We waste an incredible amount of time every day. Even when we think that we are working full haul, we are often pulled away by interruptions, distractions, and active procrastination (excessive email checking and internet surfing, anyone?). All of this gets in the way of getting our most important tasks done, including our writing.
How can you make the best use of your time to be productive while also recharging your own batteries and enjoying life ? You have enough time, you just need to organize it accordingly. You need to impose some structure. You need a plan.
The plan that I am proposing may seem drastic at first. I am going to ask you to make a list of what you want to accomplish before the end of the year and then schedule everything you do every day. I’m not the first person to come up with this idea. Cal Newport described a version of this system in his Study Hacks Blog three years ago. I’m just bringing it to your attention.
When you schedule everything you do, you can get more done in less time. Why? Because scheduling your days forces you to be aware of how much time you are spending on your non-priority tasks and stops procrastination in its tracks.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DO NOT SCHEDULE YOUR DAY
Let’s examine what typically happens when you do not schedule your day:
The day before, exhausted and overworked, you fall into bed at an hour that the CDC has already determined will disrupt your circadian rhythms for the next five years. Instead of writing down your to-dos for the next day, you just recite them in your head. My favorite one is this: Tomorrow I will work on project x (where x=a somewhat large and anxiety-provoking project or task that you have been procrastinating on,). You have probably listed this project or task first on your mental to-do list, because that is the one most on your mind, and by listing it first, you have revealed your sub-conscious preference to work on that first. But, alas, that will not happen because: (1) your list is too long and won’t fit in your day and (2) you have not scheduled your tasks into time slots, so the hungry little tasks that are the least important will scream at you, drowning out the voice of your most important endeavor.
HOW TO SCHEDULE YOUR DAY
There is a better way. Decide what time you are starting work and what time you want to stop and schedule every half hour in between with a specific activity.
Now, I can already feel you resisting this, and I haven’t even gotten started. Whoa, Rene! Chill! That’s insane to schedule every minute of my day before it even happens. Where’s the spontaneity? I’m a creative soul – I cannot be bound by such limits. This reduces my flexibility too much and just won’t work for me.
This is where I ask you to keep an open mind and read on.
If you don’t control your day, your day will control you. If you have not predetermined what you will do next, you will need to negotiate with yourself at every break in activity. It will also be more difficult to pull yourself away from distractions and interruptions. When you schedule every half hour of your day, you focus your day on your goals and eliminate this constant negotiation, rebound more quickly from distractions and interruptions, and diligently work through your to-do list in the order that you have pre-decided.
Start by writing in any fixed appointments. These may include meetings, classes, day job demands, personal errands, etc,. This allows you to see how much time you have left over to allocate to your to-do list. This is the reality check part of your day.
Next, put in your breaks. What? Breaks? I haven’t even put in my tasks yet and you are telling me to put in breaks? Yes, because this is your daily, sustainable, peacefully- productive work schedule – not an all out assault on your mind and body. To make it sustainable both within a day and across days, you need to have breaks factored in. We are not creating a non-sustainable daily work schedule where you do not move from your desk, forgo eating of any kind, and catapult from one task to the next. Put in your lunch time (at least 30 minutes – no eating and working at the same time) and your coffee/snack breaks, too.
Build in cushions. Never schedule anything for less than 30 minutes, even if you think it will not take that long. This builds a cushion into your schedule in case something does take longer than expected somewhere else. If you set up a ridiculous schedule that you cannot reasonably follow without feeling like someone ran you over, you are only setting yourself up for failure. Also, expect some of the unexpected to crop up in your day in the form of interruptions and what not. How will that affect your schedule if you have not built in some cushion time?
Schedule your tasks. Now that you have your fixed appointments and breaks in your schedule, put in your tasks. If you want to exercise during the day, make sure to account for that as well, including time to get to the gym and back. Make sure to leave ample room for your tasks and remember to build in a little bit of a cushion. If you think a task will take 45 minutes, schedule it for an hour.
