Declare a Productivity-Free Day

The Productive DayThinking

I follow a variant of Getting Things Done. On a good, productive day, I live in my next action lists — making sure that things that need to get done, get done. My inbox is emptied every night. People get prompt responses to e-mails. When I promise to get back to someone, I do. I meet deadlines. I follow-up. In short, I’m everything David Allen preaches.

The Problem

Here’s the problem. Though this behavior ensures I’m “productive,” it doesn’t get the big stuff done.

For example: I study applied math. This means I prove theorems. I can’t break this up into next actions. This isn’t “cranking widgets.” It’s coming up with original, often devilishly tricky ideas, and following them through to their implications. This can eat up hours upon hours.

Here’s the thing: This type of work is completely incompatible with running a productivity system. If I’m going to spend a day trying to find a crack in the armor of a recalcitrant conjecture, I can’t also be returning phone calls, and handing in an overdue form, and updating my blog, and sending out some e-mails, and all the other gunk that sluices out of my next action universe. “Come up with original idea,” is not something I can schedule for 2 – 4, between the gym and updating my web site.

This same property applies to many other activities. Developing a big idea for a book. Re-thinking the direction of a business. Figuring out a new direction for your life. Exploring topics for a major term paper. Working on a major new project for your employer.

We need a way to balance productivity and big project focus…

The Solution: A Productivity-Free Day

Here’s a simple piece of advice to handle this reality. It’s based on the techniques that work for me.

Declare at least one or two days each week to be “productivity-free.” During these days, there are only two pieces of workflow management you should consider:

  1. You still need to capture. If a task pops into your head, jot it down. But that’s it. Don’t think about it further.
  2. You need to check your calendar to make sure you’re not missing an appointment or have a deadline due. (I typically take this into account when choosing which days to be productivity-free.)

Other than these two simple caveats, you should do nothing during the day but think, and work, and reflect on one or, at most, two really big problems or ideas. Let your e-mail box fill. Ignore voicemail. Don’t run little errands. Give over your whole day to one or two things.

You can do this without stress because, the next day, you can process your collection bins and once again be productive. Nothing’s lost. And big strides have been gained.

The key is to find a rhythm of productivity and focus that keeps you on top of the little things while still allowing the big things the time they require to thrive.

It’s a simple idea, but produces big results.

How do you tackle big projects?

12 thoughts on “Declare a Productivity-Free Day”

  1. Very much the same way, except with one big caveat – I find that I can’t stay completely away from my lists for entire days, but I CAN block out large chunks of time to set them aside and try to “think the big thoughts”. If you look at my updated student workday post you’ll notice that I have small times allocated as well as big ones. I try hard to make sure that the little stuff gets done during the smaller windows so that by the time I get to a big window I have little left to distract me from thinking the big thoughts.

  2. Rebecca,

    Do you have trouble switching gears into the big blocks when you’ve been doing little things before? For some reason, that gives me trouble. To use terminology from an earlier post, my productivity “grooves” run deep.

    – Cal

  3. Cal –

    It really helps to take a break when switching gears. Put the lists away completely, go get a cup of coffee, take a walk around the block or something, then come back. Or try to get the little things done the night before so that I can start first thing on the big stuff.

    If I try to switch mid-stream though it can really be a challenge. It’s so easy and satisfying to do the smaller chores that you can check off clearly, when the important stuff is going to take longer and still might not feel quite so “checked off” at the end of the day. That emotional draw can be hard to fight once you’ve had a “hit” of it.

    I wonder if doing these things in different locations wouldn’t be helpful. Location can be a huge trigger for the activities that are appropriate, and I wonder if getting away from my desk and even my computer wouldn’t be a helpful cue that “things will be different now.”


  4. I love the concept of giving yourself some flexibility (it took some time to learn it, though). It lets your mind wander. I used to be a classic example of a workaholic and even though I would manage to make it all work, there was no place for creativity.
    Unfortunately, a productivity-free day (devoted to one big concept on which we need to ponder) wouldn’t work for me because my mind is not wired to stay creative for such a long period of time. But that’s just me. Generally, I completely agree that a mind needs some space to breathe and create something constructive.

    What does work for me, and has already been mentioned multiple times, is not having your schedule fully packed. So if I come up with an idea for an article or a memorization technique, I have to wait a few hours at the longest to develop the concept (obviosuly, I need to capture it first).

    As you’ve pointed out, we can’t MAKE our mind be creative. Nevertheless, I believe we can help it a bit by creating a certain kind of habit. Half of my evening runs and longer business rides I let my thoughts touch upon my business, studying techniques, my students’ problems and how to solve them, psychology, etc.

    – be ready to elaborate on an unforseen subject
    – form triggers / create a habit of plunging your mind into the state of wandering.


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