Productive Structure

April 17, 2020

Lately, friends and clients have been losing the externally-imposed structure of an office job, and I’ve been getting a lot more asks for support and guidance on how to build structure into your day to stay healthy and productive. As I’ve been sharing tools and approaches more often, I thought I’d pull a few of them together for you here!

Below are four suggestions that you are welcome to mix and match as suits your needs:

Set Boundaries

As the line between home and work blurs, I’ve seen a lot of folks drift to extremes: some seem to be defaulting into being at “work” all the time, and others are defaulting to being at “home” all the time. It’s super important to practice the self-care of setting boundaries to keep balance. The great news is that if the office-imposed nine-to-five structure doesn’t optimally suit you, you might not be bound to it any more! The not-so-great news is that it can be tough to figure out what DOES optimally suit you on your own.

There are simple ways to start to set boundaries. How many hours of sleep do you need for your body and mind to feel healthy? Let’s start with that as your first boundary. An important note here: a lot of folks (including me) are finding themselves needing more sleep during quarantine than they usually do. I want to urge you to allow yourself lots of space, time, and gentleness — don’t fall into the quarantine motivational pressure trap.

What other types of activities that you might not consider “work” are important for your wellness? My last post about The Dimensions of Wellness may be a good place to get into more details on this. Name the most important ones, and protect time for them.

Keep these boundaries in mind, because they’ll be helpful in the exercise below (under “Prioritize Your Top Priorities”) where we’ll start putting things into a schedule.

Identify Your Natural Energy

This is a super simple exercise that I found extremely revelatory. Essentially, you draw out a grid that’s midnight to midnight for a day as the rows and different energy “domains” as the columns. In my example, the domains I used were cognitive, creative, physical, and emotional/spiritual. I define those as:

  • When I am at my best cognitively, I can achieve a state of flow doing logic-oriented tasks like data analysis, project management, creating proposals, or research.
  • When I am at my best creatively, I can achieve a state of flow doing creative tasks like making art, writing articles, or coming up with new ideas. 
  • When I am at my best physically, I can achieve a state of flow doing physical tasks like exercising, building/repairing things, or cleaning the house.
  • When I am at my best emotionally/spiritually, I can achieve a state of flow doing emotional or spiritual tasks like meditating, journaling, or connecting with loved ones.

I invite you to consider whether these are the right domains for you, or if there are other ways you would find it helpful to organize your energy. (For example, when I was introduced to the exercise that inspired this one for me, the four domains were intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual, but as I started to answer those questions I found that the four I describe above better met my energetic needs.)

The exercise is to mark what times of day you tend to be at your best in each of the domains. Here’s roughly how mine shake out (you’ll notice that I’ve set my sleep boundaries in gray!):

Do the same thing — mark what times you are at your best for each energetic domain. Once you plot yours out, are there any surprises? Any activities you’ve realized you’re trying to do at a sub-optimal time? I know I did! For example, doing this exercise got me to stop trying to do my journaling in the morning and do it at night instead!

Prioritize Your Top Priorities

Have you seen this “Big Rocks” video before? (There are a lot of different video versions of a similar story, but this one is my favorite because of the outfits, obviously.) The lesson of placing the “big rocks” first is the foundation of this piece of advice. More specifically, I’ve created a step-by-step process to to place tasks onto your schedule for the day, below. If you’d like me to send you the worksheet version with a template schedule you can use, contact me!

A note here: some folks have an urge to try to plan ALL THE DAYS from the start. I’ve found this exercise works best if you just pick TODAY or TOMORROW and plan it this way. Don’t try to account for every possible type of task, just start with doing this once. Then, if it works, do it again the next day. You’ll probably only need to do it a few times before you figure out what your general template day should look like, and Future-You will totally be able to make adjustments for new variables when they happen.

Question 1: What are your Big Rocks? Your “Big Rocks” are the top major categorical priorities that you need/want to focus on TODAY (ie running your business, doing creative work, etc). List the most important one first. 

NOTE: I left space for three Big Rocks, but you’re welcome to have fewer! This isn’t a comprehensive list of everything that matters in your life, they’re just the ones you want to prioritize today.

Big Rock #1: __________________________________________________

Big Rock #2: __________________________________________________

Big Rock #3: __________________________________________________

Question 2: What is the most important task for each Big Rock and when is the ideal time of day to do it? For each Big Rock, name the most immediately important task that you want or need to do today. Then, identify what time would be best to do it. If you completed the “Identify Your Natural Energy” exercise above, that will help you know when the ideal times are! There may also be external influences here (ie you get your best results when you make client calls between 2pm and 4pm).

