How to Schedule Your Day for Optimal Productivity

How to Schedule Your Day

Time is a finite resource for all of us. Leaving your limited number of days and hours up to chance is not responsible resource management. Instead, use a schedule and reap the rewards:

1) Define Your Why

Let’s face it. Not everything we do in a day is fun. There are definitely tasks we simply don’t want to do. We can rely on grit and determination to power through, but that can sap energy. Instead, find internal motivation by defining your why.

Everyone’s why is different, but it’s the meaning and purpose behind everything we do. This concept was popularized by Simon Sinek in his book Start With Why. Sinek demonstrates that “why” can truly motivate individuals and businesses to reach their goals.

Your why should be bigger than “Because I have to,” or “Because someone told me to.” For an individual, there why might be to provide a safe and happy life for their children. For businesses, a why might look more like, “To help people succeed.”

2) Set Priorities

There are literally millions of ways you could spend each day. And you can’t do everything. Without priorities, you may find yourself spending time on tasks that don’t get you anywhere. And if you’re a team leader or manager, you want to set priorities for your team so they know what’s important, too.

So you have to figure out what you really need to get done in order to achieve your goals in service to your why. First, write down everything you can think of. Then eliminate anything not related to your why. Then put your priorities in order of importance.

3) Estimate How Long A Task Will Take

Once you’ve figured out what you need to do, figure out how long it will take. And we’re not talking about how long it will take in fantasy land. You need to know how long it really takes you to do the thing.

One of the most common scheduling mistakes people make is not correctly estimating how long a task or project will take. “If you over-or-underestimate on how long this will actually take, you’re more likely to throw your entire schedule off. Even worse, you may miss a deadline or waste valuable time for you and key stakeholders like employees and customers.”

So, you need to get real with yourself and encourage your team to do the same. Take a week or two and track your time. How long does it take you to write 1,000 words or answer emails? Then, you can plan your schedule realistically, improving your chances of success.

4) Work Smarter, Not Harder

Tim Ferriss, author of the 4-Hour Work Week is onto something. In the age of hustle, sometimes we feel like we have to go go go all the time. But what if we used our time in such a way that allowed us to work less? Then we’d be onto something, too.

Ferriss advocates a work smarter strategy using systems that make it “impossible to misbehave.” Then he doesn’t have to rely on the finite resource of willpower. So, establishing productive systems is a key step for Ferriss.

Other ways to work smarter involve identifying your most productive times of the day and then scheduling key tasks for that time period. For many of us, energy levels are highest in the morning. However, if you’re a true night owl, feel free to take advantage of that time to get things done.

You also need to be strategic. Yes, there are many ways to reach your goal. When choosing which path to take, factor in the risk-benefit of what you’re doing. You could cold call 100 people and get one yes. Or you could cold call the right ten people for the same benefit.

Types of Scheduling Techniques

1) Create a Productive Morning Routine

According to Hal Elrod, author of The Miracle Morning , “How you wake up each day and your morning routine (or lack thereof) dramatically affects your levels of success in every single area of your life. Focused, productive, successful mornings generate focused, productive, successful days.”

Elrond turned his life around by waking at 5 in the morning to spend time in silence, meditating, reading, and exercising. This set the tone for his days and he was able to pull himself out from under crushing debt and achieve new levels of success.

2) Avoid Task Switching

Multi-tasking may seem efficient. After all, you’re getting more done at once, right? Wrong. In fact, although you’re doing more at once, you aren’t truly getting more done. You’re getting less done.

In fact, the true cost of multi-tasking can be up to 40% of your productivity. Each time you move between tasks, it takes your brain time to switch. Additionally, people are more prone to mistakes when task switching. And the more complex the task, the bigger the losses.

3) Batch Tasks & Block Scheduling

We’ve seen how task switching can impact productivity. However, we all have more than one thing to do in a day. So you can minimize the effect of the task switching by batching tasks and using block scheduling.

You can define “like tasks” in many ways. But the key is that the tasks should have a unifying feature that makes them more efficient when done together. Think about running errands. It makes more sense to go everywhere in a certain geographic location.

Similarly, you can batch tasks in terms of the mindset required to do them. For example, administrative tasks take one kind of mindset, but creative tasks like writing a blog post or debugging code require something entirely different. But grouping tasks by mindset, you can reduce the impact of totally switching gears.

Elon Musk famously uses task batching to make sure he gets everything done for his business and still spend time with his family. Task batching is the process of scheduling like tasks together so you can do them more efficiently.

4) Expect the Unexpected

You can’t predict the future, but you can be pretty sure that something unexpected will happen at some point. You don’t know what it is or when it’s coming, but it’s out there. And a productive schedule will take that into account.

It’s probably happened to you. You identified your why and created your priorities and tasks. You scheduled the key tasks into your most productive time. You were a productivity rock star.

