“With the new day comes new strength and new thoughts.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
Strong Week is a practice I created as part of Agile Results to improve productivity at the week level by focusing on personal energy.
I was already good at optimizing my day, but I figured it I could have a better week, I could have better month.
And if I could have a better month, I could have a better quarter and have a better year.
Strong Week works by spending more more time in strengths, making time for what’s important and inspiring more mindful productivity.
I integrated the best of positive psychology into Strong Week but also success patterns based on experimenting in the school of hard knocks.
Strong Week is s a practice I’ve used for 20+ years at Microsoft to improve my own productivity, help my colleagues, and inspire many others in all sorts of jobs and industries.
Of all the practices in Agile Results, I would say that designing a Strong Week is one of the most profound in terms of profound productivity.
It’s one of the best ways you can take your life back, structure your time for your success, and create unstoppable you.
How Strong Week was Born
Without a design, my week was a mess of jam packed meetings and massive context switching and I found myself constantly trying to shoehorn things into it.
Strong Week was born out of pain.
I had too much to do, too little time, my energy was sapped, my stress was at an all time high, and I knew there had to be a better way.
I didn’t want work to drain the life force out of me, and I wanted to enjoy work and life, while growing better with time.
I realized that if I didn’t take care of myself, nobody would do that for me.
And if I didn’t take care of myself, then I couldn’t take care of others.
I also realized that while I managed my calendar, I had never really thought about myself as “the architect of my time.”
I knew I couldn’t keep going the way I was going, if I wanted any sort of career longevity and if I wanted to realize my potential.
But I also wanted to just enjoy my days and weeks better, as time has a funny way of flying by.
And so, Strong Week was born.
I Wanted a Strong Week to Integrate the Best Productivity Practices
I remember the day that I decided to design my Strong Week.
I felt like I was hacking away at optimizing my day, but it was my weekly habits and practices that were working against me.
I wanted to design a Strong Week that would unleash my strengths, channel my energy, and create more free time.
I wanted more flow in my life and in my work.
I wanted to make time for the important things that I should be spending more time on and more time in.
I wanted to spend more time in my strengths and spend less time in my weaknesses.
I wanted to make sure I protected my Power Hours and my Creative Hours.
I wanted to make time to take care of my body so my body could take care of me.
I wanted to carve out time for my important things like Tuesday Date Night.
I wanted to setup Boundaries and Buffers in my week so that I could pace myself better.
I wanted to have a time and place for things so that I could practice more mindful productivity.
How I Designed My Strong Week
Before I got mired in details, I jumped to my whiteboard and created a simple table with Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday as columns.
This gave me a simple big picture map view of my week. It was the first time in a long time that I looked at my white outside of my calendar in email.
With a marker in my hand, I could already feel like I was ready to be the architect of my time and design a better structure for my week.
I looked at each day.
I asked myself honestly whether I looked forward to Monday? What about Tuesday? Why? Who are the people that I meet with or the activities that I do?
I looked across my week again and thought about things like, did I really make time for exercising?
Did I have a Tuesday Date Night to look forward to? (Tuesday Date Night is a pattern I learned about from a director at Tiffany & Company, back in the 90’s.)
Again, I was just taking in my big picture observations before diving into details.
I Focused on Energy as My Primary Optimization
The big thing I realized is that I needed to focus on improving my energy, if I wanted to improve my time.
I knew that no matter how much time I spend on something, if I don’t generate better energy, I’ll be fighting myself and working against the basic laws of productivity.
I already knew that with better energy, I could do in 4 hours what would otherwise take 40 hours.
Or, to put it another way, without better energy, then something that should take 4 hours will end up taking closer to 40 hours.
Strengths and Weaknesses—the Backbone of a Strong Week
I figured let me start with recurring things, so I thought of my recurring meetings, activities, and events each week.
For each day, I put a “W” to represent Weakness—for anything that made me feel weak.
I put the “W”s roughly where they occurred so I could see at a glance whether they were morning, afternoon, or night.
I was surprised to see how many Weaknesses were spread out all over my week.
