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3 Powerful Time Management Principles for Makers and Thinkers

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Any occupation that requires in-depth creative thinking also requires some nonnegotiable, unfettered, undisturbed blocks of time. For these makers1 and thinkers,2 focus time is the foundation of their productivity.

Take software engineers and academic researchers (e.g. doctoral students or research professors). Both occupations spend large portions of their week in deep thought. While software engineers are assembling our future reality with innovative products and algorithms, academic researchers are producing new theories and analyses that will shape how future generations think about our world.

Long, undisturbed blocks of focus time—immersed in code or theory—are required to generate reality-shifting innovations that change the world, in either large or small ways.

Other occupations, such as managers and salespeople, have different scheduling needs and don’t require this same regimen.

But, denizens of the creative class live daily with competing goals and responsibilities, realized through multiple modes of work: focus, collaboration, learning, and socializing. 3

The enemy of the creative process is distraction. Interruption.

3 Principles to Take Control of Your Weekly Schedule

If you are a maker or thinker starved for the focus time you need to produce your best work, let me share how I took control of my own weekly schedule, relieving myself of constant stress and feelings of failure.

For more than a decade, while holding diverse roles, including software developer, CEO, CTO, angel investor, consultant, university lecturer, and doctoral student, I’ve maximized my success through intentional time management.

By leaning on the following three principles of time management, I ensure quality focus time each week:

  • I start each week with an intentional foundation.
  • I am the master of my own schedule.
  • I don’t allow distraction.

Start Each Week With an Intentional Foundation

A productive week starts with intentionality.

There are important things you must do, or want to do, during the week. Shouldn’t they be the first things you schedule?

Instead, if you’re like most, you schedule what others demand of you first and only later look for empty slots in the calendar where you might “fit in” what is important to you.

Good luck finding focus time in that type of “reactively-designed” calendar.

Instead, flip the paradigm by scheduling what is important to you first.

To do this, though, you must have important commitments scheduled in your calendar weeks, even months, in advance, before the world intrudes with its demands for your time.

To first schedule what is important to you, set up a weekly template4 in your electronic calendar5 that includes pre-scheduled blocks of time for all your most important activities. Including focus time and other important reoccurring activities. Set these blocks of time to reoccur automatically each week.

Pre-scheduled blocks of focus time force discipline. Intentionality.

If your most important blocks of time are pre-scheduled into your calendar, it is then straightforward to add some of the less important items (impromptu or opportunistic meetings, requests, etc.) around what is already there.

“Important” shouldn’t just mean important for work. Family, relationships, and personal growth fuel us over the long-term. Make their value explicit by including time for them in your template.

This is the scheduling approach I used when I worked 60+ hours a week running a software company, when I was an engineering leader at Groupon, and that I now use as a full-time doctoral student and self-employed investor/advisor/CTO.

In fact, it may help to look at my actual weekly template. All of the items shown below are set to automatically reoccur in my calendar every week.

A Weekly Template

Let’s break this template down a bit.

Showering and breakfast to start each day

I aim to start my day at 6 a.m. (translate that to 6:06 a.m.) with a shower and then breakfast with my wife and kids. I only recently added this to my schedule, as my morning routine shifted a few months back and this change ensures an important part of my day is preserved.

If it is important to you, include it in your weekly template.

Writing is built-in

Next, I pre-schedule two hours a day to write for various projects. With 10 hours a week pre-scheduled, I rarely scramble to find writing time.

20 hours of DBA study time

My DBA studies typically require 20 hours a week of time, so I pre-schedule it. I don’t scramble every week to find a few extra hours here or there. But, sometimes I do still have to scramble for time—the weekly template will not protect you from all schedule anomalies, such as end-of-term assignments or unexpected client projects.

To cope with scheduling anomalies, notice my entire weekly template fits into the work week. This saves my weekends for re-energizing with plenty of personal and family time. Having weekends only lightly scheduled also offers a buffer to handle unexpected demands.

Drive time in included

In addition to focus time and personal and family priorities, I, of course, include any standing appointments in my template, including classes and client meetings. For engagements outside of the office, remember to include drive time.

Here are some additional tips when establishing your weekly schedule:

  • Use color coding to differentiate types of activities. I have different color-coded calendars for each of my major activities but they are all aggregated into one Google Calendar for easy viewing.
  • Build in enough free time each day or week to accommodate high-priority, urgent, unplanned, or opportunistic events or tasks.
  • Don’t be militaristic about your weekly template. They should reduce—not increase—stress. Accept there will be days where you have to delete one or several pre-scheduled time blocks in favor of something urgent. Don’t sweat it! But, also don’t make it a habit.
  • Consider how to schedule one-off appointments or events. In your electronic calendar, the weekly template you set up today will stretch out into infinity. So, if you have to schedule an appointment three months or three years in the future, when you flip to that week of the calendar, the pre-scheduled blocks will be sitting there, guardians of your time.

