In a letter to his fiancée Felice Bauer, Franz Kafka once wrote, “time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.”
One of Kafka’s strategies for “wriggling through” — balancing a full-time day job with his writing aspirations — was sticking to a consistent, albeit unhealthy, schedule. He would start writing around 11 pm and continue until one, two, three, or even six in the morning. He’d sleep for a few hours, work, have lunch, take another nap, and get to writing again. In Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, author Mason Currey explores Kafka’s and various other prolific thinkers’ routines. Taken together, these rituals show that productive creatives don’t wait around for inspiration to strike. They take a proactive approach to planning and fiercely protect their hours for creativity.
After 17-plus years as CEO of Jotform, I’ve learned to become obsessive about my schedule. I regularly audit my busywork and try to automate as many tasks as possible. I’m convinced that making time for planning, aka meta-scheduling, has been highly beneficial, both for my business and my well-being.
The benefits of meta-scheduling
Certain parts of my schedule have become second nature. Every morning, I exercise, have a quick breakfast, and head to the office. The first thing I do is write my morning pages — thirty or so minutes during which I jot down anything in my head in a stream-of-consciousness manner. Afterward, I take around 15 minutes to map out the rest of my day.
I love visualizing my schedule. Mapping out my time helps me to plan important creative work during my peak hours — when I’m most alert, energized, and focused. That way, I ensure that I’m not just ticking off items on my to-do list. I’m making headway on projects that will move the needle for my company. I feel a sense of achievement vis-a-vis personally meaningful things.
Author Cal Newport, another serial planner, swears by carving out time for planning. Using a method called “time blocking,” Newport dedicates ten to twenty minutes per evening to build his schedule for the next day. He explained:
Sometimes people ask why I bother with such a detailed level of planning. My answer is simple: it generates a massive amount of productivity. A 40 hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure.
Importantly, Newport notes that his goal is to make progress on the right things.
With meta-scheduling, your progress doesn’t get derailed by the paradox of choice — when too many possibilities leave you frustrated and unable to make a decision. The more you prioritize time for planning, the less you find yourself paused during the day and wondering what to do next. In my book, I dedicated an entire chapter to mapping out workflows — series of interconnected steps that produce a given result. Understanding your daily workflows and which steps to eliminate or automate not only frees up time, it also minimizes the number of choices you have to make, i.e., eliminates the paradox of choice.
If you’re on board with meta-scheduling, here are some strategies for getting started.
How to plan your planning
According to Harvard Business Review, one of the most important skills for successful time management is awareness — thinking realistically about your time by understanding it’s a limited resource. It’s also one of the areas where people struggle the most.
Becoming more aware of your time requires regularly auditing your schedule and being relentlessly selective about how you spend your time. For a couple of days, take careful notes about how much time you spend on tasks throughout the day. You might be surprised about what’s eating up your time. The most potent drains are often hiding in plain sight — repetitive, manual tasks we tacitly accept as part of our workday. Once you audit your schedule, consider which tasks you’d like to spend more time on. Which things make the biggest impact? Which tasks leave you motivated and engaged? Carve out time for those things (preferably during your peak hours), and try to automate, delegate, or eliminate as many of the remaining tasks as possible.
As Harvard Business Review suggests, treat your time like it’s money. It’s a limited resource so you want to make smart investments.
Finally, make a regular appointment with yourself to plan your day. Whether you do it in the morning, like me, or in the evening, like Newport, build this time right into your schedule. Pretty soon, you’ll see the benefits of metascheduling. It will feel like second nature, like brushing your teeth or having your morning coffee.
If you struggle with creating a daily schedule, don’t dwell on it. Experts say that our brain’s neurochemistry may be to blame. Either you’re born with it or not. Either your back-left brain dominates, making linear planning easy, or another part of your brain takes charge and your brain requires a lot more energy to make plans and stick with them.
But we can all develop the skills to become better at mapping out our days to optimize productivity on things that matter. Hopefully, the above tips will help you to figure out the daily rituals that work best for you.