I noticed that my drains and energy bandits in the week were a mix of people, activities, and tasks, along with a few recurring meetings.
You know the kind of meetings, where everybody shows up because they have to, but nobody wants to be there.
Next I walked through each day and put an “S” for Strength.
I was surprised by how very little time I was spending in things that made me Strong.
The irony is I was passionate about the work, I enjoyed the team, and I was excited about changing the world.
But there was a lot of room for improvement.
I had just never consciously analyzed my week through the lens of Strengths and Weaknesses before.
Suddenly now I had incredibly clarity of the Current State of my week.
But I also had more insight into the kinds of people, activities, tasks, meetings, and events that drained me.
And I also had much more insight into the kinds of people, activities, tasks, meetings, and events that energized me.
How I Integrated More Strengths into My Week
I now had enough insight to start making more conscious choices about how I spend my week.
That didn’t mean I could suddenly change everything. But it sure meant I could start to try.
I would try to add more Strengths to my week and reduce the things that made me weak.
And where I could not move or change my weaknesses, I tried to add more Strengths to balance it out.
This might include setting up meetings to connect with people that energize me.
This might be as simple as putting in a break to go take a walk outside or to do something to change my energy.
I got curious how other people recharged and renewed themselves, and so I started learning from my network how people generate their energy.
Interestingly, once people learned what I was doing, more people started to grow conscious of their weekly energy.
I found more and more people wanted to design a Strong Week.
Strong Week quickly became a hot topic whenever I did browns bags for teams across Microsoft or whenever I mentored individuals, teams, and leaders for high performance.
Power Hours and Creative Hours
Let’s get back to my whiteboard exercise and how I was effectively learning about my energy from a big picture view.
Now that I had a sense of my Strengths and Weaknesses, it was time to erase all the “S”s and “W’s, so I could build a new lens.
I wanted to understand where my Power Hours were and where my Creative Hours were.
I had noticed that sometimes I felt more creative, and other times I felt more productive.
I didn’t have great vocabulary for this idea at the time, but I basically called my most productive hours, my Power Hours.
And I called my most creative hours, my Creative Hours. (Now that’s really creative, right?
Without overthinking it, I noticed that I seemed to be my strongest and most productive at about 8:00 AM, 10:00 AM, 2:00 PM, and 4:00 PM.
These were basically my best hours to be super productive. Not necessarily creative, but a strong energy where I could take on big challenges.
I noticed that 3:00 PM was sort of my “sieasta time”.
Next I tried to get a sense of any patterns around when I was more creative.
I noticed that I was more creative on Thursday nights and Saturday mornings.
I think Sunday was too close to Monday.
I think my Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday were too jam packed to have any space or buffer for any creative thinking.
I had to really think about this, because this was a significant problem.
My best breakthroughs didn’t come from my most stressful churn.
My best breakthroughs came from having time and space to think more clearly and more creatively.
How I Integrated More Power Hours and Creative Hours Into My Week
At a high level, I set a mini-goal to try and achieve 4 Power Hours each day.
Thinking back, I was trying to see if maybe, just maybe, instead of a 4-Hour Work Week, I could achieve a month in a week?
And if I could achieve a month in a week, could I achieve a year in 3 months? (I wasn’t trying to be pragmatic, I was trying to challenge limits and limited thinking with a new model).
But pragmatically, I simply took note of my Power Hours: 8:00 AM, 10:00 AM, 2:00 PM, and 4:00 PM.
I noticed that I had been stepping all over my Power Hours with recurring meetings, either that other people setup, or even my own.
Now that I knew these were my best Power Hours, I could at least start to defend them, and step on them less.
With my 3:00 PM “siesta time”, while I didn’t take a nap, I now knew I should avoid any intellectually challenging exercises at this time.
So it became my coffee break, where I would also often catch up with colleagues or meet somebody new from another part of Microsoft to grow my network and worldview.
This pattern ended up becoming a really powerful practice, where each week I would meet with somebody new, and catch up with somebody old.
One of my mentors had suggested to think of my relationships at work more like a river, where people flow and out, and less like a lake, where it’s static and unchanging, and potentially stagnant.
