The Focus Course

The Blanc Media 8-Week Work Cycle with Sabbaticals

In early 2017, after a trip to Chicago, I tried something crazy with my company work schedule.

But first, a bit of backstory…

It was in 2011 that I began working myself. And my approach toward work had always tended a bit toward the “pedal to the metal” variety.

My natural tendency can be to work long hours, work on the weekends, and work 52 weeks a year. When I get focused in on a project it’s all I can think about. It’s not just work-stuff, it’s anything: from a project around the house, to a book I’m really enjoying, etc.

My personality is simply one that tends to go all in on something until it’s completed.

I work best with seasons where my focus is solely on the idea and task at hand. Where I eat, sleep, and breath one particular project. And then, I need time away from work. To give my mind space to breath.

This is a huge strength. But it can also be a weakness if I don’t keep myself in check and allow myself to take that time away from work.

An example is the timeframe between June 2014 and February 2016…

During those 20 months, I took roughly 3 weeks of vacation time, and that included holidays. I was so locked in on a few huge projects I was working on that I kept pushing forward and took very little time off.

That sort of “always on” work schedule is not sustainable. And it was not something I wanted to maintain for myself, nor did I ever want to expect it from those who work for me.

In 2016 I realized that in order to make sure I’m pulling back from work, I need to make sure I’m scheduling my time off. Because if I just take my time off when I feel ready for it, it’s usually too late (if I take time off at all).

During 2016 I was much more intentional about scheduling time off from work. And now, in 2017, we are trying something even more radical…

Before I get into our new schedule, I want to make a note that it’s not purely about taking time off. While I’m all for time off, I’m also all for being very productive and focused while at work.

And so our schedule is an attempt to simultaneously increase our focus and productivity at the office while also increasing our time away from our desks.

Our 8-Week Work Schedule Looks Like This

8-Week Work Schedule

In total, we are working in 8-week cycles. And, as you can see from the image above, they break down thusly:

  • 6 weeks working with a focus on one or two projects
  • 1 week as an “open work week” that’s used as a buffer to tie up loose ends, work on miscellaneous things, and prepare for the next cycle.
  • 1 week vacation / sabbatical

For those keeping score, it adds up to 6 work cycles and a total of 8 weeks paid time off. (It’s not exactly cut and dry toward the end of the year because it gets a little fidgety due to the holidays plus we take two weeks off at Christmastime.)

Why This Schedule?

As I’ve shared this new schedule with people, a lot of folks have zeroed in on the amount of time off we’re taking. As if it’s extravagant or lavish or “not fair”. But I believe that’s missing the point.

My expectation with this new approach to scheduling is that it will increase our focus, productivity, and quality of work produced while also increasing overall quality of life.

We have four hypotheses:

  1. There is significant value in having a clear goal, a single focus, and a deadline.

    When you have these things you work with greater efficiency, you produce a higher quality of work, and you have more fun doing so. (c.f. Deep Work, Flow, The One Thing) So, the question is: Can we get 8 weeks worth of work accomplished in 7? If so, then it’s a win and thus, why not take that 8th week off as a way to maintain the pace?

  2. Work always expands to fill the space its given, and thus a project will take as much time as you give it.

    When you have a limited amount of time and energy to work on something, it forces you to get creative and think outside the box on what the most important elements are.

  3. Time away from work is critical for being more creative, focused, and productive when at work.

    There is a point in your day when you have worked enough hours and you begin to get diminishing returns on your time. So too, there is a point in your week when you need a day off. So, wouldn’t it make sense that that’s true on a slightly larger scale as well?

  4. Scheduling breaks and vacations ahead of time means we are far more likely to take that time.

    Don’t wait until you’re exhausted and burned out to take a break from work. Additionally, when you know there is a deadline or a break coming up, you naturally work with more focus and motivation to get things finished in time for that deadline.

As you can see, I’m not trying to maximize vacation time. I’m trying to raise the water level on the work we do. And my approach is to allow more margin rather than to squeeze more hours out of the week.

After our first time through, let’s see how it’s working so far…

Key Takeaways After Our First 8-Week Work Cycle

After wrapping up our first whole cycle through the new schedule, here are a few of the takeaways we’ve learned so far.

Some of these are related to the new work schedule and some of them are related to our new approach to inner-office workflows and project management using Basecamp.

