“How we spend our days is of course how we spend how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
Last week I wrote about how I focus on death as the way to see the gift that is each new day. I live a fuller life now, but a fuller life is one with many competing demands. I’m an author, editor, entrepreneur, husband, and father to three kids. Readers wrote to ask me how I schedule my days.
A lot better than I used to, is the short answer. The more complete one I lay out below. If you want to get more out of life, and do more within each day — whether that’s complete more meaningful work or earn more money or offer more acts of kindness or spend more time with loved ones — you need to first realize that Annie Dillard is right. Each day is a representation of who you are and how you’re living. So live well.
Here are three ways to do that, dividing the 16 hours or so you’re awake into ever more specific blocks of time.
Pay Attention to When You’re Best
In high school and particularly in college I thought the way to work hard was to work longer and later than everyone else: Stay at the college magazine I edited until 2 am, and the next night study until dawn. I was sure I was getting ahead because American culture glorifies the grinder.
This is stupid. Grinding like that leads to burnout, and if anything to poorer work habits. What’s far better — and what took me until my mid-20s to realize — is to find the time of day when you’re freshest. This is otherwise known as examining your circadian rhythm, and is a huge part of research not only on sleeping well but in performing better when you’re awake. I realized I was freshest in the morning. Because I write and create for a living, it’s best for me to do that stuff right away, when I get up.
You probably already know when you’re best, but in case not: experiment. Do the thing you love at different times of day. Does it come easier in any period of time?
Now, you may be my complete opposite, and the best time to launch your dream business or write your novel is between 9 pm and 1 am. The hour of day you dedicate to your passion is unimportant. What is important, vital even, is to put in the time each day to fashion your life into the form you want it.
Valuing your days like this will create the vaunted Flow state: hours will pass like minutes, apathy will turn into optimism, doubt will day by day transform into confidence.
2. How to Juggle Everything Else in the Day
When you organize your most important work around the time you’re best able to do it, the rest of your day organizes itself too. My creativity wanes somewhere between 11 am and 1 pm. When it does, I don’t grind on. I move on with my day. I still have stories to edit. I still have a growing business to tend to.
“Make before you manage,” Tim Ferriss once said. It’s great advice for me as a morning person, and a creative type besides. It allows me to divide my days into Creative Time and Managerial Time.
The early to mid afternoon block is a time to edit or, if I don’t have stories to edit, do some long-term thinking and strategizing.
The mid- to late afternoon block, when I’m even more spent, is given to administrative work: Answering emails or Slack messages, responding to social media posts, getting caught up on news.
Again, if you’re a night owl, it’s probably best to structure your day in reverse. Build up to the work that means the most to you. You may want to start with easy administrative work, then do the strategic stuff, and end with the project you love and the time you can give to it.
However you work, literally schedule time with family and friends. I’m reading American Caesar at the moment, and it’s amazing how Douglas MacArthur during World War II not only brought his family to staff headquarters in Australia but scheduled time every day for his young son Arthur. Some afternoons he’d take Arthur to the Brisbane zoo for an hour. If he couldn’t eat with his family at night, Douglas would tuck Arthur into bed. In the mornings he played with Arthur before he headed into the office. This “free” time was scheduled time, which is why it was honored.
Every night I do some activity with my three kids. Could be playing the guitar with my daughter or Stratego with my sons. The activity doesn’t matter. The time spent with them does. They are my ultimate legacy, more important than any advice I give here or book I write or class I teach. Sometimes I need to be reminded of that, which is why Kid Time appears on my calendar, a standard block in the evening.
After my wife and I put them to bed, I read. Fiction or essays or history or philosophy or psychology — books replenish and satisfy me in a way that not even the most bingeable TV can. When you organize your days around the projects and people you care about, you see as well what you don’t give two shits about. The entertainment I once considered “must-watch” is these days “probably not.”
3. The Pomodoro Technique, Or, How to Avoid The Creep
Email Slack message Instant Message text message notifications from CNN from Duolingo from Spotify the riptide river of Twitter asshole alums on Facebook what Instagram filter is she using? Zoom call conference call can I get on your calendar for a quick phone call to yesterday’s meeting?
This can be your day, too. Like, very easily this can be your day. I’m not so stern to say you should avoid the pull of modern life, because you won’t — some of it is fun — and because you can’t: some of it is mandatory. What I will say is that there’s a way to manage it, so you can accomplish your lifelong goals and still swim in the flotsam of your daily digital reality.
It’s called the Pomodoro Technique. There are different iterations but here’s the one I like: 25 minutes on, five minutes off. That is: 25 minutes in which you dedicate to the task at hand, without distraction, then five minutes of distraction. Then the cycle repeats. So regardless of time of day — whether it’s my Creative Time or Managerial Time — I put myself on the clock. Twenty-five minutes of writing or outlining or strategizing or editing or (gawwwd no) memo-reading, followed by five minutes of Twitter or emailed news briefings or funny pug videos.
The Pomodoro Technique may smell of Frederick Taylor bullshit — out to make us in front of our computers as time-clocked and accountable as our forebears on the Model T assembly line — but I swear it works. Even in my deepest Flow state, when I can’t type the words fast enough and all of them are brilliant, I still get…not distracted exactly but restless. I literally pace around the room for a moment and then sit back down. I find this is always the break I need.
The Pomodoro Technique works wonders when the work sucks. The tasks you’d rather not do but have to — that five minute of distraction is a treat to work toward, and so I power through the 25 minutes of drudgery. (Again, in comparison to our forebears, modern drudgery is no drudgery at all. I’m not clearing a mine shaft at 3 this afternoon.)
Hour-long meetings screw up the Pomodoro Technique, just like hour-long meetings screw up days. You can limit them, or try to, just as you can try to limit their handsome-looking but still sinister sibling, the half hour meeting. You can literally schedule creative time or strategy time into your calendar as a way to ward off the unwanted wastes of time. But you cannot avoid meetings.
Nor should you. Some of them are helpful. In fact I like to take an unnecessarily philosophical view of the meeting. Because so many of them are unproductive they serve even in their wasted time as a rejoinder to anyone striving for greater productivity during the day. The meeting is here to humble us. It is here to take our precious time from us. It is here to remind us that in the push for a more organized and enriching day we will never get it right.
We should instead be grateful for the hours we do. That’s a benefit of any meeting: To get us to focus on how lucky we are to spend any time, across any day, doing the thing we love. So many people throughout history could not do that. So many people today refuse to, hiding behind the fear they have or the money they already make, or just lacking the discipline to create a reality of their passion.
But you and I, we’re the lucky ones. We look at the 16 hours of the waking day and think to ourselves, How can I make this work to my advantage?
New to my blog? I'm an award-winning journalist and best-selling author. My first book, The Saboteur, was optioned by DreamWorks to be turned into a film. I'm now at work on a second book for Celadon about a pivotal 10-week period in the Civil Rights Movement that still defines our lives.
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