How to make a daily schedule that won’t ruin your day in 5 steps

When it comes to making a daily schedule, most people fall into one of two camps:

  • The Overscheduler: Their calendars look like a kindergartener’s finger painting. Meetings overlap meetings while reminders for events, breaks, tasks, and more meetings are going off like it’s New Year’s Eve. Their days are determined from the moment they wake up to their evening routine.
  • The Minimalist: Also known as “The Dreamer”. They’ve got one or two recurring events, but a whole lot of white space so they’re “free” (at least on paper) for long stretches of work.

The problem is that both of these approaches are terrible for their own reasons.

Being overscheduled leaves no time for the inevitable “urgent” tasks that pop up. One task takes longer than you assumed (thanks to the planning fallacy) and your whole day is thrown into chaos.

And the minimalist? They’ve simply offloaded their schedule to some other format—most likely a to-do list, scheduling app, or series of angry emails asking “Where is this?”

The truth is that a good daily schedule is a blueprint for a successful life. Knowing what you’re meant to be doing (and when) creates a sense of purpose, meaning, and focus. It helps you avoid procrastination, stay motivated, and properly manage your time.

Unfortunately, few of us have total control over our days. Instead, you need something flexible. You need a daily schedule template. 

In this guide, we’re going to cover how the most successful founders, creatives, and deep thinkers use a templated approach to their day to stay focused, organized, and productive (and how you can do the same with your day!) 

How to make an effective daily schedule in 5 steps

  1. Start your day with your most important work
  2. Map out your perfect daily schedule according to your personal “productivity curve”
  3. Use “time blocking” to switch from being reactive to in control of your time
  4. Set your availability to the minimum you can (10–15 minutes)
  5. Follow your flow (of both tasks and energy)
  6. BONUS: Do a regular calendar audit to clear out dead time

Ready to truly take back control of your time? RescueTime is the world’s most powerful time tracking and productivity tool. Find out how it can help and sign up for free today!

1. Start your day with your most important work

The most successful people consistently get their most important work done first. 

This could mean “swallowing a frog” (i.e. getting your most difficult task out of the way) or blocking out time for meaningful work before anything else. What they don’t do, is start the day with distractions, emotional triggers, and stress (i.e. email, social media, and Slack).

As Farnam Street founder Shane Parrish explains

“If I got up in the morning and the first thing I did was check email, I’d be allowing others to dictate my priorities for the day.”

There are a ton of great examples of this in practice, but one of my favorites comes from founder and academic Kevin Taylor, who sets recurring daily, time blocks for writing in the morning:

As Taylor explains:

“If you’re like most, you schedule what others demand of you first and only later look for empty slots in the calendar where you might ‘fit in’ what is important to you. (Good luck finding focus time in that type of ‘reactively-designed’ calendar.)

“Instead, flip the paradigm by scheduling what is important to you first.”

Setting a recurring commitment to yourself first thing in the morning starts your day with the right intention and ensures that no matter what else happens, you’ve done something meaningful. 

But maybe even more importantly, this is usually the most effective time of your day. For most people, their energy is naturally higher in the morning and there are fewer distractions, which means you can really dig into important work. 

According to Alex Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less:

“Two hours where you can really get into the problem yields solutions that are going to be better than if you spent 10 hours broken up by meetings and bouncing around on Slack channels.”

Making progress like this has a domino effect of motivation and productivity that carries you through the rest of the day. 

If you want a tool to help you commit to this time, try the RescueTime Calendar integration. Simply add #focustime to the title of your morning block on your daily schedule template and all distracting websites (like social media, news, and entertainment) will be blocked for the duration of it.  

Start FocusTime from your calendar

Lastly, you don’t always have to know exactly what you’ll do during this time. It’s enough to just commit your best hours to meaningful work.  

2. Map out your perfect daily schedule according to your personal “productivity curve”

The reason most successful people dedicate their first hours of the day to meaningful work is because that’s when their energy levels are highest. However, with a little bit of work, you can use that same approach to match the rest of your daily schedule template to your energy levels. 

We all go through ebbs and flows of energy throughout the day thanks to something called our Circadian Rhythm. This is an internal clock that sends our mind and body through moments of alertness and sleepiness. 

