Harvard Business Review

Why You Need An Untouchable Day Every Week (And How To Get One)

I hate meetings.

They sit subconsciously in my brain, taking up space. I prepare for them in my notebooks. I travel to them, and then back again, in the middle of my work days. And what do most meetings usually result in? You guessed it — more meetings.

When I worked as Director of Leadership Development at Walmart, my days were full of meetings. Everybody’s were! And when I quit two years ago to strike out on my own as an author and keynote speaker, I thought my days full of meetings were behind me.

But I was wrong.

I now have research calls and phone interviews, lunches with literary agents and web developers, conference calls about book titles and publishing schedules, radio interviews, and media prep calls. And before every speech I give, there’s always a meeting with the client and meeting planner to clarify goals and logistics for the event.

Turns out meetings never really go away.

But the problem is I’m now measured almost solely on my creative output. And there’s no time for it! It’s not just me, either. As our world gets busier and our phones get beepier, the scarcest resource for all of us is becoming attention and creative output. And if you’re not taking time to put something new and beautiful out into the world, then your value is diminishing fast.

I used to be one of those “wake up at 4 a.m.” or “keep chugging ‘til 4 a.m.” guys who grinds away at work for hours while everybody else sleeps. It’s how I wrote a thousand blog posts in a thousand days at my blog 1000awesomethings.com. But I now understand that you can only drive in the express lane for so long before the wheels come off.

I’m no longer that guy. Now when I get home after work, I soak in time with my wife and two little boys. Nothing is or will ever be as precious to me, and I resist insight from anyone who isn’t making space for loved ones. I realized that what I needed was a practical way to get more work done without taking more time. And, to be honest, I needed it fast. Why? Because in my first year as a full-time author, I actually started feeling my productivity slipping — even though I had quit my full-time job. It wasn’t just disheartening; it was also embarrassing. “So how’s the new book coming?” “Oh, now that I quit my job? Terribly!”

I finally found a solution that I feel has saved my career, my time, and my sanity. If you’re with me right now, I bet you need this solution too: I call it “Untouchable Days”.

These are days when I am literally 100% unreachable in any way…by anyone.

Untouchable Days have become my secret weapon to getting back on track. They’re how I complete my most creative and rewarding workTo share a rough comparison, on a day when I write between meetings, I’ll produce maybe 500 words a day. On an Untouchable Day, it’s not unusual for me to write 5,000 words. On these days, I’m 10 times more productive.

How do I carve out Untouchable Days?

I look at my calendar sixteen weeks ahead of time, and for each week, I block out an entire day as UNTOUCHABLE. I put it in all-caps just like that, too. UNTOUCHABLE. I don’t write in all-caps for anything else, but I allow UNTOUCHABLE days to just scream out to me.

Why sixteen weeks ahead? The number of weeks isn’t as important as the thinking behind it. For me, that’s after my speaking schedule is locked in — but, importantly, before anything else is. That’s a magic moment in my schedule. It’s the perfect time to plant the Untouchable Day flag before anything else can claim that spot.

On the actual Untouchable Day itself, I picture myself sitting in a bulletproof car surrounded by two-inches of thick impenetrable plastic on all sides. Nothing gets in. Nothing gets out. Meetings bounce off the windshield. Texts, alerts, and phone calls, too. My cell phone is in Airplane Mode all day. My laptop has Wi-Fi completely disabled. Not a single thing can bother me… and not a single thing does.

But I know what you’re thinking: What about emergencies?

The short answer is that there really never are any. The long answer is when my wife asked me about emergencies, she didn’t love my rant about how back in the day, nobody had cell phones, and we were all unreachable at times. As a compromise, I told her that when I started scheduling Untouchable Days, I’d open the door of my bulletproof car for an hour at lunchtime. When I did, I came face to face with the whizzing bullets of seventeen text messages, dozens of urgent-sounding emails, and endless robot-generated alerts and feeds — and precisely zero emergencies from my wife. So after a few months, we stopped doing that and instead I just started telling her where I’d be. That gave her peace of mind that if something horrible happened, she could call the place I was working or simply drive over and find me as a last resort.