This was the early seed of me becoming a Super Connector as my network grew far and wide as I met with more people across the company outside of my immediate work family.
Flashing forward, an amazing thing happened when I started using my Power Hours to get more work done through better energy.
Work got better, faster, easier, and far less stress.
So much stress, was a by product of trying to do challenging work when I was at my worst or at my weakest or outside of my Power Hours.
Now I had the ability to take on the toughest things and match my energy to task.
But the big surprise was how much this opened up my creativity. While I still had certain days and nights where my creativity is it’s strongest, I started to experience more creativity even in my Power Hours.
Talk about a force multiplier.
Not only am I using my best energy for my best results, now I was being far more creative.
And I was using this creativity to innovative in my processes and to disrupt my approaches.
I was known for being a workhorse, because I easily did the 14-hour, 16-hour, and more days.
But now I was working much smarter, and achieving in 4-Hours each day, which formerly took more like a week.
And I was experience profound creativity which was leading to profound productivity.
That’s actually the right word for this. It was how I achieved Profound Productivity and learned how to operate at a higher level.
And talk about finding my flow. Yes, now that I spending more time in my strengths, and less time in my weaknesses,
Does it get any better than this?
Eating, Sleeping and Working Out
Yes, it does actually. It does get better.
I had some more patterns to integrate into my week that I had learned by studying high performers across Microsoft and outside of Microsoft.
More than a decade before there was any book like Eat, Move, Sleep, I was studying high performers to identify simple structures in their day.
The easiest thing I could focus on was eating, sleeping and working out (some people prefer to say “exercise” here, and that’s fine).
I really enjoyed asking people what time they go to sleep and what time they wake up.
It was a reflection of their results.
While some were “Night Owls” and others were “Larks”, or the early birds trying to catch the worm, there was a lot of variation.
While there were lots of variations, I noticed an interesting pattern around high performers that went to bed at 11:00 PM and woke up at 7:00 AM.
It was probably the most common sleep pattern I noticed across high performers.
And I’m not talking about the periodic high performers who did great work but were always looking like they were stressed out and like they’ve been burning the candle at both ends.
I mean the kind of high performers that always seem fresh and ready and that handle stress well and take a mindful approach to their work.
I also noticed that those that had a pattern of working out before work had an extra level of energy that they brought to work.
They started their day differently. They seemed more refreshed and ready to take on the day.
This was important for me because I had often used workouts as a way to transition from work to home at night.
While it wasn’t a bad pattern, it had led to too many missed workouts, and I wasn’t getting the benefits of starting my day with exercise.
When it came to eating, this, too was all over the board.
But I noticed the most important thing about people that had good energy.
They had a set time for when they ate.
They didn’t keep missing meals or eating in between back to back meetings.
They blocked off time on their calendar to actually eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Their meals were a part of their structure in their day.
While some people only ate one meal a day, they generally knew when that was.
It was really just another example of how self-care translated into higher performance and better energy for work and life.
Buffers and Boundaries
I had certain goals for myself, such as a minimum amount of time I wanted to exercise each week.
I also had certain goals for myself around a maximum amount of time I wanted to spend at work.
I wanted to experiment and test with these boundaries to see if I could find creative ways to do my work better, faster, easier.
By setting a maximum amount of time at work, I could then try different workflows and patterns to see if could be more productive.
But again, my first and most important gauge is my energy.’
So I paid attention to how my energy levels changed based on how much time I spent on things (or didn’t), like working out and at work.
I also put in some Boundaries and Buffers to protect my energy and weekends.
I stopped shipping on Fridays and started shipping on Wednesdays. This was a game changer and life saver.
Not just for me, but everybody on the team and our extended teams. No more messed up weekends because something went wrong.
I also put into place a Backstop on Thursday.
My Backstop was simply a 1 or 2-hour time block on Thursday afternoons where I would really try to close out anything that might spill into Friday.
While my Monday was an operations day, I wanted my Friday to be more of a relationship day where I could catch up with people and smooth out any issues.
I found this, too, helped create better weekends, and of course, a better way to end for the week, on a high note.
