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3 powerful strategies for balancing your time, energy, and focus

Figuring out your personal productivity style will help you get more done.

3 powerful strategies for balancing your time, energy, and focus
[Image: VPanteon/iStock]
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You can break down the way most people schedule their days into two categories: makers versus managers. There are people who spend most of their day managing—either other people or projects. And there are those who spend their time making—writing docs, designing logos, coding apps, etc.

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At least that’s how it would look in a perfect world.

In reality, most of us spend our days frantically trying to balance making and managing. We set out to focus on something big and then end up in meetings, on calls, chasing other people for tasks, and overwhelmed with “managing.” This causes all sorts of friction and issues—especially if you’re a designer, writer, developer, or anyone hired to dream up innovative ideas and get creative.

But here’s the thing: With a few small tweaks, you can create a schedule that gives you time to focus on what’s important and keep up with meetings, calls, emails, and “urgent” tasks.

Show me your schedule and I’ll tell you what’s important to you

Take a quick look at your calendar and tell me what you see. If there are large swaths of empty space to focus and work on whatever you want, congratulations! You’re part of a very small and exclusive club.

The truth is that 90% of people say they don’t feel in control over how they spend their time each day. That’s not good.

So why do we feel so overwhelmed by our daily schedule?

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In a now-famous essay, programmer and Y Combinator founder Paul Graham proposed that the issue is in how different jobs see time differently:

Manager’s schedule: A manager’s schedule follows the typical appointment book style with each day cut up into hour (or less) intervals. “When you use time that way,” Graham says, “it’s merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you’re done.”

Maker’s schedule: For people who do more heads-down, creative work, they need a schedule with larger units of free time—usually half a day at a time. “You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started,” Graham writes.

Right away, you can see how this is a broken system.

Managers manage makers. This means their job requires them to break up the focused time makers need to get creative. A manager can easily send you a meeting invite but makers can rarely decline by saying, “Sorry! That’s in the middle of my four-hour focus block.”

Few of us have the levels of control and autonomy necessary to block out half a day without any calls or meetings. Instead, we end up multitasking, jumping between tasks, and fragmenting our focus.

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But as we now know, multitasking is a myth. And that sort of constant context switching only eats into our productive time. This isn’t to say you should religiously follow a maker’s schedule and ignore your boss (that’s probably a quick way to get fired). Rather that both makers and managers need to find balance in their days that works for everyone.

How to manage and make

If you want to get the most out of your day, your schedule and your goals need to be aligned. But who can get creative in a 15-minute slot between their mandatory lunch meeting and the hour-long call with the sales team at 1:30 p.m.?

As Basecamp founder Jason Fried explains:

“People don’t have hours anymore. They might say they work 8 to 10 hours a day. But they don’t. They work 15 minutes and 20 minutes and 25 minutes and 6 minutes and maybe 45 minutes if they’re lucky. And that just seems broken to me.”

Both makers and managers need time to focus on deep work. And this requires getting strategic with how you spend your time each day, week, and month.

Split up your week with maker and manager schedule days

The simplest way to solve the maker versus manager debate is to just do both. But on different days.

Here’s an example:

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When software engineer Harrison Harnisch transitioned from an individual contributor to managing remote teams at Buffer, his schedule suddenly went from long periods of free time to full of typical managerial problems. Teams from across the company started looking to him for leadership and help. This meant more “urgent tasks” that shifted his focus away from maker time.

But constantly shifting was killing the quality of both his making and managing. As Harrison writes:

“Especially when working on projects that span multiple teams, there is a huge amount of context that needs to be formed in your mind before you start solving the problem. Building context can take hours, only to be lost by a random interruption.”

His solution was to split up his week. Some days were dedicated to managing tasks, while others were for heads-down coding.

If you’re a manager who also makes big contributions to your team, this can solve a number of issues:

  • You go into each day knowing what your focus is. There’s no more guilt around blocking out time for focused work and ignoring emails for a few hours.
  • Your team has clearer expectations. Meetings and calls can all be organized on specific days, giving everyone more time for their maker schedule.
  • Everyone has to think hard about what requests are truly urgent.

This last point is one that few people on a manager’s schedule really recognize. When you’re not always available, it forces people to look for other solutions.

“It is important to note that deep work time can be interrupted by things that are both urgent and important. Ignoring pager alerts would be bad for everyone! However, treating every question as urgent is likely to do more harm than good.”

Use “office hours” to contain your daily managing time

If you can’t commit to full days of making or managing, try scaling the strategy down to your daily schedule. The same way that university professors have specific times each day when they’re available for meetings, you can create “office hours” that are free blocks for managing, meetings, and random conversations.

