My company recently surveyed more than 350 U.S. business owners on the biggest time-wasters in their workdays. The results weren't much of a shock, with email coming up on top (57%) by a three-to-one margin over phone calls and interruptions from colleagues, tied for second at 17% each. (Meetings brought up the rear at 9%.)
I've had the same email-heavy headaches, and probably you have, too. But the received wisdom, which is generally to set aside a couple times a day just for handling emails, doesn't always cut it. Those chunks of time devoted to email maintenance usually slide all over your calendar—they're seldom appointments that you make with yourself and end up actually keeping.
So I've tried something else. Instead, I've managed to designate a certain weekday—and, after a little more practice, two weekdays—where I can set aside a chunk of time to focus completely on one thing only. Those days stay fixed, no matter what. And when they come around each week, all I do is work on a single project for at least half the day—no emails, no phone calls, no meetings. Here's how it works.
A "Focus Day" is a bit of a misnomer. You won't necessarily focus on a single project all day long, but on a given day, on a weekly basis, you will have a three to four-hour block of time on your calendar to do deep, uninterrupted work. That could mean sitting down to write up that key proposal you’ve been procrastinating on, or scheduling a top customer visit and getting your pitch in order, or meeting with your leadership team to sketch our next quarter's goals.
What makes this different than task batching is that you schedule out your Focus Day far in advance. It's not just looking at your calendar and saying, "Okay, I'll carve out two hours for myself tomorrow for sure"—because tomorrow is way too late. Something else will inevitably pop up to sideline your plan. Instead, you need to have a recurring, definite appointment with yourself, blocked out on your calendar, week after week. That way, it's a lot harder to stand yourself up.
One of my business coaching clients sets aside Tuesdays as his Focus Day, blocking out 8–11 a.m. for his highest-value work every single week. Personally, I pick both Tuesdays and Thursdays as my weekly Focus Days. If you were to look at my Outlook calendar, you’d see a recurring appointment labeled "Focus Day" from 8 a.m.–noon on each of these days between now and 2020.
When you have a Focus Day, every non–Focus Day becomes a "Push Day." Your Push Days are all the other days of the week where you just push your normal projects another step forward. Interruptions come and go like always, but they don't do as much damage. If Focus Days help you create long-term impact, Push Days keep your day-to-day operations rolling ahead.
Here are a few tips to make this technique work for you, based on what I've learned helping hundreds of coaching clients adopt it over the past decade:
Don't designate the beginning or the end of your workweek as your Focus Day. Too many urgent issues usually demand your attention on those days. So if you work Monday through Friday, Mondays or Fridays should probably both be ordinary Push Days. It's usually easier to honor your Focus Day commitment if it comes midweek.
Even though you're doing solo work on your Focus Day, you'll need your team to help out—including by steering clear when you're doing your most focused work. So you've got to communicate.
Let your team know when your Focus Day falls and which part of the day you've blocked off each week for intensive projects. And share why you think that's so important; let them know why sticking to this commitment isn't just a personal time-management quirk, it actually helps the business succeed. You can even encourage them to see for themselves: Invite a few key team members to take their own Focus Days, too. You'll soon seen the productivity boost having a ripple effect.
On your Focus Day, it doesn't hurt to get out of your office completely, and away from distractions. Productivity expert Gloria Marks shared in an interview with Fast Company back in 2008 that one of her keys to getting focus time was to stay out of the office altogether. "I stay home," she said, explaining that "that's the only way I'm not going to be interrupted."
So if your company offers flexible hours, take advantage of them. And if you can't work from home once a week, try to book that small, underused conference room in your office. Or try grabbing a table at a local cafe around the corner from your work, so you can head back into the office quickly when your focus time is up.
Wherever you do it, make sure you're armed with only the materials you need to do your key work on your Focus Day. That running to-do list of other tasks? Leave it behind. That way, you couldn’t work on them even if you wanted to.
Remember that Focus Days aren’t about being off by yourself—they're about setting aside regular chunks of time to dig into your top value-producing activities. And for many people this can actually mean meetings, phone calls, or critical emails. Whatever most needs your focus, that's what you do—every week, without fail.
David Finkel is coauthor of the bestselling SCALE: 7 Proven Principles to Grow Your Business and Get Your Life Back.