I’ve noticed five important things about how I work:
1) When my day is completely open, I never seem to get as much done as I would expect. I love the idea of having no obligations, but all that free time invites procrastination.
2) Meetings destroy a day, especially when they’re spread throughout the day, with only 30 minutes or an hour between each.
3) When I’m up against a deadline, and know that there’s a window of 2-3 hours in my day to get something done, that’s when I work best.
4) I need chunks of creative free time in my week, for reading and scheming and letting my ideas wander. If I don’t allow for this, it will creep in sometime anyway, and probably at exactly the wrong time, when I should be working on something else.
5) Email, support and team communications are far easier to manage if I get to “inbox zero” every day, and if I only address them in batches, either once or twice a day.
Over the years, I’ve tried several things to address these issues, but I’ve never found the ideal solution. I’ve never found the optimal structure for my week that balances creativity with productivity and obligations.
I’ve tried batching email and support before and have been mostly successful, although I always seemed to get sucked back into email later when I needed to go search for something or send a note to a teammate.
I’ve tried blocking off my mornings for “important work,” so meetings couldn’t be scheduled at just anytime throughout the day.
But still, for the most part, I let my week happen to me, instead of organizing it around how I know I work best.
Recently I was reading one of my favorite blogs, the personal blog of my friend James Clear. It’s full of tips about how to work better and feel better, all backed by scientific research and great stories.
In one particularly compelling article, James talks about a study in the British Journal of Health Psychology that found a simple action that can double or triple your chances of getting important things done, like work or exercise.
Basically, the researchers experimented with three groups of would-be exercisers.
The first group was just instructed to keep track of how much they exercised.
The second group was asked to track their exercise, but they were also given a motivational pamphlet that explained the health benefits of exercise.
The third group was asked to track their exercise, and given the motivational pamphlet. They were also asked to formulate a plan for when and where they would exercise over the following week. They were each specifically instructed to complete the following statement: During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [Day] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].
Surprisingly, the second group (the motivation group) and the first group (the control group) performed at similar levels. 35% of the motivation group and 38% of the control group exercised at least once per week.
The biggest surprise was in the third group, the intention group. A whopping 91% of people in this group exercised at least once per week.
As James explained it in his article:
Simply by writing down a plan that said exactly when and where they intended to exercise, the participants in Group 3 were much more likely to actually follow through.
Perhaps even more surprising was the fact that having a specific plan worked really well, but motivation didn’t work at all. Group 1 (the control group) and Group 2 (the motivation group) performed essentially the same levels of exercise.
Or, as the researchers put it, “Motivation … had no significant effects on exercise behavior.”
Compare these results to how most people talk about making change and achieving goals. Words like motivation, willpower, and desire get tossed around a lot. But the truth is, we all have these things to some degree. If you want to make a change at all, then you have some level of “desire.”
The researchers discovered that what pulls that desire out of you and turns it into real–world action isn’t your level of motivation, but rather your plan for implementation.
Introducing The Complete Calendar
I’m paraphrasing and reprinting much of James’ article here, because this idea is so simple, but so powerful. It made me completely rethink how I structure my week and my calendar.
Instead of hoping for as many free calendar days as I could sneak into a week, I’ve gone the opposite direction. I now have my weekly calendar blocked off almost entirely.
I call it The Complete Calendar, and here’s how it works:
The idea builds on what James explained in his article about how effective a plan for implementation is. Instead of trying to find the motivation to get things done, I decided to specify where and when I would get important things done.
However, from previous productivity experiments and models I’ve tried, I know there’s a danger in micro-managing tasks too much. I don’t like the feeling of having everything specifically prescribed throughout my day, down to the minute, so I decided to keep The Complete Calendar at a higher level.
First, start by identifying the most important things you need to get done every week. Only focus on recurring tasks, not on one-time tasks. I chose to include only things that take an hour or more at a time. Smaller tasks that take less than an hour to complete, will be grouped up, and I’ll explain that in a moment.
My list of important recurring tasks came down to this:
- Writing (I’m writing this now, during one of the writing periods on my Complete Calendar)
- Support & Email (including Twitter / social media)
- Recurring team meetings
- Free time (the creative planning / scheming time I mentioned above)
- Weekly errands + coffee morning with my wife (when our housekeeper comes on Tuesday mornings, we use those three hours to run errands, get coffee together, and spend time talking about her career goals & progress as an artist)
- Weekly check-in and check-out (a process our team uses to plan our weeks and keep the rest of our team up to date on what we’re working on)
Two other things take up the rest of my time:
- Meetings & interviews
- Task work
For your list, make sure you spend time considering what is really important to accomplish every week. What are the core activities you need to get done? Where is the real value created? If you’re a software developer, it’s writing code. If you’re a video creator, it’s shooting videos. If you’re a marketer, it’s annoying people :P
Next, take all of these items and start plotting them on a calendar. It took me a while to find the best places to slot things in throughout the week. You might want to start in a notepad or spreadsheet or something that’s easy to change before committing to adding things to a proper calendar.
