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Designing an async-first workday

Tap into the power of deep work and time blocking.

By Darryn King

May 3, 2022

With fewer meetings and less emphasis on working rigid office hours, async collaboration allows workers more flexibility to adapt their schedules according to their individual priorities and preferences. When workers can organize their day around child or eldercare responsibilities, personal peak productivity times, or the preference to take a longer break in between work shifts, they can bring their best selves to their work.

They are also able to optimize their productivity through two related concepts: deep work and time blocking.

Deep work

The average knowledge worker is distracted every 10 minutes, sends and receives around 121 business emails a day, checks their inbox once every six minutes, and spends about 23% of their time on unnecessary emails. After such interruptions, it takes about 23 minutes to get back into a state of focus and flow.

One of the essential behaviors of async collaboration is guarding against that kind of cognitive whiplash and making more time for “deep work,” the kind of high-quality work Cal Newport describes in Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World as “distraction-free concentration that push[es] your cognitive abilities to the limit.” It requires turning off notifications and logging out of inboxes and messaging applications. More broadly, it requires setting and protecting formal boundaries for different kinds of tasks: a practice known as time blocking.

It’s important to note that deep work looks different for everyone. One person’s hyper-focused coding session bears little obvious resemblance to a manager’s equally focused session spent fulfilling the multifarious needs of direct reports. But every worker has some awareness of the work they do that demands creativity, concentration, focus, and flow, and the work they can do on autopilot.

"The hyperactive hive mind: A workflow centered around ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools like email and instant messenger services."

— Cal Newport, A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload

"Deep work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive abilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate."

— Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Time blocking

Context-switching and interruptions can kill productivity and flow. Doing meaningful work is made easier by scheduling meaningful periods of uninterrupted time to devote to specific tasks.

A workday might begin with a stretch of concentrated proposal-writing in the morning (that is, deep work), followed by a video-conferencing call, time for lunch, a period of emailing and messaging, catching up on social media and async communication, then wrapping up the day with preparations for tomorrow. The worker can also take into account non-work responsibilities.

Though scheduling conflicts will inevitably arise, a consciously architected schedule — visible to the rest of the team via shared calendar app and/or employee user manual — is another step to ensuring efficient communication among the members of a team.

Having the freedom to consciously design your workday also means being better able to plan and make time for staying healthy, mentally and physically. (See Health and wellbeing.)

"To help create time for me and for my team, I utilize a 'No Meetings' day where I am blocked out on my calendar, chat, and apps so that I have complete control over what I'm doing that day. Most often Wednesday is the day I reserve to do work at work and to work on important deliverables. The real power comes when you commit to this across a team or entire company because the impact is multiplied."

— Dan O'Leary, Director of Partnerships, Box
Design your own async workday with these templates:
Remote communication guidelines
Time management checklist
Checklist: Recognizing and avoiding burnout while remote
7 Ways to Break Up Your Remote Workday
Weekly Team Check-in Check-out

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