Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, the founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, one half of Viewport Industries, and an electronic musician.

Write off that first hour

Posted on 27 November 2008 53 comments

Article illustration for Write off that first hour

This is a topic I’ve been discussing with some friends quite frequently, so I thought it was worth turning into a post. Ready for a bit of controversy?

Don’t expect to get any work done in the first hour of your day.

Resign yourself to the fact that it’s just not going to happen. Better yet: don’t even attempt to get any work done. In all seriousness, you will feel much happier – and end up being more productive – if you spend the first hour of the day catching up on your RSS feeds, replying to blog comments, reading magazines, engaging with the community, getting your inbox count down, finding inspiration, and doing a bit of general surfing.

Oh, the guilt

For years – and actually, until quite recently – I had this terrible feeling of guilt, whereby I thought I was letting my client or employer down by wasting time on the web and doing ‘fun’ stuff when I was supposed to be getting paid for ‘work’. But of course I wasn’t wasting time at all. Keeping up to date with the latest trends, researching new techniques, being active in the web community… these are all things that are vitally important parts of our skillsets as designers and developers. I’d even go as far as to say that not doing those things actually makes you less qualified, less employable, and less productive.

So don’t feel bad about the fact that you’re getting paid to not do any work in the first hour, because that first hour of the day should actually play an important role in why you’re getting paid in the first place.

Productivity

Besides the ‘gaining knowledge’ argument, I also believe that setting aside an hour to do this results in you being more productive later in the day, rather than continually interrupting yourself at various intervals. Of course, I’m not saying little interruptions should be prevented (and actually I’m terrible at staying focused without breaks), but if you set aside the first hour of your day, you’ll be better prepared to knuckle down for (most of) the rest of it. And once it becomes a routine, you’ll stop getting that stress-inducing, tight-chested anxious feeling that comes with so-called ‘distraction’ time. Personally, I feel much happier knowing that I have 9am – 10am set aside for these things! This morning, I…

  • … caught up with a bunch of RSS feeds and found some inspiring portfolio designs
  • … saw what my friends were up to on Twitter and in the process found Tim’s beautiful new site
  • … helped to continue alpha-testing LittleSnapper
  • … re-arranged my calendar
  • … got my inbox back down to zero
  • … wrote this blog post

The last one is a little bit of a lie, since writing this post has taken me up to around 11am. It’s cool, though – I’ll just work a bit later tonight to make sure I still get the same amount of my client work done.

The practicalities

Of course, I understand that putting this into practice can be difficult. It is – without a doubt – easier to achieve if you’re freelance or run your own business, although even then you’ll need to be confident that your clients will understand your way of working.

As an employee, you might find it hard to persuade your boss to give you ‘an hour off’ (as they’ll probably see it) every day, but consider this: you’re going to do this stuff anyway; why not just be frank about it and make it part of your work routine? Talk to your boss about it, talk to your clients about it, and they should see that your passion for the industry and the community makes you a much smarter, happier, and more enthusiastic worker.

As a sidenote, this is why I think that time-tracking apps are – in general – a bad idea, because they undermine the value of time spent away from actual work. For instance, an app that tells me I spent most of the day in Safari when I should’ve been in Photoshop completely misses the fact that the successful design I came up with was only successful because of the extensive research I did on the web.

That’s my opinion, anyway. What do you think?

(Photo: the Prague Astronomical Clock)

53 comments

  1. Wez Maynard

    Wez Maynard

    27 November 2008 @ 04:39PM #

    Something a have always felt a little guilty about too. :/

    Although its always that first hour that goes the quickest, imho, engaging with the digital world around you is absolutely something everybody (in this industry) should take some time to do.

    How else will you come up with the next great client sign off ‘deal closer’?

    ;)

  2. Mat Packer

    Mat Packer

    27 November 2008 @ 04:42PM #

    I actually don’t think this is too controversial, well maybe just because I’ve subscribed to the same philosophy for about 3-4 months now.

    I have found that ‘blowing off’ the first hour at work catching up on RSS, twitter, flickr, portfolios, etc. has actually improved my focus and concentration across the rest of the day.

    I also grab a further 15-30 minutes around 3pm to have a coffee and catch up on RSS and twitter again before finishing the day off with a frenzy of work.

    So yep, I’m all for it.

  3. Paul

    Paul

    27 November 2008 @ 04:42PM #

    At the moment, 15mins is used up catching up on feeds, but Twitter is done all the time (reading and posting)

    I think it helps me keep up-to-date with this fast moving industry, or at least try!

