This is what I'm currently aspiring to do on a daily basis. I'm not a billionaire; I'm not an award-winning anything; there's no compelling reason for you to know who I am. All I'll say in favor of what lies below is that I credit it with keeping my attitude in the 7- to 9-out-of-10 range when my default score hovers around a 3. It's not perfect, and neither am I, and neither are you. That's why it's in an ever-mutable text form and not etched in stone. It works pretty good as is, though.
A critical caveat: I do not work a 9-to-5, nor am I in school. My work schedule is blessedly flexible most of the time, allowing me to push things around to accommodate full day routines like this. Parts of this can probably be adapted to a 40-hour workweek or a college semester, but you’ll have that experiment with that on your own time (and you should! Always develop what you learn from other people to match your needs).
The day breaks down into 9 segments: waking up, 3 slots for large goals (called bags), a timeframe for bureaucracy and smaller tasks (the checkboxes), an adaptive section for what the day requires (the wildcard), an evening shift, a span for eminent carelessness (the pasture) and a wind down. Each segment is 2 hours long except wake up and wind down, which are both 1. This adds up to a 16 hour day, leaving 8 hours for sleep.
2 hours is longer than I can attend to one task without losing focus now and again, but that length has several perks:
- It withstands disruption. Any length less than 2 hours gets compromised too easily by distractions. Sometimes your mind will wander and sometimes emergencies will strike. 2 hours is the shortest period in which I’ve started a task, been interrupted, and returned to that task with sufficient time to justify re-engaging.
- It’s easy to keep track of the time. With my previous 90 minute blocks, I had to use software to make sure I wasn’t plowing through segments of my day. On the 2-hour scheme, I wake up on a hour (usually 6 or 7) and just use the clock.
- It’s long enough to take a good dive into a subject without getting lost in the weeds all day. This is true of the prior 90-minute chunk as well; all I know is the magic time range for this is somewhere between an hour and 4 hours. At an hour, the time I waste getting into gear isn’t worth it. At 4 hours, I reliably lose sight of my objective and stop making useful progress after a while. 2 hours is the middle ground I've chosen.
I rely heavily on the subconscious processing power of my brain between work cycles. This is why I prefer to work on 5 or 6 things at a time, letting projects commingle and inform each other in my head rather than banging that head against one or two. Stray thoughts can do a whole lot of good.
I've tried to operate on less than 8 hours of sleep a day for many years and I’m literally tired of fighting my biology on this. If you haven’t had a full night’s rest in a while, give it a shot for a week. A lot of people believe they can get away with 6 or even 4 and function properly. Research suggests nearly everyone who does this compromises their productivity and well-being both in the moment and in aggregate over the day. Enjoy 16 rested, focused hours instead of pushing your way through 18 or 20 lethargic ones. Do yourself a favor and go to bed earlier. And nap if you need to (10 to 15 minutes is outstanding for focus)! Sleep is pretty awesome.
Do these things in the first hour after you get out of bed:
- The first thing
- Determined the night before to compel you out of bed. Preferably productive or something that will otherwise gnaw at you until you take care of it, but any rousing activity will do. Pets are pretty good for this though they come with the risk of compelling you out of bed prematurely.
- Get your body out of stasis
- You can sweat, but don't hurt yourself. The key is to get the fluids inside you moving, not to burn through your resting energy supply or dislocate a rib (as I did not too long ago playing MMA guy). Activities involving bouncing (jogging, rolling, literally jumping up and down) tend to work very well for this.
- Contrast shower
- Alternate between warm and cold at intervals (at least 15 seconds for each). This wakes you up, improves your mood, suppresses hunger, et cetera. Trust me: this one does a tremendous amount of good for how little it requires of you besides the nerve to turn the temperature down.
- Passing thoughts
- Jot down anything on your mind. Anything. This isn't getting published anywhere. Silly privations are ideal. Put any good ideas in the Checkboxes for further exploration. Don't spend more than 15 minutes on it.
- Check your calendar and incorporate tasks as necessary.
- Take some bags off the shelf
- What do you want to do today? Put the bags most vulnerable to distractions--writing, coding, planning--in the first three slots. The fourth slot is a wildcard that can be just about anything, work or play. The fifth should be indulgent or social, preferably both.
