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Master Your Time: 5 Daily Scheduling Methods to Bring More Focus to Your Day

Stephen Altrogge
Stephen Altrogge / November 1, 2016

Finding the optimal schedule for your workday is harder than it might seem. Each day is a constant balancing act between demands and energy levels, including meetings, impromptu conversations, email, and a host of other factors. Some people have complete freedom to set their hours, while others find themselves forced into a stricter schedule. Some do best in the early hours, while others get their second wind late at night.

Most people want to know the single best way to schedule their day for maximum productivity, and there are numerous articles and books that claim to know the "perfect schedule." But the reality is, there is no perfect method for everyone. Because we all have particular strengths and weaknesses when it comes to time management and productivity, what works for one person could be a total disaster for another.

History has shown that the most productive people in the world use wildly different scheduling techniques depending on their circumstances, personalities, and energy levels. Winston Churchill, for example,l worked late into the night and broke up his day with whiskey and naps. Toni Morrison begins writing before dawn. There is no one size fits all schedule for maximum productivity.


Want to develop a better work routine? Discover how some of the world's greatest minds organized their days.
Click image to see the interactive version (via Podio).

We want to help you find the scheduling method that works best for you. We want to see you achieve warp-speed productivity every day. With that in mind, here are five different daily scheduling methods you can try. Some of these methods are pretty straightforward, while others are borderline crazy.

It’s all about finding the right fit.

The Time Blocking Method

Time blocking simply means planning out your day in advance and dedicating specific hours to accomplish specific tasks. Doing this requires determining in advance what you will accomplish and exactly when you will accomplish it. Once you have those in mind, enter these into your calendar and then get to work on those tasks at the appropriate time during the day.

time blocking calendar

When scheduling out tasks, it’s important to block out both proactive blocks and reactive blocks. Proactive blocks are when you focus on important tasks that you must get done. This is when you make progress on important projects, draft important documents, or sketch out a prototype for your next great product. Reactive blocks are when you allow time for requests and interruptions, such as email and impromptu meetings.

For example, you could schedule your most challenging tasks for the first two hours of the day and plow through your inbox during the afternoon. This allows you to do undistracted work and still know you’ll get to things like email and phone calls.

This method has the advantage of helping you know exactly how you’re going to use your time and exactly when you’re going to accomplish specific tasks. Standard to-do lists present you with a list of tasks to complete in your own time. Time blocking provides you with a list of tasks and a specific time frame to complete each task.

By forcing yourself to work within a rigid structure and to accomplish tasks in a given time, you are forced to bring laser focus to every activity.

Productivity guru Cal Newport swears by the time blocking method, saying:

Sometimes people ask why I bother with such a detailed level of planning. My answer is simple: it generates a massive amount of productivity. A 40 hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure.

The challenge of time blocking is that there are times when interruptions are unavoidable. When a single task gets interrupted, you either must reschedule the task or drop it until the next day. Additionally, people often underestimate how long a task will take, result in tasks bleeding into each other. This is why experts like David Allen prefer not to use the calendar as the to-do list. As he says in his book Getting Things Done: "Trying to keep a list in writing on the calendar, which must then be rewritten on another day if items don’t get done, is demoralizing and a waste of time."

Still, planning out your day in advance with your calendar can help you focus on those tasks that matter most. "No matter how you look at it," Art of Less Doing writer Ari Meisel says, "tasks involve timing." (His technique is to use FollowUp.cc to get reminders via email of tasks at just the right time.)

The Most Important Task Method (MIT)

to-do list

The MIT method is all about focusing on the essential. Rather than writing out a massive to-do list and trying to get it all done, determine the 1-3 tasks that are absolutely essential and then relentlessly focus on those tasks during the day. It’s not that you never do more than three tasks in a day, but that you don’t do anything else until you’ve completed the three essential tasks.

The reality is, most days there are only a few essential things that must be done. Yes, there are a thousand voices clamoring for our attention, but most of those voices aren’t crucial. The notifications blowing up your phone and the emails filling your inbox can all wait. If you can complete the 1-3 essential tasks, everything else becomes secondary or even unnecessary.

This is the core topic of Gary Keller and Jay Papasan's excellent book The ONE Thing: "What’s the ONE Thing you can do this week such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary?"

Once you determine your 1-3 most important tasks, they are scheduled first in your day. You then make progress on essential items before you get bombarded by distractions. You can use this in conjunction with the time blocking method, saving your initial hours for the most important tasks. Email, phone calls, and meetings come later, after you’ve completed your essential tasks.

By focusing obsessively on your most important tasks, every day is productive. You never have a day where you waste time on meaningless tasks. Productivity expert James Clear puts it this way:

If you do the most important thing first each day, then you’ll always get something important done. I don’t know about you, but this is a big deal for me. There are many days when I waste hours crossing off the 4th, 5th, or 6th most important tasks on my to-do list and never get around to doing the most important thing.

Recommended task management apps:

The Pomodoro Technique

pomodoro

The Pomodoro Technique is all about working in short, massively productive, intensely focused bursts, and then giving yourself a brief break. It’s incredibly simple, in that all it requires is a timer, and it allows you to break down a large task into manageable intervals.