Less Stress, More Focus

For the 7 weeks we spent working, Isaac and I were both far less stressed than just about any 7-week period in 2016.

This feeling of less stress and more focus is due to a couple of factors:

  1. The 6-week Focused Work Cycle brought a lot of liberation when combined with the Buffer Week and Sabbatical (which I’ll dive into more in a minute).
  2. By using Basecamp for everything related to project management and communication, it removed a ton of mental friction and wasted time.

Regarding that 2nd point…

Now that we’ve integrated Basecamp as the single catch-all for everything, it has been much easier for me to delegate to Isaac. I know that things tossed into Basecamp won’t just get lost in the shuffle anywhere, and they won’t be hard to find.

For all of 2016 we were using a combination of Dropbox, Slack, email, iMessage, our office whiteboard, daily meetings, and Basecamp. Each of these tools are fantastic in their own way, but when you put them all together you end up with a duct-taped system for project management and communication workflows that breaks down easily under pressure.

Moreover, by using Basecamp as our catch-all for projects and communication, we interrupted each other way less frequently and yet nothing got lost or slowed down.

The Liberty to Focus on One Thing at a Time

For me, this past work cycle was one of the most focused and productive work seasons that I have had in a long time. I felt free to focus on the work at hand, knowing that my time was being spent on the most important things.

As the boss, I can’t remember the last time I felt confident that my time was being spent on the right thing. I’ve been working for myself since 2011 and there has always been a slight nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I could probably be doing something slightly more productive if I just knew what it was.

By setting aside 6 weeks to focus on one specific project or outcome, it meant nothing else mattered. We were all tasked with focusing our time and energy on completing a specific project.

My friend Sean McCabe talks about this:

In order to be successful at something, you need to focus on it. Focus means saying no to other things. When I’m focusing on my work, I’m saying no to a lot of other things that I enjoy doing. The sabbatical is a time where I give myself permission to pursue those secondary passions—things like composing music or creating art.

Moreover, having a “no work debt” mentality (see below), it meant that we made sure to only build and ship work that we were willing to live with indefinitely.

No Work Debt Allowed

The mindset of avoiding work debt is something I picked up when attending the Basecamp workshop last month, and it has been a massive game changer for us.

No work debt allowed means that you keep no backlog of work.

At Basecamp (the company), every one of their 6-week work cycles is a new cycle. They have no long-term plan or map of what they’ll do next. There is only the project at hand. And thus, you can’t assume that the project at hand will be something you come back to in the future.

When you build and ship something that isn’t the ideal version, or it’s something that is done poorly because you expect that that you will come back and re-do it later, then you’ve just created work debt. Now you will have to return to that project instead of being able to move on to what’s next.

We have also adopted this no work debt mentality. What it looks like for us is that when we get to the end of a 6-week cycle we have to be done with the project and make sure that it is at a satisfactory stopping point. It has to be finished, working, and not embarrassing.

Then, at the end of our work cycle we erase everything off the white board, take notes of it and save it in Basecamp, wash our hands of it, and prepare for the next work cycle and set of new projects.

One Cycle at a Time, One Focus at a Time

Something else we’ve adopted from the way Basecamp (the company), works is that new ideas and future projects get written up as messages within Basecamp (the software). Thus these new ideas can be captured and documented, discussed, and then left alone in a “safe place”. They don’t have necessarily manifest as anything right away (or at all, for that matter).

In short: New ideas have to wait.

This concept is a huge paradigm shift. But it’s so important as we aim to remove all emotionally-driven, false-urgency work. It is far better to focus on one thing at a time, do it well and do it right, and then move on to the next thing. Instead of running around from one idea to the next to the next, leaving a trail of half-finished projects in our wake.

When one of us has an idea about something, we write it down and share it in Basecamp. And that’s it. Unless it’s directly related to a project we are working on right now then we won’t stop what we’re currently focused on so we can start working on that new idea. Nope. The new idea can wait until the next cycle (or maybe even the cycle after that). We’re already booked up for this current work cycle.

This mindset that new ideas must wait has brought to light the fact of just how often we would take on little projects all the time because they seem like good ideas.

Now we know that a new idea, however awesome it is, is simply not a priority right now because we are in the middle of a work cycle.

