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.
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 quickly 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.
Get off the express lane
I’m no longer that guy. Now when I get home after work, I soak in time with my wife and 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 work. To 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 to schedule Untouchable Days
For me, 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.
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 Ernest 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.
3 excuses you'll get when attempting Untouchable Days
When I tell people to schedule Untouchable Days, they have all kinds of objections. But this! But that! Well, let’s talk about them.
The first but. The big but!
But what about emergencies?
The short answer is that there never really are any.
The long answer is that when Leslie 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. Our culture is so oriented to worst-case-scenario worrying that some people can no longer imagine not tracking their children’s cell phone locations or wondering how to reach a spouse if they fall off their bike. I say: Please. People need to chill. This fear-based, worry-oriented, what-if-disaster-strikes culture needs a cold bucket of water splashed on it quick. Our adrenal glands are fritzed out. We’re all on high alert. But I get that we’re in relationships, so when I started doing this, as a compromise to my wife, I told her that when I had an Untouchable Day, I’d open the door of my bulletproof car for an hour at lunchtime.
What happened when I did?
I came face-to-face with the whizzing bullets of seventeen text messages, dozens of urgent-sounding emails, endless robo- generated alerts and feeds—and precisely zero emergencies from my wife. So after a few months we stopped doing that and I just started telling her where I’d be. That gave her peace of mind that, if something happened, as a last resort she could call the place where I was working or simply drive over and find me. I’ve pulled off Untouchable Days for a couple of years now. Nothing horrible has ever happened, and Leslie and I have both grown more comfortable with zero contact throughout the day.
But what about urgent meetings?
I have someone I need to talk to every day. I have a job where it’s very, very important that I’m always, always available. Okay! I hear you. You’re a doctor in the ER. You’re the assistant to the boss. I hear you. So the solution here is to start small. Try an Untouchable Lunch. One where you don’t eat with everybody in the cafeteria but you go for a long stroll. Or try an Untouchable Morning. Regardless of your role or position, you will gain much needed perspective, finally tackle a long-procrastinated project, or gain insight into a new way of working that convinces everybody else that your untouchable work times are valuable, too.
What’s a side benefit here? Well, in jobs where the team or group of people around you helps you get an Untouchable Lunch or Untouchable Morning, guess what? You get to pay back the favor and help cover them when they take one. Untouchable Days actually strengthen team bonds.
And the final but?
I really want people on my team to take Untouchable Days, but they have trouble disconnecting.
This is interesting and actually pretty common. This but is referring to people who answer emails on vacation. It sounds like servant leadership but it’s actually egotistical because they think they’re saying “I am a warrior for the team!” but what they’re actually saying is “I am so important that nobody can work without me!” and also “I am unable to come back with new thoughts and fresh ideas because I refuse to get out of the trenches!”
I did a study with a company called SimpliFlying where we tested the effects of mandatory vacations. We published the results in Harvard Business Review and found that creating penalties for contacting the office worked really well. Yes, we actually docked people’s paid vacation days if they contacted the office on their days off. So want your direct report to go untouchable? Tell them to leave their computer and cell phone at the office and tell them they’ll get dinged if they keep reaching out.
Remember: Untouchable Days are possible.
Before I embraced Untouchable Days, I treaded water. I wrote articles, I gave speeches, I got things done. But something was missing. When I implemented Untouchable Days, magic happened. I did things I never thought I’d do! I wrote my new book You Are Awesome, I wrote a new keynote speech, I drafted proposals for my next few books, and I started my 3 Books podcast.
I say we have to learn to turn down the noise and find little ponds of tranquillity where our thoughts can scramble and ferment and congeal in order to help us reflect and make sure we’re going the right way. I believe Untouchable Days are a secret ingredient to helping us get there.
So now, you may be wondering, with a ton 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