The Three Rhythms of Workflow – Getting and Staying in the Groove

It’s been a rock and roll day here at QuietSpacing(R) central.  Monday’s always are … for most of us.  Between all the things I shoved into this week from last week, the things everyone else shoved into this week, and the collective exigencies that popped up over the weekend, it’s a wonder Monday ever ends!

I felt myself ease into the groove right way, first reviewing the landscape of the day, then triaging all the e-mails that had arrived overnight.  The collective pulse rose as people started calling and the activity level all around me increased.  Soon, I was responding to client and employee requests for my attention, while I also re-scripted a presentation I wanted to record for the web. 

The middle of the day heaved over and as the afternoon drew out in front of me, I found myself contending with several technical issues.  By mid-afternoon it was time to get a number of things done out of the office, so into the world I went.  The relative quiet of the outside world was a welcome relief to the mounting pressure building in the office.  E-mails weren’t quite as urgent as keeping my eyes on the road and phone calls were taken more selectively.

With the errands complete, I returned to the office for a final triage before heading out into the drizzle for a run. 

While I slogged through the rain, I reviewed the day from the 10,000 foot level.  There had been much activity and even a fair amount of productivity, but what struck me the most was the rhythms I’d experienced during the day.  The more I thought about what I’d done all day, the more I realized that we (all of us) work in three distinct rhythms – Rapid Fire, Small Burst and Extended Focus.  Each rhythm has its own pace and its own benefits. 

Breaking Down the Day

From a productivity standpoint, the longer we can stay in each rhythm, the more we’ll get done.  It’s not just that multitasking is inefficient, it’s that batching like tasks together reduces the need to change the type of focus and energy you need to remain highly productive. 

To achieve this higher level of productivity, group like tasks together based on the three categories below, then organize your day around addressing them in batches.  Not only will you get more done, you’ll enjoy the benefits of accomplishing these associated tasks.

  • Rapid Fire – You’re Needed.  The best example of the Rapid Fire rhythm is powering through e-mail.  It’s so reassuring to have all those e-mails waiting for us.  Way deep down, our egos are screaming, “You like me!  You really like me!”  (Apologies to Sally Field, but it was just too opportune!)  On a more serious note, the reality is that we get a lot of e-mail and we need to get through it all.  It’s also true that most e-mail is some form of junk mail – stuff you don’t really need to know or do anything about.  Thus, it’s a perfect place to get into a Rapid Fire rhythm and slice and dice your way to the end of them.  Proper setup of for Rapid Fire processing is vital, so check this article out on how to do that – Setup For Power Processing Your E-mail – then select a couple of times each hour to bust a move on that e-mail.  Don’t stop until you’ve covered all the unread ones, then move to the next thing that needs your attention.
  • Short Burst – You’re Gettin’ ‘Er Done.  The Small Burst rhythm is reflected in the incremental efforts you make all day long to move the ball down the field.  These are the 10- to 15-minute projects/phone calls/meetings that consume most of your day.  Each time a small task is completed, the project is that much closer to getting done.  Whenever you get a bunch of these done in a day, you feel really productive.  This rhythm is evidenced by the lines through things on your To Do list and the associated feeling of accomplishment you get looking at that list at the end of the day.  The best time to seek out this rhythm is first thing in the morning – right after the initial e-mail triage – and right before going home.  These activities tend to generate mental energy as opposed to deplete it, so fill that tank up first thing when you get to the office and right before you go home!
  • Extended Focus – You’re Contributing.  Undoubtedly the most rewarding experience – personally and professionally – is when we feel as though we’re contributing to the effort, whatever that effort might be.  Getting into the Extended Focus rhythm is the most likely place to capture that feeling.  This rhythm is quieter mentally and physically than the other two.  This is when your focus dives deep into a task or project and you begin to see all the connections you’re pulling together.  We’ve all felt proud and satisfied with ourselves when we see a project we’ve worked long and hard on come to fruition.  We’ve made a difference; we’ve contributed.  This rhythm is not something we can enjoy every day, but it’s a rhythm that is necessary to get the big tasks done.  Thus, you need to make time and space for it in your schedule.  Sequester yourself away physically if necessary to get into and be able to stay in this rhythm.  The reward is worth it.

Manage Your Day to Get the Most From It

The three rhythms of the day come and go.  Some days are all Rapid Fire. Some are mixes of Rapid Fire and Short Bursts.  A few include Extended Focus.  Each rhythm is natural and each delivers a reward.  Your assignment, should you decide to accept it (nod to Mission Impossible), is to organize the work that needs doing to best leverage these rhythms.

One thought on “The Three Rhythms of Workflow – Getting and Staying in the Groove”

  • I never thought the grouping the various types together as rhythms. That is an interesting way of looking at it.

    I disagree that the short burst activities generate mental energy. As a very introverted person, these activities wear out my mental energy. I generate mental energy when I’ve had a chance to bury myself into a project for an hour or 3.

    If something needs more than 2 minutes of attention but less than an hour, I put it off until lunch. I work on something very absorbing in the meantime. That gets my brain engaged so I can think and respond to those 15 minute activities.

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