- Meditation is any activity that breaks the stream of thoughts ordinarily cluttering your head for a sustained period. Resources abound for how to do this but the general idea is to give the present moment your full attention. Beverage sipping is acceptable, but if you're going to drink make sure the action and sensation have your full attention when you do it. I personally find 10 minutes to be sufficient.
Slots 1 - 3
Munch those chips
This is the meat of the day. At the start of each slot, set a 15-minute timer. Clear off your desk/desktop and bring out any materials related to the bag you're about to engage. Create an objective that would unambiguously bring that bag closer to completion, even if you're not sure you can achieve it today. Now find the smallest step you can take toward that goal (the chip) and complete it before the 15-minute timer rings. The chip shouldn't be a keystone to the whole apparatus: the chip's job is to trick you into getting started. If you're trying to get a meeting together, the chip can be a list of the people you want in the room. If you're building an end table for your mom for Christmas, it can be putting a drill bit in your drill. As easy a task as you can think of. Once you've completed this first little task, odds are good another one will present itself (contacting the invitees, or gouging an unsightly hole through the top of the table). Follow that trail today until you achieve the goal. If you pull that off with time to spare, set the 15-minute timer again and determine another goal and chip using the same method.
The only multitasking you're allowed to do while munching is to have other people or systems do things for you. There is neurologically no such thing as doing two things at the same time: switching your attention back and forth will not make whole the residual loss in willpower, focus, and creativity. Even stepping back to evaluate where you're going doesn't tend to be a great idea because you'll use the window to distract yourself. Let your subconscious mind evaluate the grander objectives and correct course naturally between work sessions. When you're only working 2 hours at a time, you can afford to run off the road occasionally (to say nothing of the lessons you might learn while doing so).
If the 15-minute timers goes off without a chip being munched, take a break, preferably a nap. Do not engage with anyone or thing that will take your mind off the bag in question and only return when you feel motivated to do so. When you come back, set the 15-minute timer again and create a new goal. You didn't complete the chip for one of four reasons:
1. You were too tired.
2. You were too distracted.
3. You didn't pick a simple enough task.
4. You aren't motivated enough by this project to pursue it.
If the reason is hiding in 1 through 3, a break and reframing should do the trick. If you take more than one break in 2 hours, odds are good you're in reason 4 and should acknowledge this in the blow-by-blow journal later today.
If the 2 hours are up and you're still focused on a useful task, keep going. This schema is designed to get you to this state, so stopping now would be silly. Just work until you hit a natural conclusion. If this causes you to miss or shorten another activity during the day, that's okay: just slate that missed task for tomorrow. So long as the work you're completing is worthwhile, there is no reason to be frustrated by this kind of shuffling.
Any time you have a good idea or thought unrelated to the task at hand, write it down the checkboxes for future investigation.
This is a list of things you want to think about or deal with, obligatory or otherwise, accrued throughout the day. Economy is the key to these items. Stuffing all the little things into one timeframe allows you to manage them wholesale so you can knock them out in rapid succession or even simultaneously. Don't feel the need to clear this list out every day and spend as little time as possible on each item. Sometimes, if enough stuff hasn't built up, it can be better to wait until you've got a larger set of tasks to crunch on.
I find myself crossing off 50% of these items taking no action at all. Addressing these items is not a waste: they are stray thoughts that would have derailed me from more important things if I'd wasted energy considering them at the time. The checkboxes defer these thoughts until I can weigh their relevance properly. Seeing a dozen items of varying importance bundled together makes it much easier to peg their true value.
If you've got extra time, put one small thing from each bag on your to-do list for this segment, starting with bags that didn't get a slot today. In any endeavor, creative or otherwise, there'll be little things you can improve or set in motion without needing full focus on the grander scheme.
Slot 4 functions just like slots 1 through 3, but is partially compromised for logistic purposes. It happens after the Checkboxes, which will sap your concentration from earlier in the day. This tradeoff, however, pays off many ways. Because you'll probably want to make any calls or trips to stores during the Checkboxes, that block works better earlier in the day. If you wake up at 7, the Checkboxes occur from 2 to 4, between lunch and rush hour when these errands tend to easiest to complete (as opposed to from 4 to 6, when everything sucks). Pushing slot 4 back also connects it to the rest of the evening, allowing it to dovetail or be conjoined with the looser schedule of the late day if necessary (even I understand not all social engagements conform to hourly regimens).
