Time-blocking around this set of guidelines has transformed my ability to get my creative work done
Every morning after I make my coffee and snuggle under my fuzzy blanket on my chaise lounge, I do the most important thing I will do all day. I write down my daily schedule. Now, before you hit the back button and think, I know this already, let me give you more details. The details of my schedule-making have made all the difference in my daily routine.
I am a freelance writer and entrepreneur. This means that I have a veritably open schedule in which to create content and build my business. It’s the freedom I desired when I quit my day job back in September 2020. However, these vast amounts of open time are also the kiss of productivity death if I don’t structure them.
You may have read articles on time blocking. While my approach uses some of the principles behind time blocking, I have some very specific rules when it comes to structuring the sections of my workday. I very rarely veer from the structure these rules provide and when I do, I get significantly less done during my day. Here are my three daily schedule-making rules:
- Each task that takes more than 30 minutes to complete is given a block of time and no block of time should be more than three hours long
- All work-related tasks that take less than a half-hour to complete are lumped into a single “catch-all” hour which I schedule separately
- All desk-working sections are separated by physically active blocks
I schedule my days with a technique I like to call “day batching,” so I work on different things on different days. For instance, I do things related to my writing career on Mondays, I do all things related to the business I founded on Tuesdays, etc. Fridays are my “catch-all” days to do the tasks that relate to everyday life.
So, when I employ my three daily scheduling rules to my batched days, a typical daily schedule on a Monday looks something like this:
(Note that, as a rule, I always write from 6-7:30 a.m. as well, but that is an everyday occurrence and I don’t consider that to be a part of my “workday.”)
Let’s look at the “why” behind each one of my scheduling self-inflicted rules and how implementing it has improved my productivity.
As you can see above, I am not chained to my desk for eight hours. I have found that as a creative person, working eight straight hours is not ideal for my productivity. On the other side of that coin, if I try to hold myself to 20-minute Pomodoro sessions, I lose my “flow” and I find it practically impossible to create a flow of creativity.
I have found that my sweet spot creatively is a three-hour time block in the morning and 1.5–2-hour time blocks in the afternoon. If I try to concentrate for more than three hours at a time, I find myself drifting off and getting antsy about moving my creaky old body. Because I’m an early riser, my afternoon concentration is lower, so I schedule smaller chunks after lunch.
One of the best things about scheduling long time blocks is that it gives me a set amount of time in which to get something done and it helps me focus on the task at hand. For instance, if I’m scheduled to write articles, I know that I won’t be doing any sales emails. And, when I’m successful at staying focused for my entire time block, I get a little dopamine boost at the end. I feel great about my accomplishment and I feel like I have earned a little break.
If a task I need to accomplish is something that takes less than a half-hour, I move that task to the hour I designate as my “catch-all” hour. This can be anything from replying to emails to pricing out competitors to mailing that document to the lawyer. Because I day batch, I make sure that all of these little tasks have to do with the day’s topic, but I’m always surprised at how many little things I need to do in relation to my projects.
If it’s a writing day, my “catch-all” time block could have anything from submitting to be a writer in a new publication to pitching a new client to posting an article on LinkedIn to editing the articles of the brilliant writers in my writing group.
I schedule my “catch-all” hour toward the end of the day so that it can be a receptacle for any tasks that come up during the workday that might be distracting from the current mission. If, for instance, I see an email come through about making a quick tweak to a part of an article I have already written, I jot that down on my “catch-all” notepad and knock it out after I’m done with the concentrated portion of my workday.
I hype myself up for my “catch-all” hour like any pro athlete preparing for a game. I get amped to play to-do list whack-a-mole with my piddly tasks related to work. When the time comes, I successfully knock out one task after another and finish my workday on a productivity high. My virtual plate is usually clear and I’m ready to relax and start anew the next day.
If you’re anything like me, you have to pry yourself up from your desk when the time comes to get moving. Just one more email. Just one more paragraph. I am in the zone — I don’t want to bail now. These thoughts swirl through my mind when the time comes for my scheduled physical activity.
I hear you on wanting to work without a break. I am also here to tell you from massive amounts of personal experience that not moving your body for long periods of time has diminishing returns.
An article in Forbes Magazine entitled, To Work Better, Just Get Up From Your Desk says, “Interspersing short movements and exercises throughout the workday can boost employee energy, engagement, and efficiency, says sports scientist Jack Groppel.”
Moving your body not only makes you more energetic and efficient. It can also make you smarter. Exercise helps your hippocampus function correctly and feeds your noggin with oxygenated blood. Additionally, aerobic exercise can even make your brain bigger (yes, physically bigger) in the portions that relate to learning and memory.
This is a lot of science to say get up from your desk whether you want to or not. I don’t want to either, but I do and I’m always happier after I move my body. The only way I can get myself to get off my chair is if I schedule physical movement into my day.
I like to have a destination if I’m going to walk or run, so you’ll see on my schedule that my four-mile run ends at a nearby grocery store where I can pick up bread and milk and walk home.
I usually schedule a longer workout session during more mentally demanding days and a short body movement session in the early afternoon. I get a post-lunch slump in energy, so my quick early afternoon sessions wake me up for a late-day productivity energy burst.
The beauty of being a content creator is that there is a modicum of freedom that most corporate jobs don’t allow. However, that freedom can be a slippery slope into Unproductiveland. Time can slip away and tasks can be put off. An even more present danger is that you can spend time on tasks that are not the most important ones to lead you toward your goals.
I am breaking the habit of saying “yes” to every opportunity. If I’m not careful, I can fill my days with volunteering for local charities, proofreading friends’ novels, and making guest Zoom lecture appearances for schools around the globe. Some of that is fun, but if I spend too long on those things, my two main goals — growing my company and writing career — can fall to the wayside.
When I write out and stick to my daily schedule, I can see where my priorities lie. I can look at how I am spending my time and make sure that the allocation of my most precious asset (my limited time here on Earth) aligns with my goals and values. It’s all there in black and white and it stares at me all day from the desk next to my laptop. If my priorities aren’t aligned with my schedule, I see it.
The other great reason to keep a daily schedule is that you can look back at how you have spent your days. This can be a great insight into how you achieved or failed at past aims. It can also be a trail of breadcrumbs if you need to figure out what went wrong on a current project. It’s also fun to just look back and see what you’ve been up to. I have notebooks full of schedules past that I thumb through and use to reminisce from time to time.
When it comes to your daily schedule, if you can see it, you can optimize it. Even if that optimization is for maximum enjoyment. Trust me when I say that I have entire days where my daily schedule consists of writing before 9 am and then spending the day on the beach with friends. Because I value that time as much as I value my time of productive work.
The beauty of a workday that I structure myself is something I value highly. I love being able to shape my days. However, I have found that if I don’t write down my daily schedule, I risk not spending my time in alignment with my values and goals.
If I schedule long time blocks of focused work and separate those blocks by bouts of physical activity, I find that I am more successful throughout my day. And when I add in an hour of “catch-all” task completion at the end of my workday, I finish the day with a sense of accomplishment and I’m ready to start the next day with a fresh perspective.
If you’re a content creator and you haven’t tried scheduling your days, I highly recommend giving it a try. And, if you want to give my three scheduling rules a try, I highly recommend them as well. You never know when optimizing your schedule may lead to increased productivity. Even if your key performance indicator is just plain fun.