tl;dr: Learn how to plan your day and get organized.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and with that one, is what we are doing.” – Annie Dillard
How do we do our best work? There are two elements to understanding how the best work is done. First, there is identifying and understanding our personal strengths – finding the work only we can do – and second, there is how we actually do that work.
Researching the latter of these problems led me to Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, which chronicles the daily rituals and morning routines of more than fifty artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs over hundreds of years.
What struck me first was not that they all had the same routine (though there do seem to be commonalities, more on that later), but that they all had rituals. They had all sat down at some point and thought about how to structure their ideal day for being creative.
William James captured why: “By forming good habits, we can free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action.”
They all recognized that in order for them to be creative, they needed to habitualize their days.
Recent research in evolutionary psychology bears this out. In a study by psychologist Roy Baumeister, he led subjects into a room filled with the aroma of fresh-baked cookies. The table before them held two things: a plate of the cookies and a bowl of radishes. Some subjects were allowed to give in to the temptation and sample the cookies, while others were asked to eat the radishes instead.
Afterwards, they were given thirty minutes to complete a difficult geometric puzzle. Baumeister and his colleagues found that people who ate radishes (and resisted the enticing cookies) gave up on the puzzle after about 8 minutes, while the lucky cookie-eaters persevered for more than twice that, nearly 19 minutes.
Drawing on willpower to resist the cookies drained the subjects’ self-control for subsequent situations. Baumeister’s research bears out what hundreds of artists, entrepreneurs and scientists discovered by trial and error: we have a limited amount of focus and willpower to use each day. And, as Annie Dillard so beautifully said “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
Since reading Baumeister’s findings and Daily Rituals, I’ve become fascinated by daily rituals. What are the fundamental principles of effective, meaningful daily rituals?
How To Organize Your Day: Daily Ritual Principles
The most interesting thing to me from Daily Rituals and other sources I’ve read on the habits of creatives and entrepreneurs, is that you can separate all their activities into just a few categories. In Daily Rituals, Currey sorted them into sleep, creative work, administrative work, free time, and exercise time.
Reduced down to just a few categories, the question becomes “how do you structure these activities in your life?” or “how to organize your day?”
I’ve made a few adaptations to the above categories to make it better fit a 21st century, entrepreneurial reality.
First, I’ve created three categories of work: Creative, Manager, and Administrative. I find that I still need some energy for managerial tasks like calls and meeting, but there’s a class of purely administrative tasks like checking credit card statements and booking flights that I can do while brain dead.
Second, I’ve added a good morning routine chunk because of the growing body of research on the power and importance of ritual and because I’ve personally found it to be helpful.
What I’d like to do here is go through what my daily ritual looks like and some of the thinking and research that have gone into shaping it.
My Daily Ritual
Important Caveat: Observationally, around 70% of people are morning people and 30% are night owls. If you’re a night owl, your schedule will look completely different. Michael Hyatt is a good example. He writes from 7-9 p.m., which I can’t even imagine.
Good Morning Routine (1.5-2 hours)
I think of my good morning routine like a solar flare. A solar flare is a broad spectrum of emissions from the surface of the sun. However, it starts with just a few particles interacting with the plasma layer of the sun’s surface. Those few particles then interact with more until you get a release the equivalent of 160 billion megatons of TNT or, more precisely, a big-ass explosion.
As it relates to personal productivity, solar flaring is when you convince yourself to do a little bit of work and then let the momentum carry you to doing more. This could be just putting on your gym shoes to get yourself to go to the gym, or just writing the first sentence to write an article.
This is the magic of good morning routines. By doing something positive in the first few minutes or hours of your day, you generate momentum where you say “Well, I’ve already spent two hours of my day moving my life forward, I might as well keep going with it.”
Here’s what mine looks like:
- Wake up – I naturally wake up between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m.
- Make coffee and drink one liter of water with 4000 IUs of Vitamin D3 and one tablespoon (15 ml) of fish oil – I’ve fallen on different sides of the supplement spectrum over my life, at some points taking a dozen or more pills and powders a day, but a better understanding of Iatrogenics (the tendency for more health care to actually be harmful) has me back to just D3 and Fish Oil, which have the most research to support them.
- Read a book (one hour) – I love books and find that first thing in the morning before I get into the day is the most reliable time for me to get reading done. It’s also something that gets me out of bed, since I’m looking forward to it.
- Floss and brush teeth (five minutes)
- Bodyweight exercises (5-10 minutes) – Most recently I’ve been practicing sitting in the bottom of a squat and doing some light yoga, but have done pushups, pullups, sit-ups and foam rolling in the past. I find anything that gets my blood flowing serves the main purpose – reminding myself to take care of my body.
