I'm going to be covering all of the rules and systems that I use to structure my calendar and highlighting any evidence-based tips behind these. Hopefully you can use this process to go through the week ahead and I usually do this on a Sunday so that I have my whole week planned out.
Okay, so the first thing I'll do when building out my calendar for the week is to be aware that my energy levels tend to ebb and flow.
I get my best work done early in the morning. Assuming I'm getting up at 6:30 or 7 I'm at my peak at 10am and then around midday I start to tire.
This is due to our body's circadian rhythm and insulin around meal times causing our alertness to waver. In addition to my body's natural fluctuation of energy levels I'll also find that if I'm really focusing or making lots and lots of decision then I'll also start to fatigue and this can lead to me giving in to distractions like switching on the TV and starting to procrastinate.
This is something called decision or ego fatigue and is outlined by psychologist Roy F Baumeister in his book Willpower.
In the book Baumeister states that our daily willpower supply is limited and once you’ve used all of your good decisions, you’re done for the day. I like to think of my daily focus or willpower to work and study a bit like a stamina bar in a video game. Once you've used it up your character will just collapse and you then need to wait for your stamina to replenish. This means that as the day progresses I'm more likely to get distracted away from work as my willpower has depleted.
Baumeister tested this with a study where all participants were exposed to the tempting smell of freshly baked chocolate cookies. Some of the participants got to actually eat a cookie, while others had to eat radishes.
In the subsequent exercises, where the participants had to solve geometry puzzles, the radish eaters quit 12 minutes earlier on average. They's spent so much willpower fighting against that cookie smell, that they just couldn’t exercise as much self-control to work later on.
So keeping in mind that my best work gets done in the morning and I'm more likely to become distracted and want to play playstation as the day progresses I'll tend to plan my day around these natural energy levels. If I need to get some really important work done I'll time block it into my calendar for that morning slot when I know the work will be getting my best. This might be something like studying for an exam, getting an important work project done or doing something that I might otherwise procrastinate about.
In my calendar I'll timeblock out this morning session every single day and make sure my team know not to disturb me when I'm getting deep work done in the morning.
This is something Jeff Bezos recommends in his book "Invent and Wander". He suggests that executives are paid to make important decisions and making just 3 high-quality decisions per day is much more impactful to Amazon that trying to do too many things or to try and make decisions when tired.
This also emulates legendary investor Warren Buffet's philosophy as he says that he tries to make just 3 good investment decisions a year.
So what about when my energy begins to fade in the afternoon? Well rather than trying to push through these lower energy periods I'll deliberately schedule in tasks over lunch and later in the day I know don't require as much focus or creativity.
I'll usually schedule things like meetings and calls that I know require me to listen and talk rather than actually get my head down and work to solve problems. Because I've got the work done in the morning I also don't put too much pressure on the afternoon and I can be flexible to jump into ad-hoc tasks if needed.
Remember you're own energy levels and best time to work might be very different to mine. For example most of the engineering team in my company do their best work late at night. So follow my rules and system but make it your own as we go through.
So what about other commitments? What if you're a student and have lectures to attend and can't timeblock things out? Well let's look at the next rule in my system which I call Non-Negotiables.
Okay so having divided each day of my week into two my next rule is the non-negotiable rule. This is when I'll look at what absolutely has to get done during week. This might be your job, going to lectures, taking your dog to the vet or those tasks that just have to get done. I split my non-negotiables up into professional and personal so that I'm forcing myself to balance my week. When I was working as a surgeon for example I had work timetabled for me during the week. Typically I'd have a clinic on a Monday morning, an operating list Tuesday and Thursdays, Friday morning off and maybe I'd also be oncall on a Tuesday so I'd get Wednesday off. These were my work non-negotiables. The things I have to do or I'd get fired. When I left medicine to go full time on my business I then had complete control over my timetable but bearing in mind that's not exactly relatable for most people I'm going to assume that you have to at least attend some lectures or have some responsibilities.
In terms of personal non-negotiables I know that for me going to the gym or getting in a HiiT class is essential to help me stay healthy and energised throughout the day. And I also know that I'm really bad at skipping meals which can affect my energy levels too so I'll add meal breaks in. Finally I'll add in a rough bed time that I'll try and keep consistent throughout the week. I might not necessarily timetable this but I'll keep it in mind when planning.
So now we've added in our non-negotiables over our daily flow I can see that I have Wednesday morning and Friday morning clear where I can stick with my Daily Focus so I can schedule in my most important work there. For me when I was working as a surgeon this was either doing things to boost my CV, revising for an exam or working on one of my businesses.