I like routine, so I made my days follow a similar pattern. Mornings are reserved for writing & planning. Mid-day is for support & email, lunch, workouts, and meetings. Afternoons are reserved for task list work.
Here’s what my calendar looks like, as I’m writing this:
Notice that red line on Wednesday, right at the end of my writing block? I’m going to set this aside now and move on to support + email. I got 1,250 words in today, which is great for me. I may pick this back up at 1:30pm after that meeting, or it may wait until my next writing block on Friday afternoon…
… OK, I’m back. It’s Friday morning now, during my next writing block. The beauty of this calendar system is that I know I’ll have specific reserved time for writing throughout the week. I didn’t have a chance to finish this article earlier, but I knew Friday morning would be coming soon.
So, you probably have questions about how other things work with this calendar. Here are questions and answers to the top questions I could think of. If you have other questions, ask below in the comments.
What if something doesn’t get done during the allotted time?
This happens all the time, actually. This article, for example, took up two of my writing slots. I often don’t get through all of my support + email work in one hour, which means either I continue if there is open time later, or I wait until the next day.
For extra-important things like workouts, I use another tip from James Clear in the article I linked to above:
Sometimes you won’t be able to implement a new behavior — no matter how perfect your plan. In situations like these, it’s great to use the “if–then” version of this strategy.
You’re still stating your intention to perform a particular behavior, so the basic idea is the same. This time, however, you simply plan for unexpected situations by using the phrase, “If ____, then ____.”
If I don’t get my workout in during the afternoon, I’ll do it first thing the next morning.
What about the open times?
You’ll notice there are a bunch of open times on my calendar between Noon and 3. This is flex time. If I need to schedule a meeting, it will go in one of the open slots. If time remains open during my day, I use it to either finish up the morning’s work, or get a jump start on my afternoon task work.
Workouts only twice per week?
These are my sacred workouts, the “come hell or high water” workouts during the week. Two is the bare minimum I can get by with and still feel like a decent human being. I aim for more, and like to fit outdoor activities in, like soccer or surfing or hiking on other days, sometimes on the weekend.
When I’m in Mexico (where we live in the winters), this calendar changes dramatically, and I tend to surf around 4-5 times a week.
Integration with task list?
For the named tasks like writing and workouts, and my check-in / check-out periods, I add recurring tasks to my task list (we use Asana).
Why writing so much?
I realized recently that the majority of interesting things that have happened to me over the past five years all stemmed from starting a blog. Writing is an incredibly powerful tool, for personal transformation and for creating opportunities.
Plus, I really enjoy writing and see myself doing it for the rest of my life. I want it to become a steady habit again.
What about meetings that can’t fit in the open times?
I have the luxury of controlling my own schedule and being able to say “no” to most everything I don’t want to do, including meetings. You might not have that much flexibility right now.
But, you’ll be surprised. If you suggest times that work for your schedule, most meetings will fit in somewhere in the future (this has the added benefit of pushing meetings off for quite some time, until there’s a free block, and many of these will end up being cancelled because the issue really wasn’t that important). You’ll also find ways to get work done without having to meet, which should always be your goal anyway.
You’ll notice in my calendar above that I had one meeting this week at 6pm, which is not during my pre-defined meeting times. This was an important podcast I wanted to make time for, and the host couldn’t meet during any of my slots. That doesn’t happen often, but in certain circumstances I’ll make an exception.
If you can’t get by with just a 2-hour block for meetings each day, you could always define two separate blocks, one early and one late. Or, you could take a stand against meetings and change your company’s culture for the better.
What about you?
Keep in mind, I devised this calendar simply to take advantage of the research on getting stuff done, and to go with my natural flow of how I seem to work best. Your Complete Calendar will look different, but the intent should be the same: important work is blocked off, and most of your calendar is accounted for before your week begins.
So far, the results for me have been amazing. My procrastination levels are at an all time low. I’m able to switch between CEO and worker bee modes far easier throughout my week. The work I really want to get done is getting done. I still have time for creative free time and workouts and lunches and fun stuff.
I’d love to hear from you. Give The Complete Calendar a shot and tell me below how it worked for you, and what you modified about it. If you’ve tried a similar approach before, tell me about that experience as well.