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In Praise of the Minimum Viable Work Day

January 05, 2022

In the tech world, we talk a lot about “finding your flow state.”

Whenever I hear “flow state” I always think about this classic XKCD comic from 2013 called Why You Shouldn’t Interrupt a Programmer. It’s a short story of an engineer clearly having their flow state interrupted by somebody hovering over their desk.

Thankfully, in my remote-first work world, nobody’s showing up to hover over my desk.

At home, I’m incredibly privileged in terms of space and quietude. My desk sits in a cozy corner of our TV room, my makeshift office, which is graciously on the opposite end of the house from my husband’s studio where he works. There are no kids in this suburban abode—only one obnoxiously snuggly dog. The worst of our noise pollution comes from nearby landscaping activity. Today we had a fallen tree removed from our yard. That was loud. Sometimes we suffer the sounds of nearby leaf blowers. But, mostly? Bliss.

In this serene environment, it should be easy to find a flow state, right?

*sigh

If only!

Flow States Require Energy

The barrier keeping me from achieving flow state isn’t environmental interruptions, or noisy Slack notifications, or even the constant barrage of news bouncing around on Twitter. The barrier keeping me from achieving my flow state is my own energy.

For me, deep focus requires energy. It needs momentum.

Whether I’m trying to solve a big problem or write a piece of content or finish up a slide deck presentation or do some detailed research—if I have enough energy, once I get going, I can focus on that task and work happily, completely losing track of time, way past whatever recommended increment of time the pomodoro technique recommends.

But, if I try to embark on a scheduled block of deep focus work without enough energy, I can’t get going. I sputter along. I may tinker or look busy but I won’t make meaningful progress. It won’t be my best work.

For me, there are basically three ways to find energy:

  1. Re-charge: Sleep, take a nap, put the work down, rest, take an unplugged vacation, etc.
  2. Spark-charge: Go for a brisk walk, practice hot yoga, do a strenuous house chore…anything to get the energy activated to build up some inertia!
  3. Reaction: Experience the adrenaline of facing an upcoming deadline or responding to an urgent problem

You can’t run too long on reactions or spark-charges alone without doing some serious re-charging at some point.

But, what if your re-charging just ain’t charging?

Over the years, especially during the pandemic, I’ve experienced periods of time where I couldn’t seem to charge up.

Sometimes I’m just flat-out tired! Which brings me to…

The Minimum Viable Work Day

My “minimum viable work day” is my back-up plan for when none of my charging mechanisms are working…but things aren’t quite low enough to warrant taking PTO. (Also good and valid, btw! Mental health days exist for a reason!)

On a minimum viable work day, I may:

  • Log online
  • Work through email inbox slowly
  • Respond to any requests that come in via Slack
  • Join only the most important meetings, 1:1s or meetings where my name is on the agenda
  • Execute on ONE high priority task
  • Spend most of my time reading or listening to customer calls or doing low-focus work
  • Log off

On a minimum viable work day, I am minimally productive, but I am present. I am here, and that’s enough.

Compare this against a “best work day ever” which may look more like:

  • Log online
  • Inbox zero
  • Slack zero
  • Bring my best self, camera-on to every Zoom invite
  • Lead a meeting (or two!)
  • Ship at least one thing (maybe more!)
  • Move multiple projects forward in big ways
  • Proactively reach out to others
  • Engage in creative brainstorming
  • Carve out several hours of deep focus to write, create, or research
  • Join a virtual / social networking event or happy hour
  • Wrap up with lots of things checked off my to-do list and a plan for tomorrow

The reality is: most work days fall somewhere in between the “best work day ever” and the “minimum viable work day.”

For example: Today sort of started like a “best work day ever” but then I totally crashed hard after 4:00 PM. It happens!

Energy flows. Follow it. And, trust that you’ll find your most radiant, energized self on another day soon.