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We’ve all heard that everyone has the same amount of time in a day. But this isn’t true, we all have differing amounts of free time.
The real question is - how do we make the most of it?
Today, I’m going to share with you the most useful concepts and strategies have helped me take control of my own time.
If you’ve ever struggled to build productive habits, I know they’ll do the same for you.
Short Term Pain = Long Term Gain
All these ideas I’m going to be sharing with you require upfront planning, which will make things as easy as possible later down the road.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you - it takes a lot of work to get this up and running. But when you have everything set in place - and enough practice - it’ll feel automatic.
These are all parts of a system - they all have an interdependent effect on each other.
This means each tactic and tool becomes stronger when you combine them all together, like Voltron (or Captain Planet, if you prefer).
We’re also going to split this information into two categories:
First, let’s talk about how to free up more time in your day.
Measure What Matters
The first thing you’ll need to do is track your time. Every minute of it.
This is the most tedious step but it’s a necessary one, because how else are you going to (objectively) know where your time is going?
Weightlifters keep notes on their “PRs” (personal records = maximum amount of weight lifted) and the carpenter always has his ruler or measuring tape on hand.
It’s like losing weight, the scale will never lie to you (no matter how much you want it to). I know if I had an extra bowl of salted caramel ice cream (yum), that number is going to be higher than the last time I checked.
Now, I recommend you don’t just start tracking every second of your day willy-nilly (unless you enjoy the feeling of your eyes rolling back inside your head).
What you want to do is create different “buckets,” different categories of what you do with your free time. For example, here’s a screenshot of all the different categories I classify my tasks into:
Once you have these categories setup, a useful feature of the app that I use is that it shows your “pie.” Even better, you’ll see a general category on top of the specific ones.
You can see I don’t get work done in every category every single day - the key theme here is flexibility. What I like to do is check the totals at the end of the week (usually on a Sunday). This lets me know if I’m doing well or if I need to shake things up.
Now, if you’ve never done any type of time measurement before, I recommend creating the following category: Time Wasted.
How do you define wasted time? That’s totally up to you my friend. For example, I reserve the right to watch a few (too many) anime episodes before I go to sleep and I will never, eeeeeeever track a single second of this.
Once you know exactly how much time you’re wasting, slowly shift your time out of this category to more productive activities.
The key here is to baby-step your efforts to create lasting change.
The next thing you’ll need is a calendar. Just as we need to make appointments for dentists and doctors, you need to do the same for your work.
Personally, I structure my work into 1/2 hour “blocks.” We’ll talk more about this in the last section. Having your work sessions scheduled ahead of time accomplishes two things:
Not doing this creates the danger of rationalizing to yourself that it’s an appropriate time to binge-watch GoT (but not the last season).
The whole point of a calendar - and everything else in this post - is about being in control of your time instead of letting it control you.
But don’t be rigid (flexibility, remember?). Don’t beat yourself up if you didn’t use every single minute of your session in the best way. It's more like a compass, it’s there to give you a general direction to your workflow.
I frequently “waste” time here-and-there in these work sessions guilt-free and at other times I’m focused like a hawk swooping down on its prey. It’s all about making work enjoyable: something you want to do, not something you have to.
The last tool you’ll need is a to-do list. It’s similar to tracking your time (you’ll have different categories of tasks) and a calendar (not needing to think about when to do something).
Whether your list is digital or analog, the #1 habit you need to master is writing down everything.
What’s the reason for this? Well, as David Allen says (see book recommendations at the end) it “closes the loop.” If you’re fairly neurotic like me, you’ve had moments where your mind has endlessly, almost obsessively, thought about the same thing over and over again (like salted caramel ice cream).
Due to what’s known as the Zeigarnik Effect just writing a task down helps you dismiss it from your mind, even if you’re not planning to do it!
Now, when you have everything written down you’ll create "buckets" just like in the previous sections. For instance, two of the many categories I have are “Laptop” and “iPhone.” Laptop is any work that is best done with my computer and iPhone might be referring to using apps on a device.
The separation of categories is also what creates anxiety-free focus.
And if you don’t cross off every item on your list, DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT. Simply move them to the next day or sometime in the near (or distant) future where you’ll have more time.
To wrap up this section, here’s what this all looks like in action:
The previous sections were all about how to save time - by tracking your minutes and not wasting them.
Now we’re going to get more value out of the time you have. We’re going to enhance the quality of your output. Think of this as getting more mileage out of your “vehicle” by filling it with top-grade fuel.
