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Soft Skills: Structuring Your Day for Success

Take a moment to think about the structure of your day.

When was the last time you considered how you design your daily activities?

In this article, we’ll discuss three simple and practical tips based on research that could help you optimize your efforts and be a happier designer.

Let’s jump in!

Day Design: Don’t Let it Just “Happen”

One of the theoretical points of design is to intentionally shape something towards a better outcome than if it was to shape itself.

As a web designer, you do this every day on behalf of your clients and users.

It’s easy to forget that design isn’t a narrow concept. We can take the principles of intentionality and apply them in other areas of our lives. What better to be intentional about than your time?

Your Day, Everyone’s Benefit

Before we go any further, let’s lay down this simple truth: when your day is designed well, everyone benefits.

We are not talking about taking superfluous breaks and working five hours a week in your full-time job. We’re talking about creating a flow in your day that matches the way your brain works.

When you take time to align your efforts with the way your brain works, the output of your efforts is enhanced. Your ability to achieve things like “flow state” increases. This results in better work, higher productivity, higher satisfaction, and ultimately holistic health benefits.

If your goal is to try to “hack” your time and work less, this article isn’t for you. If instead your goal is to work smarter, read on.

1. Find Your Rhythms

In Daniel Pink’s new book “When”, he outlines a summary of a large collection of research that essentially establishes a strong argument for a common rhythm for human performance and mood.

httpwwwdanpinkcom
danpink.com

Essentially, the average person will go through a three-stage process in their day: a peak, a trough, and a recovery.

Depending on how you are wired, you may experience this in the opposite direction (recovery, trough, and then peak). For most people, the peak is in the morning, trough is after lunch, and the recovery is in the late afternoon into the evening. If you happen to wake up a bit later and consider yourself a night owl, you might be in the group that experiences the “recovery” period in the morning.

So why does this matter? What do these stages mean to my work?

  • In your peak hours, you are much more engaged to do intensive work. This is work that requires a lot of thinking and active processing, and the willpower to reject interruptions and distractions.
  • In your trough hours, you should be careful with making decisions. This would be a good time to do repetitive or administrative work.
  • In your recovery hours, your ability to think creatively is actually enhanced, as your inhibitions are lowered. Distraction is more likely to occur, so more creative input and brainstorming is suited for this period.
peak trough or recovery You decide
Peak, trough, or recovery?

Just knowing this, you can structure your day as a designer. Assuming you follow the average curve of peak hours in the morning, your day may look like this:

08:00-11:30: Two or three sessions of deep, focused, solitary work. Coding that requires a lot of thinking is particularly well suited for this period. Technical learning is also well suited for this period.

11:30-12:45: Get out of the office or out of the house for a solid lunch break (justification for this is also covered in Pink’s book.)

12:45-15:30: Building out templates, tracking time, checking emails, managing time sheets or schedules, internal meetings, cleaning and budgeting work. If you have the flexibility, consider taking an hour or two to run errands during this period.

15:30-18:30: Client meetings, brainstorming, and planning meetings for new initiatives, interviews, and inspirational research.

You’ll notice that this doesn’t really look like a typical 9-to-5. Part of the reason for this is that your brain doesn’t really care about 9-to-5, which leads us to our second point…

2. Break Your 9-to-5 Barriers

The physiological side of your brain doesn’t really care what the clock says. The 9-to-5 schedule was never based on knowledge work or optimizing based on neuroscience. So, why do we continue to let it dictate our working habits?

If your brain is most creative at 17:15 in the afternoon, doesn’t it make the most sense to take advantage of that fact?

By no means does this require that you throw away your schedule entirely. Rather, consider what ways you can shift your schedule around. Do you normally go to the gym after work? Perhaps it’s time to swap that time for post-lunch.

For web designers, this kind of flexibility is often more attainable than in other careers. Take advantage of this likelihood.

If you are most creative at sunrise, maybe coming in early for a few hours and then taking a mid-day break is the best strategy for both you and the company you work with.

Coffee Break
Coffee (or tea?) break

This is even more true for freelancers.

Imagine the most ideal schedule you can based on these realities. What can you do today to take advantage of your brain’s physiology, even if you don’t upend your schedule? Maybe it’s a simple rearrangement of tasks, or maybe it’s a total redesign from the ground up.

One thing is for sure: if you restrict yourself to a single timebox of working hours, you likely won’t be able to take advantage of the way your brain naturally works.

3. Practice Brain Hygiene

You wash your hair and hands, you brush your teeth, and you change into new clothes each day because you understand the importance of hygiene.

You probably have heard things like “digital detox” circulating. But for most young developers and designers, it is all too easy to ignore these kinds of digital abstinence habits; our work revolves around the digital space.

The truth is, our brains aren’t wired to work in consistent solid blocks. In fact, they aren’t wired to do anything in solid blocks for very long.

Instead, we’re wired to do things in cycles, with regular rest intervals and effort intervals.

Let’s explaine why this makes sense.

Imagine that your active learning and working process is like bringing groceries in in bags. Typically, if you’re like most people, you’re going to bring all the groceries in and put the bags on your counter.

That isn’t the only part of putting the groceries away; it is merely the first step. Once you’ve completed that work, then you need to assimilate those groceries into your cabinets.

You may have to evaluate where they fit, and what to throw away to make space for these new groceries.

This is kind of how your brain works. As you learn, and as you work, your brain is actively involved in making cognitive connections in your conscious mind.

However, once that work is done, your brain needs to assimilate the new information into longer term storage, and associate that information with other things you already know.

When does this happen? When you are taking a break. Most effectively, this happens when you are resting, especially while sleeping.

In order to take effective breaks, limit your break-time activity to the following:

  • Positive socializing. Don’t gossip or vent during your break. Talk about the positive life events with other people.
  • Get outside. If you can get into nature, research shows much more effective post-break work as a correlated result.
  • Meditation. Take a moment to quiet your mind and ground yourself in your present situation. This will help trigger your brain and body’s relaxation mechanisms.
  • Take a walk. “Get the blood flowing” isn’t just a catchphrase, it actually works! Exercise has well established mental benefits (beyond the more obvious physical benefits).

get the blood flowing
Get the blood flowing. Though obviously you don’t have to sprint down the high street.

All of This Sounds Great, But…

There are plenty of reasons we don’t do these things today. Our work cultures and habits are very difficult to change. However, it takes the first person making one small change to shift the tide.

Start by making one new positive habit that takes advantage of a new day-design. Use your free time, like weekend days, to structure your activities in ways that best utilize your natural way of thriving.

If nothing else, experimenting with new ways of working and thinking will provide variety and novelty in your day-to-day, and may help break up your monotonous cycles.

What habits and patterns have you found that help you design a better day? Leave your own tips in the comments below!