For personal non-negotiables like the gym or HiiT I can either get them out the way in the morning or go after work. I tended to go to the gym first thing on days when I was operating following the advice of Roy Baumeister so that I'm less likely to just grab a donut because I'm ego depleted at the end of the day and going in the morning also got it out of the way and set me up for a good day knowing I'd achieved a gym session. If I have a free day on the other hand I'll probably hit the gym around 11 or 12 after getting through some deep work as a reward as I'm prioritising work on those days.
The next rule I use for planning my calendar is the transplanting time rule. This is the part where I'm sort of reverse planning my week and thinking what do I want to achieve by this time next week. I'll think about my big fat weekly goal that is going to move a work, personal or business goal forward the most. This might be something like getting a YouTube video edited, it might be going to the gym everyday, it might be reading a book or writing a blog post. I'll then look back at my non-negotiables for the week and look where I can transplant time from and to so that I can get this done.
When I was working as a surgeon this typically meant working on my business on weekends or after on call periods. Now before I get cancelled for toxic productivity this isn't about hustle culture, it's about working on something you love. In my case my business. I'm not grinding away. I'm actively trying to find time in my schedule to work on something that I enjoy. I'm also not just filling up all my free time with work. I'm transplanting that focus time that has been taken over by non-negotiables like an operating list or clinic.
I'm not getting up crazy early or trying to work late when I'm tired I'm strategically selecting times when I know that I have some free time and I'm able to work at my best, in my case Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Often when we say we don't have time for something what we actually mean is that we aren't prioritizing it. This transplant rule forces me to prioritize my main weekly goal and find a time that isn't going to kill me. There are loads of people who work really hard and who aren't successful, it's about working smart and then working hard once you've got your system in place.
One of the main enemies of trying to get things done and run a weekly calendar is perfectionism. And you've probably heard of Parkinson's Law which states that "work expands to fill the time available for its completion". For this reason I'll apply my next rule which is the rule of perfection stoppers and this rule has two parts as perfectionism is such a huge time thief.
Firstly when I'm adding work into my calendar for the week I'll deliberately add in false deadlines which are sort of time challenges to get certain projects done by.
For example when I was building my first company I did everything from building websites to writing sales copy and I would occasionally go down a rabbit hole of making the websites look nice or adding more pages or whatever it was. By adding in false deadlines where I would say "you have to stop working on this project and publish the website" it then forced me to be much more efficient and focused with my time. It also helped me realise that work that I wasn't 100% happy with was still good enough and it's better to ship or hand in something you're 75% happy with than to try and push for 100% as the end reward will be negligible but your time investment will be way greater.
The second part of the Perfection Stoppers rule uses a pretty cool psychology hack called the Zeigarnik effect. The Zeigarnik Effect is the tendency for tasks which have been interrupted and uncompleted to be better remembered than tasks which have been completed.
The effect was first seen by psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik in 1927 when she observed the effect in waiters, who seemed to remember orders only as long as the order was in the process of being served, and promptly forgot the order as soon as it was finished.
You can use this effect to your advantage to beat perfectionism. For example if I have a project that might take a long time or where perfectionism might creep in I'll start it and then deliberately shut it down after a set amount of time. I find that for me perfectionism sneaks up when I get deep into a project and want to make it perfect. By setting a hard stop I'm pulling myself out of the project and forcing myself to consider how much more I need to do. The Zeigarnik effect then means that my brain actively wants to get back to the project and finish it. So finishing the project is at the front of my mind when I return to it.
My final rule when creating a weekly calendar that allows me to fit everything in to a very, very busy week I call the happiness index rule.
Now to get into a flow state you need to have the right balance of challenge and ability to create enjoyment and in fact Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who pioneered the concept of flow states in his TEDx talk and research that people who started their day with something that they were looking forward to were likely to be more effective during the day.
For me I definitely wouldn't be able to get as much done in a busy week if I hated all of the work that I was doing. That's why this rule is so important. Each week I'll look through my calendar and give my calendar a happiness score. This really me asking myself three question:
- "Am I looking forward to the week?"
- "Am I excited about the things I'm working on" and
- "Have I left time for fun things"
This last point might just be grabbing a coffee at lunchtime, socialising with friends or learning something new that challenges me. All of these things will help to get me into a flow state and stay productive during a busy week.
It's also worth mentioning that I'll deliberately leave empty time where possible in my calendar. This does two things. It allows for flexibility so if I'm feeling tired or hard a particularly busy day I'm not then beating myself up that I don't really want to work on that scheduled project in the evening which helps keep me happy. And secondly if I do find I have energy and maybe the Zeigarnik effect is kicking in I can actually get ahead on work scheduled for the following day and get ahead if I'm feeling particularly energised. This flexibility means that even if I know there is lots to do I'm not getting productivity guilt about not working on things and I'm very happy to be intentionally lazy as I know I refilling my stamina gauge for the following day.