- Michael Thompson is a writer and leadership and communication strategist.
- He blocks off two hours each day to take a walk, do a hobby, or network with peers.
- Leaving 30% of his workday unscheduled has improved his creativity and focus, he says.
On the 210 days he does work, he says his main strategy to stay focused on the right tasks is to leave 30% of his day unscheduled. Creating this window each day allows time to focus on growth through new opportunities and ideas, rather than spending 100% of your day on your current workload, Sullivan says.
When I first came across this advice three years ago, like a lot of things that sound nice in principle, I thought it wasn’t possible. At the time, my wife was commuting to her office an hour away from home and I was struggling to juggle our two young kids with my own work. I thought for sure leaving roughly two hours unscheduled would hamper my productivity, but I was wrong.
By sticking to Sullivan’s advice and scheduling my free time first, within three months I’d made the turn from an aspiring creative to a decently paid one, despite being a relative newbie to the online writing and coaching world. Here’s what following the 30% rule helps me accomplish.
1. I can create more ‘Eureka’ moments
It’s not a coincidence that a lot of people come up with their best ideas outside of the office. More often than not, the key to getting my ideas to connect is giving them room to breathe. Since adopting the 30% rule, every day from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. I shut down my computer and do just that. I use this window to get outside of the house for a midday walk or run, spend time studying Spanish, go grocery shopping, or simply allow myself to zone out.
By creating this space, I’ve been able to come up with a steady stream of ideas for bi-weekly articles over the last three years. I can’t count the number of times I’ve thought of the perfect one-liner for a client’s project or untied a mental knot while out for a midday walk. When I get back to work at 2 p.m., I feel refreshed and ready to bring the same level of focus to my afternoons as I do my mornings.
2. I have time to tend to my network
In addition to getting out of the house, I also use this unscheduled time to reach out to new people or catch up with old friends. This may sound basic, but it saved me financially when COVID-19 came on the scene. Like a lot of people, I lost half of my work contracts overnight. But thanks to my proactive habit of reaching out to people and maintaining good connections, people in my network passed along new opportunities which helped me replace what was canceled.
Prior to implementing the 30% rule, I had a tendency to view networking as an “if time allows” activity. Proactively carving out time to stay in contact with people opened my eyes very quickly to the reality that strong networks are much easier to maintain when done consistently. We all know the importance of networking — often, the opportunities we’re given are a direct reflection of the company we keep.
It doesn’t have to be a constant back and forth — maintaining your network can be as simple as sending a quick email or leaving a short voicemail letting someone know you’re thinking about them.
3. I’ve improved my ability to prioritize
Having a million things running through your mind is the fastest way to sabotage your primary goals.
Treating my unscheduled time as close to non-negotiable as possible — combined with the time-restraint strategy of less time to work — forced me to really think about which tasks truly move my work forward and helped me weed out those that don’t.
One of the ways I do this is by following Sullivan’s advice of capping my daily to-do list at three tasks. Every evening, before wrapping up work, I take 10 minutes to map out my to-dos for the following day and then I write them down on individual note cards. This allows me to start each morning with clarity. Seeing the stack of completed tasks also reminds me that even on days when I feel like I’m not doing enough, I absolutely am.
How to get the 30% rule to work for you
The key to making the 30% rule work is breaking out your calendar at the end of each week and proactively scheduling time for yourself for the upcoming week first — before getting bombarded with requests from other people.
I’m at my best when working in three-hour time blocks and for the entirety of 2022, I have a two-hour break in the middle of the day written into my old-school calendar above my desk so it’s visible. If you work better in shorter time blocks, try carving out four 30-minute increments of space throughout your day and use it to change up your environment as much as possible by moving to a different room to work on a hobby, taking a walk outside, etc.
Following the 30% rule isn’t always easy — there are days of course when either my kids or client deadlines bite into this time. But that’s the best part — since I already built “open” time into my schedule, I don’t have to stress or work late if I occasionally get thrown off course.
If you’re an entrepreneur or you’re working remotely and don’t have to be glued to your PC all day, give the 30% rule a shot. If you’re back in the office and working a 9-to-5, propose it to your manager or team — having schedule flexibility has been shown to increase job satisfaction and reduce work-related stress.
It took me a long time to learn that always being ‘on’ truly is the enemy of productivity. Now that I’ve experienced the benefits of scheduling downtime first, the idea of working more to accomplish less isn’t nearly as enticing as stepping away to allow the dots to better connect.
Michael Thompson is a communication strategist who assists individuals and organizations to grow their influence in the new world through the power of words. To learn more about his work, visit here and receive a free 12-step guide to become a more memorable storyteller and persuasive writer.