Big Rock (from above)Important TaskIdeal Time of Day

Question 3: What are your Medium Rocks? Your “Medium Rocks” are also important categorical priorities. List the most important one first. Go ahead and name a task, as well.

NOTE: I similarly left space for three Medium Rocks, but you’re welcome to have fewer!

Medium Rock #1: ___________________________ 
Task: ___________________________ 

Medium Rock #2: ___________________________ 
Task: ___________________________

Medium Rock #3: ___________________________ 
Task: ___________________________

Now it’s time to put things onto your calendar! You’re welcome to use the next page, or do it directly onto your electronic calendar.

  1. What time do you want your day to start? What time do you want your structured day to end? Mark those boundaries!
  2. Take a look at anything that is already scheduled onto your calendar. Do you want to keep it there? If not, get rid of it! If so, block those times.
  3. Place your Big Rocks! If the ideal time slot for Big Rock #1 is available, put it there! Then #2, then #3 (if you have that many Big Rocks).
  4. Don’t forget to put some unstructured time! This is time that you deliberately don’t have a plan of how to use, but you can use it for whatever comes up in the moment. Some people need a lot of this, some people don’t need much. You may a to try a few ways with this to see what feels good to you.
  5. Now, place as many of the Medium Rocks as fit! Just like the Big Rocks, but less important 🙂 

Create Ceremonies

I LOVE ceremonies. It can be really helpful to clearly punctuate the beginning and ending of chunks of time that you’ll spend focusing on a particular task. And when I say punctuate, I almost always mean with an exclamation point! This is like a micro-practice of boundary-setting — if you clearly express to your brain “I am officially starting my creative time!” and then later “I am officially ending my creative time!” then it will be easier for your brain to stay focused on the task at hand, which will help avoid the expensive cost of cognitive switching.

Here are a few of my recent favorite ceremonies:

  1. Create an Intentional Commute – Whether you used to have a commute before you started sheltering-in-place or not, a “commute” can be an excellent daily period of reflection and transition into a work day. Pick 15-30 minutes right before you start working to do a practice that lets you be present in the shift from what you were doing into what you will be doing. NOTE: A couple of collaborators and I have started a free live dial-in audio guided daily “Intentional Commute” that you’re welcome to join! Contact me if you’re interested in checking it out!
  2. Post-It Your Top Priorities – At the end of your designated work time, write the 1-3 most important tasks for the next day onto a sticky note and stick it to your keyboard. It’s especially satisfying if you then close your laptop with the sticky note inside. That way, when you open your laptop the next day, your top priorities are ready for you to prioritize!
  3. Set Achievable and Stretch Goals – Simply put, explicitly separate your to-do list into MUST-DO and BONUS categories. And if you literally don’t have any MUST-DO items, then keep it blank! That doesn’t mean you don’t need to get anything done today, but it’s healthy to only impose real pressure on yourself — it’ll make your brain trust you more and commit more to the true MUST-DO items.
  4. Take a Break – In between tasks, move your body! Listen to music! Pet your dog! Wash the dishes! Do something that separates one chunk of time from the next. I bought a inexpensive indoor exercise trampoline, and I like to take a quick bounce-break between tasks!
  5. Use All Your Senses – Our memory, and in turn our ability to recall and synthesize information, draws from all our senses. Explore connecting with all of them before, during, and after activities, especially meetings or cognitively-intensive tasks. Ways to do that include making different choices for different activities throughout your day about: spots or furniture in your home, your clothing, the lighting, drinking different beverages like tea or juice, or experimenting with essential oils.
  6. Celebrate – At the end of your day, just take a moment to notice what you got done! I’ve been hearing so many people say things like “it’s 5pm and I don’t even know what I did today.” Time happened! You did something! Name the things and appreciate yourself for doing them. Even better: celebrate the completion of each task or activity! This doesn’t have to be a big celebration, it can even be something as small as literally patting yourself on the back. That’s what I’ll do when I finish writing this post!

Want More?

I’ve always been really into task management and organizational systems, so there’s plenty more where this came from. You might enjoy checking out David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which has a pretty comprehensive task management system rooted in a philosophy of productivity that I really appreciate. I don’t follow GTD, but there are principles from it that I live by, and that I often bring to bear as I support other folks building systems that work for them.

I’m also EXTREMELY into Agile methodologies. It is mostly used for software development, but I’ve successfully used the principles, frameworks, and ceremonies in a wide variety of contexts. 

And, as always, I’m here to help. Get in touch! I’d also love to hear if you have other practices that have worked well for you!

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Rada Yovovich is an experienced coach, meta-coach, mediator, trainer, and facilitator based in Chicago. She specializes in building leadership competencies that maximize individual and team potential, and aligning goals with values for individuals and teams/organizations to create cultural alignment and collective commitment.