Startup Routines and Shutdown Routines
Startup Routines and Shutdown Routines are the bookends of my day.
I remember asking colleagues how they started their day.
Of course there was a lot of variation, but one thing surprised me was how many started with the news and their inbox.
They stressed themselves out before they day even really started.
When they asked me how I started my day, I had a very simple Startup Routine.
My startup routine went like this:
- Wake up. Throw on my sneakers and go to my living room for my workout.
- Exercise hard for 20 to 30-minutes.
- Eat breakfast slowly and enjoy the view from my window.
- Take a shower and pay attention to any interesting ideas or insights.
- Take the back way to work while thinking through my 3 Wins for Today.
I didn’t stress about my email. I knew I could always clear it in 20-minutes or less, even if I had hundreds of emails to me (After all, I actually taught teams across Microsoft how to keep a Zero Email Inbox, and I kept my Zero Email Inbox for more than 20+ years at Microsoft.)
I used my 3 Wins for Today to identify compelling outcomes and to create a simple vision for my day.
It’s how I inspired my day and created better energy.
It’s also how I prioritized and created focus and way to balance trade-offs, especially as new things came my way.
By having clarity on my 3 Wins for Today, I had a simple way to respond versus react to incoming demands and disruption.
Some people get confused by this idea and think I only do 3 things each day.
Of course not, but I also don’t’ worry about listing things like tie my shoes, do my workout, drive to work, clear my email, etc.
Those are habits and practices that I already do each day, and I have a long lists of tasks and activities.
But I make a short-list, my list of 3 Wins for Today, to call out and focus on my 3 most important achievements for the day.
And when a bad day happens, or it’s a struggle, those 3 Wins for Today might be have a great breakfast, great lunch, and great dinner.
Not everyday is epic, but I have more epic days because I handle my downtime well.
When it comes to my Shutdown Routine, I had to really take this one seriously.
I had a hard time shutting off, or switching into home and personal life at the end of my work day.
I was leading really tough security and performance projects and taking on really big challenges.
These were multi-million dollar projects with teams of lots of people distributed around the world, in every time zone.
But I didn’t want to create a life where I was on 24×7 and where I was always thinking about work or always stressed out.
Luckily, I read a book called How to Run Successful Projects III: The Silver Bullet, by Fergus O’Connell.
In it, O’Connell described a simple exercise where, at the end of your day, you “hang your hat up”.
He says to simply picture a tree in your front yard and hang you hat on it, where you hat is a metaphor for all your unfinished problems and challenges from work for the day.
He said don’t worry, your “hat” will be there tomorrow.
But for now, give it a rest. Be here now. Put your problems behind you so you can enjoy your evening and start fresh tomorrow, when you are rested and relaxed.
Brains work better when they are rested and relaxed.
While it sounded like a nice idea, I actually used it and it worked wonders.
I found other ways since then to “transition’ from work to home or to put a “cap” on my day, but I found “hanging my hat on a tree” at the end of the day was a really helpful metaphor.
4 Questions to Cap Your Day
I am a fan of using questions to reveal insights and actions or to tease out interesting things.
- What did I learn?
- What did I improve?
- What did I enjoy?
- What kind act did I do?
I originally just started with the first 3 questions, but then my Aunt suggested #4 to help encourage more kindness and goodwill.
I found these simple questions inspired little ways to improve my day.
For example, because I was asking myself each day, what did I enjoy, I found that I made it a point to enjoy my days better.
And something that might go unnoticed by me before, now it was as if I was pointing my camera at special moments in my day and making the director’s cut.
It was improving my mindfulness because the act of simple reflection at the end of my day was encouraging me to take note of the events throughout my day.
By checking in on what I was learning, I became a learning machine.
It’s not like I was trying to impress myself and have a great list of achievements.
It was just a matter of increasing my mindfulness and the more mindful I became, the more curious I became, and the more curious I became, the more things I started to learn and enjoy.
It was like a butterfly flapped it’s wings and woke my days up with a ripple of effects that I couldn’t even imagine.
