For a while, I was really frustrated at work.
Every day I’d leave the office feeling like, even though I’d been hunched over a computer for the better part of eight hours, I hadn’t done nearly enough.
Some days, I’d realise that I’d spent those hours fielding messages from publicists, sources, and coworkers — meaning I hadn’t actually gotten any writing done. Fail.
Some days, I’d have spent those hours writing and reporting without really attending to my inbox — meaning it was only a matter of time before disgruntled publicists, sources, and coworkers started following up wondering where I’d disappeared to. Fail.
And then there were days when I’d tried to toggle between emailing and writing, and ended up doing a mediocre job on both tasks. Super fail!
At some point, I recognised this ongoing tug-of-war as the classic conflict between so-called “real work” and “fake work.”
The term “real work” comes from time-management expert Laura Vanderkam; she uses it to describe the bigger projects that help you achieve your goals and your organisation’s. Real work, Vanderkam says, is the stuff that drew you to your job in the first place.
“Fake work” is my personal term for everything else — like email correspondence, scheduling phone calls, and organising to-do lists. Fake work is the stuff that any modern professional has to do to stay employed, but that rarely produces an immediate, tangible result.
While I’m hesitant to say I’ve solved this problem for good, I seem to have stumbled across an effective workaround: I now do “fake work” on Sunday and “real work” Monday through Friday.
Before I go into the details of my fake-work-on-Sunday strategy, I’ll have you know that I’m hardly a workaholic. In fact, I’ve been leaving the office a little earlier during the week.
(Interestingly, Vanderkam also advocates working on weekends if that helps you make time for other priorities during the workweek.)
Now, when I leave the office, I feel pretty great — no more creeping anxiety about not having been productive enough. And I would gladly sacrifice a few hours of my weekend for that kind of mental freedom.
There are three kinds of fake work I relegate to Sundays:
1. Email correspondence
For this category, I use my judgment. I scan my inbox pretty regularly, and if something seems urgent, I’ll respond.
But if I need to, say, respond to a publicist’s pitch for a story that isn’t time-sensitive, that happens on Sunday. Likewise if I’m sending general catch-up emails to sources and professional contacts.
A few caveats: I generally use a Gmail plugin called Boomerang to schedule emails to be sent Monday morning. I’d hate to ruin someone else’s weekend. Also, I do respond to Slack messages during the week. So if my editor or another coworker needs to reach me, I don’t leave the person hanging for days.
If I come up with a (seemingly) brilliant idea during the workweek, and want to think more deeply about it, I put it on a list and save it for Sunday.
Same goes if my editor has an idea and asks me to figure out execution — unless she says it’s urgent.
For some reason, when I’m outside the office walls, and when I know that no one’s going to be messaging me on Slack, I can think much more creatively.
There are two key lists I now make every Sunday: articles that I’m planning to write this week and things I need to discuss with my editor during our weekly check-in.
This “meta-work” is important, but doesn’t take a lot of mental energy — so it feels like a waste of time to do it Monday morning.
I’m hardly an expert, but if I could give everyone one piece of productivity advice, it would be this: Figure out when and where you work best. What kind of environment helps you think creatively? And what kind usually helps you bang out a research project?
Then plan your week accordingly. If my personal experience is any indication, it’s a simple trick that will save you a lot of aggravation in the long run.
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