  4. David Weatherby

    David Weatherby

    27 November 2008 @ 04:45PM #

    I have to completely agree, it is best to get all of it done within a hour or so instead of keep breaking out of work to check the latest RSS news or who just twitted !

  5. liam

    liam

    27 November 2008 @ 04:47PM #

    I completely agree, and it’s something that I think definitely helps me work. Before I get stuck into work I always feel a little anxious, lots of thoughts going on in my head about the work i’m about to do.

    But after I’ve spent a little time going through some blogs and galleries in the morning I relax and loosen up, then when I come to doing the work I’ve got a better idea of what needs to be done.

    So really taking that time out at the beginning in-fact saves you time in the long run, as it’s better to loosen up before you start the work, as once you’ve already started working it’s harder to chill out and think clearly.

    That’s my opinion anyway. Great read.

  6. Celso Soares

    Celso Soares

    27 November 2008 @ 04:47PM #

    Yeah that is a good point, but I’m not so keen on telling my boss that I’m taking an hour off to develop my skills/knowledge/profile. (even if I do). Some things are better left unsaid.

    An approach that works for me is to wake up a bit earlier and do these things over breakfast, before the long commute.

    (better get back to work now…)

  7. Jonathan Barrett

    Jonathan Barrett

    27 November 2008 @ 04:50PM #

    This is why I start my day at 8 or 7:30 ;-)

  8. Jack

    Jack

    27 November 2008 @ 04:53PM #

    Good post Elliot.

    Like everyone that will post a reply on this post, I too spend the majority of early morning catching up on things. I completely agree when you say that it makes you more productive as you’re no longer worrying about what your missing.

    However, I do still find myself having a quick peek at what people are tweeting and it’ll be something I’ll need to try and stop but sometimes it’s just too tempting.

  9. Paul Davis

    Paul Davis

    27 November 2008 @ 04:57PM #

    Nice post, made me realise I do that anyway, without realising it. Now I know it’s more common for people to do this, it makes me feel better about it. =]

  10. Gil

    Gil

    27 November 2008 @ 05:01PM #

    It’s simple. It is work.
    But I take your point about how it relates to employees. I’m self-employed and a do start early.

  11. Onyeka

    Onyeka

    27 November 2008 @ 05:03PM #

    I realized very early on in my designing career that there was just too much random things I needed to get out of the way before I could focus on work. I get to work a bit earlier than resumption time, so it helps. I just go through all my mail and feeds and end up using only about 15 minutes of my actual work hours, if any.
    I’ve never really felt any guilt because I’m NEVER in the mood to work the instant I sit down at the desk. It takes a few minutes of random surfing to get me there.

    That said, I had no idea there were actually TRACKING APPS to track what people doing on their system at work. That’s intense.

  12. Julian Schrader

    Julian Schrader

    27 November 2008 @ 05:03PM #

    I fully agree.

    It’s important to get catching up on e-Mail, RSS, twitter etc. done up-front to make sure that there are less distractions afterwards.

    Thank you for pointing this out with this point, this will make me feel better about this habit which made me feel guilty (as you said as well) before :-)

  13. Robin

    Robin

    27 November 2008 @ 05:11PM #

    I couldn’t agree more; skimming through my RSS feeds, maybe glancing at a couple of design galleries to see what’s new – it really sets me up for the day, and I feel more engaged with my work, and arguably more inspired, having done it. Now I just need somebody to set up a decent coffee house nearby and I’d be set ;-)

  14. Lee Simpson

    Lee Simpson

    27 November 2008 @ 05:12PM #

    This is totally spot on!

    I can’t say I’ve ever felt guilty about not doing any work in the first hour (or two) of the day but I find that I have to stop myself from getting caught up in something that might turn in to a full blown job.

    I think companies should look into relaxing a bit on letting employees do this, might improve productivity overall.

  15. Scott Freeman

    Scott Freeman

    27 November 2008 @ 05:16PM #

    Ah ha! So I’m not the only one who thinks this, after all!

  16. Majesticskull

    Majesticskull

    27 November 2008 @ 05:19PM #

    Realmente um post bem pensado, vamos ver o que diz meu chefe :D

  17. Marko Dugonjic

    Marko Dugonjic

    27 November 2008 @ 06:04PM #

    Elliot, you have my vote.

    Especially with mailbox and TODOs, I found it much easier if all checked and cleared right in the morning and then closed till sometimes afternoon.

    I simply adore my isolated 2-hours design/development sessions, but that would be hardly achieved without the zero inbox in the morning.

