In recent years there has been a surge of interest in the area of routine, and the benefits of a solid routine in work, home life, and indeed work-life balance.
Ellie Robins, of Headspace, describes the benefits of routine on mental health. She highlights that famously gifted and creative people such as Freud and Beethoven optimised and structured their daily lives to ensure success (another article adds Einstein, Darwin and Stephen Hawking among others to the list). Routine, says Ellie, was their secret weapon.
By the way, to go off-topic briefly, mental wellbeing means a lot to us at Enable and in 2019 our charity of the year is Springfield Mind. Throughout 2019 at Enable we are raising money to improve mental health in our local area.
There are plenty of examples of businesses and individuals revealing their top tips and best routines for productivity. To highlight a couple; Ken Brokaw (writing for Forbes) discusses the advantages of a strong morning routine, and Murray Newlands gives five reasons to keep a consistent schedule in this HuffPost article.
Broadly, we have noticed a common theme in a lot of these ideas — usually one of their key goals is remove distraction and allow clear focus on important tasks.
At Enable, we have been practising and refining a routine of our own for several years. ‘Freedom to focus’ has become an established and respected part of our brand identity and our distinctive routine for the working week plays a key part in this.
Introducing the 4:1 Week
The basic concept
We call our routine the 4:1 Week. The concept is quite straightforward — our working week is divided into:
- 4 days working on primary activities (the primary days);
- 1 day working on supporting activities (the supporting day).
The concepts of ‘primary activities’ and ‘supporting activities’ in relation to business are not new and not our own, for example Michael Porter’s Value Chain defines generic business operations in similar terms. We use these terms to help explain our 4:1 Week.
Do you recognise this pattern in your work?
In any company, and indeed any department, it should be clear what the primary and supporting activities are.
In a sales team, for example, a primary activity may be to contact new prospective clients in order to drive sales. Anecdotally, supporting activities (essential though they are) can often be characterised by their tendency to interrupt and distract us from trying to complete our primary tasks. In the example of the sales team, a supporting activity might be ensuring that all records in the CRM system are well-maintained and accurate — undoubtedly an important task but with definite potential to divert attention from clients.
The 4:1 Week is transferable to any business and any department. You can probably already identify several examples of primary and supporting activities in your team which would be ideal candidates for the 4:1 split.
At Enable, the 4:1 Week has brought particular success to our development team. Being a software company, our development team’s primary activities revolve around creating and delivering software. The 4:1 model sets out that we should aim to focus on creating and delivering software, without interruption, for 4 days in every 5 (or, 80% of our time).
The remaining one day should be set aside to focus on our supporting activities, which include: client support, continuous improvement, work estimation, skills development and administrative tasks to name a few.
We have been practising the 4:1 Week for some time, and realised a wealth of benefits.
It works in bigger teams
Of course, in a bigger organisation it may not be feasible to neglect the supporting activities until that one day in the week comes around. Your team should be divided into groups who can operate their 4:1 Week on a staggered basis, so that your supporting activities are being given focused attention every day.
This is how Enable ensures that we are always available to meet the ongoing needs of our clients.
It works for individuals
Working alone can be challenging, whether in an office environment or working at home.
Again, this area is written about often and a common challenge is finding ways to remove distraction and remain focused. An article from Lifehack and another from MarketWatch describe some great tips for lone workers, and it is no surprise to see some of our 4:1 buzzwords: focus, goals, scheduling and prioritisation, to name a few. The 4:1 Week works for individuals too — could it help you in the office or at home?
What’s in a day?
Setting aside one day of the week specifically to deal with smaller, ad hoc tasks that would otherwise continuously interrupt progress on primary activities has a number of benefits that will ultimately lead to a more productive team.
Freedom to focus
There’s that phrase again — at Enable this phrase has become part of our DNA and we really believe in it. We believe that our processes, tools and environment should free our people to focus completely on any given assignment — and we welcome you to explore this concept with us. You can have the catchphrase too.
Whether it is the 4 or the 1, being free from distraction to focus on the task at hand is a clear advantage of the 4:1 Week.
In human nature, it is inherently satisfying to work through a to do list and check off completed items as we go. The science behind this centres on a chemical called dopamine. As explained by Ralph Ryback of Psychology Today, dopamine is known as the ‘feel good’ chemical and the brain releases it when we get something we want. Setting small goals and then accomplishing them has been proven to increase dopamine levels and in turn, make us feel happier.
Structuring your supporting day into a list of accomplishable tasks and working through them logically should instil a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction with the day’s work. What’s more, you needn’t feel guilty about neglecting your primary activities because the 4:1 Week set aside your supporting day for exactly this purpose.
Have you ever been stuck on a tedious problem that left you feeling dispirited when you hadn’t wrapped it up by the end of the day, and then had the breakthrough before you even finished your first coffee the next morning?
