Once again, I find myself feeling somewhat ridiculous writing and posting about something that is not complex or clever, but I figure that if it’s helping me, maybe it’ll help some other folks.

Over the last year or so I’ve found that making use of my phone alarm and calendar has made it easier to relax and be productive. Partly the move to working from home all the time has made this more possible, but I think a lot of these habits will carry over should I end up returning to an office, full or part time. It ties in nicely with my other tools of choice right now, my calendar and instant messenger.

The bell

Saved by the bell school daze

For a number of years when I went to high school, wearing a watch at school was banned. I suspect this was to do with the schools drive for equality. It was a bog standard modern comprehensive but interestingly was what at the time was referred to as “fully integrated”, which meant that there were kids with a wide range of abilities, from a future Cambridge double first to people who probably didn’t make it into their teens. There were specialist facilities in the school but your form group was mixed and in the first three years there was no streaming by ability, all your classes were very mixed. There was no sports day, no school prizes and no “enforced competition”, which I believe lead to a very healthy atmosphere. Meeting folks at university who had prize days, speech days, house competitions and the like I realised how rare this might have been.

It also had a huge catchment area, a mix of rural of town environments, and all the economic and social variety that brings. It was also Cumbria in the 1990s, so the racial mix was very, well, unmixed. I had to move away before I spent any time within somebody who didn’t look and sound pretty much like me.

It wasn’t a utopia of integration and happiness by the way, it was just a massive school with a legal mandate to provide an education to a huge area and a head who was a bit ahead of his time in realising that what had come before would no longer work and was dropped into a somewhat failing school like a forerunner of the super heads that were to come. RIP Big DR.

Anyway, watches. It was around the time that G-Shock released the Baby-G and there was a shock lived crazy of big chunky fashion watches. Naturally not everybody could afford one and kids being kids, bullying happened. The school put out a message, no watches on school property. I think there might have been a letter to parents explaining why, however the line inside school was simple

“A bell will ring when you need to know what time it is”

This was reinforced with the age old school trick of putting clocks in the room where the teacher could see them and pupils couldn’t, so you didn’t spent the hour staring it down.

And they were mostly right, when you don’t need to worry about it, you just get on with what you’re doing.

An alarming routine

I didn’t think back to school and realise this was how it worked and change my life, I just set my phone alarm to go off at 0645 so that I could get up and feed the cats before they howled the house down or woke us both up with their pestering.

The alarm goes off, I stagger downstairs in my Oodie (something I didn’t think I’d ever actually wear but is actually brilliant), pour them biscuits into the assortment of feeders, make a cup of tea and settle in with whatever the latest improving book I’ve trying until the next alarm goes off at 0745.

0745 gives me 15 minutes to put the coffee of, have a slice of toast and stagger back upstairs to sort though my inbox. There’s another alarm at 0755 in case I’m dawdling or choose to read ten minute more book and skip coffee. By the time I’ve read and flagged my inbox (I might write that up some day), it’s time to head off for ablutions and a second cuppa.

The same is true of my lunchtime. I really try to take an hour, which is easier when you’re at home because you’ve got space to do something, rather than lurking in a break room or (the worst) going back to your desk and reading the internet.

12:00 my alarm goes off and I make something to eat and settle in for 30 minutes or so of colouring in (yes, I know how painfully hipster this sounds, but it’s meditative and comforting), or pottering round the garden pulling up weeds and grazing on soft fruit, or reading a book (generally not the current improving one, more likely some hard sci-fi). 12:50 and the alarm goes again and I know I’ve got ten minutes to tidy up, make a brew and head back to the office.

Let the clock take the strain

By setting alarms, and more specifically alarms that are 5 or 10 minutes before a thing is due, I’ve found I stop looking at my watch phone natch) and so really get into the thing I’m doing and thus get more out of it.

A little bit like the Pomodoro technique, I know I don’t have anything else I have to do until that alarm goes, and once it goes I’m not late for the next thing. I can relax into colouring in, to enjoy the time in the sun or book, and not be semi-nervously checking my phone every 5 minute and then noticing there’s a notification, and then opening Twitter, and then not really picking the book up again, or having to re-read a page. If I need to be somewhere, the bell will ring.

The book

The alarm clock works well for me, Monday to Friday, outside of office hours. Inside office hours, I’ve tried to change my working practices to be calendar driven, not inbox driven. I still work 8+ hours a day, but I don’t let work rule every hour between 0800 and 1800 (which is 10 hours, not 8).

More colouring in

Many years ago I read an excellent piece by Lara Hogan about defragging your calendar to reduce manager energy drain and I return to it every so often. The technique of using colours to show the mental type of work worked well for me for a while, but I got out of the habit. One this it did help me do was start to push my day by what was int he book, not who was shouting loudest.

