Maybe it’s the engineer in me, but I have always operated best when adhering to some level of structure. I have learned that if I don’t measure, track, or analyze what I am doing, my productivity will fall to the wayside and I will devolve into a couch potato.
In fact, when I started my first job back in the fall of 2015, I would come home from work, cook dinner then proceed to watch a couple of hours of Mad Men before going to bed. That became my daily routine because I didn’t have any plan other than to relax when I got home. After a couple of months of repeating this did I begin to question how much time I was wasting.
I knew I didn’t want to be lazy, but I didn’t know how I should best use my time. I also knew to have good intentions was not enough, I would need a system tailored to my personality that I could stick with. It also needed to be simple enough for me to easily default to when tired or uncertain how I should best spend my time.
“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”
So after many months of mismanaging my free time, I finally decided to do something about it. I decided that I would spend a couple of hours upfront to create a little self-experiment that ended up completely changing how I spent my time. I made the decision to actually measure, track and prioritize it, all with the help of using Google Calendar.
Google Calendar has become an invaluable resource for how I organize my life. It has been one of the few free tools I’ve found useful for building out my schedule. After becoming familiarized with the tool, I quickly learned how much “fluff” is built into your day once you have taken the time to track and prioritize it.
Yet how many times have we told ourselves these excuses:
“There just isn’t enough time in the day to get everything done.”
“I am too tired after work to do anything other than sit on the couch and watch TV.”
I know I have used them many times before, but what if it didn’t have to be true?
What if you could design your life in such a way that allows you to get everything done that you needed? And no, I’m not only going to tell you to just stop watching TV every night (although, watching less TV is definitely something most of us should strive to do). All I am saying is if you are willing to invest a few hours of your time upfront as I did, then you can develop your own system which could ultimately change the direction of your life.
Obviously, I can’t leverage technology to add more than 24 hours to my day to fit everything into my schedule — that’s not the point. If anything, this system has made me better at saying no to things that are not important while allowing me to focus more on the things that are. It’s purpose, I’ve found, is to help me align what I truly value with what I actually do.
So allow me to share with you how I use Google Calendar to prioritize and focus on what is most important to me.
Specifically, I’ll show you:
- How I use it to plan my week
- How I use it to stay on track with my priorities
- How I prioritize my free time
How I Use Google Calendar
I use a color-coded system to better organize my day. It is broken down as follows:
- Purple — Health (sleep, relaxation, gym time)
- Blue — Self-development/Learning (Includes reading, writing, and developing skills)
- Green — Work (What pays the bills)
- Red — Administrative Tasks (Necessary, but does not provide direct value. Would be best to eliminate in the long-run)
- Orange — Managerial Tasks (Necessary and can provide some value. Would be best to eventually outsource some of these tasks in the future if feasible)
- Light Blue — Important Reminders/Tasks (My To-Do list)
Planning My Week
I have found it beneficial to break down my time into these separate color-coded blocks. This allows me to get a quick overview of how my time is being allocated during the week. I typically work 40–45 hours a week at my job so my time blocks do not differ much from the day-to-day*. Having a stable work schedule has made it all the more important for me to utilize my free time to build out a system for my productive habits to flourish.
After accounting for the 8–9 hour time block dedicated to my job, I prioritize my health (purple block). I have observed that if I do not prioritize my sleep and exercise then everything else will quickly begin to suffer. I treat my sleep as a top priority by trying to get as close to 8 hours of sleep each night. Lifting weights 3–4 days a week has also benefitted my life in a multitude of ways. Even though the gym consumes anywhere from 4–6 hours of free time a week, the rewards far outweigh the investment. I also spend about 15 minutes during my morning routine to do mobility work to help combat the harmful effects of prolonged sitting that I experience at my job.
After prioritizing time to maintain my health, I dedicate at least two hours a day to maintain and develop my mind (blue block). To ensure that I spend at least two hours a day dedicated to self-learning, I had to slowly build a stable morning routine. My routine now includes a 30-minute block dedicated to reading and another 30-minute time block dedicated to journaling/writing (although I will sometimes dedicate the full hour to either reading or writing depending on what I am most focused on).
I have found that dedicating at least an hour to myself first thing in the morning is the best way to maintain consistent progress towards my goals. I’ve discovered the morning to be perfect for mentally intensive work since I am mentally refreshed and not bogged down by any distractions that will inevitably arise throughout the day.
Establishing a morning routine that I can stick with has been the best thing for helping me reach my goals. So much so that I hope to cover my morning routine in greater detail in a later post. (But for now, it is important to note that my morning routine is the product of months of self-experimentation to see what works best for me.)
[*I realize that some of you may be working a lot more hours at your job or perhaps your schedule fluctuates wildly from week to week. If that is the case for you, then I would argue that having some control over at least 1–2 hours of your day is even more important. If you struggle to find the time, then I encourage you to make time by developing a morning routine.]
Staying On Schedule
I use Google Calendar’s notification settings to send push notifications to my phone to alert me when my next time block is about to begin. This achieves two things: it ensures I stay on track with my tasks and helps me recognize how well I adhere to a set schedule. If I notice that some tasks are never getting done when planned, I can adjust accordingly. This can be done by either rescheduling the task to a different time slot or perhaps eliminating it entirely if I no longer find any value in it.
My schedule serves as a template for my life to ensure that I don’t drift too far from becoming the type of person I want to be. But I should also note that there is no such thing as creating a perfect schedule since we are all human and will fall short at times. The real purpose is to develop a “good enough” system I know I can adhere to. Only after a solid foundation has been laid can I begin to successfully build out from there. This is all done in due time as I continue to grow and learn more about myself through self-experimentation.
