When it comes to our 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 are terrible. For their own reasons.
Being overscheduled leaves us no time for ourselves. The more “in control” we are of our calendar, the less control we feel like we have over our lives. Not to mention we’re notoriously bad at knowing how long tasks take us to do. When your schedule is this jammed, even going 15 minutes over on your morning task will throw your whole day out of whack.
And the minimalist? Well, they’re just living in la la land, aren’t they? They’ve offloaded their schedule to some other format—most likely a to-do list, scheduling app, or series of angry emails asking “Where is this?”
By looking at how successful founders, creatives, and deep thinkers craft their own daily schedules, we can learn the best ways to design our own perfect day.
How to make an effective daily schedule
Create “time bookends” for your day’s most important work
The most successful people consistently get their most important work done first.
Whether by “swallowing a frog” (i.e. getting your most difficult task out of the way so the rest of the day is a breeze) or blocking time for personal or 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).
Build recurring time into your daily schedule for your most important work before everything else. Not only are our energy levels naturally higher in the morning, but completing a meaningful task first thing has a domino effect that pushes you through the day.
There’s tons of great examples of this, but one of my favorites comes from founder and academic Kevin Taylor, who sets recurring daily, blocks for his mornings:
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 sets your day off with the right intention and ensures that no matter what else happens, you’ve done something meaningful in your day.
Another great way to do this is to schedule RescueTime FocusTime sessions to automatically start in the morning. This way, you won’t be distracted by social media or other attention-seekers.
Start the day with a “full” plate
Taking the weekly template idea even further, you can create a template for your entire day, not just the morning.
Now, this isn’t the same as the daily schedule of The Overscheduler, whose day is filled with other people’s priorities. But rather a way to ensure you protect time to do all the things you want to do each day.
One example is what designer Jessica Hische calls her “Ultraschedule”:
This template is like a skeleton on which you build your week. 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?”
If how you picture yourself spending every day isn’t lining up with how you’re actually spending your time, then it might be time to step back and re-evaluate your priorities.
Set your availability to the minimum you can (10-15 minutes)
With your meaningful morning and daily skeleton schedule set, the next question is: How do you fit in the inevitable tasks, appointments, meetings, and responsibilities that creep up and throw your day out of whack?
An ideal schedule protects your time. So, putting processes in place that keep your time sacred is a good place to start.
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), leaving the person booking 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 they 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.
“I’m most focused when I set my own agenda versus when I let others set my agenda,” she says.
Be mindful of your flow (in both energy and tasks)
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. Think about the cognitive leap it takes to go from a deep thinking exercise like coding a new feature or writing a business strategy to daily catch-up calls.
In fact, according to the American Psychology Association, recovering from shifting tasks like this can take up almost 40% of our productive time.
To use your daily schedule to protect your flow, you can think of it in two ways:
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. So, an afternoon might be dedicated just to writing, while a morning might be customer support.
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).
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.
There’s a reason you’re slamming through to-do list items in the late morning and can barely string together an email response by 3pm. Our energy has a natural ebb and flow throughout the day, which we can use to our advantage. If we schedule it right.
Uber engineer Pedram Keyani calls this defragmentation:
“Be thoughtful of how you string together meetings and calls so that you have big blocks of time and aren’t just scrambling around from meeting to meeting.”
And again, protect this time from the people who want to take it away from you.
Do a regular calendar audit to clear out dead time
Most people use their calendar as a forward-facing tool to plan what’s coming. But it’s also a great tool for reflection.
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,” she says.
Look at your own 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, bring all your commitments together on the same calendar so you know how much time you’re actually working with. You can use color coding to differentiate between activities if you’d like.
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.
Your daily schedule keeps you honest. Set it up properly and you’ll have a clear view of what needs to be done and any scheduling conflicts that are going to cause you headaches.