Wake up. Go to work. Sit at computer for 4 hours. Have lunch. Sit at computer for another 4 hours. Go home.

It’s a pattern we’ve followed for many years, but it’s not guaranteed to help us produce our best work.

Even when the commute is cut out by working from home, the 9-5 work-lunch-work model still doesn’t seem to be a great way of organising our days.

A different approach is needed to bring out the best in ourselves and our team. To figure out the ideal working day, all it takes is a little introspection and some nifty organisation.

Productivity expert Charlie Gilkey describes the benefits of self-awareness at work in his book Start Finishing:

“Awareness is required to know what your best work is and to notice how your emotions and presence shift when you’re doing your best work. A rare few of us seem to know exactly what our best work is… Cultivating the awareness to pay attention to when we’re lit up, wondrous, and in flow, or when we’re stifled, numb of dread, is critical to growth.”

So here’s a few strategies for figuring out the ideal schedule for your working day.

What do you actually do all day?

This sounds like an attack from an angry boss, but it’s a useful prompt for self-reflection. What do you actually do all day? What sort of work is your time taken up with?

If you’re a business owner, for example, you can have all sorts of different ways of working throughout the day:

  • Communicating with staff (leading meetings, writing emails)
  • Communicating with customers (taking feedback or making sales)
  • Execution work (writing code, drafting proposals, product development)
  • Research (seeking information to help make decisions)
  • Thinking (making decisions)
  • Admin (general bureaucracy)

Each of those requires different environments to work optimally.

Many people like to do their most cognitively demanding work first, carving out time in the morning when things are quiet for ‘deep work’ time blocks, with minimal distraction for maximum output.

Then, when the brain’s had a proper workout, they can switch over to lighter work that’s more administrative or social.

You could intentionally frame your time for these work styles and plan your calendar around them. Charlie Gilkey recommends using four different types of time blocks for your work:

  • Focus blocks - 90-120 minute chunks of time for being creative, inspired and deeply focused.
  • Social blocks - 90-120 minute sessions for when our energy is primed for more extroverted activities where others are involved.
  • Admin blocks - 30-60 minute time blocks that require lower energy, when we’re not quite in ’the zone’ for tackling the heavy lifting
  • Recovery blocks - variable length times of recharging, like breaks, exercise, meditation, or naps.

A colour-coordinated daily calendar that accounts for these, rather than scattershot arrangements of meetings and non-meetings, will make for a much more productive day than most. If you try different daily arrangements of these, you’ll figure out what works best for you.

Just remember to leave some blank space in-between the blocks, to account for overrun and other things that pop up.

Why do you do it?

To have a really productive day, you must have a purpose to what you’re doing. If you’re not invested in your work it’s difficult to create anything great, and you’ll end up just going through the motions or getting easily distracted.

It’s not always easy to infuse yourself with motivation to work, especially if you’re an employee in a business you don’t own. But all work has a purpose, even if it’s not immediately obvious in the day-to-day. You might have an admin job that doesn’t feel world-changing, but your efforts cascade - keeping the wheels turning in an organisation that employs people, pays taxes, and provides for customers is a really important job in itself.

This kind of thinking can provoke a bit of an existential crisis, sure, but more often than not it’s a critical bit of self-examination. Nobody does great work that they don’t believe in - anything worth doing needs a reason to be done.

Where should you do it?

Many of us will have more flexible office attendance in the near future. Whether it’s due to a dislike of the commute, childcare commitments, or just a love for home working, there’s plenty of reasons to work from home at least some of the time. But it needs a bit of forethought for it to truly work.

It doesn’t matter how brilliantly you plan your day; if you get distracted by a phone call or talkative housemate your tidy schedule can end up a total mess. Being distracted doesn’t just cost you the time away from your work, there’s also the cost of getting back into it - and sometimes that solid laser-focus is something you simply can’t get back to.

Loads of people have experienced remote work for themselves in 2020, and now know the benefits as well as the hardships. Making the workday work best for you is the priority, which means some days will be better in the office, and some days out of it.

You might end up being in the office three days per week - but you do risk being labelled a Tuesday, Wednesday And Thursday worker, which makes for an unfortunate acronym. Working the 'business equivalent of intermittent fasting', as Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls it, may end up making both your office time and away time more productive due to the variety and balance it provides between distraction and inspiration.

You have to aim for a working environment that gives you the best energy to do what you need to do.

Work it out as you go along

Essentially, you’ll have to use the scientific method - and that means experimenting to see what works and what doesn’t. Nobody can plan your ideal workday for you. If you’re held back by the restrictive schedules of your company, you could try lobbying for more flexibility. If you can prove to management that working differently really boosts your productivity, they’ll have a hard time denying you.

Software can help you understand what’s working and what isn’t. Use things like Harvest for time tracking, and project management apps like Trello or Basecamp to see what you’re completing and what’s getting left undone.

(Just don’t fall into the trap of paranoia productivity, because nobody feels creative when they’re under strict surveillance.)

“If you don’t set up boundaries for your best work and from the things that keep you from doing it, your best work will always be displaced by other things. Setting up and maintaining boundaries can be hard. But like so many things in life, it’s worth it.” - Charlie Gilkey

And there’s one golden rule that underpins this all - make sure you're well-rested. A tired mind is an unfocused one, and if you haven’t taken any breaks or holidays in a while, you’re making things unnecessarily difficult for yourself.

The ideal working day is over before it’s even begun if you’re powering through on 5 hours of sleep. And if you want to sleep better - well, getting all your work done in the day certainly helps.