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Let’s say you know you’re most productive and focused in the mornings. This is prime maker time, so you’ll want to block out a few hours every morning for it. This leaves your afternoons open for less focus-intensive work like emails, calls, and meetings.

You can even choose to use office hours on just specific days, or create a recurring slot that people can book in advance using Google Calendar. What’s great about this scheduling strategy is it lets you get into a state of guilt-free flow each day.

As bestselling writer and designer Paul Jarvis explains:

“The longer you can focus on a single type of task, the faster you can get it done. So grouping all the writing I have to do into a morning means I can write five to six articles in one fell swoop. Or I’ll spend a whole day programming websites for clients, which gets my brain into ‘code mode.'”

This is the essence of the maker schedule—dedicated time to get things done. But just like the weekly schedule, you need to make sure everyone else knows when you’re available. Be clear about your schedule and then go into focus mode. There’s rarely an emergency that can’t wait until your scheduled office hours.

Use rituals and routines to switch between “work modes”

Whether you break up your schedule by day or by week, there’s always going to be a bit of friction. Unfortunately, this is usually where you slip up.

“One meeting can sometimes affect a whole day,” Graham explains. “A meeting commonly blows at least half a day, by breaking up a morning or afternoon.”

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This is due to what’s called attention residue. When we switch tasks or “work modes” our brain doesn’t immediately follow. Instead, we get stuck thinking about what we were just doing and find it hard to focus on the task at hand.

So if you’re moving from a status update to working on a new feature, it takes your brain time to catch up.

Luckily, you can prepare for these situations with routines and rituals.

Routines—like your weekly or daily schedule—help your brain build habits and know automatically what to expect each day. However, rituals are actions that help you move between habits and “work modes” easily.

Think of Maya Angelou, who wrote only in small hotel rooms. Or Jack Kerouac, who made sure to touch the ground nine times before starting his creative work. Or even Beethoven, who counted 60 coffee beans for his daily brew before getting started.

While you don’t have to go to such extremes, a simple workday ritual that helps you move into maker mode is a powerful tool.

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How to master your maker and manager schedule

These strategies will help you balance your maker and manager time. However, they all assume you’re aware of how you actually spend your time each day. But as we’ve seen from studying hundreds of millions of hours of working time, how we say we want to spend our time and how we actually do it are rarely in sync.

We say we want to focus on coding a new feature. But we end up checking email and Slack every six minutes instead. Or, we say we want to finish work at 5 p.m. and spend time with family—but actually end up working in the evenings and on weekends 92% of the time!

As Deep Work author Cal Newport writes:

“We spend much of our days on autopilot—not giving much thought to what we are doing with our time. This is a problem. It’s difficult to prevent the trivial from creeping into every corner of your schedule if you don’t face, without flinching, your current balance between deep and shallow work, and then adopt the habit of pausing before action and asking, ‘What makes the most sense right now?'”

That level of self-reflection is hard. Especially when you’re bombarded with “urgent tasks” and busywork.

But a tool like RescueTime can help coach you into being more aware of your time and protecting your focus for making and managing. If you’d rather go the manual route, you can track your time using a pen and paper. Just set a timer and write down what you’re working on in 10- or 15-minute increments.

After a week of data collection, you’ll be able to understand what your baseline productivity looks like.

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Here’s how:

1. Dig into your “core work” categories to see how much maker time you actually get.

This shows you how much time you spend on your maker activities like writing, designing, or coding. Pick the one you’d consider “maker time” and click on it to dig deeper.

Here you’ll see the specific apps and sites you’ve been using, how long you spent on each, and what percentage of your total time is spent on them. This gives you a great idea of what days (or time of day) might be better to schedule maker time.

2. Use “daily patterns” to see what gets in the way of your maker time.

Now that you have a good idea of when you should schedule maker time, it’s time to protect that time. Let’s start by understanding what interrupts you when you’re focused. Check out the hours when you’re working on maker work. What else is happening? If you wanted to, you could then look at your communication time report to see exactly what’s distracting you from your maker time.

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3. Create a custom “maker time” filter and alerts to protect your focus.

We now know how much and when our maker time happens as well as what distracts us. But what about protecting our focus when we need it?

Let’s use the example of software engineer Harnisch again. Harnisch wanted to reserve Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday as his maker time. By setting a time filter that shows only those days during work hours, he could more easily see how well he’s sticking to his maker time.

If you feel like your day is out of your control, try one of these strategies to own when you’ll be making and when you’ll be managing. Maker versus manager doesn’t matter as long as you’re getting what needs to get done each day and feeling good about it.


A version of this article originally appeared on RescueTime and is reprinted with permission.