In the constant quest to become more productive, many of us look to the world’s most successful people to see how they manage their time. One of the names that continually crops up is Elon Musk, a man so wildly successful and productive that at one point, he essentially became a personification of productive meltdown. While Musk’s habit of sometimes working 120 hours a week is something no sane person would ever recommend, he does also – like many other leading entrepreneurs – practice a far more sensible and effective productivity hack: day theming. But what actually is day theming? How does it work, and who can it benefit?
Day theming is essentially just a more advanced version of task batching. Task batching is the practice of grouping similar tasks together and working on them steadily until they’re done – whether that’s replying to all emails, or working through GitHub conversation threads. Day theming is similar, but it’s usually used for complex projects or ongoing pieces of work, and you instead devote an entire day to working on one specific initiative. So, in Musk’s case, he works at SpaceX on Monday and Tuesday, at Tesla on Wednesday and Thursday, and then returns to SpaceX on Friday.
While most of us won’t have two global businesses to run, we can still benefit from day theming in the same ways. For example, you could plan to spend each Monday working on a challenging project for a certain client. On Tuesdays, you could commit to catching up with admin and making sure all planning is complete. If you have lots of meetings, you could set a specific day for them, which will allow you to be fully present in the meetings, yet still work deeply without distraction throughout the rest of your week. Day theming can also be viewed as week theming, as you’re creating focused themes not just for one-off days, but for each working day within the week.
Depending on the nature of your job, day theming may not be for everyone – but if you have a flexible schedule, or a lot of different responsibilities competing for your attention, theming your days and week can make a world of difference. Many of us have to juggle multiple balls in our careers; from marketing to product development, HR to admin, building our brand and forging new working relationships, the list of working responsibilities can seem endless – and overwhelming. So rather than setting aside smaller time blocks for each task (e.g. an hour for networking, two hours for email, etc.) day theming reserves a full day each week for each important responsibility.
The benefits of day theming are plentiful, and they can be extremely significant. First, day theming encourages you to build day-long flow states for working productively on one thing. When you have single-themed days without any interruptions, your productivity can skyrocket and you can achieve far more work in less time. Without replying to emails, being pulled into meetings, or dealing with other distractions, you can stay focused on your work.
Plus, day theming allows you to create a consistent schedule of work, which removes the cognitive load of context switching and manages other people’s expectations around your availability. Each time we jump from task to task, we end up fragmenting our focus on shallow work, which creates decision fatigue and weakens our ability to solve complex, important problems. But when we set firm borders around a specific piece of work, we won’t feel guilty about ignoring those inevitable requests that crop up throughout the day. We’ve made a decision to be disciplined and work on our daily theme – and that will always be our commitment.
Another big perk of day theming is that it allows us to prioritize the work that’s actually important to us. We all have important goals we’re trying to achieve, whether that’s trying to write a book, launch a new website, or learn a new skill. But in our fast-paced, hyper-connected world, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s truly important, and get caught up in the noise and busyness of daily life. Being able to dedicate one day each week to a project that’s actually meaningful to us can return a powerful sense of satisfaction, and means we don’t miss out on creating something that has real, tangible value.
In a sense, the two go hand-in-hand. Deep work occurs when you make a plan to focus intensely for prolonged, distraction-free periods on a specific task. Day theming can help support us in reaching a state of single-minded focus, and also gives us the discipline to actually stay there. Many of us may achieve a few hours of deep work, but then feel obligated to check emails, or update colleagues. When we have themed days for deep work, we can sustain flow states for as long as we like. We’ve made it our priority – we have full permission to dive deep and surface when we’re ready.