Week 10/2024: Stop clearing the decks

Week of 4 March 2024

At the risk of sounding like I’m turning my learnings from Four Thousand Weeks into a project, I tried one of the strategies in the book this week.

Another 4,000 weeks post

Stop clearing the decks (part 1)

Not clearing the decks is one of the strategies Oliver Burkeman writes about in Four Thousand Weeks. It’s the broad idea that the more we try to clear the decks—that is, to get the little niggling things out of the way before we settle down to our big important work—the more the ‘decks’ will fill back up again. And if we keep trying to do this, we’ll spend so much time on the little, often unimportant, stuff we’ll never get time to do the things we really want to do.

His suggestion: Stop clearing the decks.


Oliver writes a lot about email in this context, including why ‘inbox zero’ may not be a good strategy.

The idea I wanted to try this week was to avoid the temptation of looking at email first thing and getting straight into my work.

You’re likely to get derailed by emails at some point during the day anyway, and sometimes this can take up most of the day, so you might not be able to devote a stretch of time to the project you’re trying to work on. Rather than let your day get off course from the moment you sign on, Oliver suggests delaying your first email check for an hour or two (or even 30 minutes) to give you at least that amount of uninterrupted time to work on your project.

He says not checking email could make you feel very uncomfortable and, while you might get tempted, the challenge is to sit with that discomfort and anxiety of not knowing what might be waiting for you in your inbox.

(A lot of his strategies involve a degree of experiencing and sitting with discomfort in order to get your important work done.)

There’s a lot of reasons why this strategy might not work for everyone every day.

But I decided to give it a go.

This is how it went.

Monday morning

I’m going to work on xxx project (which is due on Wednesday) all morning and try the technique of not checking email until I’ve done at least two hours of work and sitting with the discomfort of that.

Monday evening

I had an online meeting in my calendar for 9.00, which I joined and no one else came. I went through my emails while I was waiting, and did that for half an hour before I decided to shut it down and get on with the work.

Then I was trying every possible procrastination tool to not do this work.

Tuesday, 9:03 am

Not going to check email.
Maybe I should just quickly check in case my manager has comments on the document I sent her yesterday.
No. You’re going to spend an hour on the project.
But I should just check.
I’ll just check the calendar to make sure there are no early meetings someone has sent through since last night.
Okay. You may check the calendar.

(Opens calendar)

There are no new meetings. I should just check my emails first.
No. You won’t. Shut Outlook down.
But . . .
Just do it.

(Blocks off 9-10 in calendar to do this work. Closes Outlook. Procrastinates a bit . . .)

Tuesday, 9:45 am (First 25-minute timer)

That went well. I got a lot done.

(Moves away from the desk as required every 25-minutes to avoid further back and shoulder damage.)

Tuesday, 9:49 am (Back at the desk)

Shall I check email now? It’s only 15 minutes until this hour block is up.
No. You will do the hour. Get back to it. 25 more minutes. Go.

(Works on the project)

Tuesday, 10.13 am

You’ve finished that work! You may now open your email.

Still no calendar appointments added to my day.
And not a single email I have to action.

The reflection

It really was uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable, but by getting stuck into the work, I got over that and I finished the work I needed to complete that day.

If I can start to do this consistently, I think it will be a great strategy.

And I’m sure I’ll have more to say about email in future posts.

Week 10 summary

Habit tracker

  • 9.30 shutdown: 4/7 days
  • 8,000 steps: 6/7 days

What was the best thing about this week?

The best thing this week was, after a most disgustingly hot day on Saturday, that Sunday was cool.

I also enjoyed Amber Koroluk-Stephenson’s exhibition Interior Topographies at the Bett Gallery.

A row of pastel toned paintings hanging on a white wall
Inner Topographies by Amber Koroluk-Stephenson

The exhibition notes say

Partly based on Koroluk-Stephenson’s feelings of ambivalence towards motherhood, Interior Topographies unfolds as a visual roadmap filled with signs and symbols relating to femininity, domesticity, and body autonomy.

Wrapped in pastel-hued softness, Interior Topographies quietly delivers a visual sucker punch, unravelling gender role expectations from both a historical and personal point of view.

A pink painting of Anthuriums held tightly by red thread, and a gren tonied painting with a nest containing eggs, and three chairs, two of which are on the green wall
“Captive” & “Slow Dance”

What did I notice this week?

Graffiti of the word PEACE on a red brick building
Graffiti of the word LOVE on a bus shelter

Looking round for where someone might have painted UNDERSTANDING.

What did I learn this week?

From Oliver Burkeman: “Spending your time well is always a matter of just imperfectly taking one action after another.”

Also, chickens like watermelon, once they work out they can eat it.

Three chickens standing round a large chunk of watermelon
A disgustingly hot day

What I’m reading this week

  • Presence by Patsy Rodenburg
  • The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris
  • The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham
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