    Mark Hurst in his book Bit Literacy advices that everyone should first read/share all the fun and personal links and emails, and then once that’s out of the way — switch to work-related tasks.

  18. Jeremy Keith

    Jeremy Keith

    27 November 2008 @ 06:21PM #

    I agree completely. In fact, I’m supposed to be working right now.

    I would probably go further: don’t expect to get any work done before midday. But that’s just me. I’m a consummate idler.

  19. Cennydd Bowles

    Cennydd Bowles

    27 November 2008 @ 06:27PM #

    Very true, Elliot. After the RSS reader, shuffling to-do bits in Things, checking Basecamp etc, I’ve easily lost an hour. Without doing all this, I’d lose more.

    I also agree with Jeremy. It’s rarely worth asking him anything before midday :)

  20. Mia

    Mia

    27 November 2008 @ 06:28PM #

    I couldn’t agree with you more! I always go through the mail, blog, twitter etc within the first hour of the day, along with a nice cup of coffee!

  21. laura moreno

    laura moreno

    27 November 2008 @ 06:34PM #

    I completely agree!
    Great post

  22. Amy Mahon

    Amy Mahon

    27 November 2008 @ 06:37PM #

    I agree – I never get any work done until I’m done with my dailies. I guess the only difference is that I’ve never felt guilty about it ;)

  23. Clinton Montague

    Clinton Montague

    27 November 2008 @ 06:55PM #

    I must admit that like others who have commented, I am also guilty of this sometimes (well, actually, maybe most of the time!).

    It’s absolutely the right philosophy of work. Like you, I am much more productive when I know that I’ve taken care of all of the daily reading and researching.

    Thanks!

  24. Ryan Nicholson

    Ryan Nicholson

    27 November 2008 @ 07:42PM #

    As everyone else has stated, I too am guilty of surfing the web and reading the goings on around the design community a lot. However I agree that doing so has more pros than cons even when its “on the clock”.

    At my office they encourage us to keep up on these things and try and get involved. A couple of our designers have blogs and do some writing (I’m in the process of finishing my own) and we have a weekly meeting just to talk about trends, inspiration, and to share resources. It has made a profound impact in the productivity and “maturity” of our work.

    Well said :)

  25. Justin Dickinson

    Justin Dickinson

    27 November 2008 @ 09:21PM #

    I agree with you here Elliot.

    I equate it with stretching before you work out. Once you’re sitting in front of the computer it’s better to ease into the mindset needed to do whatever it is that you do by reading about others doing the same thing.

    And, like stretching, it does help you focus and do more once the work actually starts. All the things we do in that first hour—Twitter, RSS, etc—are really an addiction we all share. The practice you describe here is a healthy way to manage that addiction so we can still be productive, functioning “mediaholics”.

  26. Christoph

    Christoph

    27 November 2008 @ 09:50PM #

    Great post, i totally agree!
    I start my day with opening my computer, reading feeds, tweets, and some inspiration sites even before breakfast.
    But sometimes I take this early hour for working on urgent projects because at this time I’m very productive and concentrated.
    But doing the reading and browsing first gives me the pleasurable feeling that I got all the “required” news and important things for the day.
    That, in turn, let me work more calmly on upcoming client projects :-)

  27. Chris Ritke

    Chris Ritke

    27 November 2008 @ 09:56PM #

    Hm. Reading emails in the morning…. That book ‘the 4h work week’ says that you shouldn’t check emails until noon. Supposedly so nothing can mess up your prioritization – at least for the morning – or something like that. I tried it for a while and it drove me nuts. I was perhaps a bit more productive doing the grind work stuff – but it didn’t take me long to start checking emails first thing in the morning again. Along with reading feeds. And drinking coffee. I think it’s a great way to start the day!

  28. Steve Rydz

    Steve Rydz

    27 November 2008 @ 10:18PM #

    I couldn’t agree more Elliot, and I must admit that I constantly feel like I should be doing ‘work’ when I’m catching up on feeds, email etc and checking out whats going on in the web world.

  29. kevadamson

    kevadamson

    28 November 2008 @ 02:51AM #

    I tend to catch up on emails, feeds etc. at the end of the day – usually with a pear cider in hand. Heh! Came across your new post 10 minutes ago from my feed ;)

    Horses for courses. I like to get a good head of steam up in the morning so that I can justify drinking and randomly whacking my stumble! button at the end of the day.

    Btw, I recognise that clock. Is it the one in Prague in the square?

