A few months back I was faced with a dilemma.
I couldn’t seem to concentrate. I wasn’t as productive as I used to be. Most importantly, I just wasn’t writing very much. The weeks would tick by and I wasn’t feeling like I was accomplishing anything significant.
Then I made two key changes that have seriously changed my life:
- I blocked out distractions, including turning off notifications on my phone and computer
- I started extreme calendaring
What is extreme calendaring? How will it totally change your life?
Read on, friends.
How extreme calendaring works
Before I get to some of the specifics, there is really only rule to extreme calendaring:
- Track everything you do in a calendar in half hour increments
I don’t mean literally everything you do, you don’t need to like track every time you get up to go to the refrigerator, but anything substantive you’re doing: track it.
Choose a calendaring system you’re actually going to stick to. Some people I know swear by their paper calendars, I personally love using Google Calendar across all my devices.
The reason you’re tracking everything in one place is twofold:
- You’ll actually see what you’re doing with your time – You probably don’t realize how much time you’re wasting doing things that aren’t very important to you. When you’re not tracking your time, you may not actually realize that your quick dip to check your Twitter feed turned into a two hour black hole.
- You’ll get in the habit of sticking to your calendar – Did you put a three hour block in your calendar to write? Cool! Now do it.
There are some nuances in how I’d suggest setting things up, but if there’s just one thing you take away from this post, let it be this one: track your time.
Reducing the time I spend on things that don’t actually make me happy is one of the absolute best ways I’ve found to get myself out of ruts and find happiness.
Spend an hour planning each week
The first thing you should enter in your calendar? An hour each week to plan your week. I personally start every Sunday morning with an hour blocked off so I can plan out the rest of my week and look back at how productive and happy I was the previous week.
I’m a big believer in thinking of your time in terms of week-long chunks, because it’s enough time to plan ahead but not so far in the distance that too much unexpected is going to come up to throw a wrench in things.
Thinking in weeks also helps with tracking how much time you’re spending on things, which I’ll get to in a bit.
Start with your must-dos
Just about everyone has things they absolutely have to do in order to make their life function: work, commutes, picking up kids from soccer practice, etc.
Start with those and put them in the calendar. If you’re using a calendar app or website like Google Calendar you can also take advantage of “repeat” functions so you can block out time for recurring things like appointments and, you know, showering and getting ready for the day.
Don’t neglect breaks and things that make you healthy
One of the first mistakes I made when I started extreme calendaring is that I blocked off every minute of the day as if I would never need a break. I thought with the right mindset I could just jump seamlessly from one task to the next.
No one can really work that way. You need rest in there too.
Fill in time for things that are going to make you healthy and happy:
- Half hour breaks, especially after strenuous mental tasks
- Time with friends
- Leisure that’s important to you (TV/sports/reading… It’s okay! Be human!)
Fill in your discretionary time
Once you have your must-dos and some reasonable breaks accounted for, you now have a sense of your discretionary time.
It’s a heck of a lot less time than you thought it was, isn’t it? Wow!! You don’t actually have that much time!
THIS IS GOOD AND IMPORTANT TO KNOW.
There really isn’t as much time in the week as you would like to think. So don’t waste it.
Start filling in the things you want to accomplish! This can be anything: writing, blogging, building a desk with your bare hands, sitting under a shade tree, extra time with your family… whatever is important to you.
Fill up that calendar until bedtime for the whole week.
Now, I know what you may be thinking: What about that friend who likes to show up unannounced? What happens when my kid gets sick and I have to scrap an entire day?
You may need to adjust your calendar in a flash when things come up unexpectedly. But starting with your plan at the start of the week will help you see your tradeoffs when you have a decision to make about how to spend your time.
Visualize each day and do what you said you were going to do
Every morning I wake up and look at my calendar to mentally walk myself through the day.
This is important: visualize yourself doing the things on your calendar.
It’s so easy to talk yourself out of writing just because you don’t feel like doing it that day. But when you’ve known since 8am that you’re going to start writing at 1pm, suddenly when 1pm rolls around it’s so much easier to just… start writing.
It may take some habit-forming to get good at sticking to your calendar, but after a few weeks it will feel like second nature.
Track your time
Did you exercise? How many hours did you spend writing? How much time did you spend hanging out with friends?
Whatever is important to you and your happiness: track it. Like literally add it up and write it down every week.
Why? This will help you “adjust your dials.”
In that hour you have set aside to plan your week, think back on whether you just finished a good week or a bad week:
- Did it feel like you didn’t get enough writing done? You may need to bump up the amount of time you spend writing next week.
- Did you feel overcommitted? You may need to carve out some more alone time.
- Did you feel scattered and exhausted? You may need to add in some more breaks.
Tracking these things through time will help you establish a baseline that will be your foundation. I now have routines that are rock solid because I know they’ll make me happier and more productive.
For instance, I know roughly how much time I need to spend writing (~10-15 hours) and blogging (~3 hours) each week in order to feel like I’m making forward progress.
You are what you spend time on
Tracking my time has been one of the most transformative things I’ve done.
When you spend more time on things that make you happy and less time on things that don’t make you happy… you’re happier. It’s not the solution to all of life’s problems, but tracking your time helps you see the tradeoffs you’re making in life without realizing it.
When you know agreeing to take on a project or attending an event will take you three hours, you know exactly what you’re giving up in order to do it.
Extreme calendaring has made me a better decision-maker, it’s made me a better friend, and it’s made me a happier, more productive writer.
Hope it works for you!
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Art: Detail from The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein