The Odd Days System
Is it possible to have more (and better) free time while doing more (and better) work?
I had an idea in the shower the other day. Unlike most shower ideas, I put this one in practice. And I’m glad I did, as my work-life balance has never been better. All thanks to “this one weird trick.” (Traditional workplaces hate him!)
- In my personal life: I’m writing more, reading more, consuming less social media, exercising more, and getting better sleep. I’m even procrastinating less on those pesky top-left tasks on the Eisenhower Matrix! It’s beautiful.
- In my work life: I’m measurably more productive, less stressed, and I feel like the quality of my output has improved. Since I make more money the more (and more efficiently) I work, I’m literally making more money.
By rearranging my life and my work around a system I designed to minimize context switching and radically prioritize deep work. It’s not a system that will work for everyone — but it works for me, and maybe it will work for you, too.
I call it the Odd Days system.
There’s a TL;DR at the bottom if you’re in a rush, but if you feel like you’re so tired and unfocused you can’t spare the 15 minutes this story is going to take you to read, maybe it’s a sign you should stick around.
⚠️ Who is this NOT for?
Before we go any further, let me expand on what I just said: as I developed and tweaked it, this system ended up becoming utterly contrary to the way most people work — or rather, to the way most people are made to work — , so it sadly may not be a fit for you.
For it to function, you need to be able to make your own work hours and have full autonomy in how, where, and for how long you do your work.
In other words, this is mostly for people like freelancers, autonomous content-creators, hourly contractors, and (some) company owners. If you’re not one of these, the system is likely incompatible with your work life.
The problem past-me may have had in common with present-you
See if any of this is familiar to you: I never felt the days had enough hours. I would wake up concerned about how much work I needed to do that day. Meanwhile, tasks and requests that weren’t related to my main work kept piling up on my email and messaging apps.
I would see a cascade of reminders for a variety of things I didn’t want to forget to do later, and at least half of them would be snoozed even further.
I didn’t keep a to-do app because I didn’t feel like I had the time or the mental bandwidth to keep it current or to follow a trustworthy system like GTD, even in a simplified version.
While working, I would worry about important personal things. While tending to those things, I would worry that I didn’t put enough hours and energy into my work. At the end of the day, I was mentally tired and felt like I wasn’t on top of everything. I felt like whatever I had accomplished that day was too litle, and often too late.
After a string of days like that, eventually I would have a day of indulgence in entertainment and not know whether that was a deserved break or a shameful procrastination session.
I even took up bullet journaling at some point, believing an analog approach would help me solve my digital life. Later, I also hung a physical kanban board on the wall above my monitor. I wanted to have something with a permanent presence where I could keep a birds-eye view of everything I had to do — but I also failed to stay on top of these things. They helped, but ultimately became useless.
All of these things sound like discrete problems, but most of them have their causes rooted near a concept I like to call context switching.
When you’re focused on work and something else snatches your attention, boom, you’re forced to switch contexts. You were getting deep into your work, achieving that fabled state of flow, but now you’re thinking you need to go to the store if you want to have home cooked dinner tonight.
Likewise, when you’re chilling and work intrudes on your peace? Context switching. You were getting cozy with that book, or making progress on that side project that’s important for you, or spending some quality time with a friend, but now you’re thinking about that work email you just received with that task you need to start thinking about.
When you can’t go deep into your work, nor can you completely get away from it, that’s context-switching. It’s bad, and it’s what was happening to me.
Apparently, it’s what happens to most of us.
I needed to be better in managing my focus, time, and energy. I had an insight that I somehow needed to make my contexts more stable, less dynamic, so I could avoid switching so often between them.
Remember a couple of decades ago, when you had to defrag the hard drives on your computer? The problem defragging solved was data from different contexts becoming scattered around the surface of the disk, so the needle had to move a whole lot more to read it. It was useless wear and tear. Defragging took every bit of data that was related to X and put it here, while moving everything related to Y over there. This is solving context-switching in a computer science context. I needed to solve it in the context of my lifestyle.
And then I found a way to do exactly that.
(Funny how sometimes arriving at a solution is just a matter of understanding the problem clearly enough, isn’t it?)
So what’s actually the Odd Days?
Most great ideas are pretty simple. I don’t know if this one is great, but I know that it is simple: I ditched the traditional week structure.
A week consists of five days where you work and two days where you do your own thing. But your personal life doesn’t stop during those five workdays, right? And what’s more: people often get so tired from the five that they can’t really enjoy the two.
So I changed my week. Who says it can’t be done? It doesn’t have a 7-day structure anymore. It has a 2-day structure. There are no weekdays and weekends; there are only odd days and even days.
On the odd days, I work. No matter if it’s Monday, Friday, Sunday. An odd day isn’t an off day. I plan my odd days to be as free of distractions and personal commitments as possible. I wake up, I do my work, and the rest is set aside.
On even days, I do everything BUT my main work. I relax, but I also take care of everything else that needs to be taken care of.
The standard week is a tough ask, if you think about it: it’s hard to block off five consecutive days to do deep, uninterrupted work. So much can happen in five days, and your focus muscle can only go so far before it becomes exhausted. You run out of gas by the second or third day. You want to do the work of your life, but your life gets in the way of your work.
Likewise, this process drains you so much that the opposite can be said about the weekends: you want to relax and enjoy life, but your work has withered you during the past five days — and the next five are already looming. Weekends are claustrophobic and fleeting crumbs of respite, sandwiched between encroaching walls of exhaustion.
Take a Thursday afternoon and look at the people in any office building: how many folks are already burned out and seem done for the week? Usually, it’s a lot of folks — and there’s still a whole day and a half to go. On a Monday, how many feel decidedly unrested?
Now let’s switch perspectives:
- Think of blocking off a single day at a time to work. Remember that this day would be surrounded by two lighter days where you can recharge and take care of the stuff that tends to be nagging at you. Most personal matters, no matter how essential, were either dealt with yesterday or can wait until tomorrow. How achieavable does that sound? How much better and deeper does it seem like you would be able to work?
- Now think of having every other day to relax, to recharge you batteries, pursue your interests, and proactively take care of things that would otherwise nag at you at random times while you’re trying to work. Remember that each of these days is surrounded by two satisfyingly productive days, and so you’re not feeling guilty about enjoying your day. How much better would your time away from work be?
When nothing else is screaming for your attention, suddenly you see how easier it gets to dive deep into your work for as long as you need.
This is the system.
The importance of not working
The system is named after the odd days, and those are the days in which you do actual work in this system, so it’s tempting to think they’re the most important ones and that this is a productivity “hack”. They are not. It is not.
Because the even days are the support system for the odd days. They’re the heart of the machine.
In the same way you can’t have a proper chill if work stuff is nagging at your noggin, you can only work deeply in the odd days if you can relax deeply and take care of your life in the even days. It’s like a yin-yang of work-life, and the even days are the missing piece.
These are the days in which I’m liberated to do as many of the non-work things as I want — the things that would keep me worried on Mon-Fri, the things I never seemed to have the time or the energy to get around to. Tedious tasks like errands, personal requests, bank and accounting stuff, exercising, but also exciting and energizing activities, like setting aside some quality time to dive into a book, prepping healthy meals, or taking online classes for skills I’m interested in. Even — gasp! — video games.
If I don’t write, exercise, or read on my even days, I find that on the odd days I often start getting distracting thoughts about how I should be writing more, exercising more, reading more. If I don’t sleep well, deprivation makes it harder to do everything else.
Even days are not like weekends. At least not all of them. That’s why I try to avoid calling them “off days,” “rest days,” or something of the sort. You can’t take a passive approach to leisure in these days as you might be used to do on weekends. Well, not always, at least.
While every odd day is a day in which you’re at the service of the people you work for, every even day is a blank canvas you can paint with whatever colors suit you at the time. But you must have purpose in choosing those colors.
Anatomy of an even day
Here’s what I did today, as an arbitrary example:
- I set up a smart alarm to wake me up not at a specific time, but only after I reached a certain number of hours asleep, as detected by my smartwatch.
- Once I woke up, I took a shower and then read a few pages of The End of Trust and A Fearless Heart.
- Post lunch, I took care of reissuing my national ID. I lost it last week during a trip. There were some lines, but it was ok. I wasn’t pressed to get back to work. And getting this done today was my priority, because being without an ID in your wallet is surprisingly distracting and anxiety-inducing.
- Next, I went with a friend to help her shop for some supplies for a kid’s birthday party she is tasked to decorate soon.
- I got home pretty tired from all the shopping, leisurely watched some YouTube, and once I was all rested up, I went for a brisk 20-minute walk just to close the Activity Rings on my Apple Watch.
- Then I headed to a coffee shop, where I’m now, writing this as they’re preparing to close.
I read, I wrote, I watched. I rested, and I exercised. I helped a friend, and myself. All of this in a random Tuesday.
I have a whole area on Things to collect activities I want to do on my even days, and I had a number of other things I could have done today. But I felt free to pick and choose between the things that weren’t urgent, so I prioritized helping my friend with that shopping trip rather than organizing my desk and bedroom. I wanted to get that done today, but it can wait a couple of days. No guilt.
Having no guilt about this kind of thing is kind of the whole point.
Doesn‘t having 3 or 4 non-work days a week compromise your productivity?
No, and I have data to back me up.
At first, this seemed like a dealbreaker to me, as it probably does to you. But I looked at my productivity, at the meticulous records I’ve been keeping of it for the past couple of years, and I thought, “I can do better than this.” There was room for improvement, and when I thought of this odd system I thought maybe it would offer a path towards that improvement. Perhaps the potential increase in focus would compensate for the decrease in raw “ working” hours? I decided to try it.
I only started with the Odd Days system well into 2019, but I’ve been using an Airtable to keep track of my productivity with rock-solid consistency since January 1st, 2018. Each day I assign something of a “productivity score” for myself, based on how much work I was able to deliver that day. It’s an non-subjective number, an exact score derived from a formula fed with the same data points that go into my invoices.
Before I started with the Odd Days system:
- From January 1st until the day before I implemented the system, my daily average productivity score in 2019 was 3.13.
- It was 2.94 in 2018.
- If we multiply these numbers by 5 workdays per week, we come out with a weekly average productivity score of 15.65 in 2019 (and 14.70 for 2018).
- My daily average productivity score has skyrocketed to 5.44, compared to 3.13.
- Since my weeks now have either 3 or 4 working days, we multiply that number for 3.5 and see that my current weekly productivity is 19.04, compared to 15.65.
- If my math is right, I’m almost 22% more productive. For me, that’s a 22% increase in my paycheck.
- And while this isn’t quantifiable, I firmly believe the quality of my work has improved as well.
The data is anecdotal, sure, but for me, it shows: doing deep work on fewer days brings better results than doing shallow work five days in a row.
Drawbacks & workarounds
This system is definitely not without its challenges. It replaces a framework that’s followed by almost literally everybody else in the world, so it’s definitely a rose with at least a few thorns. Let’s discuss some of them.
1. No weekends
The first immediately obvious problem with this system is you lose traditional weekends. That’s just the price you pay, and it’s a choice: would you rather have two days of rest sandwiched between five long days of work, or do you prefer three or four days of chill per week, but they’re non-consecutive?
While I miss two-days weekends, and maybe I’ll miss them even more strongly going forward, so far it seems like a small price to pay for all the benefits.
Plus, you’ll always have either Saturday or Sunday off. And honestly: how often are you already bringing tasks from work to do during the weekends?
2. The 31st day
This is a tricky one: half of the months go up to the 31st day, and that means two odd days (meaning, two workdays) in a row.
I suppose each person will have their own way to deal with this, depending on their specific work lives. If you have enough work and enough energy to endure two intensely focused workdays in a row, you could definitely treat the 31st and the 1st as two bonafide workdays and get this over with. Money-wise, this would probably be the best approach.
If you’re not hurting for the extra money or don’t feel like you have the energy for so much focus at once — which would be completely understandable — , you can treat both days as a single workday. Do half of one day’s worth of deep work per day. I think it’s okay to give yourself some slack whenever possible. Why not?
Another solution would be to switch the odds and the evens for the next month. Treat the 31st as a workday, and then the 1st as a non-work day, then keep working on the even days for that month, or at least for a few days, until you can switch back. The crux of this system is not “work only and specifically on the odd days,” but rather “alternate days in which you do deep work with days in which you commit to resting and doing other meaningful activities.” It’s a possibility.
That said, my preferred solution has been more straightforward: I just ignore the 31st day. I treat it as a flexible day. If I have work to do, I do it; if I don’t, then that’s ok. For the purposes of my internal productivity records, any work I do on the 31st gets logged to the 1st of the next month. This solution is simple, works for me, and has an added benefit in which it guarantees that every month other than February will have precisely 15 workdays.
3. Urgent work requests on even days
Sometimes there’s no getting around it: a task gets sent to me late on an even day, and it’s due tomorrow. I use the Nike approach here and just do it. I focus on the task as early in the day as I can, I get it over with, and then I forget about work for the remainder of the day.
It helps that these last-minute requests are rare in my work, and always small. I never had to commit more than one hour of a non-work day to them, and even that much is an outlier. It really doesn’t break the system.
4. Weekly appointments
A curious thing about how our calendars work (as opposed to how they maybe should work) is that the weekdays rarely fall on the same day of the month. If you have an appointment every Thursday, it won’t always be on an even or an odd day.
Solutions? Reschedule. Explain your routine to people who need to meet you or who you need to meet. Make some (limited) time to a work-meeting on a non-work day, or otherwise. Adapt.
Thankfully I also don’t have a lot of these. As outlined above, if you’re the sort of person who has many inflexible weekly meetings, adopting the Odd Days system may be particularly tricky.
5. Variability in work days per week
A testament to the flexibility of this approach: a friend of mine who’s helping me beta test it has more work than me and didn’t really want weeks with only three work days in them. So he adapted. Here’s what he had to say:
Focus on work on odd days, then focus on resting or doing meaningful non-work tasks on even days. Repeat.
When you focus on work, really focus on work. Work deeply, with committed and sustained effort. Make it so one day of deep work will “count for two” of your old days of tired, distracted, shallow work. And do your best not to worry about non-work stuff. Remember, those can always wait one day.
When you’re having a non-work day, do your best to dedicate yourself to all the stuff you always seem to be out of time or energy to do. Rest, read, take online classes, exercise. Get or maintain a healthy sleep schedule. (This is crucial.) Get to know your city, play videogames, practice the ukulele. Whatever will energize you. And take care of whatever has the potential to be a distraction or a worry tomorrow.
In my experience, this radical de-emphasizing of context switching has allowed me to work so much more, and so much better, even as I have more and better free time.
Try it. It’s odd, but it works.