Scheduling Time in the “Alone Zone”

You schedule time for large meetings, small meetings, conference calls, and phone appointments. If you are like many leaders, you often feel that your life consists of nothing BUT meetings. As a result, there is no time to complete the work you volunteer for, agree to, or are assigned in those same meetings.

A Lone Business Executive in the Alone Zone - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/calvio, Image #2042102

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/calvio

What can you do? Simple: Schedule time for you.

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You need time for what Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, authors of Rework, call “the Alone Zone”:

Long stretches of alone time are when you are the most productive. When you don’t have to mind-shift between various tasks, you get a boatload done. (Ever notice how much work you get done on a plane since you’re offline and there are zero outside distractions” (p. 105).

But this kind of alone time doesn’t happen by accident. Like everything else in the leader’s life, you must be intentional, if you want to be effective.

I personally schedule five kinds of alone time:

  1. Morning time. I typically get up at 5:00 a.m. I do my most important tasks right away, including exercise and reading. I also try to get done my single most important to-do item before I leave for the office. Why? Because I know a thousand interruptions and distractions await me once I arrive.
  2. Weekly appointments. I literally block out time on my calendar with the clever title of “Office Work.” I generally do this on Sunday night as I prepare for the next week’s meetings. When I am really on the ball, I do this a month in advance. The beautiful thing is that when someone asks for that time slot, I can legitimately say, “I’m sorry, but I already have a commitment then.” It’s a commitment to myself.
  3. Special Projects. These are those projects that always seem to fall prey to the tyranny of the urgent. You know the ones I am talking about. They have been stuck on your to-do list for weeks. The key to overcoming inertia is just to block out some time on your calendar, close your door, roll up your sleeves, and get started. It’s amazing how much progress you can make with a little dedicated time.
  4. Quarterly reviews. I schedule a day and a half by myself each quarter. I have written about it on this blog before, so I won’t repeat myself here. However, this is a time when I can reflect back over the previous quarter and then look forward to the coming quarter. It’s an opportunity to poke my head above the clouds and see where I am going with my business—and my life.
  5. Travel time. I am never more productive than when I am in an airplane. However, I have to be very intentional. I upgrade when I can. If that’s not possible, I get an exit row seat. (It’s difficult to be productive when the person in front if you has their seat reclined, and their head is practically in your lap!) Specifically, I try to work on projects that require extended creativity. I plan in advance which projects I am going to tackle.

I am sometimes asked, “How do you get it all done?” Part of the secret is by scheduling time to get it done. What about you?

Questions: Have you tried scheduling time in the “alone zone?” How has it worked for you?
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  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/mattedmundson Matt Edmundson

    Ironically, I was just reading that book, and that section in the book!

    This, I think, is the wish of just about every one who uses air to stay alive! Once a month, for example, I will finish work at 12 noon and look after our young daughter, collect the kids from school, feed them and generally play Dad – so my wife gets a good 8-10 hours alone time.

    Once a week, I go with my laptop to a coffee shop and sit there anonymously just to catch up with myself.

    I think this kind of thing is vitally important. My advice is write a journal daily – even if it is for 5-10 minutes. It really helps! Use Stickk.com if you need motivation to do that :D

    But, like you Mike, I think it is the routine that helps the most – doing the simple things well, and creating space in your day for what is important. There are so many things that demand our attention – that you have to be dogmatic about it. Don't forget to help create space for your spouse though – it is just as important for them too!
    My recent post When to call 999

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/petereleazar petereleazar

      Thats how I started writing. To me a journal forces us to listen to God and pull our lessons out of the background. It is why Jesus always took time to be alone – it restored His perspectives and focus, kept Him accountable to His primary constituency and energised His next steps. I regularly advise people in crisis to write, because it is disciplined reflection and it allows God to speak to us in the midst of life's clamour – it is a table in the midst of our enemies. Thanks Matt.
      My recent post The greater fight

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  • http://intensedebate.com/people/petereleazar petereleazar

    This is a very useful blog – thanks – I rate is as really transformative counsel. One small add – I always accepted that no one would pat me on the back, so I scheduled reward times – at the end of a long project or something like that I would step away, take time out (an afternoon, a lunch break, a date with my wife).
    My recent post The greater fight

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  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Geoffreywebb Geoff Webb