So if you wish to create a system of your own, remember to start small by only focusing your time on things that you can stick with. It is only after you have established these initial habits can you then effectively build out from there.
“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.”
― John Gall
Prioritizing Free Time
You may be thinking that I must be quite robotic to have almost every hour of my week allocated to certain tasks, but that would be far from the truth. In fact, I rarely come close to adhering to the schedule exactly — life just doesn’t work that way (and that’s okay). My intention for creating this schedule is to prioritize my free time so I can focus on actually getting the important things done instead of wishing for them to happen.
To help me decide what tasks make it onto my Google Calendar, I compliment the process with the use of a daily journal. As of now, I am using the Best Self Journal to do a deeper dive into my daily and weekly goals. I spend the majority of my time-tracking process in my journal where I break down my goals into smaller chunks that can be tackled as daily tasks. The calendar then serves as the template for my habit-building routines which allow me to stay on schedule with my goals.
As of now, my main goals are to improve my skills in knowledge compression and habit formation. In other words, I am focused on becoming more process-driven instead of goal-driven (and in case you were wondering, I am well aware of the irony of having a goal to be more process-oriented so I don’t have to solely rely on goals for motivation).
Having these goals result in devoting a lot of my free time to reading and writing. My deliberate practice of consuming a lot of interesting information then trying to distill its key ideas down to a simple, more elegant form is what I seek to improve upon. In essence, this blog has become a pet project of mine to practice this very idea of knowledge compression. All of which I hope to become better at over the course of time through the process of building better habits.
How My System Has Benefitted Me
So why should you bother with spending any of your free time setting up a time management system? Well, for me at least, the many benefits I have experienced since implementing the system have been tremendous.
One notable change has been my ability to do a much better job of regulating my sleep. Having an alarm not only wakes me up in the morning but also reminds me of when I need to go to bed has aided me to maintain a more consistent sleep routine. Getting more sleep has led to the added benefit of being more alert and productive in the mornings, thus being the catalyst for creating my morning routine. That alone may be one of the most important changes in my life as of recent.
My schedule has also helped me perfect the art of meal prep. Since I care a lot about what I eat, I have made it a priority to eat home-cooked meals during the week. But cooking every evening after work was time-consuming once you considered the time needed for prepping, cooking and cleaning up. I discovered a way to make the process more efficient by setting up my schedule to only cook on Sunday and Wednesday evenings. I would prepare enough food on those days to last me until the next time I needed to cook. I also devote my Sunday afternoons to planning out my meals and going grocery shopping. This change alone has saved me several hours a week as well as help reduce my food waste and grocery bill.
Finally, my schedule has allowed me to devote free time to creative pursuits — a big part as to how writing this blog is made possible. There is no denying that writing this blog has become quite a time-intensive task. Once you factor in the books and blogs I read for material, the notetaking, the actual process of putting words on paper, and the continual self-editing and constant self-doubt, the hours quickly add up.
While it may seem silly to spend so much time writing a blog to such a small audience, the process of trying to translate my thoughts into coherent ideas on paper has been an awarding experience. As I previously alluded to, this blog is really a personal self-development journal with the added bonus of being able to share my experiences with those interested enough in following along. With that said, perhaps the biggest, if not the most important surprise of this entire process of trying to communicate my ideas has been a deeper discovery of who I really am as a person and how I come to view the world around me.
What I Still Struggle With
Even with all of the added benefits this schedule has brought me, the system is far from perfect. Or really that I am far from perfect by struggling to always do what I planned for. Even though it looks like I have most of my days planned down to the hour, it is not always easy to follow what is on paper (or computer screen for that matter). I still have a difficult time maintaining any semblance of consistency on the weekends. As you can see, most hours on the weekend are left blank for any tasks due to this very reason.
Since my weekends are usually reserved for spending time with friends and my girlfriend, there is almost no point in trying to regularly schedule large time blocks for time-intensive tasks. That is not to say that nothing gets done on the weekend, but I do go easy on myself. After all, I sometimes have to remind myself that it is just as important for me to use my time to develop relationships with those I care about (something I admittedly struggle to do at times).
To be more specific, I still haven’t developed the habit of performing a weekly review on Sunday afternoons. Whether it be due to the disjointedness of my Sunday afternoons or the fact that I haven’t clearly defined my expectations of the activity is to be determined, although I suspect it’s a little of both. Either way, this is all part of the process of continually experimenting with what works for me and what doesn’t — which I admit is half of the fun.
Notes for those wanting to start their own system
First, I highly recommend you develop a system that works best for you. It is quite satisfying to observe yourself becoming more self-aware as you begin to take notice of how you actually spend your time, what habits dictate your day and how you can use habits for good to reach your goals faster than you imagined.
It is also important that you remember to start simple. When I started this out, my entire routine was getting up 30 minutes earlier than I had to so I could read before work — that’s it. It was only after that became a habit that I began to build upon. Your goal is to pick something small that you believe you can stick with and then do it every single day. If you screw up and miss a day, don’t stress but make sure you pick right back up with it the following day.
Customize your schedule to suit your goals. We are all different in what we hope to accomplish in the near future. Make sure that your schedule reflects what you want out of yourself and out of life. You may want to focus all of your free time on bettering yourself in your career so that you can earn that promotion or maybe you wish to spend more time at home to be with your family. Just realize that there is no one right answer. You must design your life for what you want lest you let someone else decide it for you.
Once again, I hope that sharing my system with you has been useful information and at the very least a tad bit inspiring for you to go out and try something similar. Even if you can only spare one hour a week, I encourage you to spend your time on what really matters to you. I think you may be quite surprised at the progress you can make.
This article was originally posted on lawsonblake.com