Time : it’s something we all struggle with. Whether we’re running late for a meeting or trying to squeeze in a few extra to-dos in our day, there never seems to be enough of it.
When I started working remotely, I struggled with managing my time and creating an efficient schedule. The freedom to work whenever I wanted had a paralysis by analysis effect. Having expected deadlines (be in the office by 8am) gave me a basis to work off of. Without those guidelines, it was all up to me.
I floundered for a while, waking up extra early and going to bed extra late without getting anything extra accomplished. To help me be more productive and increase my effectiveness overall I looked at how several artists and writers work day-to-day.
Here are five tactics that have helped me immensely.
1. Schedule your energy, not time
Time is the normal currency I use to block off my day and a regular week looks something like this:
This seems like common sense. Time is a construct that we’ve all agreed to use for meetings, phone conferences, and all other engagements both in and out of the office. But, Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, proposes we use a different construct when planning out our schedule : energy.
Instead of viewing your day as time chunks, Schwartz advises individuals to view each item as a trade-off; some activities replenish energy stores while others deplete them. The end goal is balance. He offers two practical tips to put this into practice:
Take brief but regular breaks throughout the day
Schwartz explains how we’re hardwired to need breaks:
‘Ultradian rhythms’ refer to 90- to 120-minute cycles during which our bodies slowly move from a high-energy state into a physiological trough. Toward the end of each cycle, the body begins to crave a period of recovery.
He and his team found that individuals that took regular breaks had a higher, more sustained productivity level.
Devote all of your energy to one task at a time
Multi-tasking has a cost, which Schwartz refers to as ‘switching time’:
A temporary shift in attention from one task to another — stopping to answer an e-mail or take a phone call, for instance — increases the amount of time necessary to finish the primary task by as much as 25%.
Rather than checking your email dozens of times throughout the day, dedicate two blocks of time (one at the beginning and one at the end of the day). During those times, you’re focused on clearing your inbox; the rest of the time you leave your inbox alone.
2. Block your time based on activity
Artist and entrepreneur Amber Rae has developed a model she refers to as ‘Work, Play, Fit, Push’. Every Sunday, she sits down to map out what her week is going to look like. Tasks/appointments fit into different categories:
- Work items are the top three priorities that must be completed each day.
- Play is reserved for free time like taking walks and reading—activities that might not directly relate to her to-do list but still help to inspire creativity.
- Fit is time set aside for exercise and movement.
- Push would be time for professional growth and development.
Amber carves out chunks each day for these activities on her calendar:
By organizing her week ahead of time, Amber can ensure that she’s hitting each block (work, play, fit, push) every day. Otherwise, an ever-growing list of to-do items might cause the work block to crowd out everything else.
3. Group similar activities
Normally, I organize the majority of my day by priority. My to-do list might look something like this:
- Collect research for blog post on schedule organization
- Dig into support queues at Automattic
- Reply to emails and send out prospective pitches
- Write blog post for personal site
- Fill in freelance business plan with projections and invoices
The top items are imperative for me to accomplish during the day while the last items aren’t that important. While this does create some clarity in how my day is organized (I work on the important stuff first), my brain constantly has to switch back and forth between different types of work.
To circumvent this issue, designer and writer Paul Jarvis groups similar tasks together during his week. For example, if he’s focused on writing he’ll crank out 3–4 posts at a time rather than just trying to finish one each day. This helps his brain enter ‘writing mode’.
According to Paul, “The longer you can focus on a single type of task, the faster you can get it done.”
Using Paul’s tactic my schedule might look something like this:
- Research and outline blog post on schedule organization.
- Write blog post for personal site.
- Dig into support queues at Automattic.
- Catch up on company communication.
- Reply to emails and send out prospective pitches.
- Fill in freelance business plan with projections and invoices.
The items are still organized by priority within their sub-sections, but now I’m focused on a certain type of work rather than just tackling a single task.
4. Use location to your advantage
Joel Runyon, creator of the Impossible HQ blog, uses location to help boost his productivity through a tactic he calls Workstation Popcorn. At the beginning of his day, he breaks his to-do list down into three different groups, each requiring a similar time commitment.
Here’s a quick example:
Task 1 (1 hour)
Task 2 (45 minutes)
Task 3 (45 minutes)
Total time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Task 4 (1 hour)
Task 5 (30 minutes)
Task 6 (1 hour)
Total time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Task 7 (30 minutes)
Task 8 (45 minutes)
Task 9 (45 minutes)
Total time: 2 hours
With his to-do list set, he heads off to a co-working space or coffee shop and starts working on the tasks in Group #1. When he’s done, he closes his laptop and moves to another location where he proceeds to complete Group #2 tasks before moving a final time.
Speaking from firsthand experience, I’ve found two huge benefits from this method:
1. I’m forced to take breaks
When I’m flying through my to-do list I can easily convince myself to skip breaks like lunch. Then, by 1:30pm, the wave has long since passed, and I’m more inclined to crawl into bed for a nap than write another word. This method forces me to take breaks and helps me stay mentally fresh throughout the entire day.
2. I move more
While I try to take walks every day even when I’m working only from home, getting out and about helps me to move more and get in some exercise.
5. Automate part of your day
To overcome decision fatigue and be more productive in general, Tim Ferriss recommends putting systems and processes in place that automate as much thinking as possible. The goal is to turn open-ended questions (What am I going to eat for breakfast?) into if/then statements (If it’s a weekday, I’m going to have a protein shake for breakfast).
I’ve adopted Tim’s approach during the first three hours of my morning. As soon as I have a cup of coffee in hand, I’m working on some kind of code lesson for the day. Then, I write for an hour. Finally, I get in some sort of physical activity. This removes any and all wasted time from my morning.
While automating the first hours of the day works well for me, this tactic can be applied at any time. Joel Gascoigne, co-founder of Buffer, has a sleep ritual that he follows, while both Kobe Bryant and Arianna Huffington have a similar evening routine.
You might find that automating the first few hours after lunch serves you best.
The key is to identify an area of time where you want to be as efficient and effective as possible. Then, put systems into place that take out the guesswork.
Here’s an unfortunate truth about time management: there will always be things that pop up and derail your day.
Product launches will be delayed. Coworkers will be late to meetings. Customer issues will disrupt and sour your days. It’s impossible to have 100% complete control over how your day will pan out.
However, having the right system in place can go a long way in removing the headache from your day-to-day, leaving you more productive and less stressed.