How to own your time through organization and intention
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
— Benjamin Franklin
Getting things done (the right things) is all about intention.
There is a big difference between “Let me quickly check my email” and “Let me take 30 minutes to reply to the most urgent emails in my inbox so I can then focus on writing a blog post without any interruptions.”
There is also a big difference between “This morning I will work on updating my website” and “This morning I will spend two hours reviewing my website and noting down what I need to update so I can create an action plan and timeline for it.”
The difference is intention.
If you want to be highly productive, you need to be intentional about two things in your work:
- The outcome you want to achieve in a work session.
- The time you want to spend getting to that particular outcome.
Because if you’re not intentional about the duration and results of your working sessions (aka. just going with the flow), the following happens:
- You are busy but not productive. Real progress and results are missing.
- You are frustrated about not having enough time to finish your tasks (even though you actually do).
- You are wasting your time with irrelevant tasks because you get pulled into random rabbit holes. When you’re just going with the flow, the simple thought “Let me quickly check this … ” turns into three hours of exploring an idea, strategy, or tool (i.e. unimportant work).
- You feel overwhelmed and frazzled because you are constantly switching between tasks and being interrupted by urgent emails, phone calls, and notifications.
If, however, you spend your time intentionally, you start your day fully focused and make real progress with the projects that matter most to you. And because of this, you’ll be able to finish your workday in time with a great sense of satisfaction.
The good news is, spending your time intentionally is actually fairly easy when you implement one simple habit: planning your day the right way.
Planning your day is one of these keystone habits that will make everything else so much easier. Thus it’s one of the most effective ways to maximize your productivity.
Here is how to do it:
1. Plan Your Day the Night Before
If you already know how your day will look like by the time you walk into the office in the morning, you will notice two things:
- You’ll be a lot more focused on actually getting your work done because you already know what’s on the agenda. Instead of wasting valuable time and energy in the morning trying to figure out what to work on, you can get right to it. Think of your brain as a computer. In the evening, you still have all your tabs, apps, and files open, so it will be easy to access all the information you need to make a decision. But in the morning you need to start your brain, and it takes much longer to load all the files and open all the apps. That’s why it’s so effective to plan your day the night before.
- You’ll be a lot less stressed. When you already know what exactly you’ll be working on, you’ll be less overwhelmed. And when you know when you’ll do what, you’ll be a lot less frazzled and distracted because you know everything will be taken care of in its own time.
Don’t just plan your day the night before, prepare it. Go through the agenda for your meetings and jot down notes, pack your gym bag, and prepare breakfast and lunch. Again, your brain is still active in the evenings, and you’ll get these things done in no time instead of stressing in the morning.
2. Plan Your Priorities and Goals First
Not planning your day is bad. But planning your day without your priorities in mind is even worse because it means you’ll be able to handle everything on your plate but won’t actually make progress on your own goals; you’ll be too busy attending to other people’s priorities. Planning your day the right way means proactively blocking time for the things that are most important in your life and work right now.
- What are your top three goals right now? In your work? In your life?
- Which activities, habits, and projects are most important in achieving these goals?
- When will you block uninterrupted time for these high-priority activities, habits, and projects?
For your work, this might mean blocking two hours in the morning for deep work on your top-priority project. In your free time, this might mean blocking untouchable time for your workouts in your calendar and making sure your kid’s soccer game is on your radar.
Whatever is most important to you, make sure it’s the first thing you plan into your day before anything else!
Don’t just plan your priorities first, do them first!
Even though most people do their best work in the morning, they choose to waste these precious hours with email and meetings. The effect: You start your day feeling scattered and all over the place. And from there it only gets worse: After lunch, doing important work gets really difficult because 1. chances are your to-do list has filled with lots of other things before then and 2. you are tired, and it becomes harder to push yourself to do important work. Instead, you choose something easy or fast to do. The long-term effects of this behavior are obvious: you never get to any of the important stuff.
But if the first thing you do in your workday is spending two to three hours on a really important project, you win the day by lunchtime. No matter what comes after, you have already made progress on the things that really matter!
