The schedule is the secret

The end of the year can be a tough time for us productivity warriors. In a perfect world, we’d be looking back at a year of achievements and progress and, you know, being proud of ourselves.

But for many of us, we spend this time worrying about how we could have been better—more organized, more energized. Fitter, happier, more productive. Or something like that.

More than anything, we might worry about the time we had, and how we felt like we didn’t do enough with it. How it felt like we didn’t have enough time to get what we wanted done.

Why does this feeling haunt so many of us? Why does it feel like there’s no time in the day?

This process of looking back and feeling bad isn’t productive. We have a future to look forward to. So instead of self-flaggelation this December, let’s try to look forward with clear eyes. There’s a shortcut that might just help you jump over some of those early hurdles: the reason for our harried lives. That reason is your schedule.

Aim to unlock your potential by fixing your focus. Fix your focus by perfecting your schedule.

Makers and Managers


We’re all different people, but when it comes to how we choose to organize our lives, there’s often a lot we have in common. For example: when tasked with designing a daily routine for themselves, peoples’ approaches often boil down to one of two styles. You’re likely either a Maker, or a Manager.

Generally, the Managers are the types of people spending their time overseeing projects or people. Makers are those that prefer to spend their time buried in creative tasks like writing, designing, or coding.

Ideally, these two worlds would coexist peacefully. But reality loves to throw us a curveball. Most of us end up juggling both making and managing throughout the day. We aim for those big creative moments, dreaming of breakthroughs and dalliances with the flow state, only to find ourselves trapped in meetings, chasing tasks, and drowning in managerial duties.

The clash causes a ton of friction, especially if you’re in a creative role like design, writing, or development, where innovation and creativity are your capital—your lifeblood.

But it’s possible to merge the two worlds. With a few tweaks here and there, you can craft a schedule that lets you dive into the important stuff while managing the unavoidable meetings, calls, emails, and urgent tasks.

You technically do have free time


Look at your calendar—what do you see? If you’ve got ample empty slots for deep work, congratulations! You’re part of a rare, exclusive club.

But let’s be real, about 90% of us don’t feel like we control our daily grind. And that’s not exactly a recipe for success.

So, why don’t we feel in control?

Enter a notable essay by Paul Graham, the brain behind the startup accelerator company Y Combinator. He talks about the clash of perspectives on time:

  • The Manager’s Schedule: It’s the typical appointment book style, slicing the day into hourly blocks. As Graham puts it, “Meetings? Just find an open slot, book it, and done.”
  • The Maker’s Schedule: These folks need longer blocks of free time—half a day at least. Graham nails it: “You can’t get into the creative zone in just an hour. That’s barely enough time to start.”

Clearly, there’s a snag in the system.

Managers disrupt the uninterrupted time makers need for their creative magic. They send invites left and right and saying “Sorry, that’s my 4-hour creative zone” isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Few of us wield the power to block out half a day free from calls or meetings. So instead, we end up multitasking, flipping between tasks, and shattering our focus into a thousand pieces.

Newsflash: multitasking? It literally doesn’t exist. All that task-changing only gnaws away at our productivity.

Now, I’m not saying to stick it to your boss and follow your creative whimsy all day (like in those fantasy sequences in Office Space). But rather, makers and managers both need to work to strike a balance that keeps everyone’s boat afloat.

Breaking it down


Want to get the most out of your day? It’s all about aligning your schedule and goals. But seriously, who can be creative in that tiny window between a mandatory lunch pow-wow and a marathon sales call at 1:30?

As Jason Fried, the CEO of the company Basecamp, puts it: “People don’t have hours anymore. They say they work 8–10 hours a day, but truthfully, it’s more like 15 minutes here, 20 minutes there, and the occasional lucky 45-minute stretch. That’s a broken system.”

Both creators and managers need time for deep work. And that means strategizing how you divvy up your time—daily, weekly, and monthly.

Let’s break it down:

1. Weekly Split: Makers vs. Managers

The simplest way to resolve the maker versus manager showdown? Do both, but on different days.

Take Harrison Harnisch from Buffer, for example. His shift from being an individual contributor to managing remote teams meant waving goodbye to those long stretches of free time. Suddenly, his days were flooded with managerial tasks, pulling him away from his creative zone.

But constant pivoting was hurting the quality of both his creative and managerial output. As Harrison noted: “Especially when tackling projects involving multiple teams, there’s a ton of context needed before diving in. Hours building it, only to lose it due to random interruptions.”

His fix? Week-splitting. Some days were solely for managing tasks, others for diving deep into coding.

