One of the most regular questions I get from readers centers around how I manage my time and focus. The questions tend to focus on some specific element of my overall system for managing all of the things that I need to get done in my parallel roles of writer, father, husband, coach, involved community member, child, and all of the other roles I fulfill in a given week, along with some time left over for self-care.
I’ll be the first to admit that it’s hard to juggle all of those things. There are constantly things to be done, appointments to remember, places I’m supposed to be, tasks that need to be done. It is utterly relentless.
Over the years, I’ve tried all sorts of tactics and techniques for managing my time and focus and energy to get as much value out of each day as possible. My systems for doing this have evolved over time, in ways I’ll mention below, but here is my system for getting things done and staying sane.
Before I dig into the specific tools I use, here are the five key principles that underlie the entire system. All of the tools and practices I have follow these five key principles. If I try something and it doesn’t measure up to these principles, I don’t keep it.
Full trust I absolutely have to trust the systems I’m using. If I find that I’m trying to remember tasks or appointments or other things rather than fully trusting my system, then something is wrong with the system.
The entire purpose of all of the things below is to make sure I don’t have to waste any of my thinking on trying to remember appointments and tasks and other random pieces of information. They don’t have to enter my mind, ever. I know that everything I need to know is stowed away in my calendar, my to-do list, or in an inbox that’s about to be entered there.
If I ever doubt that feeling, then something is broken in my system and needs to be fixed. I absolutely have to fully trust it or it’s more trouble than it’s worth.
Positive value Every single element in my system must give me positive value for the time and effort I put into it. If I spend fifteen minutes a day dealing directly with managing my to-do list and calendar, that time better be repaid in efficiency throughout my day (it clearly is, as I’ve discovered when trying to manage life without those tools).
I use this rule of thumb for every single thing I try to add to my life for the purpose of being more productive. Is it a net positive in terms of productive time? Does it make it easier for me to have time left over for self-care? Does it make it easier for me to get everything done in the allotted time I have each day? If the answer is yes, I’ll keep it. If the answer is no, or even if the answer is unclear, I’ll ditch it.
Managing energy above all else The truth is that all of the things I’m describing here manage my energy more than anything else. It’s all about organizing my day so that there’s something to fill the time no matter where my energy level is or where my focus level is.
I know from experience that my focus for writing and other “deep” tasks peaks between 8 AM and noon each day, so I do those kinds of “deep” tasks in that time frame. Before that, I know that my brain is creative and fairly “off the rails,” so I use the early morning time for brainstorming and brain dumping and some small bites of learning. In the early afternoon, I’m often dull and tired, so I do mindless tasks. In the late afternoon, my focus and energy come back somewhat, so I address the class of things I consider “important but not urgent” in my life.
Almost all of the things I mention here allow me to take advantage of the moments in my life when focus is strong and to get the most out of times when focus isn’t as strong. They form a structure in my life where productivity comes naturally to me.
Self care is not optional Spending time and energy ensuring that I am healthy and rested is not wasted time. In fact, it is the most valuable time. It is the time that needs to come first.
I block off time for things like exercise and making home cooked meals and simply enjoying my hobbies, and those times are sacrosanct. They are among the most uninterruptible times on my schedule. If I have a block set aside for hobbies, it doesn’t matter how much I have undone in other areas, I set those tasks aside and go read a book. The same is true for exercise.
This is difficult, don’t get me wrong, but I recognize that self-care and managing core relationships is pretty much the embodiment of “super important but not urgent” and I intentionally make sure I always have room for them. They come first. It’s not that much different than a “pay yourself first” financial strategy.
Always aim for the “flow state” The “flow state” is when you’re so mentally (and sometimes physically) engaged with what you’re doing, you lose track of time and place for a while and just do it. I find that any time I spend in a flow state is incredibly valuable and highly productive time. I get fantastic results from almost anything I do in a flow state.
Thus, a big part of these tools and this system is to nudge me into flow state regularly. The fewer distractions I have and the sharper I am, the more likely I am to fall into a flow state, so this entire system is all about minimizing distractions and getting me mentally sharp.
There are other secondary principles that I use that will come out in the following sections.
Here are the tools that I use to keep everything going. Note that the specific tool of each type is just one that I prefer for my own needs. There are lots of different digital calendars, for example; try some and use the one that works for you.
The purpose of my digital calendar is to organize my day. This doesn’t mean just managing appointments, which is of course vital, but organizing my day into blocks of time that I use for different tasks.
