As a business owner and programmer, the way I structure my day can have a dramatic impact on my effectiveness and bottom line.
For the most part, traditional employees get a paycheck regardless how productive their day is. When starting out as a consultant, many think that they will be making more money: "$205/hr times 40 hours - I'm going to be rich!"
Unfortunately, consulting and business ownership don't work that way. I only get paid when I am working on billable tasks or negotiating new contracts. Even in the best week, I can only feasibly bill a maximum of 25 hours before I start making sacrifices and ignoring my business's needs.
If you ignore your own business too long, you will fail. You must administer to your business, find new clients, think about your firm's strategy, and develop IP you can leverage on future projects.
Balancing these different focuses can be a challenge. I must tackle a mix of tasks which may be highly creative (writing and programming), inter-personal (meetings, calls, and pitches), or tedious and mundane (accounting, scheduling posts, filling out forms, paying taxes).
Scheduling the wrong type of activity at the wrong time of day results in a massive loss in productivity. In the worst case, poor scheduling directly impacts the profitability of my projects and can cause them to be delivered late.
To maximize my effectiveness, I try my best to schedule tasks according to my body's rhythms. Yours may be different, which is fine - just make sure you are maximizing your effectiveness. By thinking about when you do your best work and focusing on that, you can increase your productivity and output quality without changing the total invested time.
Table of Contents:
How I Structure My Day
I mentioned that you must listen to your body. I find the following statements to be true:
- My ability to focus is best in the morning
- I have a much easier time writing in the morning
- I have a much easier time holding details in my head in the morning
- I can single-task without distraction in the morning
- Checking social media / email / news can ruin my morning productivity
- Eating a greasy restaurant lunch really slows me down for the rest of the day
- I find it much harder to stay focused and single-task in the afternoon
- Talking with people effectively shuts down my ability to do deep work for a few hours
- I can generate a lot of creative ideas in the evening, which gives me a quality start for the next day
- By planning the next day before I finish working, I have an easier time diving into work & following the plan
Given these general observations about my body and mind, I've developed a general set of guidelines:
- Mornings are reserved for deep-thinking & focus
- Afternoons are reserved for meetings, calls, administrative tasks, and "mindless" activities
- Evenings are reserved for planning and brainstorming
I do my best work in the morning. My creative juices are flowing, I can think clearly, I can build mental models, and I can focus deeply on one task.
My work morning typically consists of a four hour block. I try for 1-2 hours of writing with 2-3 hours of high-quality focused programming. Since I run a website and a consulting company, the bulk of my creative and high-value work is completed in this four hour block.
Sometimes I have non-programming work that requires intense focus and analysis. For instance, I review legal documents in the morning when it's much easier for me to parse legalese. I will also read specifications and other dense technical information in the morning.
If I need to have a creative meeting which involves high levels of attention and focus, I will schedule it for the morning. Such meetings include:
- Joint debugging sessions
- Architecture & code reviews
- Contract reviews
- Analyzing strategy
I tend to experience an energy dip in the afternoon, most notably right after lunch. Fundamentally, I find it impossible to perform deep thinking on a problem, my programming output drops, and I tend to make more mistakes.
I try to avoid writing, programming, and specification work in the afternoon. Instead, I perform more "mindless" activities such as:
- Company accounting updates
- Responding to emails
- Sending calendar invites
- Scheduling blog posts
- Scheduling social media posts
- Updating my CRM spreadsheet
- Collecting and logging key metrics
I also try to schedule most of my meetings and calls in the afternoon. I find that most social interactions tend to put me in a mental state which is not conducive to programming. Scheduling these social activities in the afternoon works well, since I am typically not programming at that time anyway.
My energy starts to increase again around 1500-1600. My creative juices start flowing, though my productivity muscles aren't as strong as they were in the morning.
I spend time taking notes on any interesting ideas I have. Since I've had a break from the programming and writing tasks of the morning, my brain is often full of ideas relating to where I left off. These can be helpful fuel for jumping right into productive work the next day.
I also take time each evening to focus on planning the next day. I note down any tasks that I accomplished today and create a plan for the following day. Having a plan in the morning prevents me from the typical clicking-around-the-web-while-deciding-what-I-should-work-on.
If I need to have a planning or brainstorming meeting, I will try to schedule it for the evening. This can include strategy meetings in the case that we are trying to determine new strategic direction.
