I’ve been getting a ton of questions lately about how I manage my calendar and my daily schedule. Usually September and January are the big times to talk about this kind of stuff, so I’m assuming this is a serious pain point for many people. (Am I right?)
The planning stuff does not come naturally to me, but I’ve finally realized that my life goes much, much better when I embrace rhythms and routines. I’ve made a ton of progress in these areas, especially in the last 5 years, and have finally developed strategies that work very well, for me. It hasn’t been easy.
I’ve never been able to follow the typical create-your-daily-schedule advice, which goes like this: write down every single thing you need to do, then drop each activity into a slot on your calendar, in discrete half hour blocks. That approach is perfect for some people, but it makes my brain explode.
This won’t be the only post I write on creating and maintaining a schedule that works for you, so hit me with questions and potential topics to cover in comments, but today I’m sharing two big-picture concepts that help me plan my days/weeks/months: block scheduling and anchor events.
Staring at a day planner segmented into half-hour blocks makes me jumpy, but I’ve found freedom and flexibility in scheduling chunks of time in my days and weeks. This looks like 1-4 hour blocks of time devoted to a certain type of activity.
Some examples of my “blocks” right now: writing time (or other mentally taxing work), work-related tasks (email, list-making, planning), family time, and recharging time (reading, walking, creative stuff). When I plan my blocks, I group the mentally-demanding stuff together, and the less-demanding stuff together, and schedule them accordingly in my day.
I’m picky about the times I’ll plan for the mentally demanding stuff: I have to have energy, and I have to have childcare (or sleeping children).
Once the block is in place, I’m flexible about how I use it: during a block set aside for the mentally challenging stuff I might draft a blog post, or outline a bigger project, or even write a long letter to an old friend. If the block is for family time, I won’t know well in advance what we’ll be doing exactly: it might be a family walk, or a bike ride, or playing Uno, or reading a story out loud, or watching Jimmy Fallon clips. It will be together time.
One of those blocks is almost always rest and renewal. This was a big change for me a few years ago, and it makes a huge difference in how our days go. Every afternoon I block out an hour or two during the time when my energy slumps anyway to rest and regroup. These days that might look like reading, working out, (short) phone chats with friends, and a big iced coffee. These things are productive, but that’s not the point.
One more thing about these chunks: unless the babysitter is coming, the times aren’t strictly defined. This loose framework provides structure and flexibility, and it shifts depending on the day. For example, I frequently get together with friends in the afternoons, either by myself or with all the kids, too. I’ve learned that if I have a 2:00 coffee date I just can’t skip over the reading/workout or I’ll go crazy, so I’ll plan for a chunk of time to recharge before or after.
If the forecast says it’s supposed to rain all afternoon, we may move that family bike ride to the morning, during what would normally be a work chunk. I need the structure of a schedule, but since I’m often at home with my four kids, I also need flexibility.
Anchor events and hard stops:
I’ve learned to be deliberate about creating anchor events and hard stops in my days.
The “anchor event” concept come from Laura Vanderkam’s short ebook What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekends. In the book, she suggests planning 5 or so anchor events in your weekend: fun, scheduled activities that provide a structure for your days off. These things happen at a certain place, at a certain time.
Because it’s summer, we have lots of anchor events we’re planning around, and not just on the weekends: summer museum trips, playdates with friends, trips to the park or the zoo or the library. We plan these; we don’t just fit them in, or they might not happen. (Every once in a while we’ll take off on a spontaneous trip somewhere, but more often, if it’s not on the calendar, everyone would rather stay home than venture out in the heat this time of year.)
(Will and I have been talking lately about scheduling more anchor events into our family life, like Sunday adventures, or monthly family dinner dates, but we’re still thinking these through.)
I’m also (trying to) become diligent about protecting the hard stops in my day. At 7:00 a.m., I stop what I’m doing and either get ready to leave home or leave for a run, depending on the day. At noon, we break for lunch. 2 – 4:00 p.m. is my hard stop for mentally demanding work. I get off the computer, no matter what, and the kids have their own rest time to regroup and recharge. At 9:00 p.m., I’m done with the computer for the day. (I’ve been experimenting with making this time 6:00 p.m. but it’s not exactly a “hard stop” yet.)
One more thing about these anchor events and hard stops: they change with the seasons, which I find freeing and frustrating.
For example: during the winter, I almost always take a walk or go for a run at about 3:00. The sun is high; it’s warm out. That would be torture in July. I won’t deny that these seasonal changes are hard for me to get used to and it’s easy to fall off track when things change. Knowing it’s tough helps me adapt.
A daily rhythm should help, not hinder, and I appreciate the flexibility to adjust as needed. But it often seems that it’s time to change things up just when things finally start clicking, and it’s easy to fall off track when things change. Just knowing this is tough helps me adapt, but it’s still tricky.
What big-picture concepts help YOU plan your days? When it comes to planning your schedule, what are your pain points?