If you’re like me, you’ve probably read a lot of articles on how to hack your productivity, manage your time or multitask your way to success. From trying many different approaches, I found that the majority made me busy, but not necessarily more productive. Or the ones that made me more productive, did so at the expense of some other aspect of my life. Maybe I could optimize for getting everything done at work, only to find myself demotivated because I wasn’t spending enough time with my family. Does this sound familiar?
Before I decided to prioritize and focus my time, I spent about 42 hours a week in recurring meetings. These were mostly meetings I didn’t schedule. That meant I didn’t have time to read and respond to emails during the regular work week, and there was no time to work on the deliverables I had committed to during these meetings. I found myself coming in earlier and earlier to catch up on email, and working late into the evening after my kids were in bed.
I was making the mistake of letting other people manage my focus time for me. I needed a better solution.
I created this approach having read a series of books on productivity, focus and distraction management, habit tracking and happiness. Today, this is how I organize and prioritize my life, and it just might work for you too.
At the start of each quarter I create a list of the things I want to focus on for the next 3 months. Not just work. I map out everything I believe to be important to my success. This may seem time consuming — it took me a full day the first time, but for me, it is absolutely worth the investment. Having done this for almost a year now, I can update my objectives in about three hours. That’s an hour investment each month to make sure I’m prioritizing my life appropriately.
- Life Priorities
I start with high level Life Priorities that encompass everything I care about. I create this list and prioritize it and allocate each a rough percentage of my time. I break my day into 16 waking hours, and 8 hours of rest (not necessarily sleep). Therefore 112 hours represents 100% of my allocatable focus resources in any week. My typical week might look like this:
- Family Time 30% ~ 34hrs
- Work 45% ~ 50hrs
- Mental Health 5% ~ 7hrs
- Personal Health 5% ~ 7hrs
- Personal Development 5% ~ 7hrs
- Unplanned 5% ~ 7hrs
Remember, priority and resource allocation are not the same thing. I have young kids, and right now I am prioritizing my time with them. It’s important for me to be home for dinner, bath and bedtime routine. I can’t always do this, but it is my top priority. I spend more time working (and being productive) than with my family, but I will do everything possible to make sure I hit my allocated focus time with family. This sometimes means not doing some of the things I have prioritized lower, like personal development and personal health. This is not ideal, but you should be comfortable with sacrificing some things in order to achieve your higher priority goals.
If it’s not working for you, you haven’t prioritized appropriately. For example, I have purposely built in unplanned time each week and it is obviously the first thing to be reprioritized in the event that one of my more important goals. On busy weeks, this is largely consumed by work, but on quieter weeks of the year, I get a little more time with family.
It’s also important to note that it is my mean weekly distribution and I’m comfortable that not every week will be evenly balanced. Some weeks play out exactly as planned. Others don’t. As part of my role I am required to travel, and last week I was away for 7 days. That week scored me about 90% on the work score and 0% on the family score. However, I have some vacation coming up this quarter and on the whole, I intend to balance the books.
2. Focus Allocation
The next step is to then break each Life Priority into its own Focus Allocation. This is effectively assigning resources (your attention in hours) to the things that matter to you within each priority. Let’s use work in this example, as it is likely the most relevant to you. Before we get started and too carried away, let’s remember that it’s unreasonable to think you could control all of your focus time at work. We all have managers, executives, surprise deadlines and other people’s calendars to contend with. So it’s best to just allocate time for the things that are beyond your control, that you can plan for to some degree.
My Focus Allocation might look like this.
Work Focus Allocation 45% ~ 50hrs/ week*
- Exec. Meetings / Uncontrollable 15% ~ 8hrs
- Managing Employees 20% ~ 10hrs
- Special Initiatives & Projects 30% ~ 15hrs
- Think & Focus Time 20% ~ 10hrs
- Email & Communication 10% ~ 5hrs
- Mentoring / Helping Others / Work Articles 5% ~ 2hrs
So let’s look a this resource allocation. Similar to my Life Priorities, I have listed the things that I believe to be most important to my success in order. So If I have a particularly busy week filled with Exec. Meetings beyond my control, the first to suffer will be my Mentoring / Helping others, then Email and so on.
One of the key elements here is to block book Think and Focus Time into your calendar. If you don’t you’ll very quickly fill those spots with other things not on your list. I generally block book these slots for the quarter. Of course they’ll likely need to move around now and then to accommodate people, but I owe resources to this and keeping my calendar booked helps. Then each week I look at my to do list, and rename each Focus slot with the specific tasks I’m going to complete, or problems I’m going to think about. Creating space to think is the single most important change I made to my work week.
3. Calendar Planning
Once you have mapped out each of your Life Priorities into Focus Allocations, it’s time to get your calendar out.
- Start by adding the things you have little to no control over. In my example above, I will add the Executive Stakeholder Meetings to my calendar first. These can be actual meetings, or placeholders to allow time for them when they arrive.
- Then go down through the list of priorities throughout the day. Remember, these are weekly targets, so you may split your activities evenly each day, or have one day focussed on a single, specific topic.
I break my calendar into 15 minute units of time. I am fully aware that things will not play out exactly to my calendar plan, but it is a lot better than not planning. Some days I am out by hours, but its not about getting the calendar exactly right, it’s about the awareness that the calendar brings as to how far off your focus priorities you are in a given week.
4. Activity Stacking
One you have added almost everything to your calendar, you will find that there are likely optimizations that you can make. For example, I found that if I walked to public transport, instead of driving, I could use that time to (1) call my family while on route and (2) get some of my exercise time in for that day. So instead of that 15 minutes “commuting” it gets classified as 15 minutes of exercise and 15 minutes of Family Time. Seek out areas you can stack activities and you’ll buy yourself some more wiggle room.
*I have rounded these numbers and am aware they do not add to 100% exactly in this example