Mind Over Matter — Alan Fletcher

What ‘Working Smarter’ means to me

There’s no hiding from it, I love my work. I love design thinking, design making, and design talking. Over the last few years I’ve worked out how to work smarter. I’ve come to this conclusion because I can now do these 3 things:

  1. Be more productive by starting with the hard stuff
  2. Have more energy by structuring my week
  3. Disconnect from design by carrying less

The truth is I haven’t always been good at working.

Earlier in my career I would turn up late and work into the night. This was partly due to the hangovers I had inflicted upon myself, and also partly due to my indecision. Not so good for design. Then when I started taking on more responsibility and managing people I didn’t have enough of a game plan. This led me to being reactionary to every demand thrown at me. I found both these modes of working produce mediocre results.

I’ve seen a few posts recently about how people and companies are developing new practices to work in smarter ways. I thought it only seemed right I should share what’s helped me get better. Some of this may even work for you.

Start with the hard stuff

The first shift in me ‘working smarter’ was when I read this book from 99u a few years ago. It shared a bunch of stories and practical tips about managing your time. The chapter that resonated with me the most was about this guy who woke up, drowned in his emails, ran to the office, and started hammering through all the requests. By lunchtime he has lost half of his day and was too exhausted to tackle anything mentally challenging. Then he stopped doing that. He stopped looking at his email. He went to work and focused on the most important and challenging project he had on his plate.

I gave this a go and it worked out pretty well. I shared the suggestion amongst the team and we all began starting our days thinking through the hardest projects we were working on. For us this was complex user flows for the software we were designing. Then we started taking meetings in the afternoon only. We got to a place where we would avoid doing routine tasks such as design production in the morning. We learned we needed a clear head to do the hard stuff first.

Structuring my week

At the start of last year I read ‘You can’t bleed over’ by Bob Baxley. The gist is he set a goal for each day of the week. This focus allowed him to plan his time and energy, and therefore maximize his impact. At the time I thought the structured approach wouldn’t really work for me. I wasn’t that organized was I? As the year went on two feelings continued to surface: 1. I felt distant from the projects our team were working on and 2. I was taking on too many team projects and not following through. This was a problem as my job as a design manager required me to be available, and more importantly get stuff done for the team.

When I got back from vacation last July I thought I’d give Bob’s routine a try. I made a couple of customizations to suit what I wanted to do at Percolate. My week started to shape up like this:

Monday is status day: Team meetings and 1–1 catch-ups.
Tuesday is working hours: Casual design sessions and group critiques.
Wednesday is company day: Catch-up with other teams across the company.
Thursday is design review day: Design reviews all day. 30 mins each team.
Friday is team day: Work on team initiatives.

A few things happened. First, I love Thursday’s. Best day of the week. Also, I was really bad at making Wednesday happen. It never did to be honest. Everything I did on Monday and Tuesday always bled over. Recently I’ve had more luck with Wednesday. I’ve started to work with our employee experience team on Wednesdays. This seems to have done the job. I needed to connect with other teams in the company and now I do that with our employee experience projects.

Some people said they thought my new schedule looked too structured. The most important thing is it’s given me and our teams rhythm. We know how we start the week, we know when we’re aiming for review and reflection points.

Carrying less

The third shift of ‘working smarter’ for me is an affect of redesigning my schedule. Breaking down my week has allowed me to be more discplined. Let me explain. It turns out working at a start-up means there is never down time. In the pursuit of being better there is plenty of projects to be working on. This leads many people to work into the evenings and weekends. I used to be one of those people. Not so much anymore.

Breaking out my week helped me compartmentalize stuff. Rather than trying to juggle multiple things at the same time I started to feel better about not thinking about all the projects, all the time. I knew I would tackle them again on a specific day, perhaps next week. Whilst it’s not always that easy, I do go to the office each day with a clear intention and the energy needed for the day ahead. And when Friday comes around I feel good about letting things lie and switching off for a couple of days.

It turns out the people I work with appreciate it when I’m carrying less too. I also think they appreciate less emails and slack messages on the weekend. I’m ok with letting things go. Weekends are much better without work. I get to recharge. Mondays always come around again, and the good news is when they do we get to do it all over again.