In sum, you can use slot 4 for whatever you need: work on an extra bag, extend the checkboxes (heaven forbid), or get evening festivities off the ground early. I'm using the slot to write this description of itself at this very moment! Just don't put too much pressure on it to perform. Don't leave it open either, though. It is always better to abandon a plan than to not have one.
The evening shift
Time to put human clothes on the machine from earlier. This is where the day gets loose, but there are a few things that will let you wring the most out of your "free time":
- Blow-by-blow journal
- List what you did today, how it went, and how it could have gone better, all as succinctly as you can. Use this time to assess the bags. If you don't feel an affinity with a bag, figure out why. It might just be a wording problem but if you have feelings of obligation or resentment toward a Bag, contemplate whether there is an underlying motive the Bag is longer addressing. If so, change the Bag to align better with that motivation or consider dropping the Bag entirely. The Bag might not be a good thing to pursue now and that might just be a matter of timing. Don't spend time working toward ends you don't want. I have a Shelf I keep dropped Bags on for reference if ever want to take them on again or find patterns in them. Alternately, if you think you've got the mental and temporal space for it, throw a new Bag into the mix.My current rule-of-thumb is to remove or modify any bag that hasn't been on the docket in the past 4 days.
- Any amorphous activity you prefer (drawing, walking, lying facedown in a pile of laundry). Right on the heels of a load of serious work, unwinding in an unstructured way is therapeutic and also a good way to conjure new ideas while a critical mass of thoughts is swirling around (write them down). Do what you can to keep explicit sexual content out of the thought bubble: it tends to crowd out the other meeker thoughts this exercise is designed to expose (might just be me?).
- Doesn't have to be a book but, if it's going to be internet content, pick longform content. Read a chapter's worth of a comic rather than bouncing between a bunch of different comics. Scan down rather than across, and you'll more than make up the difference in recency with depth. If you find that this makes your social life more taxing because you're behind by a week, please re-assess your entire life before it's too late.
- Talk to somebody
- Pick someone and engage them in conversation. Doesn't have to be in person; doesn't have to be a deep discussion. Just keep in touch.
- In case you were wondering when this was supposed to happen. The human body isn't built to have undigested food inside it 24 hours a day. If you limit stuffing your face to the evening hours, your body can spend the daylight hours in relative peace and quiet performing maintenance routines and you can essentially gorge yourself from now until you go to bed without running a (serious) risk of getting fat because there's simply not enough time for you to get a problematic number of calories and carcinogens in your body. Feel free to mix "Eat" with "Talk to somebody" and even "Read" if you're feeling ambitious.
Do as you please. By this point in the day, you've journaled, meditated, made progress on several long term goals, completed a bunch of things you needed to get done, read something remembering, and made social contact with another human being. By any sane definition, you've lived a full day.
Nonetheless, even though you're free to pick anything, pick *something*! If you head into the realm of debauch and prurience with some idea of what you want to achieve along the way, you stand a much better chance of ending the night having enjoyed yourself instead of oscillating between a handful of half-assed activities.
Time to wrap things up. No more electronics, food, or Jack Daniels. For the next hour, you have three objectives:
- Tidy up
- Get your living space ready for lights out. Mail, dishes, clothes, locks, trash, dust, hair, nails, teeth...the little stuff that's quick to keep in order. Limit to 20 minutes. You aren't hosting an open house: you're just taking care of all the things that'll bug you tomorrow morning when you should be concentrating on the day ahead.
- Designate tomorrow's first thing
- If you don't already have an obvious obligation in the morning, tidying up tends to reveal something you can take care of when you get up. It doesn't take much: just a little something to do.
- Find a book; write a journal entry; stroll around outside for a bit; seduce a boyfriend/girlfriend/flexible acquaintance into snuggling (or just have sex with them, I'm not your mom). The goal is to more-or-less accidentally end up in the next stage and whenever that happens it happens.
You are now asleep. Try not to wake up for at least the next 7 hours. If you eat like you're supposed to do, don't sit all day, and don't live in a city, this should be relatively straightforward. If you wake up early, get up to pee like you probably need to and get back in bed. You need all the REM cycles you can get for tomorrow morning.