There are two types of people in the world:
- Those who rigidly stick to a daily schedule
- Those who hate schedules and want to live freely
Yes, that’s an oversimplification, but you get the point. If you’ve ever tried to set up a schedule to follow, you know how easy it is to overschedule your days. This often leads to frustration and giving up on a daily schedule altogether.
The reality is that a consistent schedule can significantly increase your productivity, AND it’s possible to create a schedule that actually works without locking you into every minute of the day.
In this guide, we’ll walk through why a daily schedule matters and how to implement one in your own life.
Why A Daily Schedule Matters
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant lived an almost mechanically scheduled life in his secluded Prussian town. His day-to-day life was so precisely ordered that villagers claimed they could set their watch to his 3:30 pm walks.
For Kant, his heavily scheduled lifestyle allowed him to produce some of the greatest philosophical works to come out of the Age of Enlightenment, many of which are still taught today in universities all around the world.
Now, you probably don’t want to live a life as methodically and precisely planned out as Kant did. For most people, that’s not possible or even optimal.
However, the takeaway from this should be that even though his approach was a bit extreme, a well-structured/scheduled day ultimately leads to a greater degree of productivity and success.
In his book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey writes about the habits, routines, and rituals of hundreds of artists.
After studying so many amazing artists, Currey came to this conclusion:
In the right hands, [a routine] can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism. A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.
How To Create A Daily Schedule That Works For You
Scheduling is a fairly simple idea, at least in theory. It involves allocating parts of the day to specific tasks or events. When you agree to show up to a dentist appointment or medical check-up three weeks from now, you’re scheduling.
But even though the idea of scheduling is simple, most people don’t have the proper tools, techniques, or mindset to create an effective, well-functioning daily schedule. So what strategies can you use to build a schedule for yourself that truly works for you?
Block Out Your Day In Advance
When it comes to scheduling, most people use their calendar reactively, meaning they jot commitments down as they come up. For example, when a coworker requests a meeting next week, you block out that time in your calendar.
And while it’s true that it’s impossible to live a reactive-free life, there are problems with this approach, the main one being that you often lose control of your schedule. When your day becomes full of different and unrelated tasks and obligations, it’s hard to focus and get real work done. Instead of working on your most important tasks, you find yourself bouncing around from one commitment to another.
What’s the best solution for this? Time blocking. Time blocking is a technique where you divide your day into small, discrete time blocks, usually between 30 minutes to an hour. During each time block, you work on only the assigned task and nothing more.
Blocking is in stark contrast to the open-ended approach people normally have with life, where they work on tasks as they are able to, without any definite plan or set time. An example of time blocked day may look like the following:
Of course, everyone’s daily routine will differ, and sometimes it will be challenging to stick to the planned schedule as unexpected issues such as traffic and work delays may make it impossible. Nir Eyal gives helpful advice in this video about the need to experiment:
That being said, blocking is an effective technique that allows you to devote maximum attention and energy to a particular task.
Schedule Deep Work First
Time blocking goes hand in hand with doing deep work.
In his best selling book Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World, Cal Newport defines deep work as a state of mind where you’re focused entirely on a single task and you block out all distractions.
For example, let’s say you’re working on a presentation for work or school. As you’ve probably experienced many times in the past, it’s easy to drift away to social media or an instant messaging app every 15 or 20 minutes.
While you may end up completing your project, these distractions ultimately take your mind off the task at hand, reducing concentration, lowering productivity, and reducing the quality of your work.
As Newport writes:
To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work.
When it comes to scheduling, it’s generally best to schedule deep work tasks earlier in the day while your mind is still fresh. Not only does this allow you to get started on a task before you get distracted, but it also helps set the tone for the rest of the day, as you get to go through the rest of the day knowing you’ve accomplished something important.
Match Your Schedule To Your Energy
As much as possible, it’s a good idea to schedule your day in such a way that it matches your energy levels. In their book The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz describe the natural energy cycles the human body goes through during the day:
Physiological measures such as heart rate, hormonal levels, muscle tension and brain-wave activity all increase during the first part of the cycle—and so does alertness. After an hour or so, these measures start to decline. Somewhere between 90 and 120 minutes, the body begins to crave a period of rest and recovery.
Signals include a desire to yawn and stretch, hunger pangs, increased tension, difficulty concentrating, an inclination to procrastinate or fantasize, and a higher incidence of mistakes. We are capable of overriding these natural cycles, but only by summoning the fight-or-flight response and flooding our bodies with stress hormones that are designed to help us handle emergencies.