We’ve seen my weekly template. Now let’s take a look at how my current week has developed—after it’s been filled to the brim.

A full calendar

As you’ll notice, it is quite full. I even had to adjust some of my pre-scheduled time blocks. But, you’ll also notice that, by and large, my weekly template won out and I maintained control of my schedule.

Be the Master of Your Own Schedule

Ok, it is all well and good to set up a weekly template, with nicely pre-scheduled blocks of focus time in order to achieve your most important priorities.

But, let’s face it, none of us live in a vacuum. Other people will demand our time. And some of them won’t take no for an answer.

This is true. There are certain important requests that must be accommodated, be it from a boss or a spouse. When this happens, adjust your schedule for that week and move on.

But, most requests, even from a boss or a spouse, can still be accommodated around your weekly template. If you cannot do so, it means your template is too regimented and you need to loosen up a bit. Remove some time blocks or reduce their duration. Instead of writing for two hours each day, for instance, I could reduce my commitment to one hour a day, freeing up an extra five hours a week.

Let’s get real, though. Being too protective of our schedules is rarely the problem.

The problem is almost always the opposite: We allow others to request and manipulate our time. We don’t given ourselves permission to control our own schedules.

Be the master of your own schedule by

  • dictating when you are—and when you are not—available to accommodate a request,
  • refusing to give time to anything unimportant to you, and
  • simply giving yourself permission to say no.

Time is a precious resource. Value it. Protect it. No one else will do it for you.

Don’t Allow Distraction

Multi-tasking is dead.

In his Fortune Magazine article, MIT neuroscience professor Earl Miller warns us that we are in fact not good at multitasking. It is an illusion. He writes, “Don’t try to multitask. It ruins productivity, causes mistakes, and impedes creative thought.”

If you are a maker or a thinker, focus time is precious.

It is the currency you live by, invested parsimoniously on only the most important projects.

Why would you then destroy that ephemeral focus time by allowing yourself to be bombarded by emails, instant messages, and social media notifications?

And can you really trust yourself to fight the allure of Hacker News, CNN, or Quora when you should be in heads-down focus mode? (Don’t click those links—focus!)

In her Slate.com article, Ann Murphy Paul highlights studies illustrating the negative impact of multitasking on students (from middle school to college). In one study profiled, even students who knew they were being observed, were unable to stay on task.

Students’ “on-task behavior” started declining around the two-minute mark as they began responding to arriving texts or checking their Facebook feeds. By the time the 15 minutes were up, they had spent only about 65 percent of the observation period actually doing their schoolwork.
—Annie Murphy Paul, “You’ll Never Learn!”

As Paul points out, numerous studies have illustrated the negative consequences of multitasking. “People who regularly juggle several streams of content do not pay attention, memorize, or manage their tasks as well as those who focus on one thing at a time,” write Professor Larry Rosen and co-author Alexandra Samuel in their Harvard Business Review article.

Protect your focus time by

  • disconnecting devices or setting them to “Do Not Disturb,”
  • using website-blocking software, such as Freedom, to safeguard against the urge to surf unproductive websites,
  • signaling to others you’re in focus mode by closing your door, wearing headphones, or moving to a focus-friendly spot (even if just a table in a coffee shop), and
  • wearing expensive noise-canceling headphones, or cheap foam earplugs, to block distracting noises.

My supply of foam earplugs

Start Today by Designing Your Weekly Template

Another year has wrapped up.

Did you accomplish all that you wanted over the past twelve months? Did you develop the software or submit the research paper?

If not, why?

The smart money says you didn’t set aside enough dedicated focus time. Or, you squandered it–maybe an even bigger sin.

Yes, that’s hard to hear but if it is true you need to face up to the failure and decide now to make changes. Own your schedule: start with an intentional foundation, master your schedule, and don’t allow distraction.

Pull up your electronic calendar today and build your weekly template. Keep it modest. Schedule just a few precious blocks of focus time and then guard them well.

Then, see what takes root in the new year.

  1. Paul Graham, PhD conceptualized this conflict between occupations that require significant focus time and those that require more collaborative time.
  2. Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD writes extensively on the workflow of academic thinkers.
  3. Gensler identified these separate modes of work to accomplish various tasks.
  4. Here is an example from a professor.
  5. I use Google Calendar but most electronic calendars allow their users to add reoccurring events.

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2 Replies

  1. Good tips. Especially “scheduling what is important to you first”.

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