But you can’t say that if you don’t have work cycles. Things can get crazy if you don’t have a clearly limited and realistic scope of work. And everything feels urgent if you don’t have a working system for finishing one project and starting the next.

Now, we have a system in place to capture ideas and potential projects. And we have a clear schedule that tells us when we can get to the next project. Thus we are liberated to not take on every new idea right away.

The other thing that’s awesome, is that we have an end in sight for our current projects. Six weeks is long enough to get something substantial done, but no so long that it drags on. Thus, our Focused Work Cycle naturally has a sense of energy and momentum to it. And, as a result, we do better and more high-quality work.

Focusing on the Essentials

Because we have a mere six weeks to work on a project, and because we’re only going to allow one or two projects at a time, we have to ask this question:

What can we do in six weeks or less that will have the most profound impact on our business?

It forces us to focus only on the essentials — there’s no time for anything else.

For our current work cycle (Feb 27 – Arp 8), we were debating between two big projects. They were both important, and we knew they would both have a similar impact on our business goals. But we knew we couldn’t do them simultaneously.

So… we picked the easier project.

Because, why not? And, because who knows what we will learn during this current work cycle that may make our next project even easier.

Time Ownership of All Staff

Because we moved all our communication into Basecamp and began communicating asynchronously, Isaac has felt more in control of his own time. He no longer is wondering if he’ll be interrupted by me (which I have been known to do — often), nor does he wonder if his day will get hijacked by some new idea that I have.

When you know that you’re going to have several hours to work without interruption, you’re far more likely to dive in and get some significant deep work done. But if you’re on the edge of your seat, fearing that you may get interrupted at any moment, you tend to only do shallow work.

Thus, with the fear of interruption removed from our office, Isaac has gotten more work done and worked less hours. He’s felt freedom to end his day with loose ends because he knows that he’ll have more time the following day to pick back up and focus on what he was working on.

In short, he has felt in control of his attention and his time.

How to Use The Buffer Week

The Buffer Week sits between the 6-week Focused Work Cycle and the Sabbatical week.

This week of open work time is the hinge upon which everything else swings.

The Buffer Week has several benefits. And, though we’re still early on with our new schedule, I feel that the importance of the Buffer Week can’t be overstated.

Here are a few reasons why it’s so helpful and important:

For one, the Buffer Week allows us to be heads down for 6 weeks straight, knowing that there will be an opportunity at the end to tie up loose ends, do any non-urgent miscellaneous tasks, and to plan ahead.

Thus, we have very little “dual focus” during our 6-week Focused Work Cycle. As much as possible, we eat, sleep, and breath that singular project or outcome.

Secondly, the Buffer Week is where you reflect on the just-finished work cycle, take notes, and plan for what’s next.

Here’s how we did that:

  • For our first work cycle of 2017, we had three objectives that both Isaac and I were working on. Then, during the Buffer Week, we took a few hours to look at those three goals and, for each one, ask: (1) How’d we do? (2) Any open loops / loose ends? (3) What can be done next to improve here if we want to?

    This retrospective on each goal was so helpful. For one, it helped us to close up all the open loops and get mental closure on the projects. Secondly, it leaves a roadmap in case we choose to come back to one of these projects and “level it up” so to speak.

  • We also took time during the Buffer Week to plan the next Focused Work Cycle. We decided on the projects we would be working on, what our goals were for those projects, and how we expected to tackle them. We wrote everything down in as much detail as possible so that when we returned from the Sabbatical Week our next steps were ready and waiting for us. Thus, the Buffer Week also helped us to truly step away from work during the Sabbatical time.

What Can You Do?

If you have the ability or opportunity to fiddle with your schedule like this, I’d love to hear how it goes. You can ping me on Twitter where I’m @shawnblanc.

And I do realize that this type of schedule isn’t possible (or even desirable) for everyone. But hopefully there are some ideas in here you can steal, adapt, and apply in some way.

Update (March 2018): After our first full year of doing this style of work cycle, I posted my thoughts in an article here.

Update (October 2023): After 7 years of doing these work cycles, we continue to see the value. I’ve now begun coach other companies and business owners who want to run their own full-time businesses on a part-time schedule. If you’re interested in learning more, I share everything I’m learning and using in a regular email just for business owners. You can stay in the loop here.

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