A few months ago, I made a key change to my work schedule. I was feeling frustrated that I never felt as though I had enough time for long-term projects, like writing books or creating new things, because each day felt chock-full of tasks related to my current projects, like writing articles for The Simple Dollar.
The change was a simple one. I merely decided that Fridays were going to be set aside for my “future self,” much like how I set aside much of my income for my future self.
The idea really came from Google. When Google first burst onto the scene in the early 2000s, the company was famous for their “20% time” policy, meaning that 20% of each employee’s time could be spent on independent future-thinking projects. So, for example, a person might spend Monday through Thursday working on their current professional projects and then spend Friday cultivating a long-term future project of their own interest. The policy spawned well-known products like Gmail and AdSense; you can read more about the concept in this great article by Scott Berkun.
At the end of August, when the school year started, I made the conscious decision to try out “Google Fridays.” I decided to do exactly as they did and set aside Fridays for long-term future projects that might not pay off but give me an outlet to try new things.
Since then, I’ve been using my Fridays for a number of interesting projects. I wrote a really strong first draft of a novel, for starters, one that I intend to start turning into a good second draft soon, after which I’ll shop it around to some publishers while also thinking about self-publishing. Since then, I’ve been working on a separate project on Fridays that I don’t quite want to talk about yet (because I hope to eventually announce it here and give it its own breathing room).
Those things would have never happened without deciding that Fridays are for my future self.
Will they become successful projects? The novel might never end up getting published, or it might utterly flop, but that’s okay. I had the opportunity to do it and I learned plenty about what it takes to create a fictional world of that length. Will my other projects become successful? Maybe or maybe not, but I’m learning things along the way, things that will definitely be useful in the future on other projects.
Sound impossible? It really isn’t that impossible at all. Here’s how I’ve made this work so far.
Compressing My Current Work
The first challenge comes from the fact that simply having a “future self Friday” doesn’t mean that my current work tasks become 20% smaller. I’m still committed to the same projects and tasks that I am today, except that I’m wanting to compress them all into Monday through Thursday instead of Monday through Friday.
How is that possible? I’ve found a few techniques that really help.
Getting up 30 minutes to an hour earlier to get a jump on things. I’m most productive in the mornings, so an early morning work session tends to be a really productive one. I’m making up for this time by going to bed about 45 minutes earlier in the evening, which isn’t a spectacular loss because those last 45 minutes before bed were largely unproductive anyway. I’ve mostly just eliminated some mindless web surfing.
Using a Pomodoro timer. Another major part of this change involves becoming more efficient with my professional time use. For the last few months, I’ve been using a Pomodoro timer to maximize my focus. A Pomodoro timer essentially breaks your work into 25-minute blocks with a five-minute break in between them, with a longer break after every four blocks. The idea is that during those work blocks, you focus on an individual task, and then you do things like check your email and Twitter and such during those five-minute breaks. I find this works really well for me in terms of keeping on task when I’m not “in the zone” (in which case I don’t need the timer as I can stay focused for very long periods).
Setting up distraction blockers. Modern life is pretty much chock full of distractions. I’m distracted all the time with YouTube channels, texts on my phone, Twitter… the list goes on and on. What I’ve started doing is blocking every single distracting website for most of the day. I also have started leaving my cell phone in another room, only checking it for texts during my Pomodoro breaks. This forces me to bear down on the task at hand during those 25 minute working sessions.
The result? My writing productivity has gone up more than enough to free up Fridays for “future me.” I can’t guarantee that these strategies will work for you, but I’m sure that some of these techniques will at least give you some breathing room for future-oriented tasks.
Defining Clear Projects to Work On
Of course, I want to make sure that my “future Fridays” are effective as well, so I’m making sure to use these kinds of time management techniques on those days. That doesn’t address the big question, though.
What exactly am I doing with those Fridays?
During the rest of the week, the steps are pretty obvious. I know what tasks need to be completed and I complete them. With this “future Friday” approach, Fridays become a blank slate, and with such a blank slate there is a real temptation to simply take it easy and do something else. Why not spend the day surfing the web or taking care of tasks around the house or playing computer games?
The solution to this challenge, at least for me, is to come up with clearly-defined tasks for Fridays that lead to something big. That means project planning.
I start by defining a big project that I want to take on. I’ll use my novel as an example because it’s clear and discrete, but this can work with pretty much any project you can think of.
I start by stating my goal as clearly as possible. My goal for the novel project was to complete a good first draft of the full novel I had in mind. Maybe your project is to take an online class or something else entirely, but try to define it as a larger goal that you’re working toward.
From there, I spent time breaking it down into small pieces that could be completed in an hour or two. This actually took an entire Friday for me because I spent it sketching out the full novel, breaking it down into chapter and sub-chapters and summarizing what would happen in each scene with a few sentences and a few notes about character and setting traits that I wanted to establish. For other projects, it can be far easier to break it down.
Then, I just assigned three or four of those discrete tasks to each Friday until it was done. My novel had between 110 and 115 such pieces – essentially individual scenes – in my initial plan, though that number grew a little bit. I assigned four such scenes to myself each Friday and often completed five or six of them, plus I would do two or three more throughout the week here or there (mostly because the project was exciting and I enjoyed working on it).
Take a big idea you have, break it down into little pieces that you can handle, then start knocking out those pieces. Do it with a little focus and the big project will be done sooner than you think.
Focusing on Skill-Building as Much as the Final Product
Naturally, part of these Friday projects is to produce something of value that can perhaps turn into an income stream or help out with my professional life in some other fashion, but that’s only part of the equation.
Another part that’s equally important is learning or honing skills that are useful to me but that I might not necessarily be using in my daily life.
Again, let’s look at the novel writing project. A big part of that project was to really work on fiction writing techniques – plotting and pacing and staging and so forth. Working on those skills not only means that future fiction writing will become easier, but it also helps me work on techniques that can make my nonfiction writing better as well – and that naturally includes The Simple Dollar.
Why is this so useful? Let’s say that the project turns out to be a failure. If that happens, a project that taught you a skill will continue to have some use to you because you’ll have a skill that you can utilize elsewhere. A project that fails without teaching you anything ends up not really being a worthwhile investment of your time and energy.
My upcoming projects all involve either learning a new skill that I’ve always wanted to pick up, or helping me hone a skill I already use frequently. This is a major part of any project I select.
Take a serious look at your professional situation and see if you can make a “future Friday” for yourself, or perhaps even just a “future Friday afternoon.” Devote that time to a project of some kind, ideally one that will teach you a skill or help you hone a skill along the way.
Not only will such a project help you open professional doors, it will also be an enjoyable and refreshing change of pace in your daily work life that has the potential to open the door to much more income for you.