3. Create a Daily Schedule
A great way to start your day with anxiety is to look at your entire to-do list. You see everything you’ve added the last week and before. You see the big projects and the small annoying stuff. And the list is f*cking long. And you feel like there is no way you could ever do all these things.
Of course, this freaks you out. Because you don’t even know where to start …and you know you can’t possibly do all these things.
And you shouldn’t! You shouldn’t even think about your entire to-do list when you make your daily plan.
The only thing you should think about is this: What are my most important tasks for today and when will I do them?
To do that, you need to separate your Daily Schedule from your Master List. Your Master List is your entire to-do list, containing everything you need to do, organized by projects and categories (e.g. work, household, and health). And your Daily Schedule is a subset of your Master List with the tasks that you want to get done today.
A few ways to do this
- Add time blocks to your calendar. Here is an example of my color-coded Google Calendar. I use different colors for different types of work or free-time activities. This works great because it forces you to think about how long something will take and thus prevents you from overscheduling yourself. Also, it keeps you from making the mistake of not accounting for time spent in meetings, at lunch, etc.
2. Use a tool like Amazing Marvin (my favorite productivity tool) to schedule your tasks from your Master List to your Daily Schedule. Amazing Marvin is the only tool I know of that lets you schedule tasks to different days.
3. If you are working with other tools like todoist, you can create a separate daily list by adding the label today to your tasks. That way, your daily tasks will show up in a separate list when you filter for them. It won’t be like a schedule, but at least you only see your daily items instead of your entire to-do list.
4. If you are a fan of paper and pen, you can just write your daily schedule in your journal or planner and tick things off as you go.
Don’t just schedule your tasks. Be precise about how much time it will take.
One of the most common causes of feeling overwhelmed and frustrated is overscheduling. We simply underestimate the time it will take to do something and thus chronically over plan! This leads to that constant nagging feeling of never doing enough.
To avoid that, write down precisely how much time you intend to spend on which task, then sum it up to get to the total number of hours you planned for. For example, here is a screenshot of how I plan my day in Amazing Marvin. I added time estimates to each task, and the app sums up the total amount of planned hours for the morning, afternoon, and the full day. This allows me to do a quick check with myself and course correct if I am overscheduling myself. (I already had days when I planned for 16 hours of work and, of course, there was no way I was able to get it done!)
To get better at estimating the time it will take to complete a task, time yourself while doing it (I love working with Toggl). This will help you get a better feeling of how long it takes you to do certain things like writing a blogpost. Over time, you’ll be able to plan your day very accurately.
4. Batch Tasks and Time Block Everything
Batching means grouping similar tasks together to do them all at once instead of scattered throughout the day. For example, you can batch your email replies by only checking and responding to email twice a day, and you can batch your content creation by creating multiple videos, blog posts, or podcast episodes in one go.
Batching is like economies of scale for manual work; if you get things done in one go, you’ll be much faster because you can just power through instead of letting these tasks interrupt your day. The key is to find extremely similar activities and create a recurring timeslot for them in your day.
- Emails and Messages: Block 30 minutes in the morning, 30 minutes after lunch, and 30 minutes before you leave the office for checking your inbox, Slack and Whatsapp and replying to all messages in one go. This way, you’ll avoid interrupting your flow throughout the day and can get more done in less time. To help you implement this time block, communicate it to your team so they’ll know when they can expect an answer from you. And don’t forget to turn off all your notifications!
- Admin Hour: Block 30–60 minutes after lunch to power through some admin tasks and errands. I like to collect a list of five-minute tasks that I need to get done throughout the day and get them out of the way in one batch to not interrupt my deep work sessions.
Don’t just batch tasks together. Optimize your time blocks for your energy!
If you’re a morning person, schedule your deep work tasks that require a lot of mental energy in the morning and easier tasks and meetings in the afternoon. I personally think morning meetings and calls (except for daily standups) are a waste of mental energy, which is why I don’t accept calendar invites before 2:00 p.m. In the afternoon, however, it’s extremely difficult for me to do great work, and I find that meetings and calls actually increase my energy, especially if I do walking meetings! I usually get an energy spike around 7:00 p.m., especially if I’ve done a workout at around 5:00 p.m. That’s why I occasionally have a power evening where I bang out another two hours of work after dinner. Whatever works best for you, try to optimize your day according to your energy. Do your most important work in your peak times and less demanding tasks in other timeslots.