It doesn’t have to be an urgent project, either. It could be a sick kid keeping a team member home. It could be a weather emergency keeping everyone home. It could be unexpected server downtime slowing everyone’s pace. The little things can kill productivity just as effectively as the big things. And frankly, they are more common.

Just like it’s smart money management to have an emergency savings fund, you should also have an emergency time fund. Of course, you can’t stockpile time, but you can build a time cushion into your schedule. That way when the unexpected comes up, you’re ready.

5) Leverage Technology

Tools like Google calendar help you schedule recurring tasks, color code tasks, set reminders, and even share calendars among teams. All of these increase the efficiency of your schedule. Plus they keep you from forgetting that client meeting.

However, you can also do so much more. Use an iPhone app to access your calendar on the go. Eliminate the back and forth phone calls and emails to schedule meetings by allowing others to schedule meetings right in your calendar.

6) Paper Planners, Bullet Journals, & To-Do Lists

As good as technology is at upping your scheduling game, don’t discount the value of paper in this digital world. Paper planners, bullet journals, to-do lists and other analog tools can be just as useful.

In fact, planner industry leader Erin Condren’s Lifeplanner received the Good Housekeeping seal of approval as a productivity tool. And notebook systems like Ryder XXX Bullet Journal are also trending as productivity tools.

Of course, nothing beats a good, old-fashioned to-do list for keeping individuals on track. Writing things down saves you the trouble of remembering them. And the reward of crossing things off your list can be highly motivational.

7) Eat the Frog

Using this logic, one scheduling method is to put the most difficult, most important tasks first. And if you have more than one such task, you should do the harder one before the easier ones.

The more difficult tasks are often the most prone to procrastination. After all, most of us really don’t want to eat a frog. So doing them first thing in the morning keeps you from pushing them off all day. Plus once they’re done, you have the free time to do more fun tasks.

The Psychology of Productivity and Your Attention Span

Psychological researcher Larry Rosen, Ph.D., suggests that the key to productivity is fewer interruptions, as cited by the American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2017 feature on boosting productivity, but that’s not realistic for most adults working full time. When balancing a work load, family meals, children’s academics, personal fitness goals and more, the endless list of obligations makes it difficult to maintain an attention span on one thing for more than a few minutes.

One of Rosen’s strategies is to leverage the habit of taking breaks. He recommends that people reward themselves with a few minutes of checking their phones or messages after just 15 minutes of uninterrupted work.

While 15 minutes doesn’t seem like enough time to accomplish much, Rosen says, “Once you learn how to work for 15 minutes, start increasing the time before taking a technology break.”

Rosen’s research and other studies have shown that the eight-hour workday isn’t the most effective or efficient way to maintain productivity. In fact, breaking up the workday—including the onslaught of standing meetings—can drastically change a person’s energy levels and lead to more sustainable outputs in the long run.

Having a long workday with multiple large tasks can be daunting, especially if you don’t know where to begin or are prone to procrastination. Using the strategies below can help you develop time management skills that will increase your productivity over time while protecting you from burnout and overworking.

The Pomodoro Technique:

The Pomodoro Technique was created in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo as a time management strategy designed for sustaining energy and attention. It works by creating a simple timetable for completing work so that you can set achievable goals with small increments of time.

This technique can help you discover how long it actually takes to complete a task and set more realistic expectations for the future of your time management. It can also help you stay focused by rewarding yourself with rest in between each task.

Other Strategies for Increasing Productivity

    Giving your full attention to one task is likely to yield more accuracy and mental acuity and can help with feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction.
    Structure your most intellectually demanding tasks for when you’re feeling the most awake and energetic while leaving smaller managerial tasks for times when your brain is in an autopilot mode.
    Shut off access to other inputs like social media, television or entertainment that can pull your attention away from work.
    Using alarms or reminders can help cue your brain when it’s time to start the next task or wind down after a long day.
    Use a calendar to keep track of meetings, calls or other obligations to protect your most productive hours.
    Streamline your productivity by cutting down on the mental energy required to switch from one task to another.

Follow your flow (of both tasks and energy)

However, we often forget to think about our state of mind when scheduling meetings, events, or tasks. Yet, think about the cognitive leap it takes to go from a deep-thinking exercise like coding a new feature to a daily catch-up calls.

“The longer you can focus on a single type of task, the faster you can get it done. So grouping all the writing I have to do into a morning means I can write 5–6 articles in one fell swoop.”

This is also what Y Combinator Paul Graham calls “Maker Time”—the long stretches of time needed to work on cognitively demanding tasks like writing or coding (vs. Manager Time, which is chopped up into short segments).

As you fill in your daily schedule template with your tasks and to-dos, try to group together similar tasks. And when it comes time to actually do the work make sure you’re focused and free from distractions.

There are lots of tools that can help support your task flow. Four Hour Work Week author Tim Ferriss has his phone in airplane mode 80% of the time. While RescueTime’s FocusTime feature can block distracting sites and notifications from derailing you.


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