My calendar is in effect, my alarm clock for the day.

I block chunks of time for named pieces of work not just for meetings (write this slide deck, review this document, read about this topic for 5 minutes before the meeting that’s likely to bring it up). Sadly right now if I don’t do this, especially in the afternoons when there’s a golden period of timezone overlap, I get booked solid with meetings. So work gets booked in first, either with specifics, or with “work time” chunks of 55 minutes. These are all coloured yellow in my calendar, very much not doing what Lara’s post is about, but useful for the visual cue that maybe my diary needs a rework because it’s got too heavy.

I also block a chunk of time for lunch, because I don’t function well if I don’t eat at roughly midday and take a little time away from my keyboard. By having these repeating blocks, I make it easy for folks in different timezones to not want my time then. I’m happy to move them if I have to, because a meeting that needs people in 3 timezones is hard enough to organise without me being a prima donna about exactly when I eat my blackbeans, but it’s the nudge some folks need in a passive way rather than replying “actually that’s lunch time” or worse, going to a meeting hangry and resentful, covered in biscuit crumbs. Lunch is coloured in Dark Blue, just because it was aesthetically pleasing

Lastly I have an entry that runs from 1700 until 0700 the next day. It’s labelled “Family Time” and it’s pink. It’s there to help with scheduling meetings with my colleagues in US timezones, the nudge that I’m not always on. Every so often somebody will get in touch because there’s something I really need to be at, and they can’t find space in their early afternoon because it’s my evening, and I’ll happily be there, but the gentle “not available” status works surprisingly well.

Every so often somebody will bang a meeting invite out that’s at a really anti-social time. If it’s important (and sometimes these things really are) I’ll be there, but if I can’t figure out if it’s important I’ll now reply as gently as I can. “Hey, that’s 10pm for me, any chance of a reschedule or is it vital I’m there?” Most of the time people have just not realised what country you’re in and will move it, every so often, I’m there. Very rarely (actually twice I can thing of) somebody replies to say yes, it is important (and it’s clearly not) in which case, I ask them to move if forward 8 hours to my 6am and their 10pm. Once they actually did it, and kudos to them, so I went.

Sometimes this doesn’t leave a huge amount of whitespace in my diary for people to book my time, and that’s ok, they’ll generally get in touch and we’ll chat asynchronously or I’ll free up time.

The status of time

For all the block bookings I’ve mentioned above I use the “busy” status. I know a few people who use “out of office” for lunch and out of hours, but it’s always felt a touch aggressive for me (I’m pretty conflict averse) and when I tried it in the past it lead to confusion with conversations like “I tried to stick something in your diary but your OOO all week?”. People seems to default to seeing any out of office status as you being away for the day, so they see a slot marked as Out Of Office and go looking at the next day,not the next hour.

Thus, I reserve Out Of Office for when I’m not at work for a whole or half day. The result of the time I’m using Busy or more recently, “Tentative”. I reply to meetings I’m invited to but not actually needed (or clashing) with “Tentative for the note” as I mentioned in my last post.

I’m also experimenting with blocks of “Tentative” for delivery work, eg. I really need to get this done and here’s a slot, but if I need to use it for something else, that’s fine.

I rarely use “Do Not Disturb”. Once again, it feels very aggressive to me and so I just use Busy. If it really don’t want to be disturbed I’ll just minimise email and Teams, I’ve already got all pop up notifications off other than somebody ringing me and if it’s urgent enough to ring me, I’ll take the interruption.

The Candle

Much as I’ve ragged on Microsoft over the years, in a large company spread out over numerous timezones and locations, having a single, integrated calendar, email and instant messaging platform starts to come into it’s own. I’m sure I’d be fine with that being Whatever Google Suite Is Called This Week, but in my case that means Microsoft Exchange + Outlook + Teams. I assume clients other than the official ones respect statuses (it’s all WebDav under the hood I imagine).

Being able to mark time in a calendar as Busy, Tentative, Out of Office etc is great, especially when it bleeds across into other areas. Microsoft Teams status will auto-sync with your calendar, so people can see if you’re free, in a meeting or even presenting your screen, before they ping you a message. As a side note, a shout out to NoHello.net and their important message about how to make the most of instant messaging tools, promoting asynchronicity and full fat actionable messages.

The status blob is a lovely passive information radiator (hence the mildly forced candle reference) that just makes working apart easier and helps replicate what would happen naturally if you were working in the same space. If you looked up and somebody was on the phone or in a meeting, you’d not go over and demand their attention unless it was both important and urgent. If you saw somebody with their headphones on hammering a keyboard and in the zone, I hope you’d not wander over and tap them on the shoulder. The status light should help guide people to the same conclusions.