Getting ’out of the zone’ for a while allows you to come back to the task feeling refreshed and enthused, having shaken off the feelings of frustration that had become a dragging anchor on your motivation.
Wherever your supporting day falls in the 4:1 Week, it will often be a welcome break from the challenges of your primary activities — and you will likely be more productive for it.
How to do it
Every organisation is different, so we have no hard-and-fast rules on how to implement the 4:1 Week, but here are some of our recommendations.
Regardless of where you are starting from, ensuring that your team culture is compatible with the 4:1 model is likely to involve change. You might find it useful to follow a particular change management model to ensure a smooth transition to a sustainable change. Kurt Lewin’s change management model is a tried-and-tested process for managing change in three stages, and it incorporates some of the key factors we highly recommend addressing when implementing the 4:1 model.
It is important that the team is on board with the 4:1 model and has an understanding of its pros and cons. The team should be involved in the implementation process and kept in the loop as working practices evolve. To ensure the long-term success of the 4:1 Week, training should be provided to educate team members on how best to work within the model, and management should be receptive to their feedback or ideas.
Colleagues should favour a strong team ethic over individual ownership of work. In larger teams where the 4:1 model is implemented on a staggered basis with other groups, someone working on their supporting day needs to be willing to hand over their unfinished work to someone who is working on support activities the following day. A culture that promotes ongoing knowledge transfer and skills development will support this handover process.
Adjusting your team culture to fit the 4:1 Week, or indeed adjusting your implementation of the pattern to better fit your team culture, will be an ongoing process and you should always be looking for ways to improve both.
To support the operation of the 4:1 pattern, a number of tools should be used at various stages of the process. Smaller teams or individuals may find that the simplicity of an email inbox and Excel spreadsheet meets all of their needs, while bigger teams may benefit from dedicated software systems. Regardless of their complexity, the tools should be fit for purpose and those using them should be masters of their operation. Tooling is discussed in more detail later as we describe the steps involved in the 4:1 routine.
Putting it into practice
Identifying the work to be done, scheduling it appropriately to either primary or supporting days and seeing it through to timely completion is a difficult task. Supported by a fitting team culture and suitable tooling, read on to find out how it’s done.
Step by step
1 Inbox it
When the flow of future work comes directly to you at all times of the day, it is a massive distraction. Whether they arrive by email, your ever-growing in tray or a stream of colleagues approaching your desk, it is likely to divert your attention from the task at hand. It might also leave you feeling swamped by your growing workload.
Our solution to this problem is to channel all incoming work requests into one place where work can be collected but does not need immediate human intervention. This could be a conventional email inbox or a dedicated ticketing system, or it could even be a person’s job to intercept and collate work requirements. The goal is to gather work requests for later assessment or triage, and no individual should feel compelled to respond immediately.
Managing incoming work in this way reduces interruptions and channels work requests into one central location. With everything in one place, it is easy to take a more holistic view of all upcoming work and accurately measure the upcoming demand on resources. Work should be routinely prioritised according to demand.
2 Estimate it
It is very difficult to schedule an item of work if we don’t know how long it will take or how much effort will be required. Every item of work should first be assessed by someone who is experienced in the skills required by the task. We call this person the estimator, and their goal is to provide an estimation of the work involved.
The estimator will assign a measure of time or effort against the work, with allowances made for any research, planning, review or uncertainty involved in the task. The estimator should also ensure that the work item includes all of the information that is necessary to complete the task, and that everything is clear and understood. We aim to avoid a situation where work progress has to be halted in order to seek further information.
Useful tooling for estimating could include a spreadsheet template to assist with time calculations, along with a library of documentation which could assist in estimating the work involved.
It is important to estimate with accuracy and realism to ensure the integrity of your work schedule.
3 Schedule it
Once you have a prioritised breakdown of future work and a measure of how long it will take, the work needs to be scheduled accordingly. The work is prioritised according to demand, and in order to schedule it there needs to be a comprehensive understanding of your capacity to supply that demand.
Staffing factors such as holidays or absences should be accounted for, and remember to factor in daily break times. Care should be taken not to under- or over-allocate resources.
In order to ensure that timescales are compatible with the 4:1 routine, you may find it beneficial to break down larger tasks into smaller units of work that can be scheduled individually.
Dedicated software tools exist to assist in task scheduling and staff availability tracking which could benefit larger teams, though smaller teams might adopt less sophisticated solutions.
4 Follow it
Discipline is a very important part (arguably, one of the most important parts) of the 4:1 Week and the routine requires commitment from everyone involved. The 4:1 split between primary and supporting work should be strictly adhered to, and work from one should not bleed into the other.
Over to you
We highly recommend the 4:1 Week
It’s a routine for high productivity and we encourage you to think about what it can do for your company.
If you are interested in adopting the 4:1 Week and would like to find out more, or if you have your own routine for success, we would be very interested in hearing from you.