The key to a successful daily schedule template is to match your energy levels to the type of work you’re doing

When our energy is low, we’re less creative, have a harder time making decisions, and get more easily stressed and overwhelmed. On the other hand, studies show we’re up to 500% more productive when our energy is high and we can get in a state of flow.

So how do you discover when your energy levels are naturally higher and lower throughout the day? 

1. Experiment with your Circadian Rhythm

The majority of people follow a similar Circadian Rhythm throughout the day. 

After waking up and breaking out of our sleep inertia our energy levels start to naturally rise. By around 10 am we’ve hit our peak concentration levels that ride out until a natural post-lunch energy dip between 1-3 pm.

In the afternoon, our energy levels rise again until falling off again sometime between 9–11 pm when most of us go to bed.

So for example, you might create a daily schedule template that follows this pattern: 

  • High-energy work until around noon
  • Calls, meetings, and emails from 1–3
  • Free time for urgent tasks or more meetings until the end of the day

This is a pretty good start, but what if it doesn’t work for you or you want to be more accurate?

2. Use your personal productivity data to map out your “Productivity Curve”

Instead of relying on self-reporting or mood tracking, it’s much easier (and more accurate) to use a time tracking tool like RescueTime to automatically gather data for you.

After gathering a bit of data, your RescueTime dashboard will show you what apps, tools, websites, and projects you spend time on, when you’re being productive (or distracted), as well as trends in your activities, and more. 

For our use case, the productivity trends over a week report will show when you’re most likely to be productive vs. distracted on any given day. This is under Reports > Productivity > Time of Day.

RescueTime lets you easily see trends in your productivity and how you spend your time each day.

Looking at this report, we get a clear daily trend of productivity and distraction so we can create a daily schedule template that matches:

  • Focused, heads-down time during peak hours
  • Meetings, calls, and email when energy levels are low
  • Breaks when you’re most likely to be hitting a slump

In essence, you’re switching from scheduling your day around time to scheduling it around your energy. 

(Check out our full guide on how to find your most productive hours here!)

3. Use “time blocking” to switch from being reactive to in control of your time

Your productivity curve is a map of how you can fill out a full day in your daily schedule template. 

This isn’t the same as the daily schedule of The Overscheduler who fills their days with other people’s priorities. Instead, this is a template of when you’re most suited to do certain types of work.

One example of this kind of daily schedule template in practice is what designer Jessica Hische calls her “Ultraschedule”:

Jessica Hische Ultraschedule

This daily schedule template is like a skeleton on which you build your week. And if you match it to your daily productivity curve, you know you’re being as productive as possible with your time.

For Hische, this meant keeping Monday as “Admin Day” for regular calls and meetings, while setting aside time on Wednesdays and Fridays for “Analog Work”:

“There are scheduled times during which I can be fully immersed in email and for the rest of the day I’m forcing myself to ignore it. Most of all, there are scheduled blocks of time where my wifi will be off.”

One of the best parts about this approach is that it helps you visualize your ideal workday—an important skill that few of us practice, according to author Ryan Holiday:

“So many people have big goals for the future. I think it’s better to know what your perfect day looks like. Then you can ask yourself with each opportunity and choice: Is this getting me closer or further away?”

The impact isn’t just that you know what you should be doing, but that it helps you say no to the things that take away from your ideal day. As designer Brad Frost explains

“Accepting a meeting invite requires me to take time away from something else, and now that is actually visualized.”

You can use a technique called Time Blocking to create your own daily schedule template like this. Check out our step-by-step guide here.  

4. Set your availability to the minimum you can (10-15 minutes)

With your meaningful morning and daily schedule template set and matched to your productivity curve, the next question is: How do you fit in the inevitable tasks, appointments, meetings, and responsibilities that creep up and throw your daily schedule out of whack?

An ideal daily schedule protects your time. For Facebook VP of Product, Fidji Simo, this means changing the default time for meetings to the minimum possible:

“Many people don’t check in to figure out how much time should be realistically allotted to something. They just default to 30 minutes for a small conversation and 60 minutes for a larger conversation. This contributes to calendars looking like Swiss cheese.”