If I don't have time in the evening for this type of meeting, I will potentially sacrifice time in the morning, as I want to tap into the creative juices. Post-afternoon grogginess doesn't produce quality planning or brainstorming in my experience.
Organizing your workday to match your natural energy and thought rhythms can have a tremendous impact. However, our non-workday rituals and activities can provide just as much of an impact on our work quality.
While I don't think the particular morning rituals of an individual are the keys to success, I do think that having a set of morning rituals is important in itself, no matter what they are.
My morning rituals are geared to allow my mind to be in a quiet, creative place when I start working
I wake up around 0600 and immediately head out for a 2-3 mile walk with my dog, which helps get the blood flowing. Depending on my mental state, I will either listen to a podcast or walk without headphones. Quiet walks tend to produce novel new ideas, while podcast walks are good when I need exposure to new ideas or alternative views.
After my walk I perform breathing exercises, journal, and read. By 0800 my brain is full of ideas and itching to start writing - just the state I'm looking for.
In today's world, it seems that people are always working. This can be especially challenging for consultants who work from home. There's no separation of work environments, and it's tempting to work an extra hour or two to make more money.
I like to perform a "post-work ritual" which signals to my body that the work day is over. I find this ritual to be especially important when working from home - at least those working in an office have the ritual of driving home from work!
I always end my workday by planning the next day. After planning my day, I shut my laptop, leave it upstairs, and head out to walk my dog. These don't always provide great separation, especially since I walk my dog throughout the day. I'm also experimenting with rituals such as changing clothes, playing music for 30 minutes, and performing a workout.
You have to take time away from work. Don't sacrifice your mental, physical, and emotional well-being.
You cannot be effective if you are wrapped up in a frustrating task. Frustration clouds are thinking, and inevitably you waste time on that activity.
If you recognize that you are frustrated, stuck on a tricky problem, or running around in circles, take a break. A five to fifteen minute walk will help re-energize you and reset your physiological state. In many cases, you will return to your work with solutions or new ideas to try.
Sometimes all we need is a little fresh air and separation from our problems.
Knowing your productivity and energy rhythms is half the battle. But what good is it to know that you think clearly in the morning if you are checking your email or Twitter every five minutes?
Here are some ideas for eliminating distractions and temptations:
- Quit your email program
- Log out of distracting sites
- Logging back in is an additional step that will enable you to break your automated brain loop
- Use an app such to temporarily block distracting sites
- Unplug your router from the internet
- Perhaps you still want to use your file server or stream music to your speakers…
- Put your phone in airplane mode or enable Do Not Disturb
You must guard the precious hours of clear thinking, or they will be taken from you.
Eat Well and Move
You must carve out time to can take care of your body. Be absolutely selfish, sacrifice money, decline meetings - do whatever it takes to prioritize your health.
A well-functioning body will give you additional energy, reduced stress, clearer thoughts, and boost your immunity to sickness. Neglecting your body will result in lowered energy, groggy thinking, and increased sickness.
Health seems to be the first thing to go when we get busy or stressed out. Don't make this foolish sacrifice.
Always Have a Plan
You should always be selecting your tasks based on some kind of plan, preferably one that is written down. Don't leave your day open to chance.
Every Friday, I create a plan for the following week which includes:
- Five primary tasks
- These MUST be accomplished
- If they were the only tasks you finished, it will be a good week
- Five secondary tasks
- These need to be accomplished, but not at the expense of the primary tasks
- Bonus tasks
- What to do when you have small chunks of time that need to be filled
- Not necessarily urgent, so should not ever overtake primary or secondary tasks in priority.
- Known meetings, due dates, or exceptional notes
For each workday, I select my tasks from this weekly list. The night before each workday, I sit down and plan the following day. I select 1 primary task, 1-2 secondary tasks, and any number of bonus tasks that may fit in my schedule.
Each day I wake up and have a plan already written out. I simply follow this list and execute in order. I only start on the secondary tasks once I've finished the most important task. Bonus tasks are only tackled when everything is finished or when I have a small convenient slot between two tasks.
I typically try to stick to the day's plan with as few modifications as possible. In the evening, I can re-evaluate my plans and adjust to any new information for the following day.
You are allowed to address fires if they are truly critical and worthy of ignoring everything else - but those times are more rare than you think. You can schedule them into your week without disturbing your current priorities.
Remember To Make Your Own Schedule
I hope you've gleaned something from my notes on how I structure my day. Please keep in mind that these notes are tailored to how I work. Your schedule, body, and energy flow will dictate a different flow.