Most days, I have blocks of time for exercise, for family, for writing, for brainstorming, for a morning routine, for an evening routine, for household tasks, for self-care, for flex time (to make up for unexpected events), and for sleep. I do my best to actually stick to that schedule each and every day. (I’ll get into the specifics of this again in a little while.) It makes for a calendar that looks quite full, but it really doesn’t feel that full in practice.
The real purpose is that at any given time during the day, I can look at my calendar and know what I’m supposed to be doing. I don’t have to think about it. My thinking in terms of deciding what needs to be done is mostly done well in advance and reviewed the night before and in the morning. I don’t have to think about it during the actual day – I just get stuff done.
Having a digital calendar means that it’s loaded with all kinds of reminders that tell me when I should be switching from one task to another and sometimes with advance alerts of things I need to know are coming up in the next hour or two (like going to my child’s school for a parent/student lunch or something like that). My calendar is one of the few interrupting distractions that I allow, and it also functions as a timer of sorts that tells me when it’s time to switch to something else.
Digital Task Manager
My preferred tool: Omnifocus
A digital task manager is basically just a fancy to-do list that allows me to categorize tasks and move them around without having to erase and recopy tasks in a paper planner. The real purpose is to simply keep track of the multitude of tasks that need to be done.
I keep all of my tasks in various categories that match up with the blocks of time I have during the day. I have a “Work” category, a “Household Tasks” category, and so on. I even have categories for things like “Family/Friends” and “Self Care” and “Hobbies,” though the tasks in some of those areas tend to be sparse much of the time. I will also sometimes make up sub-categories under these for tasks related to specific projects, like planning a trip or something like that.
Most of the tasks have a due date associated with them, and I usually assign a high priority to tasks that I really need to get done today (I do this during a morning review, which I’ll talk about in a bit). My task manager makes it easy for me to find these things.
Again, a key part of what makes this work is trust. I trust that everything I need to do is in my task manager. Without that trust, it’s not a very efficient tool. When I don’t have that trust, I’m always trying to remember things I need to get done. When I have that trust, I don’t think about that at all, just the task at hand. Thus, trusting my to-do list means I can focus much better on the task I happen to be working on, and that means it gets done much more efficiently and with higher quality results than if I didn’t trust my system.
One of the big challenges with to-do lists is that I’ll often be in the middle of one task and I’ll suddenly recognize something I need to do in the near future. I’ll be writing an article and it will suddenly occur to me that we need to get some nails to re-shingle our rabbit hutch for our children’s pet rabbit, or I’ll be doing the dishes and see that we only have a little bit of dishwashing detergent left and realize that we need to get more.
For those moments, I keep a pocket notebook in my hip pocket at all times, along with a pen that won’t break or leak. When that fresh idea or task or whatever pops into my head, I pull out that notebook, write down the idea or task or whatever it is, and then go right back to work.
Later on in the day – usually in the evening, but sometimes I’ll do it during the day, too – I’ll pull out that pocket notebook and go through it, copying everything over to where it belongs. Appointments go in the calendar. Tasks go in the task manager. Ideas go in my idea repository (literally the next section in this article). I cross them out as I go along and when everything is crossed out, I move on with life.
This pocket notebook is key. It is a big part of ensuring that things don’t slip through the cracks. It ensures that I don’t forget ideas in the moment and that I don’t lose focus on my current objective while trying to remember them.
Evernote and Dropbox are my storage solutions for all kinds of information. I use them because they’re easy to access from pretty much anywhere and allow me to organize things how I want them.
I mostly use Evernote for text-based ideas with maybe a few pictures thrown in here or there. I use it as an idea repository for my writing, as I have folders for things like potential article ideas or things I should read or follow up on. I use it as an idea repository for most other projects in my life, too.
I use Dropbox for documents of all kinds that I want to have access to everywhere I’m at. Photos, PDFs, and all kinds of other things are stored in Dropbox in a file folder structure that I understand well. I can find almost anything within a few clicks in Dropbox because I have it organized in a way that makes sense to me.
Every sort of document or note that I want to keep around winds up in Dropbox or Evernote, depending on what type of document it is. When I have tasks in my task manager or appointments in my calendar that require notes or documents, I know I can just find them in Dropbox or Evernote.