    I'm more efficient at 30,000 feet than any other altitude!
    My recent post Whatever It Takes

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

    I totally agree. I have sometimes joked with my staff that flying me across the country and back is the best investment we can make.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/success2you John Richardson

    Great topic, Mike. I'm lucky that I'm a morning person. I usually get up around 4am and start the day. This gives me two hours to write, create, and plan out my day before I have to get ready for work. But like any block of time it's easy to fritter it away on non productive items. I've found that focusing on one task at a time and using time boxing with a time period of 48 minutes works really well for me. I work for 48 minutes and then take a twelve minute break. It may sound corny, but if I really need to get something done this works wonders. This has also been a lifesaver at work… close the door, turn off e-mail and concentrate on ONE thing for a 48 minute time block.

    I'm flying back to Chicago later this week for SOBcon and I'll have to take your advice and plan a creative project for the four hours onboard. This just usually gets spent reading magazines and looking out the window. I really like your idea of a scheduled project… hmmm 48 minutes at a time. Thanks Mike!
    My recent post Meeting My Mentors

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/todshuttleworth todshuttleworth

    Great advice Mike. I am drowning right now, so this could not have come at a better time, I need to hit the road. That's when my creative side can think. Thanks,

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

    I am not called to be Superwoman–that's what I tell myself when I take personal time. Since I teach full-time, since I am writing a book, and since I have a very large extended family, the demands on my time can be overwhelming. Like you, I tend to block times for getting things done. Of course, school has set hours, but since my most productive time is usually late afternoons and evenings, I stay until at least 5 most every evening. After having dinner with my husband, I work on the computer for a couple of hours before going to bed by 10. I reserve weekends for writing my posts and hanging with my family. By taking one step at a time, I usually don't feel stressed or rushed even when my schedule says I should be
    .
    My recent post #40 THE DOING OF LOVING: FORGIVENESS

  • http://forrest-long.blogspot.com Forrest Long

    Alone time is important and it’s not impossible to find in a busy schedule, because you have to intentionally make it. I’m an early morning person too and that’s when I get alot done, not only in personal devotional reading but in planning as well. I take a day a month just for organizing and re-organizing. Then I try to take several days in a block to be away and alone to plan preaching and teaching for several months. Thanks for your insights.

  • Rachel Wojnarowski

    Love this post because these principles are applicable in every area of our lives. Thanks again for your insight!

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  • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

    Me, too. Nothing like getting out of the office!

  • http://nicodemusfile.blogspot.com/ Whitakerous

    I agree with you post. Often times, people make fun of me because I suggest that they plan as much of their life as possible. However, I have found that the more you plan and put it down on a calendar, the more likely you are to do it. I have even been known to plan mowing the yard and cleaning the closet and putting it in my calendar. Then oddly enough it gets done. More often than if I think about mowing the yard tomorrow and I do not plan it. Couple this with GTD and that is how I "get things done" Check me out on Twitter @Whitakerous.

  • http://www.sowingseedsministries.com James Castellano

    My alone time is weekday from 0500 to 0600. I'll do my daily affirmations and goal reviews, plus I get a great deal of reading, praying and blogging done in this hour.
    My recent post Building a Solid Foundation For Leadership

  • http://progressforge.com/ Mark Mathson

    This is a great reminder, and one that I firmly agree with. I spend time doing this and blocking it out on a calendar can be helpful.

    One needs time to clear their minds, to be effective during the rest of the time.
    My recent post Hitting Home Runs in Your Life

  • http://chrisshaughness.wordpress.com/ Chris Shaughness

    This advice is critical for success. We need to be able to uplug from everything occasionally. When I was scheduling clients as a new entrepreneur, I intended to block times in my schedule for uninterrupted work. But being new to the business, if anyone wanted that time for an appointment, I would relinquish it and forego my own time. I see now that this was a mistake. Self-care is so vital – the time to hear my own thoughts without the noise. And now, as a full-time writer, it's even more important. Time alone is when the ideas flow.
    My recent post It Only Takes One Person

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/keithferrin keithferrin

    I have used this technique as well. Of course, sometimes I'm my own worst enemy so instead of just scheduling "office work" I'll assign one of my bigger tasks to that hour…or two…or three. Reminder to myself to focus on the task at hand.

