The power of hats and chunks
A huge amount has changed in my life over the past year or so. I’ve switched from being employed by a large, global network to being self-employed. Obviously, this means saying goodbye to a monthly salary, a strong package of additional perks and a structure to my working week. It means saying hello to embracing a completely new world!
I made a conscious decision as I embarked on this new career to ensure that I used it as an opportunity to make changes in all areas of my life. I wanted to explore how I could gain more control of each day, produce more, and feel like all the spinning plates of my life are spinning nicely.
Each day we all wear so many hats. I’m a mum, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a colleague, a consultant, an adviser, a volunteer, an organiser, an admin coordinator. One lesson that I learnt early on this new adventure is that I am better at every one of these roles when I allow myself to wear one hat at a time. (Top tip: never trust a person who is wearing more than one hat.)
The book ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport has played a huge role in my recognising and learning that I needed to change the way I approached work. I learnt a huge amount from this book, but one simple technique has transformed the way I think about my working day.
I now view my day as chunks of 90 minutes. In doing this, I suddenly have so many windows of time to make stuff happen. I used to look at the day ahead as morning, afternoon and evening which doesn’t give you much scope for getting different jobs done. But suddenly, I can view my morning like this:
7am-8.30am: Mum hat.
My kids have my full and undivided attention. I don’t get my phone out, I don’t look at emails. I don’t think about work because I know that the next 90-minute chunk is the time for that. So, I relax. I snuggle into my cosy mum hat and enjoy it. As a result, I know I’m a better mum. I’m calmer. I sit down and eat breakfast with my kids. I’m doing one thing and I’m doing it well. And that feels really good. It feels nice to do something to the best of your ability. Whichever hat you are wearing, wear it well.
9am-10.30am: The big challenge hat.
I’m a morning person so I know that the first work chunk of the day is when I’m firing at my best. So, I purposefully tackle the toughest thing I want to achieve that day. This is always the task in which I bring the most value to my clients; where I properly use my brain and think about how to solve something. I don’t sneak a look at my emails as I know I’d immediately find myself tumbling down a rabbit hole. I have an automatic reply that lets people know I don’t check my inbox all the time and to call me if they need something immediately. This means I don’t have to worry about missing anything urgent. I can instead focus the full capacity of my brain on the one chosen tricky task. I remove all distraction – no phone on the table, no email alerts. I choose a place to work where I can concentrate fully. With all these things in place, it’s quite amazing what you can achieve in 90 minutes! We’ve all got so used to being distracted and interrupted that we’ve lost the joy of sitting down, taking on a task, focusing intently on it, and getting it done! By 10.30am I’m crossing out the most challenging thing on my ‘to do’ list. (Top tip: Cross stuff off your ‘to do’ list in the most flamboyant, celebratory way you can without freaking out the person sat next to you. Enjoy the moment. Choose a brightly coloured pen. No small tick, go big, be extravagant. You deserve it!)
After each 90 minute chunk, I make sure I have a break. On really busy days this can mean simply standing up, doing a bit of a jig (yup, I actually do this) and taking some deep belly breaths (breathing right down into your belly so it swells out) before I get stuck into the next chunk of time. Ideally though, I give myself a good 10-15-minute break to allow my brain to renew and reboot, ready for the next task.
I then have plenty of time to plan another 90-minute chunk into my morning, making it feel so much longer than it did before. 11am-12.30pm can be a client meeting, a team meeting, doing administrative jobs, writing a proposal or spending time calling clients. Whatever I need to do, I purposefully choose the hat and put it on properly. I commit to it and let myself enjoy that single focus. If I am phoning a client, it makes me remember that I won’t let myself be tempted to type an email at the same time or to sneak a scroll of the internet. I am wearing my ‘adviser hat’ and only that. By trying to multi-task and do another task at the same time as talking to a client, I’m basically sending a signal that they aren’t worthy of my full attention.
In and out of work, I’m making a conscious effort to stop doing this to people – to my clients as well as my friends and family. If someone is talking to me and my phone beeps, I’m making sure I ignore it. The person in front of me is my focus, and they deserve my full attention.
On days where I have complete control of my time, my day can look like this:
9am-10.30am: Block 1: Nail the hardest task
11am-12.30pm: Block 2: Choose the next hat and do it brilliantly
12.30pm-1.30pm: Lunch (properly take a break/eat well/walk/run/meet a friend/call my mum)
1.30pm-3pm: Block 3: Another period of committed, thoughtful work
4pm-5.30pm: Block 4: I tend to use this to do the less taxing stuff – organising, admin type work – as my brain doesn’t function so well by this point in the day, and it has to be tackled at some point!
Studies show that the average worker is productive for 2hrs 53minutes each day. Looking at this another way, this means we are all effectively working Monday and Tuesday and then stopping for the rest of the week. As shocking as this sounds, I get it. My time can disappear some days and I produce literally nothing valuable by sitting in meetings I needn’t be in or spending hours lost in email.
By consciously planning out my day and taking control where I can, on a good day I can get 3 hours of productive work done before 12.30pm.
If this all sounds a bit idealistic, there are of course some days when I don’t have control of my day, but I’ve found that I’m usually able to get at least one chunk of 90 minutes booked into my calendar at some point – and that’s better than nothing. Once you recognise when you personally get your best thinking done, you can try to protect that time – even if you can only do that twice in a week, it will ensure you get some time to put on a chosen hat and achieve something brilliant.
I’ve started to use the same technique for my evenings too. Previously, if I’d not got my work finished before coming home, I’d just keep working once home. Some evenings I was a naff mum – glued to my phone, trying to email clients at the same time as cooking dinner, being short-tempered with my kids; basically, taking my frustrations of work out on them, which did not feel good.
Now I know that from 6pm-8pm, the only hat I have on is my cosy mum hat again. My kids start the day with me and they end it with me. That feels really good.
(Don’t get me wrong, my 6-year-old can be an almighty pain in the neck, so if I’m painting an over-rosy picture here, some evenings are full of tantrums and chaos! But even on these evenings, I’m 100% in.)
I then have 8pm-9.30pm as my final block of the day. This can mean putting a ‘work hat’ back on if needed. Or it can be putting a ‘sport hat’ on – I play tennis and netball and love being committed to a team of people. Or it can mean ‘friend hat’ or ‘wife hat’. The ‘wife hat’ doesn’t have to be anything grand like a “date night”, it can simply be an evening on the sofa watching TV with my husband – but even this deserves devoted focus. We leave our phones in the kitchen. It feels nice to be connected to one moment, one person, one room, without getting distracted and having a scroll on Facebook to see what other people are doing with their evening. I’m just present in my evening.
I’m still learning. I’m still failing miserably some days and the lure of distraction still pulls me in. But I’m going to keep persevering because my days now feel so much longer, with numerous opportunities to deliver work I feel proud of. And by wearing one hat at a time, I feel calmer and more focused. I’ve learnt that each hat you wear feels so much more fulfilling when you wear it fully.
Written by Josie Saville, 4and20million