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Why I set myself a 20-hour limit on my working week

And how I get the most out of that time

I wasted so many years of my self-employed adventure stressing myself out by overworking.

It’s taken me a while to reach this more manageable pace, and I hope that sharing my experience will help you find your own equilibrium a little quicker.

 

Being my own boss, meant I had the worst boss

When I worked part-time in an actual job, I knew what hours I would need to be at the office, and then I could squish my home life around that.

My employer decided how many hours I would work, and when those hours would be.

And I attempted to change myself to suit their requirements.

That wasn’t fun and, alongside a few other factors, led to me being more burnt out than a crispy over-fried rasher of streaky bacon. 🥓🥓🥓

So when I set up my business I decided to make my home-life the priority and squish my work in around this.

I got to choose how many hours I worked, and when in the week those hours would be.

Except I didn’t really ever make that choice, and instead fell into a pattern of working as much as possible, any chance I got.

I was trapped in a cycle of feeling like I hadn’t worked enough during the week, then overdoing it, then getting ill, then feeling like I hadn’t done enough.

It felt impossible to juggle the demands of home life, enjoy time with my family, rest, and run a business.

I home-educate Son#2 so we don’t have a predictable week-day routine, and (because of chronic migraine) I don’t know how I’m going to feel on any given day until I wake up that morning (and it often changes throughout the day).

I can’t schedule a perfect week.

And because I felt like I didn’t have enough time available to work each week, I was snatching work opportunities in the cracks of daily life, which was draining and unproductive.

I got into the habit of cooking dinner and answering emails at the same time (so dinner got burned, and ended up putting the wrong name on the email).

Or squeezing something in during the 15 minutes before we were due to leave the house (then getting irritable if The Sons distracted me).

No matter how much I achieved in my week, my to-do list didn’t get completed and I felt compelled to keep going until I’d ticked everything off.

I was annoyed at my poor focus and productivity and blamed the interruptions of family life, rather than realizing I was being totally unrealistic about what I was planning to achieve in a week.

 

What would a comfortable, manageable, productive working week look like?

One day I got curious about how many hours I could comfortably work if I only worked in focussed chunks of time while honoring my family responsibilities, and health needs, and having space for fun and relaxation.

So I completed a test week.

I started by:

  • Putting in the dates and times for things I was already committed to (home-ed and work stuff)
  • Putting in the slots I would need for breakfast, lunch, rest and recovery from leaving the house
  • Scheduling when I would need to prepare dinner

And then I could see which windows of time, above 30 minutes, I had to work.

I used Toggl to track when and how much I was working with three goals in mind:

1 - If that timer is ticking and counting towards my hours worked, then I would be working (not scrolling or shopping)

2 - Work in chunks of 30-90 minutes so I wasn’t squishing work around other activities, but I also wasn’t sat staring at the computer screen for too long in one sitting.

3 - Find how many hours I would work in a week where I had prioritized balancing my work with my life.

And I made a commitment to myself that instead of working until I had got everything on my to-do list, I would simply tackle each day, one at time, working only when 30-minute+ chunks were possible and I would be OK with how much I had achieved in that time.

At the end of the week, I had worked for a total of 20 hours.

And this became my benchmark for Enough Working Time.

 

Letting it be enough

I know that if I go above 20 hours I am making it very difficult to fit in all the other important parts of my life and I am risking my health.

I also know that circumstances, events and health may mean I dip below 20 hours and that’s totally fine. I might play catch-up on a Saturday or Sunday. But I can’t compensate by going over the 20 hours the following week.

And this has helped me share responsibility for my availability to work with my husband.

Previously, if a hospital appointment, or home-ed trip, or ill child had compromised my working time, I would play catch-up on my own by squishing in work into as many small cracks in the day as I could fine, or cutting back on chores and then getting stressed out at the state of the house.

And then I’d spend Friday night crying and wailing at my husband that he needs to do more, and why does it always have to be me that takes the kids to the dentist?

Now I feel much more able to say ‘I’ve only had 12 hours to work so far this week, I need a full, uninterrupted day on Saturday so you’re in charge of the kids, house, cats and dinner’.

He can handle it when I give him a specific brief like that (he’s not so good when I’m just screaming ‘you need to help more’).

And sometimes it’s just not possible to get 20 hours of working time in the week - and that is also OK. I can stop beating myself up about not having been productive enough, because the Toggle timer tells me I literally have not had the time to get all the stuff done that I wanted to do.

This is how I’ve been planning my weeks for a couple of years now - by spotting the good work opportunities, and not trying to work in the cracks.

Often when I start to feel like I haven’t done enough, I can see that I’m drawn to squeezing in some work here and there, I can check the number of hours worked so far that week, look to the days ahead and make a plan for solid focussed working time, then let go of the need to be working all the time

 

When those hours are matters more than how many working hours I have

This year (2022) I’ve had some health additional challenges, which has made me more mindful about how I use those 20 hours.

I am more aware of which times of day I’m most likely be focussed (first thing in the morning), and when I tend to be easily distracted (before lunch).

And then I plan my day by allocating these four activities to the times of day I’m best suited to do them:

  • Deep Focussed work like writing blog posts, or diving into a meaty project (sales pages, email sequences).
  • Rapid Fire work - a totally made-up term to describe things like answering emails, and recording feedback videos for my clients where my attention is shifting every few minutes, which makes it great for me to do when I’m feeling a bit flighty anyway.
  • Passive work - courses, Q&A replays, podcasts. It’s still working, but mostly about the consumption of content, reflection, and idea generation.
  • Chores - These actually help my productivity when used at the right time. Right after lunch, instead of having a snooze, I mix in Rapid Fire work and chores, because if I keep getting my body up and moving, it helps keep my energy levels up. Whereas if I’m trying to manage the laundry while doing Deep Focussed work, I get mega annoyed any time I have to stop what I’m concentrating and move clothes from one place to another (loading machine, emptying machine, hanging clothes).

It’s still a work in progress, and anytime I think I’ve found a rhythm, our family commitments, or my health, or both, change. But I feel more able to settle into a productive routine now, and much less stressed about not getting enough done every week.

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