Theme your days for better time management

Adding themes to your calendar is a technique that I haven’t talked about before but it is something I have used, and do use a version of. The principles have helped me be more productive and more focused on my work and personal life.

This article looks at what theming is and my experience.

What is theming?

I first learnt about theming from Mike Vardy at Productivityist.

Theming is a technique where you give each day in your weekly calendar a different high level theme. A theme can be something like “administration” or “sale calls” – It’s not the individual tasks from your todo list but a more general type of task.

For example, see the below chart:

This is a made up sales job. You can see that each day is shaded differently which corresponds to the type of actions that the sales person would work on in those days.

So, on Monday’s our sales person, let’s call her Sarah, schedules her administrative tasks like reporting, expenses, keeping CRM systems up to date etc. On a Tuesday Sarah will be working on sales calls, so her todo list is going to be a mix of follow ups, prospecting calls and booking face to face meetings.

On Wednesday and Thursday, she’s going to be out of the office meeting people, making pitches and winning bucket loads of new business. Then on a Friday, Sarah will be back in the office focused on strategy, thinking and planning, taking the lessons of the week and formulating new ideas to go out and win new business the following week.

At the weekend, Sarah is dedicating herself to the family and trying to forget about work.

You can see how having these themes in place, allows Sarah to structure her week and batch common work together.

If she didn’t have this structure then she may be in and out of the office everyday, forever switching tasks and generally feel less in control.

On top of these themes for her job, she could have some personal ones for the time she is at home in the evening. For example, maybe Monday’s are exercise, Tuesday’s are writing her sales training blog, Wednesday’s are chill with Netflix, etc.  Like in this chart:

Problems with themes in a 9-5 job

On the face of it this looks great. A nice structured framework. But, as we all know life doesn’t always play out that way. What if a big client wants a meeting on a Monday? Does Sarah tell them that she can only meet on Wednesday or Thursday?

Or the sales director wants a report on a Thursday. Does she tell him to wait until Monday?

Obviously in both these cases Sarah needs to do things outside of her themes. She may have tried to influence the outcome to fit better with her structure but ultimately she’s in a job with a boss and customers and often their needs will outweigh hers.

But, the majority of the time where she does have influence over her calendar, she will try to book appointments and work on her tasks in this structure.

You may look at this simplistic example and think that in a 9-5 you’ve got no chance of adding themes to your days. I was the same – I immediately thought that this is just something for entrepreneurs or directors who have way more control.

However, once you start to look at your job and the types of tasks that make up your workload you will probably start to see some broad themes forming that you do have some control over.

An example from my work would be weekly reporting of sales numbers. This was an activity that needed to be completed on a Monday morning. No choice in that. But I was also doing other reporting for my own needs and for ad hoc purposes during the week that didn’t have a rigid deadline.

Wouldn’t it be better to bring forward my other reporting to a Monday so that I did the work when I was in a “reporting mood”? I could (and did) build my theme around the structure that I had no choice to follow.

Then I looked at Friday’s which I wanted to be more proactive days – working on process improvements or planning out my larger annual goals. If I could move as much of the work I had control over to the earlier part of the week and time blocked to deter meeting invites, then I could free up time on a Friday. Sure, there was always going to be demands from managers that would override me but not always. So I got a proactive theme on a Friday.

I continued to go through my week like this to get a structure that fitted the big types of tasks and worked with fixed requirements that I couldn’t control.

Once you have ideas of how to theme your days you can also involve your manager in this. I think a lot of the time we assume that managers want everything the minute they ask for it. It’s not always the case and if they know that you are working a more productive schedule then maybe, they will schedule when it also fits with you.

You can ask and you can negotiate!

And if you really can’t theme your workweek, you can theme your personal life. You can decide how your evening and weekends look so if you want to get out of the Netflix and chill cycle every night, then theming your week would be a good starting point.

If you do run your own business, then you will have a lot more flexibility to set this up.

How do you choose themes?

To decide on your themes, look at a combination of:

1. Review your work and personal life and figuring out what the large drivers are (eg Sarah, our sales person example has 5 key things that are driving what she does).
2. Taking your quarterly or annual goals and ensuring those themes are cascaded into your weekly themes

The first point is fairly straightforward. If you don’t know the main drivers of your job, then list out everything you do and categorize it. Keep trying to consolidate your categories until you get to 5.

