The One Step That Unlocks Your Work Day

The One Step That Unlocks Your Work Day
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Today I'm going to share with you the simple hack I use to plan the first hour of my day at work. The 21st century world in which we work has no off switch. Red dots everywhere. Notifications start streaming in after everyone has had enough caffeine. Work is no longer about reaching milestones, it's about keeping up.

Planning the first hour of work changes everything.

You start your day with intent. You don't start by scanning for fires or OPB (Other People's Business). You start with what matters and you make progress.

You can expect a sense of accomplishment. Of reduced dread. An increased sense of control. The satisfaction that the "things that matter" are not ignored.

Unfortunately, this puts you in the 1% of all professionals.  Success for most of us is measured exactly how fast we "keep up" and not by the quality of what we are doing.  Being "busy" is honestly a sign of weakness in 2023.  

This speed happens at work and on the social media apps we use with our friends. All around us, digital signals are triggering our brain to do something, anything.

Our progress is limited by how we store our work.

Our work lives in apps on our phones and desktops (no more hiding!).  There are countless ways to tag it, update it, sync it, and delegate it.  Our work is never alone; it's surrounded by hundreds of other items from all aspects of work -- all screaming for your attention.

The final straw is that working on any of those tasks forces you to go somewhere else to get it done.  We keep our work in places where we don't do our work, just where we talk about doing work.

There are other, significant reasons why people like us struggle to make actionable progress on our daily work.

  • Zero Control of Your Work Day Meetings pop up all the time since your calendar is shared. Slack and Teams notifications pour in nanoseconds after your co-worker has an idea. Or maybe it's just a funny meme? Either way, you've lose your mojo because of how others control your attention (and therefore your time).
  • No Learned Appreciation for Deep Work Few professionals today work long enough on any individual thing or project to actually reap the benefits of doing deep, purposeful work.  If all we do is shallow, frequent pinging all day long, then it's the only thing left for us to be measured on. And lucky for us, there are countless ways to be distracted from any guilt about not contributing at work.
  • Losing the Ability to Focus Getting work done means not doing other things while you are working. This isn't multitasking, it's technology induced A.D.D. Sitting with our thoughts and sifting through them is a powerful exercise that's almost extinct. Opening a new tab while you wait for the first one to load is a terrible habit. Inability to be bored. Zero capacity for reflection.
  • Optimizing for Speed Instead of Quality The goal is to be the one to answer first, not to answer best.  In a strange way our success is defined by how solid our 5G or wifi connection is, and precious little else. Anyone can look up an answer on the internet. Our world needs people who can come up with the second or third answer to a question -- otherwise we would just ask an AI Bot for the answer.

But not all is lost. There's hope in this small box that represents a daily "action" agenda. By starting small and focusing on what's inside your box, you will begin to develop the confidence and skills required to grow the impact of your work.

Here's how, step by step:

Step 1: Block out 60 minutes at the start of work tomorrow.

If you don't have the time already set aside, you won't be able to suddenly make it happen during work.

Your calendar sends a signal to your colleagues of what's possible on your end. Not getting shared work done when there's no conflict on your calendar is a big red flag to everyone else you work with. The simple act of placing an event on your calendar to close out that time signals to everyone that you are already preoccupied. This is the socially safest and most direct way to ensure you have the time to complete the 12% exercise.

The most effective option is to just headed to your calendar for a specific week. Create a repeat event for every day Monday through Friday so you can build the habit.

Alternatively, you can create a habit of closing out your workday by reviewing your open tasks and then blocking the hour for tomorrow if you need it.

When I started this journey, I tried the daily approach first, but it put too much pressure at the end of a busy day when I was already tired. I naturally gravitated to blocking out that first hour of every day. This allowed me to exit the current da, focusing on what needed to be done as opposed to also needing to switch contexts to also managing tomorrow.

Step 2: Take 10 Minutes Before You Start to Scan & Design

Consider this your warm-up. This is the mental process of getting into the pool before we start the actual session. Limbering up, light stretching, getting into the right place. All of these elements are an important part of creating a ritual of effective deep work.

All of these items you are writing down should be front of mind because you have been working on them. Generally speaking, it's better to do a mental scan of the open areas loops of work that still need to be done vs checking existing lists, etc.  
These items are psychologically the most important ones that you are tackling right now. If you don't need a system to track them, then you intuitively already know these are important to you.

Reminder: We are organizing the first hour of your workday. You will still have time to address other elements of rock that are already in process that you have been organizing and executing.

Do not hit your inbox or check in on work chatter. Those items will still be there when you close out your block,

Do not do a comprehensive scan or a deep dive into a GANNT chart - that type of work will happen later in your day.

The minute you start scanning those other areas / tools / systems, you have moved out of the optimal state of planning your hour. Now you are deep into a project or suddenly aware of other elements many of which are not in your control at this time. It's very important that we stay inside your zone of control here for this first hour.

Step 3: Design Your Hours, aka Fill In The Grid

Are you ready? It's time to identify four elements does it go into your first hour of the day.

With your Warm Up list ready, draw your version of the image above into your planner for the day.

The image is divided into four discrete sections by time allocation. Since you are dividing an hour, the top box represents 50% of the hour, or 30 minutes. The lower left box represents 25% of the time or 15 minutes. The bottom right boxes represent 1/8th of that time or roughly 7 1/2 minutes each.

Step 4: Crush Your Hour

Starting at the top, you have 30 minutes to w. Sometimes I will also switch my computer to do not disturb mode so nobody can ping me within this hour of focus. Staying as efficient and on track as possible, I move from largest to smallest across the grid.

You may need to allocate a little time at the end of each block in case the work you have chosen is part of a larger process; you might need to update that other management system. Ideally, you'll wait until the end to do that so you aren't distracted.

Step 5: Reflect and Review

With your hour of done, take a moment to just reflect on your accomplishment. And just an hour of time, you have moved four critical items forward. You did it in the order of most to least important. You dedicated time where it mattered. And you have closed them out.

Even if the rest of your day turns into an impromptu conference,  you will finish out the day knowing you got your most important work done.

This is an incredible gift to give yourself, and I hope it helps you like it has helped my clients.  

Please reply with questions or comments here or on Twitter @pmccrann.