Written by Elizabeth Grace Saunders for The Muse and Published in Harvard Business Review
A lot of individuals with a rebellious streak resist structure, snub the idea of a schedule, and then find that their lives and creative output aren’t nearly as harmonious as they hoped.
If you fall at this end of the spectrum and find it hard to accept — and even harder to follow — a standard routine, maybe it’s time to stop thinking about managing your time as developing a set of strict rules to follow, and start thinking about increasing productivity as a process of finding and cultivating your unique creative rhythm — your life cadence, your beat. A way of being where there’s a central theme and recognizable melody, but also room for improvisation and blending in harmonies.
Designer and design writer Steven Bradley once quipped, “Whether or not you plan for it, your design will have rhythm running through it. Rhythm activates space. Rhythm creates mood. Rhythm can lead visitors through your design.” Rhythm can also help lead you through your time.
If this sort of approach sounds appealing to you, here are some ideas based on my own life and work with time management coaching clients that I’ve seen to align your time with your energy, interests, and goals.
You can typically get more done in a month when you plan for less. Most people have a natural rhythm where they can accomplish about one major professional project or one personal milestone in a month. I’m not suggesting that this is the only thing you do in a given month, but these are the size XL tasks, like deciding on a new software and implementing it or organizing your studio space. If you tell yourself that you’ll do three items of this stature in a month, you’ll probably make little progress on any of them. If you commit to one specifically for the month, there’s a high probability that you’ll accomplish it or get close to finishing in the four weeks. Honor that monthly project cadence, and you’ll feel much more satisfied.
What’s more, it’s also essential that you honor your energy cadence over the course of the month. Of course, there are exceptions, but as a general rule, one to two trips a month are the max that most individuals can take without getting thrown significantly off rhythm. Also, consider pacing yourself in regard to events you host or visitors that you have in your home. All of these events add a nice sense of variety to life, but can make you lose the beat if the exceptions become the norm.
Projects, meetings, and commitments can vary week to week, but it’s helpful to have a general sense of the weekly cadence that most supports your work. You can think about this in the same way you would a design template. It’s a format that you can then build and modify as necessary for any given project — in this case, your week.
After a great deal of experimentation, I’ve found my best weekly cadence includes the following:
- Include ramp-up time on Monday morning, so that the first few hours of the week are blocked out for weekly planning and processing after the weekend.
- Schedule focused project time on Wednesday afternoons. I work on smaller items throughout the week but when I need to focus on a large project, like a new book proposal, it works best for me to block out a whole afternoon free from meetings. That way I can go to a coffee shop and get quality, uninterrupted work done. This turns moving a major initiative forward into something that feels like a nice mid-week mini-break from the normal day-to-day.
- Wind down on Friday afternoons. I block out about three hours to wrap up anything that took longer than I anticipated or to work on nonurgent administrative tasks that are nice to get done before closing up for the weekend.
- At least one weekday evening, accomplish personal to-do items and recharge. I’m super social, but even extroverts need a day off.
I can, of course, adapt, adjust, and amend all of this as necessary. But this rhythm is what I prefer, and I find it leads to an extremely satisfying week with closure before the weekend.
There is no one right formula for having a great day. Some people say to never check e-mail in the morning; others have the exact opposite advice. The trick is to be honest with yourself about what works best for you to get the most of your 24 hours.
Personally, I spend the first hour to hour and a half planning, answering e-mail, and completing small to-do items, and then I jump into more in-depth work and client calls by 10 to 11 am. I prefer to not have more than four hours of meetings a day, and I try to leave the last 30 minutes of my day free for wrap-up. With some of my clients, the best daily rhythm is to check e-mail very quickly in the morning and then focus on in-depth work until lunch. After lunch they have meetings or respond to emergencies that have come up.
No matter which you prefer, you want to have clarity on when you do your best focused work, when you prefer to have meetings, and when you’ll make space for the processing and planning that keeps everything moving in the right direction.
Finally, it’s important to know what pattern can help you to get back on track when there are major variations to your theme. Being honest with yourself and giving yourself permission to spend time reorganizing when you need it keeps you from feeling perpetually behind and guilty.
For example, you will experience the least pressure when you block out the day before and after vacation so that no one can schedule meetings with you on those days. That gives you the flexibility you need for wrapping up work and getting your head back in the game after being away. Also, consider blocking out at least a half day after a conference or major event to tie up loose ends, follow up, and sort through your notes. This will give you the ability to extract the value from what just happened. Someone once told me she always booked an extra night at the hotel when she attended a conference so that she could complete all of the wrap-up before going home. The more disruptive the event, the more time you’ll want to allot to resettle in and get back on a rhythm.
Rhythm on a monthly, weekly, and daily basis can create both the order and flexibility you need for your work and time to flow in harmony. It’s time to discover your cadence.