  • http://www.etiquetteexpert.com Jacqueline Whitmore

    Michael, I think your "secret" is getting up at 5am. The early bird catches the worm.

  • http://twitter.com/Billy_Purcell @Billy_Purcell

    The Lord's spirit brooks no stagnation, get your time with the Lord early, give Him your best, before the distraction's of the day, early, sometimes real early, no matter, the value of this time is imeasurable, not until the vail is lifted will we know the real value.

  • http://www.therextras.com BarbaraBoucher PTPhD

    (I could not get the comment box to accept a comment from me yesterday.)

    Wholeheartedly agree with number 1 – used to be referred to as the "overwhelming A" task – do it first.

    I have also worked in places where sequestered "office work" is not honored and even looked down on. Very dysfunctional department.

    Making use of time in travel is a great suggestion, but making use of many small bits of time throughout the day is worthwhile, too.

    Easy to follow guidelines, Michael. Thank you.
    My recent post Childhood Expressions Blog Carnival

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/elephanthunters elephanthunters

    Great post Mike! I've seen so many leaders water down their potency by booking back to back meetings all month in the name of squeezing out more work. #Fail.

    BTW – I loved reading Rework. It's a must for any business leader.

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/shrinkthecamel shrinkingthecamel

    How true. The danger is when you start bleeding that Alone Time into the evenings and weekends, so that it starts chewing in to Family/Fun/Personal Time. Then we have a workaholic in progress. I think it is important to protect that time within a reasonable work-week. If possible.

    I took a job a while ago where I wouldn't have to travel so much any more. It's great, but wow, do I sometimes miss those 5 hour coast to coast flights when I had those big chunks of time to process information.
    My recent post The Trouble With Being Nice

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  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/ Kenny Silva

    Great post, Michael. I've found that, in order to really focus and get any project or activity done, I have to time block my schedule for that activity. I've found myself scheduling more appointments with myself lately just to ensure that I make the time to complete whatever project needs my attention. I also find it really important to schedule time to be silent and still. I got that one from Zig Ziglar. 15-30 minutes in the morning to just sit and think about the day, with no distractions, really has an amazing impact on the pace and structure of my day.

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  • http://www.schoolgrantsnow.com/ school grants

    Great site. A lot of useful information here. I’m sending it to some friends!

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  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/lanniecox Lannie

    Great post. What's challenging is this approach is sometimes counter-cultural in many office settings. Booking meetings back to back, where the norm is people getting to meetings or conference calls late because no time in between is scheduled, is normal opporating procedure in a national non profit culture where I spend much of my time. I do benefit from the practices you described. I need to discipline myself to create these opportunities more consistently during work hours. When it comes to pursuing God, my family and relationships, I set aside the time. In the more professional setting I do get pulled into the back to back meeting culture. Reflecting on this was a good reminder.

  • http://www.ricardobueno.com Ricardo Bueno

    First off, loved reading "Rework" – Great book!

    For me, scheduling time in the "alone zone" is a necessity. I find this time at one of two periods of the day: 1.) the very early morning, 2.) late, late at night. I find that I'm very productive on days when I start at 5:00 – 6:00am. Things get done before the day even begins and then I sit there wondering to myself, "Hmm… What's next" by about 8:30am. At night, I'm very creative and since my designer is a night-owl too, it works out well for both of us.

    Sometimes, getting focused means shutting all technology off, heading to the beach, and taking a walk by the pier to watch the sunset. This is a hard refresh for me and works like a charm.

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  • http://www.gratitude-girls.com Gratitude Girls

    Scheduling time for me is the first commitments that I fill into my calendar. I have learned how easy it can be to overlook this time, so I schedule my own time outs to pause and re-center myself.

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  • http://www.christopherscottblog.typepad.com/ Christopher Scott

    Hi Mr. Hyatt,

    I personally schedule the first three hours of everyday day with myself. I’m up at 4am, and leave my apartment for work at 7am.

    This gives me three hours to journal a little bit, read my bible, pray, and like you, I try get my most important things done before I leave for work. This “AM Time” is my time, and if I don’t get my time, the day does not seem to be as productive.

    In addition to my AM Time, I also schedule time Sunday evenings to go to Starbucks and enjoy a cup coffee and starting thinking through my week. I don’t do any work, only think and reflect and prepare.

    Thanks for sharing a great post.

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