You could take any of a million approaches to organizing your day. You could convert your to-do list to a Post-it system, ritualize a twice-daily prioritizing check-in, or wake up at 4 AM, work for five or six hours, then exercise and relax.
Shane Parrish of Farnam Street has a simpler idea. He describes a rock-solid 18-minute daily plan for managing your time and finding focus in your day, created by Harvard Business Review writer Peter Bregman. Here’s the gist:
Step 1 (5 Minutes): Your Morning Minutes
Bregman recommends planning ahead, [either] the night before [or in] the morning. Before you turn on your computer, sit down with your to-do list and “decide what will make this day highly successful.” Take the items off your to-do list… and schedule them into your day. “Make sure,” he writes, “that anything that’s been on your list for three days gets a slot somewhere in your calendar or move it off the list.”
Step 2 (1 Minute Every Hour): Refocus
Some interruptions help us course correct. “Set your watch, phone, or computer to ring every hour and start the work that’s listed on your calendar. When you hear the beep… ask yourself if you spent your last hour productively. Then look at your calendar and deliberately recommit to how you are going to use the next hour.”
Step 3 (5 Minutes): Your Evening Minutes
“At the end of your day… shut off your computer and review how the day went.” Ask yourself three sets of questions: How did the day go? What did I learn today? Whom did I interact with?
The beauty of Bregman’s 18-minute plan is that it’s crystal-clear in its formulation, leaving no room for idiosyncratic interpretation. You check in and reset purposefully at the start of your day, throughout your day, and before you go to sleep. The routine also, in its hourly refocusing time, controls for inevitable distractions during the day (hello, YouTube) so you can adjust as needed.
Here’s the main question, though: as you’re investing all that effort into calibrating your time, how do you know what exactly to focus on? In an environment more overstimulated than ever before, with hundreds of emails, social media posts, alerts, notifications, and pings vying for your attention every minute, how do you identify where to target your energies? As you’re taking stock of the day ahead, or the day that’s just concluded, it’s all well and good to ask yourself what you think you should prioritize or what went right, but how do you make sure those choices are on track on the macro level?
Bregman, in an interview for Fox Business, sketches out his three-step process to establish your life focus:
Take a personal day to get your head around what is it that you should be spending your time on, and where is your focus and what should your focus be…. Know your focus, then you have to sustain your focus. In order to sustain your focus, it means you have to be strong and deliberate and intentional about what you’re going to say yes to and what you’re going to say no to…. Then the third is to protect it. You’re going to sustain it day in, and day out, and you have to really be conscious and aware of: am I always blocking out time for me to get done the most important things to me.
In carving out time, above and beyond the daily 18-minute routine, several times throughout the year if not once a month or once a week, to actually pinpoint your focus, you’re setting yourself up for maximal success. As Sam Spurlin writes on 99U:
[Focus] becomes less about tips and tricks and more about making sure you’re allocating the most scarce resource in the universe, your attention, in ways that most closely align with who you are and what impact you want to have on the world. It’s about eliminating the unnecessary tasks and demands that are eating away at your 150 billion bits so you can focus on something that helps another person or creates a little more beauty in the world or solves an important problem or makes you feel like you’re on this planet to do something worthwhile.
Challenge yourself to keep dialing in to how you want to spend your time, by staying focused and organized throughout the day, yes; but also by constantly questioning what exactly you’re here for and how you can make that happen.