I’ve now pulled off Untouchable Days for a year. Nothing horrible has ever happened, and we’ve both grown more comfortable with zero contact throughout the day.

So what do Untouchable Days look like up close?

I think of them as having two components.

There is the deep creative work. When you’re in the zone, you’re in a state of flow, and the big project you’re working on is getting accomplished step by step by step.

And then there are the nitros — little blasts of fuel you can use to prime your own pump if you hit a wall. These unproductive moments of frustration happen to all of us, and it’s less important to avoid them than to simply have a mental toolkit you can whip out when they happen. What are my tools? Heading to the gym for a workout. Grabbing a pack of almonds. Getting up and simply running down the street, or going on a nature walk. After all, Thoreau said “I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” And Hemingway stated “I would walk along the quais when I finished work or when I was trying to think something out. It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood.” What else? A ten-minute meditation. Or switching to a new workspace. Or my wonder drug of precariously turning off Airplane Mode for ten minutes (while staying off of email and text) and leaving voicemails for my parents and close friends, telling them I love them. It works every time, and I get back to work quickly because, let’s be honest, nobody ever answers their phone.

So what happens if the bulletproof car really does get bumped? Say I get an incredible speaking invite or somebody much more important than me only has this one day to get together? Red alert: The Untouchable Day is under threat. What do I do?

I have a simple rule. Untouchable Days may never be deleted, but they can move between the bowling-lane bumpers of the weekends. They can’t jump weeks, though. They are more important than anything else I am doing, so if they need to move from a Wednesday to a Thursday or a Friday, that’s fine — even if I have to move four meetings to make room. The beauty of this approach is that when you plant the Untouchable Day flag on your calendar, it really does feel permanent in your mind. You start feeling the creative high you’ll get from such deep output as soon as you start booking them in.

Before I started using Untouchable Days, I treaded water — I wrote articles, I gave speeches. But something was missing. When I implemented Untouchable Days in 2017, magic happened. I wrote a new 50,000 word memoir, wrote and launched a new 60-minute keynote speech, drafted book proposals for my next three books, and completely planned and began recording my new podcast 3 Books — all while traveling and giving more speeches than I ever had before.

With a year of Untouchable Days under my belt, do I still go through the exercise of scheduling one Untouchable Day every single week?

The honest answer is no.

Now I schedule two.

A slightly modified version of this article originally appeared in Harvard Business Review

Avoid Burnout By Asking This Question

In the late 1990s I began an undergrad business degree program at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. After nearly flunking Economics 101 and striking out with a majority of sports and teams, I finally found my home among a group of interfaculty misfits at the Golden Words comedy newspaper.

Golden Words was the largest weekly humor newspaper in the country, an Onion-esque paper publishing 25 issues per year, with a new issue every Wednesday during the school year. For the next four years, I spent every Sunday hanging out with a group of people writing articles that made us all laugh. We got together around noon and wrote until the wee hours of Monday morning. I didn’t get paid a cent, but the thrill of creating, laughing, and seeing my work published gave me a great high.

I loved it so much that I took a job working at a New York City comedy writing startup during my last summer of college. I rented an apartment on the Lower East Side and started working in a Brooklyn loft with writers from The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live. “Wow,” I remember thinking, “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do what I love.”

But it was the worst job of my life.

Instead of having creative freedom to write whatever I wanted, I had to write, say, “800 words about getting dumped” for a client like Cosmopolitan. Instead of joking with friends naturally and finding chemistry writing with certain people, I was scheduled to write with others. Eventually my interest in comedy writing faded, and I decided I would never do it for money again.

When I started writing my blog, 1000 Awesome Things, in 2008, I said I’d never put ads on the website. I knew the ads would feel like work to me, and I worried that I might self-censor or try to appeal to advertisers. No income from the blog meant less time trying to manage the ads and more time focused on the writing, I figured.

