I’ve experimented with a few different formats for my work day from really long, to pretty normal, to really short. I pick different formats based on the specific demands a day has in store for me and my energy levels.
When I’m picking the kind of work day I’ll have, the biggest deciding factor is the whether I need to do more shallow work or more deep work. My personal definition for deep vs shallow work is a bit different than Cal Newport’s: I use shallow work as a catch all for a lot of different types of work. I mean work that can be done in smaller stretches of 20 minute to 1 hour and is best characterized by its obligatory nature. It needs to get done to keep things running smoothly: responding the customers, reviewing a colleague’s work, paying bills, fixing and maintaining things that have already been built. Conversely deep work is usually work that requires hours at a stretch, moves things forward instead of simply keeps things running, and is typically truly creative work.
Here’s the three kinds of work day formats I use:
All day affair
I start my day as soon as I wake up and end a couple hours after dinner. During that 14 hour span take multiple breaks: a shower, short 15-20 minutes walks between tasks, a lunch break, a break for a workout or run, and a break for dinner.
There’s two situations in which I find this kind of work day useful.
If I’ve got a high volume of obligatory work with a lot of context switching. Each break gives me a chance to reset to a new context and restore my energy and focus.
If I’m really sinking my teeth into building something and I’m in the execution phase where I just need raw hours to implement a lot of smaller details. This usually happens once a project is off the ground and I’m trying to wrap it up.
This format isn’t sustainable for me. I did it for years at a stretch when first starting Sunsama but I constantly felt exhausted and didn’t have time for anything else I enjoyed. Nowadays, in a given week, I can happily fit in one day like this in a week. It lets me get a lot done and I’ll use it to clear the way for calmer days later in the week.
This is your classic 9-6 with a lunch break. I start the day with some light reading and quiet time, I do a few hours of shallow work in the morning. I reset with a lunch break and get 3-4 hours to dive deep on one project. It leaves ample time in the evening for family and leisure.
This is my most used work day template because it gives me a healthy balance between my shallow work obligations and deep work.
This format contradicts popular productivity advice that says you need to do your most important and creative work first. I find doing shallow work first reduces my sense of overwhelm and anxiety.
If I start my day with deep work, my ‘notification brain’ would be jonesing the whole time to see what’s happening in my inboxes and Slack. Instead of fighting this feeling off, I give in and get it out of the way. The downside is that ‘notification brain’ has inertia and giving into it to start the day can keep it hungry the rest of the day. The long lunch break gives my fiendish notification brain a chance to settle down.
It’s also dangerous to start with deep work. You run the risk of getting sucked in and neglecting shallow obligations. If it starts piling up, shallow work tends to look disproportionately more overwhelming and intimidating. Even worse, neglected shallow work tends to cause hard to reverse problems when it’s neglected like when you don’t pay the bills on time and the electricity gets cut off.
I find this daily format highly sustainable but not maximally enjoyable. I can do it for months on end and make consistent progress on important projects. The downside is that after a morning of shallow work, those afternoon hours are at a slightly degraded focus
I set aside an hour to do any shallow work, then I dive deep on a single project for four hours and then finish my day early. If I’m really feeling it, I can keep going for a bit longer.
I use this format in the following situations, if the previous few days were long and tiring, if I need to start on a brand new multi-week project, if I don’t have too many shallow work obligations.
In my perfect world, this format brings me the most joy and it’s how I’d choose to structure every day. I can make surprising progress in four hours when utilizing my peak focus and energy. If my energy stays high there’s enough time to extend the work session another hour two. If I stop at four hours, it gives me significant time for an activity outside of work besides dinner, exercise and family time.
I try and do this at least once a week, if not two days a week. I typically do it in the middle of the week and it helps me reset my focus battery half way through the week.
Small days big contrast
The first two days aren’t particularly special. I think everyone has tried those or some variant of them. The core four day is radical. Most people won’t ever try it because their workplace doesn’t support it, they feel too guilty to try, or their drowning in a high volume of shallow work.
Four hours of deep work and only one hour of shallow work is a radical change but it also provides contrast that helps you learn about your focus, energy, and work in a way that working all day doesn’t.
In my own experiments, I learned that I could get pretty close to my normal total output in just four hours of peak focus. After those four hours, I work slowly and sloppily. Two slow sloppy hours of work is about one peak focus hour for me. This helped me realize that my guilt for not working eight hours didn’t make any sense in terms of total output.
Forcing myself into one hour of shallow work and a singular deep work block also helped me better realize how much shallow work I’m dealing with on a day to day basis. Knowing the core four day brings me the most joy has motivated me to find ways to reduce the shallow work I need to do each day.