2. Managerial Makers: Solving a Bundle of Problems

If you’re a manager who also gets hands-on with crucial team contributions, this split can be a game-changer:

  1. Clear Focus: Each day, you know your mission. No more guilt about locking in focused work time while sidelining emails for a bit.
  2. Team Clarity: Meetings and calls? All organized on specific days, leaving ample room for everyone’s creative bursts.
  3. The Urgency Test: This is the kicker. Few truly get it on a manager’s schedule.

By not always being available, it nudges people to explore other avenues. As Harrison puts it: “Deep work can be disrupted by urgent and crucial matters. But treating every question as a life-or-death scenario does more harm than good.”

Want to manage your daily tasks more effectively? Consider adopting the concept of “office hours” to streamline your schedule.

If you find it challenging to dedicate entire days to work or management, try integrating this strategy into your daily routine. Picture how university professors set aside specific times each day to meet with students. Similarly, you can establish “office hours” as dedicated blocks for managing tasks, meetings, and impromptu discussions.

Let’s say your peak productivity kicks in during the mornings—that’s your prime “maker time.” Allocate a few hours each morning solely for focused work, keeping distractions at bay with tools like RescueTime.

By doing this, you reserve your afternoons for tasks that demand less intense concentration, such as handling emails, calls, or attending meetings. You have the flexibility to apply office hours on specific days or create recurring slots that others can schedule using platforms like Google Calendar.

Google Calendar’s Appointment Slots feature, for instance, allows others to book recurring events with you. This scheduling strategy not only helps you enter a guilt-free flow state daily but also aligns with productivity philosophies advocated by experts like Paul Jarvis.

Paul Jarvis, a renowned writer and designer, emphasizes the efficiency gained by focusing on one task type for an extended period. Whether it’s writing multiple articles in one go or dedicating an entire day to client website programming, this approach enhances productivity. However, communicating your availability is key—ensure others are aware of your schedule.

Maintaining focus is crucial. There are rarely emergencies that can’t wait until your designated office hours. Employ rituals and routines to seamlessly transition between different “work modes.”

Whether you structure your schedule daily or weekly, there’s often a struggle involved. As pointed out by Paul Graham, a single meeting can disrupt an entire day’s rhythm, causing what psychologists term “attention residue.”

When we switch tasks or work modes abruptly, our brains struggle to keep pace, resulting in decreased focus. Fortunately, routines and rituals can mitigate these challenges.

Routines, like your set schedule, help your brain form habits and anticipate daily expectations. Rituals, on the other hand, serve as actions facilitating smooth transitions between various work modes. While extreme examples exist (think Maya Angelou’s preference for small hotel rooms or Jack Kerouac’s peculiar pre-work rituals), a simple daily work ritual can be a powerful aid in getting into the productive zone.

The sweet spot


So, you’re looking to strike that balance between being a maker and a manager, right? These strategies are all about finding that sweet spot. But here’s the kicker: they assume you’ve got a handle on how you’re actually spending your precious hours.

Truth is, what we think we’re doing and what we’re actually doing? Not always a perfect match. We set out to conquer coding a new feature, but somehow, we find ourselves diving into emails and Slack every few minutes. Or, we pledge to finish work by 5 PM, but then you know what happens instead: we end up burning midnight oil through evenings and weekends — about 92% of the time by some metrics.

Cal Newport, the best-selling author of ‘Deep Work,’ hits the nail on the head: “Most of our day flies by on autopilot, without much thought about where our time vanishes. Big problem, right?”

Achieving that level of self-awareness is tough, especially when urgent tasks and busywork keep pounding at the door. Enter RescueTime, your sidekick in the quest for time awareness and focus preservation, whether you’re making things or managing them.

Here’s the lowdown:

  1. Dive into Your “Maker Time”: RescueTime’s got your back, tracking every app, site, and doc you touch. Use your reports to get a peek at your “maker” moments—writing, designing, coding. When are you doing your most important work? Think day-wise or hour-wise to pinpoint those golden moments and set aside time in your schedule.
  2. Spot the Blockers: Now that you’ve got the scoop on your prime maker time, it’s time to guard it. Take a closer look at your daily routine. Peek into those maker hours—are distractions sneaking in? If your creative burst coincides with communication overload, it’s time to investigate what’s stealing your thunder.
  3. Guard Your Focus: It’s time to set up your defense system. Use RescueTime to block the activities that distract you during your “maker time”—even communication apps and email.

Make this your resolution


Our days get taken away from us too regularly and too easily. Things pop up. A minute-long distraction can turn to hours. That may be fine in the moment, but the daily, weekly compounding of that time leakage? That’s a scary thing. If you’re tired of that feeling of your week being an unproductive mess, put your foot down. Try to make your schedule a thoughtful, masterfully designed piece of work. Let’s nip that time leak in the bud.

Have a good holiday season. We’ll see you in 2024.

Robin Copple

Robin Copple is a writer and editor from Los Angeles, California.

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