Is there any day of the week that causes as much angst as Monday? The weekend has slipped away too fast, and the next one couldn’t be further away. You’re facing an inbox full of new email, a slew of meetings, and 40 hours (or for many, a good deal more) of work ahead.
It’s important not to panic, though. Monday is crucial, after all. Monday sets the tone for the rest of the week. With all the plan making, work framing, and team orienting, there’s no doubting the decisions made today will ramify.
Here’s the good, and perhaps surprising, news: For some of the world’s most productive and creative people in business—and the most productive and creative teams—Mondays are free from dread. They’re almost a cause for celebration. Monday is “super exciting for me,” claims Jake Knapp, a Googler turned author who believes he’s devised the perfect Monday.
Before diving into Knapp’s calendar, it’s important to point out that there’s no single right way to “do” Mondays. For Marcus Whitney, a healthcare entrepreneur in Nashville, Mondays are all about alignment, governed by an intensive “Level 10 Meeting,” a data-driven format outlined by author Gino Wickman in his book Traction.
For Sally Susman, executive vice president of corporate affairs at Pfizer, Mondays are all about orchestration. On Sunday night, she looks at the week’s schedule ahead and takes “a good couple hours to let myself marinate in the week.” Am I traveling? When? Might that hold someone up?” You almost have to block it out, like a play,” she says.
Before going to sleep, she thinks carefully about what she wants to tell her direct reports first thing the next day, plotting out their first marching orders. Susman sleeps well knowing that come Monday at 9 a.m., not only she but her entire team will be off to a running start.
“Mondays are about hopes and dreams,” says Ali Rayl, vice president of customer experience at Slack. “I kick off Monday with a meeting of my direct reports, during which we go over departmental metrics—what kind of challenges we’re facing, how to move forward. It gives us an entire week to address the things we don’t understand or the things we know we want to change.”
This brings us back to Knapp, the former Googler and co-author of Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days (which outlines a process for teams to rapidly test big new ideas over the course of a week) and the forthcoming Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day. His week begins with a literal run through Golden Gate Park after accompanying his 7-year-old on the bus to school. The sprint jolts Knapp out of the leisurely weekend mode and propels him into the week ahead.
He’s home around 8:30, showered by 9:00, and sitting down to espresso and the workday by 9:15. He programs the internet-blocking software Freedom to lock him out of email through the late morning (“I’m such an email addict—I love it, but I hate it”).
Whether writing alone, or tackling something in tandem with a work partner or small team, the first thing Knapp is likely to do is sketch out on a piece of blank paper what he calls a “burner list.” This special, two-column to-do list—a Knapp original—contains a metaphorical “front burner” on the left side, filled with tasks specific to his top-priority project, and a “backburner” on the right, filled with tasks from other projects. (A “project,” by the way, can be “being a good dad.”)
Knapp then studies his burner list. “I try to figure out, what’s the most important thing?” he says. “If I could fast-forward to the end of the day and look back, what would the highlight of this day be?” He starts there. To spur himself into a discrete period of focused work, Knapp will set a Time Timer, a particular brand of egg timer that makes the passage of time highly visible with its colorful display.
MIDDAY BREAKS AND SPRINTS
Soon comes that all-important feature of Mondays, or any day: the break. In fact, says Molly Sonsteng, cofounder of the productivity retreat Caveday, strategic and intentional breaks are one of the oft-overlooked components of a truly meaningful and productive day—particularly when working in teams.
At Caveday events, groups come together to work independently for deeply focused intervals—but then, crucially, everyone takes a break at the same time, together. The group breaks boost camaraderie, she says. And after hours of these collective rhythms—work apart, break together, repeat—the room is “pulsing.” “It really is a brilliant way to feel that flow within a team,” Sonsteng says.
For Knapp, as the day progresses, he tackles new tasks, each time assisted with the visual aid of a Time Timer. He’s purchased timers of every denomination (5, 20, 60, and 120 minutes), and will set whichever one he feels he has the stamina for at that moment. Sometimes Knapp sets the five-minute one just to get over a hump; if his flow kicks in, he quickly sets a longer timer to sustain it.
By 3:30, his son comes home, a joyful but productivity-thwarting event. “I really have to get focused work done by 3:30,” says Knapp. “It doesn’t mean that I can’t still accomplish some things after that.”
Even if he weren’t a parent of a young child, though, Knapp advocates for entering into a lower gear by the late afternoon, and not overworking in the evening. This is especially important for managers to bear in mind, he suggests: “It’s not possible for people to push hard throughout an entire week and do their best work.” He adds: “It’s important to leave when I have a little bit left in the tank. It’s just working smart.”
Knapp’s evening will look familiar to many: dinner, helping the 7-year-old to bed, singing to him, and reading in the late evening with his wife. The one twist? Knapp and his wife have gone to great lengths to avoid the temptations of TV, instead opting for a clunky projector, making it “a bit of a production to watch anything.” Reaching for a book off the shelf is far easier.
Thus concludes what he deems the perfect Monday. But he concedes it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the energy is just low. Sometimes you don’t meet your goals.
But in the best-case scenario, says Knapp, “Monday is exciting. It’s a return to a world that, at least for two to three hours, I control, and it’s just me up against this task. It’s going to be hard, but it’s fun.”
Perhaps asking Mondays to be fun for everyone is a stretch. But there’s no denying that the week’s first day has outsize importance, framing and supporting all the days that follow, and setting team members on courses of alignment or collision.
Monday is the first stroke of an arc that you hope will stretch high and land gracefully. In short, it’s a day worth thinking about, and perhaps rethinking.