naturally the specifics depend very much on what I am doing. However, I will be there for a couple of hours, and then, after a bathroom break move on to the next pub at around 11:30am.
The Boathouse is literally next door, so there isn't much time for reflection. However, the whole process of packing everything up, the bathroom break, moving to the next pub, ordering my orange juice and setting everything back up does give some time to think. It's actually pretty convenient that it isn't too long a break bearing in mind that I haven't been working for very long at that point, so it's unlikely that I am stuck or frustrated about something just yet!
The Boathouse has the advantage of having lots of open-air seating. If it's warm I sit outside, sip an orange juice and continue to work. At this point I am probably in the middle of some task and can continue to work through it for the next ninety minutes or so, until 1pm.
Lunch (1pm → 1:30pm)
I spend my lunch walking (strolling really) along the river, eating my salad and just relaxing. By this time it's possible I am beginning to struggle with something, so it's great to get away from it, and just get out and about. As always, exactly what I do is dependent upon the weather, so I might take a quicker route to my next stop, or I might stretch it out a bit, have a sit down on Jesus Green and watch the world go by for a while.
If I'm lucky, I might get hit with a sudden realisation at some point during lunch that will give me a boost for the work I will be doing in the afternoon. However, even if I don't, I will be nicely recharged and ready for the challenge ahead.
Afternoon (1:30pm → 5pm)
I have three pubs I tend to visit in the afternoon - the Waterman, the Fort St George and the Burleigh Arms. All are generally pretty quiet at this time of the day and are easy to focus in. The Fort St George has outside seating so is particularly suited to the nicer days, although it does naturally tend to get a bit busier on those days exactly because it has the outside seating.
This is usually the "meat" of my day when I tend to get the most done. If all goes well, I can get a serious chunk of productive work done in all three locations - and that would be the perfect outcome.
On the other hand if something is starting to annoy me and I am failing to make progress, it can be good to change location, and try a different tactic rather than continuing to struggle with whatever is causing the problems. In this way, even on a bad day, I at least get to try out three or four different approaches which is usually enough to make something "click" and make tomorrow better at least!
Quite often I will have a daily pair call at some point in the afternoon. This is something we use at Buffer to sync up about what we have been up to:
[...] for one week two people on the team get paired up and have their own mini one-on-one. During their daily calls they talk about challenges, improvements, and what they're working on.
The pairings are completely random and everyone participates, so people who might not talk that often--like an engineer and a technical support person--get the chance to do so.
It's also a great way to get daily face time, something we can't otherwise easily do since we're a distributed company.
[Jeff Haden, Inc.] I like to try and be at the Burleigh Arms for this because I can almost guarantee that I will have the back room to myself and it will be quiet and distraction-free.
As 5pm rolls round, I'm usually starting to flag a little. I've been awake for a while now, and having been on the go for a lot of the day it's starting to take its toll. So at this point I will start making my way home, stopping at one last pub on the way, my local, the Haymakers.
Winding down (5:30pm → 6:30pm)
It's a bit of walk to get from the Burleigh Arms to the Haymakers, so this in itself is a great way to wind down. Once again, it's mainly along the river so is very relaxing.
When I get to the pub, I aim not to work on anything major. Instead this is the time to tie up any loose ends that I might have thought of, or to do some administrivia, or something else that doesn't take too much brainpower.
The intention here is to start making that transition away from work, so that I don't end up working all evening on something. Yes, sometimes this does happen, if something needs to be done quickly, or if something has gone wrong and I need to respond to it. But I try not to!
The evening (6:30pm → 10:30pm)
Evenings are spent eating, relaxing, catching up with the cat and spending time with my wife. I might check what's happening in HipChat and email from time to time, just in case I am needed. However, the US is generally awake by now, so it's rare that I am called into action.
This is a pretty lengthy description of what I try to do. I don't think I have ever actually experienced this level of perfection yet, but it is what I strive for. Little things do get in the way and alter the timings a few minutes each way which is to be expected. But bigger things can also cause effects, like when one of my pubs was shut for a week. Also, being Britain, the weather can have a large effect on how far I will venture out.
Some days I don't go out round town at all - maybe I have to stay in to do some housework or some shopping. Even then I try to split my day up according to this schedule, and go for occasional strolls to simulate pub transitions. I'll be the first to admit that it isn't always particularly successful though.
I'd love to hear other people's experiences of creating a routine when none is necessary and how they structure their day - please do comment!