I was smart about that…but not smart enough to ignore the other extrinsic motivators that kept showing up: stat counters, website awards, best-seller lists. It was all so visible, so measurable, and so tempting. Over time I found myself obsessing about stat counters breaking 1 million, 10 million, 50 million; about the book based on my blog staying on the best-seller lists for 10 weeks, 100 weeks, 200 weeks; about book sales breaking five figures, six figures, seven figures. The extrinsic motivators never ended, and I was slow to realize that I was burning myself out. I was eating poorly, sleeping rarely, and obsessing about whatever next number there was to obsess about.

I started worrying that the cycle — set goal, achieve goal, set goal, achieve goal, set goal, achieve goal — would never end. And I started forgetting why I started writing my blog in the first place. I was shaken by how quickly I had gotten caught up in the achievement trap.

Studies show that when we begin to value the rewards we get for doing a task, we lose our inherent interest in doing the task. The interest we have becomes lost in our minds, hidden away from our own brains, as the shiny external reward sits front and center and becomes the new object of our desire.

Keep in mind that there are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic is internal — you’re doing it because you want to. Extrinsic is external — you’re doing it because you get something for it. Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, has performed some experiments on intrinsic and extrinsic motivators with college students. She asked the students to make “silly collages” and invent stories for them. Some were told they were getting rewards for their work, and some were not. What happened? Based on scores from independent judges, the least creative projects by far were done by students who were promised rewards for their work. Amabile said, “It may be that commissioned work will, in general, be less creative than work that is done out of pure interest.”

And it’s not just getting rewards that hurts quality.
 In another study conducted by Amabile, 72 creative writers at Brandeis University and Boston University were split into three groups of 24 and asked to write poetry. The first group was given extrinsic reasons for doing so — impressing teachers, making money, getting into fancy grad schools. The second group was given a list of intrinsic reasons — enjoying the feeling of expressing themselves, the fun of playing with words. The third group wasn’t given any reason. On the sidelines, Amabile put together a group of a dozen poet-judges, mixed up all the poems, and had the judges evaluate the work. Far and away, the lowest-quality poems were from those who had the list of extrinsic motivators.

James Garbarino, former president of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development, was curious about this phenomenon. He conducted a studyof fifth- and sixth-grade girls hired to tutor younger children. Some of the tutors were offered free movie tickets for doing a good job. What happened? The girls who were offered free movie tickets took longer to communicate ideas, got frustrated more easily, and did a worse job than the girls who were given nothing except the feeling of helping someone else.

The Garbarino study raises the question: Do extrinsic motivators affect us differently depending on age? Do we grow into this pattern — and can we grow out of it? According to a recent study by Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello, we may be hardwired to behave this way. Their work found that if infants as young as 20 months are extrinsically rewarded after helping another infant, they are less likely to help again than infants who received either no reward or simple social praise.

I was surprised by the studies, but they made sense to me. I loved writing for Golden Words. It was a joy, a thrill, a true love. With the paid writing startup in New York City, I lost all my energy and drive.

When you’re doing something for your own reasons, you do more, go further, and perform better. When you don’t feel like you’re competing with others, you compete only with yourself. For example, Professor Edward Deci of the University of Rochester conducted a study where he asked students to solve a puzzle. Some were told they were competing with other students and some were not. You can probably guess what happened. The students who were told they were competing with others simply stopped working once the other kids finished their puzzles, believing themselves to be out of the race. They ran out of reasons to do the puzzle. But those who weren’t told they were competing with others kept going once their peers finished.

Does all this mean you should just rip up your paycheck and work only on things you’re intrinsically motivated to do? No. But you should ask yourself, “Would I do this for free?” If your answer is yes, you’ve found something worth working on. If the answer is no, let paid work remain paid work and keep asking yourself what you would do simply for the pleasure you derive from doing it. Chances are, if you’re working solely for extrinsic reasons such as money, you’re bound to burn out sooner or later.

A slightly modified version of this article originally appeared in Harvard Business Review.