The second point can be a little more challenging if your longer term goals are outside of the activities we perform today. If a goal doesn’t fit with your existing themes you have to think about how to structure yourself. But you should be able to make the link :

If you are going to work towards longer term goals, you have to fit them in otherwise they won’t happen.

My technique was to use that Friday proactive or strategic theme to encompass working on long term objectives that didn’t naturally slot in elsewhere.

The benefits of theming

What’s the point of this theming then?

Well, the first real benefit that I found is adding some structure to your weekly calendar which speeds up planning. You have a framework where you can easily slot in your tasks from your todo list. If I have a Monday admin theme and “file expenses” is on my todo list, I schedule it for a Monday. No debate when I should plan to do them.

I also don’t need to put every task into the calendar. I can time block based on the theme and that schedule encompasses all those small tasks on your todo list.

The second benefit I saw, particularly with structured work (not creative) was an economy of scale. By batching similar tasks together, I found that I could get them done much more quickly.

When you switch from one task to another, you can lose up to 40% of your productive time so it would make sense that when you have the tools already in front of you to carry on with work of a similar nature.

Then there is a mindset benefit.

When you get used to the themed approach (the habit has formed) you start the day in the right frame of mind for the work you are going to do. You know, for example, that Tuesday is a sales call day. So you are mentally prepared for getting into your sales call mode.

Keeping the larger themes of my work and personal life helped me keep more focus on those bigger goals. This was especially true of the goals to build this website.

By theming the evenings and weekends to fit with my goals to research and write articles, build social media following and coach others it’s a constant reminder of what I needed to work on.

The downsides to theming

It’s not a perfect system for me and I find there are a few downsides worth highlighting.

It can add another layer of complexity to managing your time as it’s something else you need to plan and think about. Although the result is intended to make life more productive, the concept of adding this on top of your planning can be a turn off.

What do you do with tasks that don’t fit the themes? Of course you go through your prioritization techniques but by having the themes, you’re always trying to figure out where to fit the ad hoc things in.

Related to both the above is the feeling of the framework being too rigid and not flexible enough. It might just be the way I am wired but I like some freedom to change things round so I can find myself rebelling against something too structured.

And that gets me tweaking the themes, and spending more time trying to perfect it for that moment, rather than actually doing work.

Finally, and this is going to differ from individual to individual. I like variety in the day and find it hard to spend the day on just one type of task even if a fairly broad category. I get bored easily and then I risk procrastinating and getting distracted. It’s not every type of task but I would struggle to spend the whole day writing, for example.

Wrap up

Now that I am focused 100% on Workweek Zen, I still use themes but not as strictly as when I started. As with a lot of time management techniques, I’ve actually evolved it into a hybrid system that suits the way I work.

The key for me is allowing some flexibility to change my focus each week.

Monday remains more of an admin day and Fridays stay as a strategy or thinking day. The weekends are for spending time with family and friends and also taking time to catch up on reading.

That leaves me with Tuesdays to Thursdays which tend to be somewhat unstructured. I know that I need to do research and writing but I will not always have a fixed day. At the beginning of the week I can decide where I where I want my focus to be.

I actually probably focus more on the horizontal theme.

To explain, this cuts across the calendar covering a particular time block rather than the day. For example, every morning I have an hour blocked to post productivity articles on social media sites.

In theory I could batch all the social posts and do a whole week’s worth in a full morning. But the advantage of doing it daily is that I get new ideas and interesting thoughts from the activity. I wouldn’t get that if I batched – it would just be like a production line.

I recommend spending some time to think about how this technique might work for you. It is better suited to people who work for themselves or are in positions of management with flexibility to control the majority their own schedules.

But, it can definitely work in a “normal” job and can bring some good benefits. Even if you can’t find a way to implement in your 9 to 5 then you can use it to help achieve more of your personal goals outside of work.

What do you think? Have you tried themes for planning your week?

Comment below or shoot me an email paul@workweekzen.com

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