This section is about increasing your concentration.
How exactly do we do this? By grouping your tasks according to: Intense and Relaxed focus.
The reason you want to group tasks in this way is that your brain has 2 different ways of working (or thinking). I like to imagine it as having a cup of coffee compared to drinking a glass of wine. Or like a shotgun versus a sniper rifle (I swear I’m not violent).
You can also think of it as technical or creative work: calculating a math assignment as opposed to painting a corgi.
So I find I do my best writing and business planning in the morning, while I let my mind “drift” and casually brainstorm solutions in the evening. Like a radio station, certain “frequencies” are only available to you at certain times of the day.
Of course, you might work differently. When I schedule a technical session at night, I have a hard time going to sleep. But who knows? Maybe it'll put you out like a light.
When you have all your ducks lined up, it’s easy to create momentum. I almost never encounter resistance - it’s easy to get my work done, gliding from assignment to assignment with ease.
Or, like I sometimes do, you can try mixing your “wine” and “coffee” together (we’re still talking about work, right?).
In this last section, I’m going to leave you with 2 additional strategies that will put your work process on steroids. The following 2 strategies are taken from Cal Newport’s “Deep Work.”
Let The Rhythm Hit 'Em
This first approach is called the “Rhythmic Philosophy.” It’s about showing up at the same time. Every. Single. Day.
This is by far my preferred strategy. Showing up at the same time every day creates solid discipline. You create a consistent, dependable routine.
Because it’s a predictable work style, it becomes easy to sit down and concentrate. This goes hand-in-hand with the prior section about focus. Knowing what to expect minimizes resistance.
But the biggest reason for me is that I get a lot of important work done before starting my teaching schedule. It’s satisfying to know you hit all your “quotas” for the day.
My rhythmic schedule is as follows:
The beauty of this approach is that I don’t always have to go in order. sometimes I’ll start with writing, at other times languages or notes.
You also see that my work blocks are based purely on time (half hour). This is because anyone can work for a half hour at a time. It’s not always possible to “finish a blog post” or “memorize 20 vocabulary words.”
By concentrating on time spent, you tap into the process (good) and get your mind off of results (bad).
Now, a word of caution about this next strategy. This one’s really tricky to pull off if you’re a newcomer to working productively. This is what’s known as the Journalistic Philosophy.
What’s this like? It's like a free-for-all: you work whenever you have the opportunity. It’s a great way to get more productive minutes out of your day, but it takes a TON of discipline to pull this off - the LAST thing you’ll want to do is work when you’ve had a nice, succulent (medium rare) ribeye and a glass (or two, maybe three) of Cabernet.
The first several times you try this, you’ll most likely spend the first 5-10 minutes
questioning your decisions in life. Or wanting to do the dishes (serious, anything but actual work).
But if you’re adamant about it, you’ll eventually be able to switch into focus mode at a moment’s notice. The Russian composer Shostakovich was notorious for disappearing during parties or get-togethers for long stretches of time in order to get work done.
Now, if you’re aiming to combine this with the rhythmic approach I have some important advice for you: think of all of these additional sessions as “extra credit."
When I first started to add these additional blocks of work on top of my rhythmic
sessions, it began to feel like work. Meaning they started to feel like something I had to do instead of something I wanted to do (productivity is enjoyment mmkay?).
I’m self-competitive by nature, so I started to track all these sessions, calculating the time and holding myself accountable to hitting these goals on a daily and weekly basis - it felt like a contract I wanted to get out of.
In short, it burned me out. And if you’ve ever experience burnout, you know how
devastating it can be - it can take a few days to a few weeks to get back into your
groove. So if you’re not using this strategy exclusively, do NOT track any of these sessions.
Doing so will keep things optional, and therefore more fun.
Ironically, this also allows you to get more work done. I frequently add as many
journalistic sessions as I want to on the weekend - only if it feels enjoyable.
The Cherry On Top
To wrap things up on this proverbial productivity sandwich, here’s one last piece of advice: Stay off your damn phone.
Yes, you’ve heard this an infinite amount of times. No, you’re not the special one for whom the rules don’t apply.
It will destroy your workflow.
So there you have it, all the tools, apps and strategies I use to have a consistent,
productive, pleasurable work day. Every day.
Make sure to check out the following resources for more information. And before you finally get out of here (thanks for reading), make sure to think of everything you learned today as building effective habits - meaning it will take about 30-60 days of consistent effort before it becomes automatic.
Did you enjoy reading this today?