  30. rama

    rama

    28 November 2008 @ 09:25AM #

    wow, that’s exactly what i’ve been doing all these times.. but i never plan on writing a blog post about it. Glad I’m not alone in this one :p

  31. JR Moreau

    JR Moreau

    28 November 2008 @ 09:57AM #

    Great post. I indeed waste a bit of time each day, quite deliberately. When it’s time to get busy, I do so with great vigor. But, my idle time, or time for “fun” stuff makes me a better person and a better worker, which is why I’ll never give it up.

  32. Myke Cave

    Myke Cave

    28 November 2008 @ 10:29AM #

    I’m glad to hear this from someone else. I’ve been taking this approach for a few months now. Before, I used to wake up, jump in the shower, grab a quick bite to eat and fly through email, RSS, and social networks before I got involved in my work. All the while not really absorbing any of the info I took in and feeling stressed at the same time. It was as if I was late for work when I work from home!

    And I give myself a “flexible hour” too. That way I’m not starring at the clock on my desktop the entire time.

    Its a better way to start the day for sure.

  33. Levi Figueira

    Levi Figueira

    28 November 2008 @ 12:08PM #

    Agree with you 100%. I’ll go even farther by saying that I need to start working on getting actual work done before deadlines exist. I need to develop skills that involve more than just the research part.
    The reason I say this is because I know that one of my main motivations and skills in on the research and planning part of things: I can research and tell you exactly what I want from a project, and even from a design. But because of the nature of my position right now I need to start developing skills in actually “doing”.

    I think this is “stuff” enough for another post, but I find it frustrating how most “bosses” view people like me like unproductive when I know that given the right setting (working with a team) I can be an incredible asset and I’ve seen this played out in numerous circumstances. But again, I, personally think that I must develop those skills.

    Bottom line is: be careful with the time spent on this! One hour seems to be good… I will naturally spend more than 1, but I also try to do that early in the day! Most times, this routine starts around the breakfast table or while waiting for bathroom availability for the morning shower. ;) But overall I agree and understand your point completely. It’s wrongly overlooked in many work places (especially design/development).

    I’ll also agree with @Celso in saying that sometimes things may be better off “unspoken”… You’re boss might just not understand that, even when you say that it’ll increase your productivity and the overall quality of your work! I’ve had a boss like that… Fortunately, I can talk about that with my current boss… Even though I don’t need to because of the way he work: work done, quality achieved, deadline met = great! :)

    PS: Looong comment… But I’m just feeling too lazy to make this into a blog post! ;) Plus my words will probably look a “little better” here on this awesome design! ;) (will be updating mine.. “soon” :p)

  34. Graeme

    Graeme

    28 November 2008 @ 07:39PM #

    It’s a good strategy to set time aside in the morning for doing things such as emails, blog reading and posting etc. although I think the wider point is maybe not the time of the day that you do it, but that each day you do it. Some people will prefer to start their day like that whilst others may prefer to “get cracking” straight away and use feeds etc when they are in need of a break.

    Personally, I’ve let my feed reading and blog activity slide recently but this has given me the motivation to get back into it properly.

    Oh, and Twitter should be used all day!

    Great post

  35. Grant

    Grant

    29 November 2008 @ 02:06AM #

    I totally agree. I’ve been doing this for a few months now (well, I’ve been doing it longer than that, but just recently recognized the value of it and stopped feeling guilty about it).

    Depending on my workload and what is happening each day, it’s sometimes less or much more than an hour. I often pop off to a coffee shop to do it, happy for the change of scenery in the morning.

    Then I’m ready to tackle projects. Email is done. I’m caught up on news (industry or otherwise) and I’m usually inspired by something that gets me working.

    I look at it as personal development. Particularly as a designer, you can’t get better in a void.

  36. Tigger

    Tigger

    29 November 2008 @ 12:38PM #

    I agree with your entry but where I work we are not allowed to use my PC for surfing the internet for anything. The only time it is really okay is if I’m looking up a reference picture.

    I do find that I can sit there and just talk for that hour though or roughly around that amount of time.

  37. Rich

    Rich

    29 November 2008 @ 04:24PM #

    Spot on Elliot, I think as most of the commentors have pointed out, it’s only what they do already and why not. I find if I don’t do this I’m tempted to go back to my RSS reader and have a peek anyway throughout the day so it’s better to get it out of the way early on. Though I tend to me more productive in the morning so maybe I should reverse the way I do things.