Here’s how it works:

  • Choose a task
  • Set your timer for 25 minutes
  • Work on the task until the timer ends
  • Take a short break (around 5 minutes)
  • Every 4 Pomodoro sessions, take a longer break (15-30 minutes)

This technique allows you to accomplish a significant amount over the course of the day while still taking adequate breaks. The relatively short time of each session also allows you to intensely focus without becoming mentally fatigued.

Some people absolutely swear by the Pomodoro Technique. Paul Klipp, president of Lunar Logic's Polish branch, says this about using Pomodoro:

You might think that a person could do 16 of these cycles in a day. I'm lucky to get more than two in a day without interruptions. But in those 50 minutes I get more done than I do in the other seven hours of my work day, at least in terms of advancing the most important aspects of my most important projects.

Despite its beautiful simplicity, there are some downsides to the Pomodoro Technique. Pomodoro sessions are supposed to be uninterrupted periods of focus, meaning you can’t pause mid-session and then pick it back up later. If a coworker stops by and asks for a few moments of your time, you need to either politely decline or stop the session all together.

However, as Klipp noted above, it’s possible to accomplish a significant amount in only a few sessions.

Recommended Pomodoro apps:

90-Minute Focus Sessions

The human body operates on cycles called "ultradian rhythms." During each of these cycles, there is a peak when we are most energized and a trough when we are exhausted.

ultradian rhythm

With the 90-minute focus technique, you take full advantage of the energy peaks and troughs that occur throughout your day: Work 90 minutes and then rest for 20-30 minutes. In discussing peak performance in a 1993 study, Anders Ericcson pointed out that those rest periods between intense work sessions is essential for improvement.

Most people pay little attention to the natural rhythms of their body and use stimulants like coffee to power through periods of low energy. This almost always results in a complete crash around 2:30pm, which corresponds with a trough in your ultradian rhythm.

Working in 90-minute bursts allows you to correlate your maximum energy levels with your task list, which then gives your productivity a major boost. You're working with your body instead of against it.

As Digital Strategist Tom Gibson puts it:

We need to start thinking of productivity and output in cyclical, rather than linear terms. Many already recognise that they have peak times during the day in which they’re better workers. Other times, they’re better thinkers. Other times, all they’re good for is Netflix.

We’ve been trained by the 8 hour workday to assume that we should work steadily from 8am to 5pm with only a break for lunch, to exert maximum output from the start to finish of the workday. And while this method certainly allows managers to stay on top of employees, it hampers productivity.

Of course, this system does have its drawbacks. If your boss comes into your office and finds you napping on the floor, he may not be pleased, even when you explain that you’re working in conjunction with your ultradian rhythms (and, we might add, improving your memory). And there will be deadlines which give you no choice but to put your nose to the grindstone.

But when you don’t find yourself up against the clock, you may want to consider the natural rhythms of your body when deciding on your scheduling method. Your body might not fall exactly in line with the 90-minute cycles, but monitor your energy levels throughout the day for a few weeks to see if you can find a pattern for yourself.

Polyphasic Sleep Method

polyphasic sleep

This is a somewhat bizarre scheduling method that only works for a few select people, but if it works for you, you’ll achieve uncommon amounts of productivity in a single day.

Most people are monophasic sleepers, meaning they get their daily sleep in one chunk (or phase). Biphasic sleepers get their sleep in two smaller chunks, such as 4 hours in the morning and 4 hours in the late evening. Polyphasic sleepers take this method to the extreme, breaking up sleep into multiple short phases, which allows for less sleep overall and significant increases in productivity. The amount of sleep in each phase can vary, with some people sleeping only in 20-minute naps and others grabbing larger chunks of sleep and then supplementing with naps.

Eugene Dubovoy is a project manager from Russia who has adopted a polyphasic schedule of sleeping 3.5 hours every night supplemented by three 20-minute naps during the day. As a result, he has significantly more time at his disposal and gets much more done than he would otherwise. As he told Business Insider: "The biggest benefit is that I have about two months of extra time each year. Time is the most valuable resource in our lives."

Chris Jeub, another polyphasic sleeper, agrees: "My polyphasic sleep schedule has me feeling healthy and alert, has given me more satisfying sleep, and has helped increase my productivity by up to 28 hours per week."

This schedule has some very obvious drawbacks. Steve Pavlina noted the challenge of having this type of schedule while still maintaining a sane family schedule. And if you miss any of your scheduled sleep sessions, it can significantly throw off your sleep schedule.

But this schedule also has some massive advantages, like getting extra hours every day. If you only sleep four hours per day, you add approximately 28 extra hours to your week (assuming normally sleeping 8 hours).

Finding The Ideal Mix

Creating your most productive schedule might mean creating hybrids of some of these methods. The MIT method works well with the Time Blocking Method. Three Pomodoro sessions fit neatly inside a 90-minute work session. And the Polyphasic Method…well, you might be on your own there.

But it is crucial that you schedule your day. As Essentialism author Greg McKeown, says: "If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will."

By setting a daily schedule, you ensure that you are the one prioritizing your life.

Keep reading:

Watch image by Wil Stewart via Unsplash. Pomodoro timer photo by David Svensson. Ultradian rhythm illustration by Officevibe. Polyphasic sleep illustration via Wikimedia.

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