- Meditation (20 minutes) – If there’s one habit which has had the most profound impact on my life in the last few years, it’s meditation. Three years ago I found Headspace, an app for gamified, guided meditation. I was an on and off meditator before that, but found Headspace a great way to build the habit. I like to do it just before I plan my day and my most important task of the day. It’s really hard to do creative work when you’re thinking about not angering the critics rather than pleasing the tribe you’re serving. My meditation experience reminds me that all seemingly external experiences in my life are in fact subjective experiences shaped by the mind (including that incoherent 1 star review I got yesterday and can’t stop thinking about). (Source: Sam Harris, Pema Chodron, and Tara Brach)
- Review desired outcomes (five minutes) – I keep a note in Evernote where I’ve explicitly written out what the most important goals in my life are, why those are exciting and important to me, and what a day-in-the-life of a person that has achieved those goals looks like. I find re-reading it in the morning both motivating and a helpful framing for the day. (Source: My 90-day planning process)
- Five minute journal (five minutes) – My five minute journal consists of writing down: (1) three things you’re grateful for (2) your three biggest priorities for the day and (3) three affirmations. Research on gratitude indicates pretty startling effects. In one Harvard study, “those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.” Writing down my three biggest priorities helps me see what the 80/20 of my to-do list is for the day so I know what to focus on. (Source: Tim Ferriss and Scott Adams)
Some people say that this seems like a lot to do before actually doing any work, but I find it lets me approach work in a relaxed, unstressed state, which is when I tend to do my best work.
Research from Steve Kay, a professor of molecular and computational biology at the University of Southern California, indicates that when it comes to doing cognitive work, for example, most adults perform best in the late morning, so I don’t feel like I give anything up by easing into the day.
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Deep/Creative/Maker Work (2-4 hours)
There are two types of schedules that the business world operates on. The first is manager’s schedules. This is how most people in large organizations operate, and how most of us learned to work in school. It generally breaks the day into hour-long chunks, which consist of activities like meetings, appointments, classes, and email.
There is another type of schedule for people who “make things,” which is adhered to by every creative person I’ve ever met or studied.
If you are making something, it’s impossible to work in hour-long chunks. By the time you’ve loaded up the mental RAM to really get into the work, it’s over and you didn’t get anything done. Makers’ schedules operate on half-day chunks.
Research by Cal Newport corroborates the essential need for these large chunks which he calls Deep Work
“Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.”
Deep work is approaching superpower status, if only because it’s more scarce due to the rise of social media and email. I am ruthless about blocking out my mornings for maker work like writing, strategic planning, and product development.
I use the Pomodoro technique during my deep work sessions. The Pomodoro technique is a process of working on a single task (no multi-tasking!) in 25-minute chunks with 5-minute breaks. Completing four to six pomodoros (2-3 hours) on a single big task (usually writing) in the morning is what I shoot for. I try to block out at least three hours, as I find it takes me a little while to get into the work.
I also silence my phone and use Freedom, a web application which lets me block myself off of any distracting websites (NY Times, Reddit, Hacker News, Facebook, Twitter, etc.).
Author Neil Gaiman has been quoted as saying the way he writes a book is to lock himself in a room with nothing but a word processor until he becomes so bored that he writes a book. That sounds about right.
Lunch (30-60 minutes)
Longer breaks – often meals – can be times when we get caught in a grey zone of neither being productive nor restful. In The Power of Full Engagement, Tony Schwartz cites research showing that humans tend to work best in chunks with period of total disengagement in-between. Many people get caught in the “grey zone” where they are neither engaged or disengaged.
I avoid that by eating lunch while listening to a podcast or audiobook, preferably one that has nothing to do with what I’m working on.
I’ve eaten the same two minute salad for lunch for the last five years. I batch cook the meat in a crockpot or the oven once a week and chop a bunch of vegetables and put it all in Tupperware so it only takes three to five minutes to put together a healthy lunch.
Manager Work (2-4 hours)
In the afternoons, I set aside time for the managerial work, tasks which take one-hour chunks of work or less. Unexpected things will come up and people will want to meet, so I anticipate that and block it into the afternoons. This allows me margin in the week for unanticipated events.
These usually consist of:
- Calls and Meetings – I use Calendly to schedule meetings and typically make myself available from 1 to 6 p.m. If someone has a time zone conflict or it’s urgent, I will make an exception, but I will only let that happen once or twice a month. You have to defend your maker time!
- Urgent and Important Tasks
Exercise and Dinner (1.5-2 hours)
The late afternoons are for exercise. Physical performance is usually best and the risk of injury least from about 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Muscle strength tends to peak between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. at levels as much as 6% above the day’s lows, which improves your ability to grip a club or racquet. Another boost for physical strength comes from the lungs, which function 17.6% more efficiently at 5 p.m. than at midday.
