Design your day. Don’t manage time.

If time is not manageable, how can we become more productive? There are basically two ways: Managing our attention and designing our days.

Why should you design your day? Time management is impossible. Time just flows. The only thing that exists is the present. And just a moment later it is gone into oblivion, become the past and is not accessible anymore. The same is true for the future. It can not be measured, counted or calculated. It only exists in our imagination, plans and thoughts. It is built from our hopes and fears.

If time is not manageable, how can we become more productive? There are basically two ways: Managing our attention and designing our days.

The first is all about having a vision, setting priorities, keeping your focus, and avoiding distractions. The desing of your day is about making thoughtful decisions about how you go about every day to get most out of your time.

For me, these are the principles to design my day:

Sleep well and enough

Designing a productive day begins in the night. Sleeping well and enough is essential to keep productive in the long term. While you for sure can rock an all-nighter here and there, you should restrict this to emergencies. Otherwise, your mental and physical capabilities wear out.

Individual sleep requirements vary widely. Most people need between 7 and 9 hours a night. This can be your guidance of what to aim for. Listen to your body and soul. Remember that too much sleep isn’t that great either. Sleeping well also corresponds strongly to sleeping at roughly the same times. Try not to switch between early and late bedtimes.

Design your day following your circadian rhythm

The circadian rhythm is the natural, internal process of your body. It regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours. It regulates the hormones that make you alert or feel sleepy. The general form of the rhythm is mostly universal to all people but there are differences.

The most prominent difference are the early birds and night owls. Everybody knows people who love getting up early in the morning. And we all know those who have a hard time with mornings but get to their best later in the evening.

Know your type! It makes absolutely no sense to work against it. This would only deprive you of energy and will also impact your health in the long term. You can also trigger and support your circadian rhythm by getting sun exposure in the morning and by reducing screen time in the hours before going to bed.

Create your physical space to support your work.

Having a physical space that makes it easy to be productive helps a lot in managing your time. An attractive workspace increases motivation to get started – at least subconsciously. You should also design your environment in a way that supports focused deep work by avoiding distractions. Physical reminders can also help you building habits.

Eat well

It may sound strange, but something as simple as eating can support your day’s design significantly. A bad diet can harm your energy level. On the other hand, regular breaks combined with the right food and drinks can give you a productivity boost.

I am not a food expert. But what I know is this: Not only tastes do differ from person to person. Our digestive systems are also far from universal. There is now one size fits all approach to eating right. Finding the right food for you will require some trial and error. Some general guidelines: Do not overeat. Prefer fresh food. Be careful with too much meat. Keep a regular rhythm in your eating times.

Create a social environment that supports your work.

We are much more influenced by the people around us than we believe. There is saying: Tell me who you meet, and I tell you who you are. Surrounding ourselves with positive people who are supportive and share our goals can go a long way in using our time better. They will distract us less, understand our needs and support us with advice and action.

The design of your day should start with an achievement.

Starting your day with an achievement can make all the difference to make a perfect day. I love starting my day early in the morning and getting right to work on an important, challenging or daunting task. Being able to tick it off early in the day, gives me a boost of motivation and confidence. Whatever comes afterwards, you can always be sure this day was not wasted. You already made a big progress towards an important goal.

Other people swear on different morning routines to design their days. They start the day doing something for themselves. Examples are working out or meditation. Keeping a journal with so-called morning pages is also an option. All these routines ensure that you do something for your long-term growth and well being every day.

Build routines and habits into the design of your day

Speaking of routines. Building good routines and habits improves the use of your time automatically. I summarized some principles on building habits in another post. There are also great books on habit formation like “atomic habits” by James Clear.

Routines can be the cornerstone of your day design. I recommend developing three routines for your perfect design of a day.

  • Morning routine design: Your morning routine should get you going and boost your energy. It can also already incorporate an initial daily achievement for our personal development. Or you might also work on something important. Examples for elements of a morning routine: meditation, deep work sessions, work-out, breakfast, coffee or other stimulants, sun exposure, setting priorities for your day, inbox cleaning, morning pages, …
  • Mid day routine design: The mid day routine is all about checking your progress and realigning your priorities. It should make sure you have the energy and motivation to keep going in the afternoon. Here you can integrate light meals, networking lunches, reviewing your inboxes, sun exposure, fresh air, works-out, meditation, power napping, or pomodoro sessions to get going again after the break, …
  • Evening routine design: Your evening routine should help you close the day, celebrate success, and clear your mind for a restful night. Options for ending your day are for example socializing with friends, reading, family diner, work-out, meditation, creative hobbies, sorting out your to-do-list for tomorrow, reflection of the day, writing a journal, …

How you fill your routines is a personal thing. Nobody does everything from the lists above. You probably also have your own ideas that work well for you. Keep the purpose of your routines and your life goals in mind when choosing what to integrate into the design of your day.

Design your day by scheduling meetings wisely

Meetings can interrupt or support you when you design your day. For all meetings over which you have control schedule them to support your rhythm. Avoid meeting that interrupt your routines. Even better: Try to incorporate regular meetings into your habits, routines and rhythms.

If you have trouble to motivate yourself at certain times of the day, a meeting can stop you from procrastinating. You can also use the start of certain meetings as your personal deadlines for finishing a task. This way you structure your day in shorter working streaks or mini sprints boosting your productivity.

Schedule time with yourself

Make sure to set aside some time with yourself. Regular reflection is necessary to grow. This is common sense, but I ensure you it is not common practice. All too often, we are trapped in rat-race struggling to get forward while losing direction. It does not have to be a lot, but you should deliberately design it into the layout of your day. Otherwise it just happens too little. Morning and evening routines are a good place as well as weekly reviews.

Make sensible use of idle time in your day

Everybody knows these odd time windows that are hard to make use of. Waiting for a delayed train. Being the first person at a meeting. Stuff like this. It’s tough to make productive use of these. Sometimes it’s even best to idle a few minutes and let your thoughts wander.

To make use of these time slots, have a list of small tasks ready. Things that can be done in 3-5 minutes and are ready to be taken care of. Alternatively, you can have collection of inspiring short reads ready. Do not default to scrolling the feeds on your social media platforms or favorite news channels. They are poison to a productive day design if used mindlessly.

Motivate with evening plans

As discussed above evening routines are a cornerstone of a good blueprint for your day. In additions evening plans can be a great motivator to get things done. Having something fun or inspiring to look forward to can give you a boost in productivity all day long.

Keep a balance to achieve life integrated working

The design of your day should not only focus on your work. Keep a balance with your private needs and goals. Work-life-balance is an outdated concept as it assumes that work and life can be strictly separated.

This is not true anymore for most of us. Thus, we need to design our days to support the ideas of life integrated working. This means that work should be integrated into your life in a sensible manner. It should support your private and personal goals instead of being a separate sphere detached from the rest of your life.