Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
A system is resilient to the degree to which it rapidly and effectively protects its critical capabilities from disruptions caused by adverse events and conditions. (Source)
Little did I know towards the end of last year, while setting up a system to allow my professional growth, that it was going to become the lighthouse bringing me to safe harbor during the tempest.
In March of this year, the world changed.
I have been working for a distributed company for more than nine years, and before that, I had worked remotely most of my life. It would be easy to reach the conclusion that for my colleagues and myself, changes were less deep than for the rest of the world.
The reality though is that for all its advantages, working from anywhere also comes with challenges. In my case, the struggle is about maintaining sufficient levels of physical activity, and social interactions.
It is great luck to have your passion and your work overlap, but when your home and office are also the same places it can become consuming. In normal times, the world around you can be used as a guide: kids go to school and come back, you want to hit the gym during a quiet hour, meeting friends for lunch or dinner drags you out of the house, and then weekends come and go with their whole sleeve of potential activities.
When the world suddenly changes, and staying home becomes the smart (or mandatory) thing to do, when suddenly every day looks exactly like the previous one, having a preexisting structure, and being accustomed to it for months, helped me incommensurably.
That was a stark reminder that the future will always manage to surprise us, and the only way to be ready is to prepare ourselves during times of stability.
Last November I shared the principles behind my schedule, here’s how it looks now on a typical week:
Almost every slot between Monday and Friday is allocated to an activity. The mornings mostly reserved for focused time and solo work, the afternoons overall dedicated to collaboration with others.
I take some time on Monday morning to allocate the morning green slots to specific tasks based on the moment’s priorities. I also leave a few open slots in the afternoons to have the ability to handle the unexpected requests from teammates without becoming a bottleneck for anyone.
With very rare exceptions, I never schedule meetings in the morning.
On top of giving me daily opportunities to do uninterrupted, focused, work, it also sets a limit to the number of meetings I can participate in on a given week, which in turn pushes me to prioritize which ones to attend.
It is crucial to be present for my teammates, but it is even more important for them to be empowered to make decisions autonomously, and for me to be able to focus on the aspects of my role that require concentration. This reminds me of the safety instructions from airplanes: put a mask on yourself before helping others.
Ten months have passed since I started experimenting with this type of structure, and I was certainly helped by the fact that when the first lockdown measures took place in March this year, I had already built routines and habits around it.
With that being said, while it is, of course, preferable to prepare for a crisis during quiet times, that’s not always possible, and particularly when the changes disrupting our lives are there to last, we must remember that for all the changes that we have not asked for, we always have the option to introduce more structure to our days to create a framework that will guide us when we are confused.
That’s precisely the primary way the system helps me: I have good days, and bad days, super focused days, and days I absolutely can’t concentrate. I am particularly struggling with those days I feel like I am drowning in newsfeeds, each one more daunting and pessimistic than the previous one.
Whenever I start feeling like I am losing control though, my calendar is always one keystroke away, which allows me to recenter on the task at hand or the upcoming meeting, and puts me back on track.
That is until night comes. I am still working on that. It seems that the one boundary I can’t respect so far is the one between awake and sleep time. I have been quite good in the mornings, at avoiding been swallowed by newsfeeds as soon as I open my eyes, but I am failing at it at night, and I too often waste an hour or more of precious sleep to read news and analysis from all around the world.
The results are positive so far. I want to be very candid though, I believe that there are contextual factors that have amplified the short term results but may have a delayed cost.
On the one hand, a non-negligible productivity boost comes from having eliminated travel from my life. With an average of one week per month away from home, between the time spent in airports, planes, catching up with jetlag, and focusing on activities different from my day-to-day, I was always playing a game of catch-up in the past.
I now have much tighter control on my schedule, being at home every day, and my todo list has never been shorter and cleaner.
This is something we’ll have to pay back in the future. Six months in, I start feeling that the lack of time spent face to face is affecting us already.
September is the month where traditionally we would meet the full company at the Automattic Grand Meetup.
There are too many colleagues hired in 2020 who never met any of their teammates in real life, there are too many laughs, hugs, meals, and drinks that have been indefinitely postponed.
On the other hand, a number of activities I was having a hard time being consistent with, like going to the gym, or to the coworking space, have now been off-limits for months.
This has contributed to making me feel better about myself for a while, but I am increasingly aware that this too, will demand payback at some point.
At least I have managed to keep my weight in check, and actually lose a few kilos since March, by eating only every other day… but that’s another story and another post.
Our ability to control our lives, our environment, and our schedule will vary, but as Nir Eyal explains in his book “Indistractable”, it’s not what we do with our time that matters, as much as whether we do what we had planned to do.
I am optimistic, we’ll get out of the current crisis.
I will keep iterating on this system. Experimenting, listening for feedback, preparing for the changes I will see coming, and building resilience to handle the ones I won’t.