5. Plan Buffer Times
One of the advantages of planning your day is that it takes away a lot of stress because you’ll know exactly when you’ll do what and that you’ve thought of everything. On the other hand, overplanning every minute of every day can have the opposite effect because you run into the risk of always being behind schedule.
To avoid this beginner planning trap, you need to account for buffer times in your day! The truth is, we’ll simply never be able to perfectly estimate the time it will take to complete a task and avoid all interruptions and distractions. That’s why it’s so important to give yourself some leeway in the day. Here are a few ideas you can do:
- Add an extra 15–30 minutes to every meeting to account for getting ready, wrapping up, and questions or chit-chat before and after. Bonus Tip: Make 30-minute meetings your default; that way, even if it runs over, and you have a quick coffee with someone after, you’ll be back at your desk within an hour.
- Work in sprint working sessions of 25 minutes, also called Pomodoros. That way, you automatically account for a five-minute break in between tasks where you can go to the toilet, get a coffee, or check your email.
- Generously account for daily habits like commuting and getting ready in the morning, especially if you live with other people. There is nothing worse than rushing in the mornings!
- Keep the last hour of your workday completely free to be able to catch up on your schedule and wrap things up.
- Regularly review your schedule and adapt your time blocks based on reality. There is a fine line between knowing where you need to implement better strategies to be more productive (e.g. keep yourself from checking emails constantly, designing no-interruption times, and running meetings efficiently) and where you need to simply account for more buffer times in your day.
Don’t just plan buffer times; account for the unpredictable!
I worked with a client once who was building his coaching business on the side of his day job. He had created a great weekly schedule for himself which included daily writing for his blog before work and one hour after work where he had assigned different time blocks for each day (working on his website, reaching out to prospects, promoting his blog posts, etc.).
In theory, his weekly schedule was great, but in reality, he could never stick to it. Because of the nature of his day job, unexpected things kept coming up and he had to stay late at work. As a result, he regularly missed his side business time blocks and was constantly running behind schedule.
In our coaching call, I asked him, “How often do unexpected things come up in your job in the last few weeks?” Turns out, he had to work late on average twice per week consistently for the past two months. But because he was unable to predict when it would happen, he had not accounted for it in his weekly schedule. After our session, he changed his weekly schedule and planned for the unpredictable; he deliberately kept two evenings free per week. Now he actually gets the things done he planned for. And if he ends up having more time to work on his business, it is bonus time! This makes all the difference to how he feels about his progress and productivity.
Planning your day effectively is one of the best things you can do for your productivity. When you start your day with intention and proactively block time for your most important projects, you no longer allow external factors to control your day (email, meetings, other people needing something, notifications, etc.) and you no longer allow yourself to get carried away (getting lost on Medium, YouTube, or Instagram, wanting to quickly check something but ending up spending three hours on something interesting but completely irrelevant).
In a nutshell, here is how to own your day:
- Plan and prepare your day the night before so you can start your morning highly focused and calm.
- Proactively block time for your priorities and goals before you plan anything else. For example: Block two hours in the morning for deep work on your top priority project and treat your workouts like a meeting that can’t be moved.
- Create a daily schedule and separate it from your entire to-do list to keep your focus and avoid overwhelm. Learn how to accurately estimate the time it will take to complete each task.
- Time block everything by batching similar tasks to do them all at once instead of scattered throughout the day (think: economies of scale for manual work). Create recurring time slots in your calendar for things like email, admin work, content creation, and meal prep.
- Add buffer times to your day to avoid over-scheduling yourself and always being behind. For example, add an extra 15 minutes to meetings, and keep the last hour of your workday free to wrap things up.
Liz Huber is a Mindset & Productivity Coach and Founder of refinedlife.io. With her books, courses, and 1-on-1 work, she helps entrepreneurs overcome overwhelm, lack of focus, fear, and self-doubt. As a result, her clients are able to confidently achieve their goals by prioritizing what is truly important and streamlining everything else.