I had to find my Renewal Patterns so that I could recharge myself whenever I was up against marathon challenges or work slogs or faced lots of energy vampires.
In The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz put an emphasis on learning your personal Renewal Rituals.
In other words, what are the habits and practices that give you energy and help you get a fresh start or help you refresh yourself after an exhausting activity.
While most people have a sense of this idea, I think Loerh and Schwartz did a really good job of calling out the idea of managing your personal energy better through Renewal Rituals.
I think their point about thinking of it as a “ritual” was to take your personal energy management seriously and do the work to get discover and get prescriptive about how you renew yourself.
I found that I could renew and refresh myself, just by turning to a new page for the day or the week or the month or the year.
But this is also where I could apply what I learned about my strengths.
I noticed that learning something surprising about personal development and human potential was especially energizing for me.
I was already an avid reader, sometimes a book or 2 a day, but now I started paying attention to what was giving me energy.
I started exploring other sources of insight and I started to find more interesting people to learn from.
I also started paying attention to more TED Talks and presentations that would fire me up with the art of human possibility.
I realized that for me, I really enjoyed exploring and expanding what I am capable of.
So I used different things I learned as a way to practice interesting techniques and to renew myself.
I also found that if I didn’t make time to synthesize deep learning or deep work, that I would wear out.
I would get frustrated that I had covered a lot of ground but that it didn’t turn into anything.
So I started to do more rapid braindumps to put a bow on what I learned and to get energy from synthesizing complex information into better insights and actions.
As you can imagine, this because a real strong practice that supported growing my personal development Website, Sources of Insight.
I focused on learning the world’s best insights and actions for mind, body, emotions, career, finance, relationships, and fun (and spiritual intelligence, too).
Whenever I get worn down, I recharge through words of wisdom.
In fact, another Renewal Pattern I have is to renew or refresh myself with quotes.
I have created many collections of deep quotes, that I also share on Sources of insight.
Monday Vision, Daily Wins, Friday Reflection for Better Weeks
While the Startup Routine and Shutdown Routine are the bookends to my day, the Monday Vision, Daily Wins, Friday Reflection pattern creates the bookends for my week.
On Monday, I identify my 3 Wins for This Week.
Those are higher order wins than my 3 Wins for Today.
I’m basically asking myself, before I go throw a bunch of time, attention and energy at my week, what are 3 of the highest value outcomes or achievements or experiences?
I want to enjoy my journey and my destination.
Plus, not only do these 3 Wins for This Week, inspire and pull me through my week, they also help me be much more mindful.
This is the essence of mindful productivity and making any effort much more meaningful.
We are the ultimate bard of our life. We are the ultimate meaning maker.
Anything that is meaningful to you in some way, is because of how you represent it internally, either consciously or not.
By identifying my 3 Wins for This Week, I set the stage to create 3 meaningful victors or 3 highlights in my week or 3 meaningful outcomes that put a nice bow on my effort for the week.
Friday Reflection is a simple habit of asking myself 3 questions on Friday:
- What are 3 things going well?
- What are 3 things to improve?
- How will I use this next week?
This turns my week into a learning system, where I am continuously and consciously adapting and adjusting based on what I learn.
This also creates much deeper self-awareness, especially around my productivity practices.
So this gives me that compound effort where my small learnings add up over time as long as I keep integrating what I learn.
The Daily Wins are just like they sound. I simply ask myself, “What are my 3 Wins for Today?”
I focus on what are the key changes or key goals or key outcomes that will make my day worth it.
If wasting the day is the best thing I can do today, then so be it.
But if I have a lot of ambition for the day, what are the 3 best things I can focus on with the time I have, the energy I have, and the window of opportunity that stands before me.
Call to Action
- Structure your week to spend more time in your Strengths, less time in your Weaknesses, and add more Creative Hours and Power Hours in your week.
- Fix time for eating, sleeping and working out, so that your habits bring out your best and stack the deck in your favor.
- Design a better Startup Routine and Shutdown Routine, use the Monday Vision, Daily Wins, Friday Reflection Pattern, and bake in your Renewal Patterns.
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