This one, again, comes out of conversations I’ve been having with my clients. The schedule exercise is something I’ve re-visited from time to time whenever there is a major change in lifestyle, such as a change in job or living situation. With the current COVID-19 lockdowns all around the world, this exercise might be a useful thing for everyone to do.
Basically, you just write down your idealized vision of a perfect day or week (or use a calendar app). The point of the exercise is to say, “what if?” If you could plan the perfectly efficient and productive day or week for yourself, what would it look like? Where would you fit in all the things you need to get done, while still making room for all things you like to do or must do for health & happiness?
There are 3 major concepts I want to talk about with this exercise:
- Time Blocks
- Reasonable Expectations
- Focused, Sequential Single-Tasking
You’re not trying to plan our every detail to the minute, or even get too far into the weeds with distinctions such as, “check email 20 minutes, text messages 5 minutes, pay bills 20 minutes, business calls 15 minutes”. You could get away with simply a 1-hour block called “office work”. The point is to create a general sense of what time of day you will be most focused or most efficient at certain essential tasks, and then to block off a time period for that set of activities. The minutia will differ from day to day.
Some people are more focused on communications with others in the morning, but need alone time in the afternoons. Maybe you need 100% focus for a certain type of work that you will only get when the kids are taking their nap. Ok, this sounds like I’m talking about myself here, but maybe you’re a true night owl (not me) and you need to do a workout in the evening before dinner and then write your novel for 2 hours after dinner. You know that about yourself, so plan the time blocks accordingly.
One of the benefits of this exercise is that you quickly realize if the 20 things you hope to get done every day before breakfast are actually realistic or not. This helps to reign-in your expectations for a day’s work, and ultimately to make you more efficient and productive when you do get down to doing that work, because you’re not worrying over all the other things you could be doing with that time.
You’ve done the exercise. You’ve visualized what you’re going to do and when. You’ve thought deeply about how much time you need for each essential daily activity and you’ve made a space for it. Now you don’t have to worry about having enough time for things because you’ve already done your due diligence in thinking through how much time those things need, finding a place for them, and disposing of certain concerns if there simply is no time in your schedule for them to occur because higher-priority things have pushed them out of the way. You’ve done your reality check.
FOCUSED, SEQUENTIAL, SINGLE-TASKING
We’ve talked about how to do the exercise (writing a schedule in time blocks and doing the mental work of prioritization), so now let’s talk about the benefits of it. With a vision of your ‘perfect’ schedule captured on paper (or in app), you are now able to get down to work on one thing at a time in a highly-focused and productive manner.
You’ve put boundaries between things. You’ve allotted tasks the time they require. You’ve eliminated non-essential activities. You’ve planned time for all your personal, professional, and family needs. Now you are able to focus on one thing for it’s given time period, to do it well, and to move on to the next thing; one thing at a time. This benefits your productivity because you are not distracted by worries over all the other things (they will each come in their given time), and your energy is not scattered trying to balance several sets of tasks at once.
Here is an example of a scheduling exercise I did recently. It’s sloppy, quick, and non-binding. You can see that it isn’t perfect, and I’m probably not following it to the T right now (but pretty close). if I wasn’t writing this blog post, I wouldn’t be sharing it with anyone.
I start with things I know with certainty, like what time I like to wake up and how long my morning routines will take. Then I mov into the previously-chaotic late morning and mid-day, planning around the new restrictions in our situation and accounting for the things I need to do.
Finally, I block out the end-of-day essentials that allow us to get the kids and ourselves to bed on time so that the next morning will go smoothly.
With this plan written down, I may never have to look at it again. Just by doing the exercise, I have internalized the priorities and planning considerations that went through my mind when I was making it. Still, I can look back at it a couple times in the first week or so and see how things are lining-up. If I have a particularly crazy day, I can look at this and say, “Where did I go wrong?” (Or, “Were my expectations too ambitious?”). After a day that went perfectly, I can also reflect on how it aligned with the plan and the thought that went into that plan.
Do this now. Do this often. Every time you do it you will get better at it. It works.
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