Time “On Low”: a Productivity Hack I Can Get Behind

It’s like interval training, but at work.

Taylor Coil
Mar 22, 2019 · 5 min read
Kayaking Spanish Wells with my mom, my favorite place for “time on low.”

I’ve been sprinting at work recently.

I get to my workspace at 7:30 am and turn off my phone; I know I’ll spend half the day texting Katherine and Georgette if I don’t. I hide the damn thing in my daypack, just to be safe. I turn up Spotify. Complete a pomodoro. Stand up, stretch, refill my mug of tea. Walk to my buddy Mikaela’s desk to chat and give my brain a break. Walk back to my own desk when something else requires Mikaela’s attention. I stretch, sit down, do it again.

Sprinting feels good.

Too good.

That’s why burnout happens, right? We feed off the accomplishment of bullish productivity, chasing dizzy exhilaration without a sideways glance, then wonder how we’ve exhausted all cognitive function. (Hi, welcome to my early 20s.)

When I finish a workhorse week, I feel powerful. For a while. But it’s not sustainable.

I used to think that made me weak.

It doesn’t. I must take space to excel, otherwise, I’ll be constantly drained and therefore constantly mediocre.

Pace Yourself, Self

My job has a natural cadence. One week might be high-pressure, filled with intense projects that demand a lot of mental energy. The next week might be slow, requiring less focus, less brainspace, less time.

At previous jobs, slow weeks were “find things to do” weeks. Ass-in-chair-for-8-hours-no-matter-what weeks. Weeks marked by tedium, sparking wistful thoughts of an entirely different life.

Not so at Tortuga, a company rooted in work On Your Terms. I can lean out during a slow week.

Just as sheet masks and Netflix binges are lauded as the foils enabling a millennial woman’s drive, time on low is my secret weapon to my productivity fire.

That’s important because when I’m on fire, I’m ON FIRE. I don’t want to lose that magic to burnout.

Time On Low is Interval Training

It’s about giving myself a break, allowing myself to do the minimum viable effort, approaching leisure and play with the reverence I typically devote to career.

But just for a little while, because I know I’ve earned it after a sprint. And I know I must recuperate in advance of another one.

Right now, time on low is 6 days in the Bahamas with my laptop and my snorkeling gear.

Two hours before this picture was taken, I was in a Tortuga product meeting. (In my Airbnb. I didn’t bring my laptop on the boat. I’m not a monster.)

It’s coming off the beach to respond to emails when my pale skin needs a break from the sun. Or it’s waking up at 5 AM to complete my crucial to-dos by 9, then devoting the rest of day to play.

Time on low doesn’t have to mean vacation; maybe it’s allowing yourself to close your laptop at 2 pm for five days in a row, effectively keeping the hours of a schoolchild.

Whatever it looks like for you, it must be intentionally rejuvenating and soaked in pleasure. Otherwise, what’s the point?

How to Prep for Time On Low

I’ll preface this with an obvious caveat: most companies don’t support time on low. That’s a crying shame.

If you do have the freedom to set your own schedule, perhaps my methodology will be helpful.

Expectations are everything.

Here is mine: I won’t miss deadlines, but I don’t promise to meet new ones unless you give me extra buffer time. I’ll prep for and attend all scheduled calls, but please don’t add any more to my calendar. I will respond to emails, but I might not immediately check off the thing you just assigned me in Asana.

I tell my team a couple of weeks in advance when I plan to be “on low.” My wording is something like this:

I’m working from [date] to [date], but less. I won’t be as task-agile as usual. If you need something from me in the next month and I haven’t given you an ETA yet, please tell me so I can plan ahead.

Do you know how the week before a vacation is always incredibly intense?

That, but less so, because you don’t have to get everything done in advance. You just have to set yourself up to be in a place to work 1–3 hours a day. Still intense, but far more manageable.

For me, this is the hardest part. I find it’s easier to justify a week completely off than a week on low, working just a few hours a day. I still feel that way, 3.5 years into my tenure at Tortuga. Time on low goes against everything I was taught about the way the American workforce ought to work, and that takes a lot of effort to break.

When I’m on low, I try to remember the magic I pulled off in my last sprint. I remember the feeling of burnout, how it’s impossible to find that magic when I’m tired. It doesn’t always work, but remembering my WHY for time on low (beyond pleasure, that is) helps me fight back guilt.

I won’t be task-agile because I’m too busy feeding wild pigs. That’s a perfectly reasonable excuse, don’t @ me.

Don’t Forget to Take Time Off, Too

Vacations are still relevant. I forgot how relevant, how wonderful, how indulgent they are until last November when I took a true vacation-vacation with my girlfriends. I came back feeling more refreshed than ever.

There should be room for both times off and time on low.

I’ve made room; I like to take ~ 2 weeks off per year, and 6–7 weeks “on low.” That probably sounds like a lot, and by American standards, it is.

But our company — and my career — are doing just fine. (Better than just fine. We’re growing revenue at a staggering rate and maintaining profitability.)

Most importantly: I feel great.

Just for fun: here’s my Slack conversation with Tortuga’s editor, Jenn, that inspired this post.

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