Instead, Simo sets the minimum time for meetings at 10-15 minutes (Elon Musk famously breaks his entire day into 5-minute chunks). This way, it’s up to the person booking the meeting to request more time if they feel they need it.

This makes both you and the meeting’s organizer responsible for deciding how much time you really need. (Which is a great place to start when fixing our obsession with meetings).

Simo also recommends setting buffers around your meeting times, as well as setting aside intentional open slots into your day for last-minute surprises. This way, you’re not being naive about the distractions you’re bound to face.

In Google Calendar (as well as many other Calendar apps) you can even change the default duration of meetings and add in automated buffers. 

An effective day isn’t ruled by the tyranny of the 60-minute meeting. As Simo explains: 

“I’m most focused when I set my own agenda versus when I let others set my agenda.”

5. Follow your flow (of both tasks and energy)

Flow

When done correctly, your daily schedule should give you momentum, not take it away.

However, we often forget to think about our state of mind when scheduling meetings, events, or tasks. Yet, think about the cognitive leap it takes to go from a deep-thinking exercise like coding a new feature to a daily catch-up calls.

According to the American Psychology Association, recovering from shifting tasks like this can take up almost 40% of our productive time.

While we already talked about the importance of protecting your energy flow (and matching the right tasks to your energy levels), you also need to be aware of your task flow

Our brains take time to get into the flow of a task. But once they’re warmed up, it’s easier to keep going and stay motivated.

For author Paul Jarvis, this means “chunking” his day up by activities. An afternoon might be dedicated just to writing, while a morning might be customer support.

“The longer you can focus on a single type of task, the faster you can get it done. So grouping all the writing I have to do into a morning means I can write 5–6 articles in one fell swoop.”

This is also what Y Combinator Paul Graham calls “Maker Time”—the long stretches of time needed to work on cognitively demanding tasks like writing or coding (vs. Manager Time, which is chopped up into short segments).

As you fill in your daily schedule template with your tasks and to-dos, try to group together similar tasks. And when it comes time to actually do the work make sure you’re focused and free from distractions. 

There are lots of tools that can help support your task flow. Four Hour Work Week author Tim Ferriss has his phone in airplane mode 80% of the time. While RescueTime’s FocusTime feature can block distracting sites and notifications from derailing you.

Personally, I like to use FocusTime for Pomodoro sessions where I work intensely for 25–30 minutes and then take a short break. 

BONUS: Do a regular calendar audit to clear out dead time

Finally, this daily schedule template means nothing if your calendar is already full of recurring meetings and tasks. 

Most people use their calendar as a forward-facing tool to plan what’s coming. But it’s also a great tool for reflection. A calendar audit is a simple exercise where you go through and audit past obligations. 

Every three months, Facebook VP of Product Fidji Simo does a calendar audit to find out:

  • The time she spent on each project
  • How her time was divided meeting with individual leaders versus in large meetings
  • The percent of time she spent recruiting versus managing and building

With this data in hand, she can see if her time spent matches up with her intentions. And if not, she adjusts.

“All of the other things on my calendar were less important but were taking more time for legacy reasons.

“There were recurring meetings that didn’t require my attendance anymore, meetings to make decisions on less important topics, etc…”

The RescueTime Calendar integration gives you quick insights into how much time you spend working each day, total meeting time, your average productivity, and whether you hit your daily goals or not. 

Look at your weekly or monthly schedule right now. How many of those recurring meetings could be shortened or scrapped? 

Do your time commitments match up to your goals?

If not, it’s time to take those hours back.

Lastly, keep all your time commitments in one place

It might seem like a good idea to separate your personal and professional calendars, but this is just asking for trouble when commitments overlap. Instead, use color-coding to differentiate between activities or create a different “template” calendar to keep things clean. 

You can think of your calendar as a big empty jar. Each task you add—whether personal or professional—fills up space. And while you might assign different levels of importance to tasks, your calendar doesn’t. 

An hour is an hour no matter what you spend it on.

Ready to truly take back control of your time? RescueTime is the world’s most powerful time tracking and productivity tool. Find out how it can help and sign up for free today!

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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