I usually have dinner after the gym. I eat the same meat I batch cooked for lunch at dinner (I just get a bunch of different sauces and it stills feels like a lot of variety – chutney, salsa, mustard, horseradish, barbecue, etc.).
If you’re in the U.S. steamfresh vegetables are easy and healthy. Microwave them with the meat for five minutes and you’ve got dinner.
Admin Work OR Social Events (1-3 hours)
After dinner, I’ll go to a meetup if there’s something going on that night; otherwise, I usually do administrative work. This is stuff that requires almost no brainpower (check expiration dates on credit cards, book flights, print something for tomorrow).
End of Day Review
At the end of the day, I have a template I keep in evernote that I fill out everyday.
Fill out Daily Habit Tracking spreadsheet – I keep a simple spreadsheet in Google Docs, on which I track usually around 4-6 habits at any given time.
For me, those things are Generate Intellectual Property (Write/make something), Read, Do Something Social, Exercise, and Meditate.
I’ll change what I’m tracking every quarter. My latest iteration was inspired by by the idea that if you do a few things consistently, it can make your life better.
Journal/Braindump – What emotional work am I avoiding because it scares me? – I’m usually too braindead at the end of the day to do any serious strategic thinking, but I often have problems which require strategic thinking. I jot these down and add anything relevant to my Weekly Review document, which I pull out on Saturday mornings to review. That way I know I’m going to think about it, so I don’t worry it’s going to get lost, but I can still get it off my mind for the day.
List three wins (actions completed successfully) – Review your Calendar and to-do list and find three things that you did successfully. Research has shown a psychological bias to weight negative events five times as strongly as positive events. 1 That means if you have four good things happen in a day and one bad one, you’ll feel bad at the end of the day.
Reviewing what I got done and writing down three wins forces me to acknowledge what I accomplished and creates a sense of progress that’s motivating rather than depressing.
What’s one thing that I could have done to make today better? What’s one lesson I learned? I love the notion of getting 1% better everyday. This question forces me to think about how I can do that.
The least valuable thing I did today was… – It’s almost always easier to find more stuff to do, but I find it just as (or perhaps more) valuable to get rid of things that aren’t helping. Whatever list of to-dos you’re working through, there is always something that is the least valuable. Writing it down forces me to acknowledge that and ask – Is this even profitable or worth doing? If yes, can I automate or delegate it?
My biggest priority for tomorrow is…. – Josh Waitzken, the chess prodigy in “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” said that having his high-performance clients jot down their biggest priority for the next day at the end of the day, to let it sit on their subconscious overnight, was one of the best tactics he had for improving performance. I’ve heard the same from others and, based on my personal experience, have found it to be true.
A Metaphor for How To Plan Your Day
There’s a story about a philosophy professor who starts a class by taking a mayonnaise jar and filling it up with golf ball sized rocks. He then asks the class if the jar is full. They all nod and agree that it is.
He then takes a box of pebbles and pours them in, gently shaking the jar so they roll into the open spaces between the rocks. He asks them again if it is full. They laugh a little and now say that, “Yea, it’s really full.”
Then he picks up a box of sand and pours it into the jar, gently shaking the jar so that the sand falls into the cracks between the pebbles.
First, the story reveals that most philosophy professors have to use tricks to establish their intellectual superiority because their field has become so detached from reality.
Second, it illustrates a seeming truism that we nonetheless fail to acknowledge: This jar signifies your life. The rocks are the truly important things: your health, family and close friends. If they were the only things in the jar, then it is still a full life. The pebbles are the other things that matter, like meaningful work projects. The sand is the little things that don’t do much to move your life forward.
Most people put the sand in first though, filling their schedules up with meetings and managerial work. That leaves no room for the rocks – time spent on relationships and health – and the pebbles – high-leverage, creative work.
Put the rocks in first.
Go into your calendar and block out:
- Free Time – I find if I don’t block out free time and actually schedule events (make plans to do something other than work), I will end up in the “grey zone” where I’m not getting anything done because I’m out of energy for the week, but I’m not relaxing.
- Exercise Time – Like free time, this gets pushed around for me if I don’t put it on my calendar.
- Maker Time – At least two hours, preferably four.
Schedule all your managerial/administrative work around these! – At this point, you’ve got the most important things blocked off first, so it’s fine to add in the sand.
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- Bad is stronger than good.
RF Baumeister, E Bratslavsky, C Finkenauer, KD Vohs – Review of general psychology, 2001
Last Updated on July 30, 2019 by Taylor Pearson