    The trouble really starts when you close your email for a couple of hours and don’t reply to people so they start to rush over to your desk saying “did you get my email”……………

  38. Eric hansel

    Eric hansel

    01 December 2008 @ 05:32AM #

    Nice to see i’m not the only one that lives by this philosophy. Nice Post.

  39. Mike Jones

    Mike Jones

    01 December 2008 @ 11:20AM #

    @elliot – great post! Not sure how my employer might take me saying “hey give me the first hour of each day as paid surfing time” but I do think that yours was a very reasonable argument. I can see this working very well for freelancers but for those of us stuck with bosses, owners and HR this could be a bit difficult to propose to our superiors (though if they’ve done things right they probably already know how much time I spend surfing and reading my RSS feeds and have had plenty of time to challenge me on it, if it is a problem).

    I think where we need to be careful is in not allowing this time to consume more than the hour or so we carve out for it. I can easily find myself spending far more than an hour’s-worth of time surfing, and all within easily justifiable “design-related” constraints. I have to constantly remind myself that, as a designer and artist, my greatest strength and greatest focus should be on creation itself, for I know that I am too susceptible to falling into the trap of “research” and never actually get the project(s) going or finished for which the research was originally intended. The internet is such a great inspirational and educational tool but can easily drown my productivity if I’m not careful. It’s all about balance and perspective.

    @Rich – it takes a couple hours of not responding to emails before people start coming over to say “did you get my email…”? It usually takes some of my coworkers mere minutes of non-response to get the obligatory walk-over or phone call and the dreaded words, “did you get my email?” I just love going in to the office! :)

  40. Steve Killen

    Steve Killen

    01 December 2008 @ 04:05PM #

    Totally agree Elliot and I feel now I can do it with less guilt than before. Only problem is when you hit on an intriguing debate and spend another hour being distracted by it.

  41. Raymond

    Raymond

    01 December 2008 @ 07:57PM #

    Great post! This is exactly what my routine is but most of the time an hour is not enough. hehehe. Thank you for this inspirational post.

  42. Lee Munroe

    Lee Munroe

    02 December 2008 @ 06:21AM #

    You can write off Mondays for me too :)

  43. pam

    pam

    03 December 2008 @ 02:29PM #

    Great post, Elliot. Like many others who have commented, I generally start off my day in the same way, though I’ve always felt a little guilty in the back of my mind – something having to do with the whole “billable hours” thing. Though it’s true, as you pointed out, that researching and discovering unexpected inspiration is a necessary injection into a designer’s daily structure. So let’s all continue forward with confidence now, knowing this IS necessary, even vital, and with no more guilt! Thanks.

  44. Mokokoma Mokhonoana

    Mokokoma Mokhonoana

    04 December 2008 @ 07:22PM #

    Good read, I’m also guilty of the habit!

    But I’m learning to do that at my lunch break, and it also depends on the day’s work. If I have to start the day with brainstorming for a project then I definetly don’t even think of going through twits+feeds.

    One thing for sure, being aware of your eSurrounding + happenings is a huge investment to self!

  45. Elliot Jay Stocks

    Elliot Jay Stocks

    07 December 2008 @ 07:23PM #

    Thanks for all the comments, kind people of the interwebs! I don’t think I have anything to add to your excellent contributions, except to say that isn’t it great that we’re not alone in our approach to the working day? :)

  46. devolute

    devolute

    09 December 2008 @ 12:15AM #

    I’m completely the opposite to be honest. If I get something really productive done in the 1st hour of the day (crack yesterdays annoying IE6 bug, add some much needed polish to a form) then I know the rest of the day is probably going to be quite productive.

  47. Nick - Freelance Designer Sydney

    Nick - Freelance Designer Sydney

    16 December 2008 @ 10:46AM #

    With the requirement these days to keep up to date, I can see this being useful for all designers.

    I normally get into work 15-20 mins early for just this reason.

    Reading the latest RSS feeds with a morning cup of coffee really is a good way to start into the working day. Especially if you have pulled a very late night getting something done urgently for a client.

    Nice to see others have the same sentiment as me!

  48. Ace Web Design

    Ace Web Design

    21 December 2008 @ 03:50AM #

    I must say that I 100% agree with you here. If you don’t do emails, rss etc, then your whole day suffers.

  49. Simon Page

    Simon Page

    22 December 2008 @ 10:18PM #

    The first hour isn’t about not doing it work it simply a routine of getting yourself settled to do the work and motivated. You would do this anywhere and for any job not just as a designers. Look at sportsmen for instance…

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