Design Days

by Productivity

Design Days, Focus Days, Innovation Days, Think Weeks….there are many names to call this time. Whatever you opt for, it's one of the most important things a company and an individual can implement throughout their work year. We are so bogged down in tasks and stuff that we don't give ourselves time to think and be creative.

Problem-solving and innovation do not come in the space between 30-minute meetings. It doesn't come between the space of email-answering, Teams or Slack-responding, and getting on Zoom.

Our work volume is higher than it's ever been. We are a nation of over-communicators, where working remotely is being felt with even more disruption due to notifications. The search term How To Focus at Work increased by 300% in the last year.

One answer to that is Design Days. RaderCo's definition is one full day or more with no meetings, no email, text, or chat messages, and completely open to solve problems, create, and thinkitate. It's a day dedicated to synchronous focus time that can be used for reflection, planning, or mind mapping. 

We can complete the things we often don't have time for or get pushed to the back burner. We can work on those things that we know are value-added but sit in the ‘parking lot' for weeks or months because we can't carve out time for them. It can open up space for learning and training to enable career progression. 

Some specific things my clients and I have used them for have been inventing a new concept, working through a bottleneck, or designing a new service or product.

We've used them for organization and planning, especially at the end of the year when we're working through our Powered Path™ Playbook and doing our reflections.

Our coaching clients often complain about wanting to learn more about the company and their industry or work on their own personal and professional development but never having the time to do it. Design Days can be used for training, increasing brand knowledge, or research.

Bill Gates called this time Think Week. He would take one week twice a year away from tech and society to a cabin in the woods and read. 

My client Justin Jones-Fosu, founder of Work Meaningful, takes Think Weekends each quarter to reflect, plan, and work on new offerings. He often goes to the mountains or someplace else inspirational.

I've gone to the beach, the mountains, the lake, or somewhere different in my home city. It doesn't have to be fancy. I like doing them when my husband has a disc golf tournament and we're staying in an Airbnb somewhere.

Design Days can be done with others and even be more effective that way, but you must be thoughtful and set up the rules and guardrails ahead of time.

Don't distract yourself from routine tasks if they are with a team member. This is for creating or working through a process. When I have Design Days with our RaderCo Director of Marketing and Client Concierge, we alternate between work time and walkie-talkies. We do this at their family lake house and walk between work sessions up and down the road. We've covered 10 miles in two days doing this! As we're walking, we're always coming up with new solutions or talking through processes. Sometimes we're just taking a break from heads down and focusing.

I've also done this with my friend and business owner, Wendy Gates Corbett. We stay at an Airbnb, and each takes a separate area of the house to work in. We determine when we'll come together for breaks or meals. It's a form of body-doubling where people can stay more focused on a task and feel better about working just by knowing someone else is doing it too.

If solo, I create my plan, whiteboard it out, and make sure I take enough breaks. A lot of energy is required to focus so heavily, and breaks are where creativity bubbles up. 

My client Abdo has Focus Week. There are no internal meetings for a whole week. It's time to do deep work without interruption. Some people choose to vacation during this time since they won't be returning to an overflowing inbox or tasks from meetings they missed. Still, a holiday without work stress can also be a great way to come up with solutions.

This year, RaderCo implemented Design Days at Blueprint Medicines, which was wildly successful. Most of the company could shut down their inboxes and Teams chat for a day, and work outside the inbox. When I was piloting it, one of my coaching clients came up with a process he had never had time to do before. It solved a bottleneck that could ultimately save them money and time. It's an impressive recruitment and retention tool. Wouldn't you want to work for a company that recognizes the impact of time to be innovative?

For many people, it feels weird not checking email. This is because we check out of habit or impulse, and our brains have gotten used to that dopamine drip. It's common to feel uneasy at first. We're so used to switch tasking and checking our notifications all day that it takes practice to let our brains be quiet and concentrate.

Planning your Design Day

  • As a company, do at least one per quarter or month. Schedule them for the year so people can plan in advance. 
  • Individuals can do them as often as needed depending on their role. Some feel like quarterly is a gift, whereas others take one full day a week with no meetings, emails, or chats.
  • Block your calendar as Out of Office, so no meetings get scheduled. 
  • Alert your team (if it's not a team or company-wide Design Day) and key stakeholders 3-5 days in advance and let them know that you will not be available on that day. Ask them for anything they anticipate needing before then. Otherwise, it will not be resolved until after that date (this is also recommended when going on vacation).
  • Create a list of what you would like to do on your Design Day. Then, narrow it down to 1-3 themes and plan your day. 

Design Day!

  • Consider going somewhere different. Whether you work from the office or home, go to the library, a favorite coffee shop, a hotel lobby, or a park. Even better if it's more than one day and you can do this overnight somewhere.
  • Create an autoresponder that you are taking a Design Day. Please don't be embarrassed, worried about how it will look, or feel like it should be a secret. I want the vendors or customers I work with to be thinking strategically and creatively! 
  • Please turn off the notifications on your phone, put it on Do Not Disturb, or turn it off! If you must check your inbox, put it in Work Offline mode if you are in Outlook or Pause it if you use Gmail. Yes, it's gonna be challenging, but that's not what this day is for. If you must be available for urgent matters, ask them to contact you via phone, so you aren't checking your inbox or Slack channel. 
  • Listen to focus music, white noise, or nature sounds. 
  • Make it remarkable. Drink a coffee or tea you don't usually have and journal or write down notes as they come to you. I always have a Reed's Ginger Beer or a root beer in the afternoon. 
  • Treat yourself to lunch somewhere inspiring or unique, and enjoy it screen-free! If you're in a cabin or hotel, have something delivered or create a meal and enjoy it mindfully.
  • Take breaks as needed. Use a timer and ensure you get up and move around every 45-90 minutes.
  • Take breathing or meditation breaks, or stare outside if you have a beautiful landscape or interesting people-watching option.
  • I have my Apollo Neuro device on all day, alternating between focus and creative modes.

I have Design Days mapped out this year, and I know what I'm working on months in advance for one of them. If you are a leader or are influential at a company, start incorporating these. If you have to start with your team, start there. Then advocate for the whole company. It's best that way, so individuals don't have FOMO from being offline all day.

If you are an individual, schedule them monthly or, at a minimum quarterly, and put them on your calendar now. If you're a business owner or C+, go away for 1-2 days as a requirement. Suppose you use our Powered Path™ Playbook and method. In that case, you're already mapping out your priorities, and it will be easy for you to add to your agenda.

Take the time notification-free to reflect, plan, thinkitate, and create with a Design Day.

If you need help implementing these at your company, contact us! We'd love to help you design the program, training, and support around it.

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jim west

Principal and Managing Director, GFF Architects