Over the past three years, the global pandemic has necessitated and accelerated new patterns of hybrid and remote work. This has led to the highlighted importance of structuring healthy and effective work weeks for both managers and employees. While this transition has been fraught with tension and challenges, it has also given countless individuals an opportunity to reset their relationship with work. In this article, you’ll find proven tips on managing every aspect of the work week schedule from prioritization to rest. Read it from the beginning or jump ahead to a particular section below:
- Rest & Reflect
Before jumping directly into your work week, give yourself space to decompress and brainstorm all your tasks for the coming week. Intentionally giving space to do so can help ensure that small, recurring, or one-off tasks do not slip between the cracks amidst the frenetic pace of your typical workday with scheduled and ad-hoc meetings as well as endless email and Slack messages. This can be done at the end of your previous work week (typically Friday afternoons) or at the beginning of your work week (often Monday mornings).You might also brainstorm potential work topics based upon a set number of categories. This could include categories related to functional workstreams (e.g. a marketer might categorize workstreams between email, social, or SEO-related work) or broader categories (e.g. core work, one-off projects, long-term bets, professional development, relational investment, etc.). After brainstorming a complete set of priorities for the upcoming week, you can use a simple tool like the Eisenhower Matrix to identify four categories of work: 1) Important & Pressing) 2) Important & Not Pressing 3) Not Important & Pressing 4) Not Important and Not Pressing. Tasks in category #1 will always be of the highest importance. Tasks in categories 2 and 3 must be balanced between the competing priorities of short-term needs and longer-term interests. A common understanding of this framework is to schedule out important but non-urgent tasks and delegate (wherever possible) not important but urgent tasks. Finally, items that are not important and not pressing can be deleted or, if necessary, appended to a work backlog and addressed at a later point during lighter stretches of work.
Another tool you may consider for more complex projects is utilizing critical path diagrams. The visual example below demonstrates how a given project may have multiple inputs needed for completion, but there are often one or two “critical paths” that are more time-sensitive relative to others. These types of project management tools are particularly helpful for tackling complex problems (e.g. manufacturing a Boeing 747).
Ultimately, the point of completing these prioritization exercises is to acknowledge the importance of not only doing things right but doing the right things. Too often, corporate bureaucracy or personal nearsightedness can lead to the wrong task being completed at the wrong time for the wrong reasons.
After creating a prioritized list of work items for the week, it’s time to match your priorities against your calendar. A successful calendar should quickly reflect what’s important even to an outsider unfamiliar with your normal working rhythms. One tool you can use amidst scheduling is timeboxing your tasks and meetings by giving everything an appropriate expected amount of time needed to fulfill that task. This helps ensure that you can keep yourself accountable on completing tasks in an appropriate amount of time.
Another perspective you can consider when scheduling is managing your energy. While time passes at a discrete continuous interval, energy levels wax and wane throughout the day. Do you tend to be an early riser or a night owl? Most people find that they have their highest amounts of energy during the morning. Do you find that to be true for yourself? Are you giving yourself appropriate breaks for meals and rest periods throughout the day?
One other important concept when considering how to structure your work week is batching. Batching similar tasks together can help you avoid the pitfalls of context switching (i.e. switching between different modes of work which may lead to unnecessary productivity drag due to the mental load of processing so many disparate workstreams).
You might consider batching small admin tasks together so that these tasks do not interrupt the flow of thoughtful creative work. Batching meetings, while also leaving necessary mini-breaks can also help you take on the mental challenge of managing or attending meetings in a number of intentional meeting blocks while preserving much-needed time for independent work. Batching can be done on an hourly level (e.g. mornings for work, afternoons for meetings) as well as a daily level (e.g. Tuesdays dedicated to reporting, Wednesdays to new growth initiatives).
Ultimately, no one’s schedule is 100% in their own control. However, realizing your own needs and preferences in order to control for the factors you can control and advocate for the ones you can’t can make the difference between a successful work week and… just another work week. These principles around scheduling have helped inform how we at Xembly have designed our scheduling assistant, Xena, to work in partnership with everyday knowledge workers. Xembly users can input their preferences (e.g. general work hours, preferred structure of meeting hours throughout the day, etc.) and partner with Xena to schedule meetings and focused work time throughout their day. To try it for yourself, sign up at xembly.com to get on the waitlist.
Despite our best intentions to structure the perfect work, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” as Steinbeck has reminded us. Especially in a globally and digitally connected world, change is the only constant and that includes our precious work schedule. In light of this, it’s important to integrate adaptability as a core value and practice in one’s work rhythms. A well-structured plan for the week should provide additional flexibility to account for unexpected meetings and tasks. Building in a healthy margin can mean that you’re able to squeeze in that extra meeting or task without destroying your work week.
For Xembly users, much of this adaptation is automated. 15-minute Reminders and 60-minute Block Times provide buffer space in your schedule to get things done. When things need to be moved around, Xembly can automatically shift these Reminders and Block Times forward to ensure a surprise workstream does not totally disrupt your week. “No plan survives first contact with the enemy,” but with the right proactive vigilance, the plan can reemerge with greater clarity and precision.
Rest and Reflect
Any conversation relating to work should also include a conversation on rest. Science has repeatedly confirmed that adequate sleep and healthy rhythms for life are necessary prerequisites not just for a healthy life but for a productive work life. Proper rest includes a true weekend with substantial periods of offline capacity, a few rest blocks within one’s daily schedule, and micro moments of rest to simply shift our attention away from the screen.
The 20-20-20 rule reminds us to look away at a distance of at least 20 feet for 20 seconds every 20 minutes. Doing so can help you protect not only your eyes but your mental health.In the midst of these micro and prolonged periods of rest, it’s important to reflect on your work. Are there ways you can be going about your work more effectively? What changes need to be made to your personal lifestyle to ensure you can bring your best self to work? Pondering these kinds of questions can help ensure that your relationship with work is healthy and productive on an ongoing basis.
At Xembly, these foundational truths have guided our approach to product innovation. From onboarding, users are invited to share their desired working hours, working style (e.g. I work best in the mornings and prefer to take meetings in the afternoon), and meeting batching preferences. These user preferences will then shape how Xembly partners with the individual to craft the perfect work week.
For most knowledge workers, success is not a function of how many hours you worked or how many meetings you scheduled. Success is a function of the quality of the work you produce. Taking time to prioritize, schedule, adapt, and reflect upon your work week is a luxury no one can afford to skip. If you’re passionate about the work you do, or even if you’re just trying to keep your job for a few more months, implementing these practices can help you make the most of your scarcest commodity, your time. We hope you’ll adapt these to your working rhythms.PS:If you’d like a hand with integrating these healthy working principles into your life, give xembly.com a try!