The calmest week of the year, every week

On trying to live like between Christmas and New Year's Eve

Posted on December 27, 2022

You may agree with me that the last week of the year, between Christmas and New Year's Eve, has a particular charm. I mean that aspect here, that nobody (at least in the "Western" world) is really working. It's that one week where you can take time off from daily duties and not be left behind, because everybody just agreed that we won't be busy this week. Hence that's the week I'm also starting this website on. I finally have time, time in the sense that pressing issues, however well-managed, are not piling up right while I'm writing this letter. 

At the software company Lombiq, we work all around the clock. On contrary to global teams that do this by "following the sun", most of our team members are in the same or close time zones. So, it's a result of us being a remote-first, distributed, asynchronously collaborating team: there are people who, following their personal preference, get up at the same time others go to bed, despite living in the same city. We also have clients and partners from all continents. This means that, especially if you fulfill a leadership role, you'll always have something to catch up on when you first sit down to work for the day.

Can we replicate the calmest week? Is it possible to make the world stop for you while you're away from the keyboard, during weekends, public holidays, or when you go on vacation? I don't think so unless we go extremely local and synchronized, including with clients, which isn't really possible in IT (but can be the case if you open a corner store without an online presence, for example). There are experiments like at the German automaker Daimler, to free you from at least having to chew through the dump of e-mails that you get during your time off by auto-deleting them. While this is interesting, you'll still have things to catch up on, causing stress during your first few days of being back. Also, I as someone running a company can't really imagine telling prospective clients that their e-mail was deleted, and if they really insist on the pleasure of giving us money, they should send their e-mail again when it fits my schedule.

So, what can we do? Since I don't think the root cause can be solved (or rather, I don't think there's an actual problem to being with, i.e. people your work with communicating with you), what I recommend tackling is the effect: you having to catch up on matters. So, here are my tips, that I follow continuously, so the cognitive load of everything happening all at once is reduced not just when I'm on holiday:

  • Distribute not just work, but responsibility. I'm consciously the opposite of the managers that tell they "want to know about everything". When working in a team, have defined areas of responsibility that allows you to not care about things. You don't need to further optimize communication if there's no communication.
  • Turn off disruptive notifications. The only time my phone makes a sound is when somebody is calling (so the only time I use my phone for synchronous communication). Everything else can wait until I decide that now I want to deal with it (like reading e-mails). Similarly, turn off any kind of desktop toast/popup notification.
  • Unsubscribe from what doesn't matter. If you notice yourself ignoring something that you get notified about, then unsubscribe from it. This sounds obvious, but people still somehow postpone it; I think this is because deleting a notification is a tiny bit easier than unsubscribing, and they subconsciously want to rather "pay" the single delete click right now than the two clicks to save many single clicks in the future. E.g., unsubscribe from newsletters that you don't actually read, mute conversations/hide channels in chat apps that you don't care about daily, and unfollow tasks in the collaboration platform you use.
  • Have a central stream of things that matter and may require action. I find that e-mail, as the lowest common denominator of all written communication, works well for this. You can get a list of things that require your attention, ordered by the time you received them. Due to this, I turn off in-app notifications whenever possible, and channel everything to e-mails instead (like notifications from the collaboration platform Basecamp, or the issue tracker Jira). Note that then you have to be diligent when processing e-mail, where I think the best is to go one by one, reading and replying to everything, not postponing anything.
  • Set up e-mail rules to delete what you don't need to see. If all else fails, and you still get e-mails about things that don't matter to you, then employ automation to get rid of them. The upfront "investment" is a lot greater than unsubscribing, so you must be conscious about going through the pain of creating rules to then get the dividend of not deleting junk continuously.

I also recommend the book It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work by Basecamp's founders, which largely matches how we work at Lombiq. Shape Up is worth a read too.