Off the Grid Day

Three days a week I go off the grid. Not in the extreme sense of disappearing to a remote island, but in the sense that I’ve taken the “no email day” concept a bit further, for a full work day of radio silence:

  • No email
  • No Facebook
  • No Twitter
  • No texting
  • No phone calls

One of these days, Saturday, is a full day off–starting Friday early evening. The other two days (Monday and Thursday) are what I call a “working Sabbath”: an island of time where I reduce distractions so that I can chunk my time and actually get things done. I maintain radio silence from the morning until at least the end of the work day (eg. 6pm) and occasionally all night.

When I first started doing this in 2004 I was amazed at how it affected my life and productivity. I was happier and got more done. It’s not something you can implement at all stages in your life, and it’s not the right option for all job descriptions. There have been years where I have only been able to implement OTG days on occasion. But if you’re a professional who regularly creates things–such as an engineer, a writer, a programmer, or a visual artist–or if you’re an entrepreneur or high level manager who can make and enforce a schedule like this; then this may be  a revolutionary step in happiness and effectiveness.

Off the Grid day is an extreme version of time chunking. Time chunking is the anti-multitasking approach to productivity: it’s about setting aside entire uninterrupted hours or days devoted to a specific activity. Programmers often find that they need a minimum of an uninterrupted hour–or several hours for more complex problems–just to get into the zone and start working productively. An artist might take a week out just to work on a painting without any contact with the outside world. Here are some of the activities I schedule my “off the grid” time chunking for:

  • Planning and long-term scheduling–such as deciding when to run events, scheduling future meetings, planning trips. As you work, you start to load the calendar into your head so that it all makes sense and you can plan much more effectively.
  • Writing–whether it’s a big report, a contract proposal, a blog post, or a corporate policy. Even important emails can fall into this category, although it’s difficult to make sure that “writing an important email” doesn’t turn into “checking email” which is a very different thing.
  • Programming–many software engineering gurus evangelize about the importance of uninterrupted time for programming.
  • Design work of any kind falls into this category: it’s about getting into the zone where ideas flow. I’ve found it can make an order of magnitude of difference, accomplishing something in a single hour or two in the zone rather than nearly ten hours of interruptions spread over several weeks.
  • Studying works best when you get in the zone rather than multi-task, especially for anything beyond rote memorization. And this goes for more than just full-time students: if you’re a web developer learning about a new technology, a CTO evaluating new technologies to deploy, or a CEO considering an internal proposal for a new product, you’ll benefit from chunking your time so you can really grok the new ideas.
  • Choreographing–as a swing dance choreographer I find I’m most effective when I chunk several hours together. It’s not always necessary–once I managed to choreograph a Charleston routine of just under a minute, entirely from my memory of the song (I’d forgotten my iPod) in the minutes that it took to take the subway to the studio. But when you’re choreographing with a partner, you need extra time to get on the same page and work through any incompatibilities in artistic vision. Sometimes having too little time can mean frustration and getting nothing done at all.
  • Important meetings–I don’t normally schedule meetings for my OTG days, but I’ll mention meetings for one reason: although I’m a big fan of small, rapid-fire meetings (eg. stand-ups and huddles), occasionally you need to allow for more time. When you’re planning out the year, or discussing major changes, it can be beneficial to take an entire day out to meet as a small team and go through the process without skimping.
  • Thinking–One of my favourite no-nonsense business gurus, Harvey Mackay, surprised me in one of his books by saying that often the most important work that you or some of your employees may do all day is just sitting and staring out the window. This was shocking, coming from the guy who wrote “How to Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive.” He’s not a feel-good writer. He makes you feel frivolous and lazy just looking at him. But he has a point: it’s amazing how often just thinking about the problem is the best way to solve it. Setting aside time to just think about things has been the source of my best business ideas, solving multiple problems at the same time. Don’t succumb to the naive belief that if you’re not actively doing something, you’re wasting your time. Thinking matters. (If it makes you feel better, think with paper and pen and jot down ideas so you feel like you’re doing something.)

It’s a struggle to stay true to the “Off the Grid Day” format–there’s always that one email that needs to be sent, or a nagging urge to see if Facebook is announcing the end of the world again. In my own case, a lot of the work I do requires accessing resources in social media, such as looking on Facebook to check dates for planning purposes, or checking email for information people are supposed to have sent me. It’s really difficult to just get in and get out without reacting to the inevitable ignorant statements on Facebook or “urgent” emails. But the more complete the OTG days are, the better they work.

One advantage of the OTG days is that it forces you to be more productive the rest of the week. For example, if you don’t let yourself ask people for ideas, information or feedback on OTG days, then you have to save up “questions to ask” and cover several at once in a single email, phone call or meeting. And you’ll find that this makes your communications much more productive than sending off an email every time you think of something new to discuss.

That means that in order for the OTG days to work effectively, you need to establish a clear distinction between them and the rest of the week. You need to actually chunk your email and social media time the rest of the week to ensure you don’t simply stop answering the few actually important messages.

Related links and articles:

  1. Marc Andreesen explains his “no schedule”
  2. No Email Fridays
  3. Intro to time chunking
  4. The working sabbath and some of my other favourite ideas
  5. My first article about “Working Sabbaths” in 2004