The purpose of having a paper journal is for reflection and what I like to call “sharpening the axe.” I use it in both the morning and evening to reflect and brainstorm on my life and get things out of my head that aren’t always easy to extract. For me, it’s less of a recording of the events in my life than a way to make sense of and clarify the mishmash of thoughts and emotional responses in my head so that, when I’m done with the journal, my head is clear and focused and ready to deal with the day or sleep in peace.
There are three big things I do with the journal regularly, usually every day.
First, I write three morning pages. It’s basically just three pages, written by hand, on whatever is in my head. I just dump out whatever is on my mind at the moment onto paper. I don’t question it or guard it, I just let it come out. I find that forcing myself to think about those things at the pace of my handwriting brings a ton of clarity to the ideas I’m struggling with or the life issues I’m trying to figure out. I do this in the morning, usually before anyone else wakes up – I consider it a part of brainstorming.
Second, I go through a modified practice that I learned from Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith. In the morning, I simply write down a list of things that I want to be working on today. These aren’t necessarily tasks, but ways in which I want to behave and interact with the world. I want to do something to encourage my physical fitness. I want to eat healthy foods. I want to write well. I want to spend as little money as possible. I want to work on my virtues. I write each of these as sentences describing what I’m going to do today. In the evening, I review each of those and give myself a score on how I did today on those things. I usually keep them up for at least a week at a time and then reconsider them each week during a weekly review. This is so powerful in terms of nudging me to be a better person.
Finally, I go through a series of eight questions suggested by Michael Hyatt. I usually do this in the morning as well. The biggest one for me is his question of “what lessons did I learn from yesterday?” I usually note a few lessons, but I usually take one and tear it apart, doing an after-action review of it in detail.
I won’t lie – this takes a long time. I probably spend an hour, and sometimes more, doing this each morning (usually from about 5:45 to 6:45 AM) and probably another 10 to 15 minutes in the evening. That seems like a ton of time, but what I’ve learned is that when I’m done with this practice, I am absolutely ready to nail the day. I have a sense of mental clarity about what I should be doing and a great ability to focus for most of the day. On days when I don’t do this, I often feel like a lumbering sloth meandering through the fog in comparison. I more than make up that hour spent on journaling on days when I journal compared to days when I don’t really get it done.
So, how do I actually use these tools?
It starts off with the “ideal week.”
Each week, I spend about an hour or so on Sunday reviewing the week and getting myself prepped for the next week. One part of doing that is reading through my journal for the week. I also go through my to-do list and see if there’s anything really vital that was left undone.
Perhaps the most important part, though, is the “ideal week.” I plan out my week to come, starting off with a calendar template that I call the “ideal week.”
Basically, this just consists of a whole lot of repeating events in my calendar that specify what I would be doing each hour of each day assuming that I am going through an average week that’s going along perfectly with minimal interruptions. Assuming everything was perfect in my normal life, what would an “ideal week” look like? I basically just fill that out in Google Calendar and set every single block of time to repeat every week.
So, on Monday, it starts off with a block for sleep starting at 10:30 PM Sunday and running to 5:30 AM Monday. That’s followed by a block of “morning routine” and journaling from 5:30 AM to 7 AM, followed by half an hour of getting the kids ready for school, followed by another half an hour of “morning routine” (I’ll get back to that in a second). After that, I have a four hour block of “writing” scheduled, followed by “lunch,” followed by “exercise,” followed by “other work tasks,” followed by “deep reading,” followed by “flex time,” followed by “family time,” and so on. You get the idea. I just block out my whole day with what I will ideally be doing during each hour.
When I add events to my calendar, those are deviations from the “ideal week.” During my weekly review, I look ahead and try to resolve any conflicts for the next month or so between my “ideal week” and the things I add to my calendar, usually giving the appointments priority. I figure out what needs to be moved around and make room for the appointment. What am I giving up? I decide that then.
Most of the time, this is pretty easy. I’ll usually shrink down a few things and then expand them on the weekend, which is mostly made up of self-care, family and community commitments, and flex time. For example, I’ll often shrink down my daily “deep reading” (basically research or trying to learn a new topic) and then expand that very activity on the weekend.
I usually try to keep my morning routine and writing routine sacrosanct unless weeks are very exceptional, like family vacations or holidays. Even then, I’ll often still do some smaller form of those routines.
“Morning Routine” and “Evening Routine”
So, what exactly are my morning routine and my evening routine?
My morning routine is the big one, and it usually eats up about two hours of my day if I do it in full, with journaling taking up about half of that or a little more. The rest of that routine involves reviewing my calendar and to-do list (and picking out a few high priority things to be done today), doing some basic morning hygiene, meditating for fifteen minutes, exercising a little (this is mostly stretching and a bit of calisthenics in the living room, usually stuff to supplement my taekwondo classes), and doing a bit of reading.
My evening routine is basically a review of the day. I write in my journal a little bit, peek at my calendar and to-do list, and get ready for bed with some evening hygiene (brushing my teeth and so on). I just try to do the same four or five things every evening so it feels completely natural.
I tinker with the exact contents of my morning and evening routines regularly, but they’re largely settled at this point. My “tinkering” mostly involves messing with the order of things, changing up my exercise tactics, or trying out a new element for a while.
Going Through the Day
During the day, I mostly just follow my calendar, which is usually made up of time blocks. During those time blocks, I follow what’s on my to-do list associated with that time block.
So, when I’m in the midst of a “writing” block, as I am right now, I’m basically just going through my list of to-dos related to writing. Those usually involve drafting a specific article, then editing and formatting that article (a separate task, because I give it some breathing time between those two steps), then scheduling and posting that article, along with some brainstorming tasks and reminders to check the various places where readers send messages. I have other work tasks, but those are the ones really associated with The Simple Dollar directly in terms of what you guys read. I spend my work block mostly doing those kinds of things in 50 minute stretches, with 10 minute breaks to stretch and go on a short walk around the block.
The same is true for other blocks. During household chore blocks, I go through my list of household chores and just knock off as many as possible. During focused family time blocks, I try to do things with my family with all digital distractions shut off. You get the idea here.
If something pops into my head that I want to deal with later, I just pull out my pocket notebook and write it down. This keeps me away from digital distractions. About once a day, as part of my evening routine, I copy everything over to my other systems as described above.
I usually have timers that go off at the end of time blocks, letting me know it’s time to switch to other things.
A big part of this system is freeing myself up to get into a “flow state,” as I mentioned earlier. If I can slip into a flow state during any one of those blocks, it’s going to go really, really well. If I can do it several times during the day during various different blocks, it’s going to be an amazing day.
The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good
This system might seem complicated at first glance, but it works extremely well for me. It enables me to keep my mind very sharp throughout the day – my mind doesn’t wander due to having things on my mind. I do focused things when my energy and focus levels are high and do less intense things when my energy and focus levels are low. It enables me to prioritize self care without letting go of all of the other things that I’m responsible for in my life, so that I can continue to be responsible for those things into the future.
That being said, I’m not perfect with this system. There are days when I don’t execute perfectly. I don’t write in my journal some days, though I try to at least get something down every day. I don’t exercise as much as I should every day. The one element I really strive to be perfect on is to keep my calendar and to-do list as trusted as possible by writing things down in my pocket notebook and adding them to those tools as needed, but pretty much everything else will sometimes slide if I’m not feeling 100%.
That’s okay. The perfect is the enemy of the good. A bad day doesn’t mean I discard the system and give up and think of myself as a failure. It just means that I do better tomorrow.
I do know that when I nail all of this stuff, I feel practically superhuman in terms of how much I can get done in a day. My mental clarity in the middle of the day if I’m nailing all of these things is just incredible. I genuinely feel like there were earlier parts of my life where I was practically working in a fog at half speed all the time. It’s those ideal days, when I am constantly slipping into a flow state and really getting lots of things done, that makes all of this worthwhile, because those days are amazing and they happen surprisingly often.
What Can You Take Home?
If you pull out anything from this, it’s that those five key principles are the foundation of everything else I’ve written.
Get things out of your head and into a system that you fully trust. Everything you do should have positive value – it’s either improving you (I put self care and genuine leisure time in here, but not time wasting), improving a relationship, making money, or making one of those other things more efficient. Do high energy and high focus things when you actually have energy and focus; do mindless things when you feel mindless. Do not skimp on self-care, which includes genuine leisure time, good healthy food, exercise, good personal relationships, and adequate sleep. Aim for the “flow state” in everything you do, because you’ll never be better than when you’re so engaged that you lose track of time and place and just get lost in the moment.
All of the stuff in this article is an embodiment of those principles that works well for me. Some of those specific tactics might work well for you, or they might completely fall flat. We all have different minds and bodies that work in different ways. Try things and figure out what works best for you, and use the tactics here as things to try out, not things to blindly follow.
Good luck, and may your days be amazing!