Schedule your tasks in order of priority. What gets done first, gets done. If writing is the most important thing on your list, do it first or at least in the first half of your day. Leave the less important tasks for later in the day. That way if you get behind, you can move those forward to the next day.
Here’s a sample schedule. While I advocate for scheduling your tasks in 30 minute blocks of time, I consider 5 minutes of that to include brief rest breaks between tasks, following the Pomodoro Method outlined by Francisco Cirillo.
7:30 a.m. – Arrive to work/get coffee/ settle in/ greet fellow colleagues/take out your schedule for the day and display it prominently.
8:00 – 1 pom of writing
8:30 – 1 pom of writing
9:00 – 1 pom of writing
9:30 – 1 pom of writing
10:00 – Snack/break/BRIEF email check
10:30 – Process any email that absolutely positively cannot wait until 3:30 p.m.
11:00 – Obnoxious Meeting (hereinafter referred to, ironically, as OM)
11:30 – Still OM (sigh heavily and roll eyes)
12:00 – Lunch/ exercise
12:30 – Lunch / exercise
1:00 –Task 2
1:30 – Task 3
2:00 – Chat with office Colleagues in bid for Ms/Mr. Congeniality Award
2:30 – 1 pom of writing
3:00 – Snack/Break
3:30 – email triage
4:00 – email triage
4:30 – email triage
5:00 – plan for next day
5:30 – FINISH LINE – GO HOME ☺
During this day you did 2 hours of writing, 1 hour of other tasks and 2 hours on email, accounting for five hours out of your 10-hour day. Where did the rest of the time go? : Start-up (0.5 hours), meetings (1 hour), breaks/lunch (2 hours), congeniality (0.5 hours), next day planning (0.5 hours), cushion (0.5 hours).
Now, some of you may want to have 10 hours of productivity in a 10-hour day or 9 hours or even 8 hours. And you can probably pull that off occasionally or for a few days, but at some point you are going to burn out. With this schedule you can be productive and recharge every day. That’s 25 hours of solid productivity every work week or 300 hours of productivity over a three month period. And I didn’t count any weekends or evenings in the mix. If you are still skeptical, track how you are using your time now and see how it compares.
You can, and should, play around with the mix here to make it your own. Maybe you don’t need 2 hours of email triage. Hopefully you don’t have an OM every single day. Some of you may have jobs that require more meetings and congeniality time. However, you modify this schedule, there are a couple of things that I would recommend that you not change: (1) when you process email; and (2) breaks.
You will notice that checking and responding to email is scheduled towards the end of the day, with only a brief check in mid-morning after you have completed your morning writing. The goal here is to increase your productivity. Email checking will ruin your productivity. It beckons you like Kaa in the Jungle Book, “Come to me. . . .” Then you are hypnotized and your day is shot. You get lost in email. Email controls you. Don’t spend your days checking email. No one ever had serious consequences rain down on them because they didn’t check their email frequently enough. Likewise, as far as I know, there is no prize for responding within 5 minutes of receiving an email. Schedule and confine your email time – 99% of it can wait.
You also need breaks in your day. Not making time for breaks means making time to be sick and burned out and unmotivated. It also makes for a truly lousy life. Don’t forget the breaks.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU GET OFF SCHEDULE
This is bound to happen, so don’t get frustrated if you find you are not accurately estimating the time needed for different tasks. Just make a note in your schedule how much time it did take so that you know how much time to devote to it next time. For example, today, I got carried away in another task and missed my afternoon writing time by about 10 minutes. This caused me to spill over into my next time block, which put me behind schedule for the rest of the day. My lowest priority task of the day didn’t get done, which is fine, because I was able to address it the next day.
If all this seems extraordinarily time consuming, you can take heart from Peter Bregman in his Harvard Business Review Article – An 18 Minute Plan for Managing Your Day. Bregman lays out essentially the same system as Newport, and boils it down to an 18-minute daily planning routine. That seems like a pretty good return on an investment for a full day of productivity.