Whatever your job, whatever your hours, most of us aren’t working as efficiently as we could be. It’s not necessarily that we’re unproductive; we just haven’t worked out the most effective way to tackle our work. From working much longer on a project than we expected, to frontloading our day with low-energy tasks like emails, without the right work structure we often lead ourselves astray. But a few minor adjustments can make all the difference. Here’s how to build a better work schedule for a more productive and satisfying week.
Before you clock out on Friday, make sure you’ve drawn up a list of the work you need to do next week. Think about what you want to achieve, what tasks you want to complete, and what goals you want to set. The temptation to mentally clock off on Friday afternoon is all too strong, but taking this one small action before you do will make Monday morning a little easier to bear and a lot more productive.
Once you’ve outlined your tasks, divide them into high-intensity and low-level tasks (more on this next). It won’t take long and the benefits are significant: kicking off the week knowing exactly what you’re meant to be working on puts you in control and sets you up for success.
“Listen to your body” is usually pretty solid advice, and it applies to building a work schedule too. If you’re feeling stressed, lethargic or distracted, it’s probably not the best time to tackle that big project… even if the deadline is looming. Now would be a good time to crack on with those easy jobs you keep meaning to get around to: replying to a huge email, or doing research and organization.
If you organize your tasks by their cognitive load, you can delve into different jobs depending on how you feel. Once you’ve divided tasks into two categories (complex vs simple), you can throw yourself into bigger jobs requiring concentration whenever you’re feeling motivated or energized; likewise, when you’re feeling drained, you can keep your productivity levels high by getting on with admin or emails. It also helps you keep perspective – filling an entire day of simple low-value tasks may make you feel busy, but it’s not necessarily productive in the wider scheme of things. We should all be aiming to fill more of our days with cognitively demanding, high-value “deep work”.
Following the point above, it’s also important to pay attention to your natural rhythm. If you’re a morning person, factor that into your schedule and begin your day by working on your biggest, most important tasks. Similarly, if you struggle to feel fully alert until after 11AM, start your day off with more gentle tasks that don’t require as much effort.
This method of working can be applied throughout the day. Many of us experience a lag in energy after lunch, or between 3-4pm – if that’s the case for you, schedule miscellaneous admin tasks for these more lethargic periods. Not only does this allow you to work with your natural rhythms rather than against them, but by breaking up bigger tasks into stints, you’ll escape creative burnout too.
Much has been written about how to assess priorities and get things done (we’ve written a fair bit about it ourselves), but the best advice is still to categorize which tasks are important and which are urgent – and then only prioritize the important ones. This theory is called the "Eisenhower Principle" after the U.S. President who championed it, and it basically means you should focus on tasks that have a valuable outcome, rather than ones that simply demand your attention.
If you’re unsure whether a task is important or urgent, ask yourself the following: “Does the task have an ending that results in me accomplishing my own goal?”; if the answer is no, there’s a good chance it’s urgent rather than important. While we often prioritize urgent tasks due to pressures, they’re often linked to achieving someone else's goals. Always prioritize work that's crucial for your own success.
Human beings are not machines, and our brains can only properly focus on tasks for about 90 minutes (max.) before we lose concentration. To give your brain a breather, set an alarm every two hours or so to remind you to get up and move. A quick walk around the block (or even to the bathroom), some long, deep breaths and a few stretches will help refresh your brain, allowing you to return to your work feeling renewed.
Besides, sitting for long periods of time does no favors for your body either – aside from slowing down your metabolism and screwing up your posture, it’s also been linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer. Remember that to look after your mind, you have to look after your body too.
You can’t set a more intelligent schedule without understanding how much time you’ll need for different types of work. Underestimating the time we need to do something is the prime reason why we struggle to meet deadlines – which disappoints ourselves as much as our stakeholders. Thankfully this doesn’t take any special extra effort to find out. You just need a good time tracking tool – ideally an automatic one that will accurately track how long you spend on different tasks in the background for you.
Be sure to look at all the different apps and tasks involved in completing different types of work, and use this to set a time benchmark for similar pieces of future work. With a good tracker, you should even be able to schedule in work ahead, and compare your estimate against what you actually end up doing. By understanding everything that goes into a piece of work, you can give it the space and energy it requires in your schedule.
Once you’ve figured out your peak productivity times, scheduled different times for email/admin and deep work, and planned when to have breaks, it’s then time to turn this schedule into routine. Routines help you develop a successful work schedule by removing the element of decision; you no longer have to figure out how to spend your working day – you just stick to your routine.
Decision fatigue is very real; the more judgments you have to make, the poorer you are at absorbing the information needed to make an knowledgeable decision. Having a routine not only keeps you directed on the big picture, but it also helps you defend your time: if it isn’t scheduled, it doesn’t happen!