As much as possible, you want to schedule your day so that you’re working on important tasks when your energy levels are rising and taking breaks or working on less demanding things when your energy levels fall.
Researcher and author Daniel Pink notes:
What we see from the research is that we tend to move through the day in three stages – a peak, a trough, a recovery. And most of us move through it in that order. Those of us who are strong night owls go in the reverse order. But during the peak, we’re better at analytic work, work that requires heads-down focus, vigilance, attention, batting away distractions – auditing a financial statement, writing a legal brief. During – and for most of us, that’s the morning.
This practice of matching work to energy runs contrary to the way much of the Western world works. We try to maintain the same high levels of productivity throughout the entire day, often relying on caffeine to fuel us when our energy levels start to dip. And while there’s certainly nothing wrong with a cup of coffee, our bodies aren’t designed to be productivity machines.
To be most effective, don’t try to simply power through the entire day. Instead, work in bursts and take appropriate breaks.
If you’ve never paid attention to how your energy levels go up and down throughout the day, take a week or so and note how you feel at different points during the day. It may help to jot down things in a notebook so you can look back at the end of the week. Alternatively, the Rise sleep app can help you map out your energy levels based on your sleep patterns.
Be Realistic About How Long Tasks Will Take
One of the most common mistakes people make when trying to create a daily schedule is being unrealistic about how long things will take. A task that you think will only take 30 minutes often ends up taking more than an hour. If you want your daily schedule to work, you need to be honest about how long something will actually take.
As you schedule out your day, it’s generally a good idea to overestimate how long something will take you. At a minimum, take the time you think it will take to finish a task and multiply it by 1.5, if not double.
Include Buffer Time
It’s important to include buffer time between tasks. You can’t expect to seamlessly go from one task to the next. You need to build in time for interruptions, grabbing a glass of water, using the restroom, etc.
If you don’t build in buffer time, your schedule will quickly get off kilter at the first interruption. It can be helpful to schedule short buffer periods between tasks and a longer buffer period during the day where you can deal with unexpected things that come up during the day.
Few things will sabotage your schedule like distractions. After all, what good is it if you schedule a 90 minute block for deep work and then spend half of that time on Reddit? To be truly effective, you need to block distractions when you’re working on important tasks.
With Freedom, you can create preset times when you will be blocked from distracting websites and apps. And if you’re worried that you’ll give in to temptation and turn off Freedom, you can even “lock” yourself out, so that you can’t give into temptation even if you want to.
Say No To Impromptu Requests
Saying yes to impromptu requests will quickly throw your schedule off. When a coworker asks you to attend a meeting for them, it might not seem like a big deal. And the reality is that a single request really isn’t a big deal. The problem is that “small” requests throughout the day quickly add up, and soon your day is filled with doing things for other people.
Now, obviously you don’t want to be a jerk. There are times when it’s appropriate to do what someone asks you, especially if that person is your boss! But as much as possible, try to avoid the habit of saying yes to impromptu requests.
As Greg Mckeown notes in his book Essentialism, “We can either make our choices deliberately or allow other people’s agendas to control our lives.”
When someone asks you to do something, use the “No, but,” strategy. If a coworker asks you to do something, tell them you can’t help them immediately, but you’re happy to put a time on your schedule to do it.
Create An Evening Routine That Prepares You For Tomorrow
Finally, an effective daily schedule includes an evening routine that sets you up for success the next day. Your evening routine can include things like:
- Reviewing your tasks and mapping out what you’ll work on tomorrow
- Packing your lunch
- Choosing what you’ll wear
The goal when creating an evening routine is to avoid feeling rushed and scrambled in the morning, as well as prepare yourself for sleep.
In their book Organize Tomorrow Today: 8 Ways to Retrain Your Mind to Optimize Performance at Work and in Life, authors Jason Selk, Tom Bartow, and Rudy Matthew say:
Identifying daily priorities might seem like an obvious or insignificant step to take, but writing your most important tasks down the previous night turns your subconscious mind loose while you sleep and frees you from worrying about being unprepared. You’ll probably find that you wake up with great ideas related to the tasks or conversations that you hadn’t even considered!
Instead of struggling to gain traction when you first start working, you hit the ground running.
Schedule Your Way To Success
If you’ve never created a daily schedule for yourself, it can be tough at first. You might feel constrained and may have trouble sticking with your schedule. This is understandable, and it may take some time for you to figure out what an ideal schedule actually looks like for you.
But stick with it. Experiment until you hit your groove. When you do, you’ll discover that your daily schedule is actually your secret productivity super power.