Don’t you hate the days where you’re busy all day with nothing to show for it? Maybe you started three projects and hit roadblocks on all of them. Maybe you kept getting interrupted every time you got up to speed.
However it happens, it’s a lousy feeling. There’s panic as the clock seems to pick up speed. How is it 3:00 already? And now it’s 4:30! ARRRGH! And then comes the emptiness, the realization that everything is getting pushed out to tomorrow.
It’s no fun. But it happens. Especially to content creators/copywriters/writers of any stripe. We have to balance the really interesting projects, the research-intensive maybe less-interesting projects, the “delightfully challenging,” the not-at-all-delightfully challenging, and the tiny housekeeping tasks that build up and eventually bury us.
So how do you keep from staring at the clock in numb shock at the end of a day? Especially if, say, you’re a creative type who is not a model of discipline and self-control?
The answer will be a little bit different for everyone. We’re all beautiful unique snowflakes, after all. But to get you started, here’s how I try to organize my day.
#1: Eat Breakfast
If you’re used to running on nothing but caffeine and pending deadlines, grab some food before you leave the house. You need real energy, not just nervous energy, and that comes from calories. Have some yogurt, or a protein bar, or three eggs and half a pound of bacon. The point is to have something solid. No, smoothies don’t count; your body processes liquid calories differently, and your stomach will be distractingly grumbling before you’re halfway to lunch.
#2: Clean House
When you get to work, spend 15 or so minutes on the housekeeping chores that would otherwise distract. Answer high-priority emails, check your news feeds, do a quick social media crawl. Whatever it takes to feel grounded, connected to the world around you, and ready to face the day.
Then turn off notifications for email, Facebook, Twitter, everything. On your phone and on your computer. Turn them off until lunch. Trust me.
#3: Rack Up an Easy Win
For years, I struggled to follow the “eat your frog” philosophy. You know, the idea that you should start the day with your hardest, most unpleasant task, and then the rest of the day is a breeze. If that works for you, bon appetit. For me, it meant staring at the frog on my plate, picking at it slowly, and making hardly any progress.
So I recommend starting with an easy win. Like, if you have social messages to write, a post to edit, or an interview that just needs an introduction to be publishable. Just something to overcome the morning inertia, something you will feel good to put in your Done pile.
#4: NOW Eat the Frog
Once you have your quick win, you can start to build steam. Now it’s time to chow down on that amphibian. Take your ugliest, dullest, least pleasant job and knock it out. Your stomach is full; you’re wide awake; get it going. Otherwise you’ll start it at 3 p.m., when you’re feeling drowsy and undermotivated anyway… and then you’re doomed. Get it done before lunch and you’ll be much better off.
#5: Take a For-Real Lunch Break
Rule 1: Eat lunch. Rule 2: Don’t eat it at your desk. I kept trying to keep working and eat at my desk, but all I got was a greasy keyboard and very little accomplished.
So I heartily recommend a clean break. Go to your break room, your gourmet restaurant (if you work at Google), your feeding yurt (if you work at Zappos). If the weather’s right, definitely go outside.
If you take this time to eat your meal, let your mind wander, and resist the urge to check your phone, you will have a more productive afternoon. Your brain, your legs, and your eyes all need that break time.
#6: Do Some Afternoon Housekeeping
After lunch, take another 15-20 minutes to catch up on email, put out fires, and sample your social media feeds. Then, for real and for serious, turn off the notifications again.
#7: Tackle Your Most Creative Tasks
You may want to swap this one and #4, depending on when you’re most creative. I find that time right after lunch is perfect for creative writing, ideation, brainstorming, and concepting. Before the 3 o’clock doldrums set in, there’s ample opportunity for sprinting through mentally challenging, but still fun, work.
#8: End with the Mindless Stuff
Odds are you have plenty of tasks in a day that don’t require all of your brain cells to do, but still have to get done. 3-5pm is the best time to do these. If you hit them in the morning, they’ll stop your momentum cold. Try them at prime creative time and they’ll steal your will to live. But for the drowsy last couple hours of the day, they’re a perfect fit.
One of these end-of-day tasks should be setting up your work for tomorrow. Identify your easy win, your unappetizing frog, your creative work, and set your preliminary schedule.
Be a Time Lord (or Lady)
Granted, even the best time management plan can go awry. You may not have the right balance of work to match your fluctuating energy levels. You may get stuck in a meeting or three. But if you have a general plan for the day, you can be greatly productive on your best days, and still a little productive on your worst.
Your schedule may not look exactly like this one, but you can make one that fits you perfectly. Just listen to what your body and brain are telling you—do creative work when your energy level is its highest, focus on one task at a time, and take the breaks you need to stay refreshed. Develop the habits that help you do your best work.
How do you manage your time to stay productive through your work day? Let me know in the comments.