Productivity “experts” love to tell us that we all have the same 24 hours a day. But what they don’t love to talk about is how few of us are actually in control of that time.
You might start the day planning to finish a project or code a feature only to get swept away by meetings, calls, emails, and “urgent” tasks.
Especially lately, with so many other things competing for your attention, your schedule shouldn’t be up for grabs. Instead, as Annie Dillard wrote, your schedule should be the scaffolding to your days—a stable platform you can use to focus on what matters to you.
This is more than just a good metaphor. A great schedule isn’t uncertain or at the whims of others. It relies on structure, process, and routine to give you mental space to focus and get the right things done.
We’ve put together some of the most practical and actionable ways to make a schedule that brings more stability and support to your day. Pick the one that works for you, or combine them into the ultimate daily schedule for focus and clarity.
The 5 core elements of how to make a schedule
Before you jump into learning how to make a schedule, you need to be able to answer a simple question: What does a good day look like to you?
Do you need long periods of uninterrupted time to focus? Or would you rather spend your day in meetings brainstorming and collaborating with coworkers? Do you want to stop work at 5 p.m. on the dot? Or are you happy to hack away at projects late into the night?
Knowing the ideal version of your day will help guide how you make a schedule that supports it. It also helps you understand why you want to spend your time the way you do.
You can follow every single time management trick in the book, but none of it will matter if you’re not working on the right things.
Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world. Instead, we have to take into account all the other things that get in the way of our ideal day.
Your workday schedule needs to include:
- Focused time for important work and tasks. This is most likely what your “ideal day” would be full of.
- “Spoken for” time. This includes meetings and other obligations that are placed on you by other people.
- Shallow work time. This is the “maintenance” work you do each day, such as answering emails, updating docs, etc.
- Breaks to recharge.
- Routines and rituals to guide us through our different tasks. While not exactly a “task” a good schedule takes advantage of certain ceremonies to keep you energized, focused, and moving in the right direction.
Now that you’re ready to create a realistic schedule, let’s dive into the methods you can use.
1. MIT (Most important task first)
This is probably the most underrated scheduling technique out there: Do your most important or impactful work first.
Your MIT (most important task) won’t be the only thing you do in the day. But it should be something that you know is hanging over you or will move the needle forward in a meaningful way.
There are a ton of good reasons why you should use the MIT scheduling method:
- It builds momentum for your day. Starting with a small win is one of the most motivating things you can do (According to the Progress Principle).
- It takes advantage of the limited “productive” time you have each day. Research shows we have just 2 hours and 48 minutes of productive time a day (most of it earlier on).
- You get to focus when people are less likely to bother you. Usually, the start of your workday is quieter and less busy.
- You’ll feel more accomplished at the end of the day. No matter what else happens, you know you did something meaningful.
- It helps set your priorities and tone for the day. What you start your day with is often what you end up doing more of.
- Of course, it’s not always easy to take any time for yourself. That’s why to support your MIT, you need to make sure it’s truly the first thing you do and that nothing else is competing for your attention at the time.
This means blocking out time in your calendar to work on it (30–90-minutes is good) and also not opening email or chat before you start (that’s where other people’s priorities take over).
If you know you’re bad at checking social media or news in the morning as well, you might want to set up a distraction blocker like FocusTime to block them during your MIT time.
2. Time blocking
Time blocking takes the MIT idea even further by filling out your entire schedule with dedicated “blocks” of time for different tasks. This means you start your day with a “full” schedule with time set aside for:
- Focused work
- Shallow work
A time-blocked schedule looks intimidating but provides structure to your day. So why would anyone want to fill their schedule on purpose?
When you fill your schedule with tasks and activities you want to do, it’s harder for others to steal your time. Instead of being reactive to outside requests, you know exactly how you want to spend your time and can more easily say no.
The secret to making time blocking work is to be realistic but also reactive.
A time-blocked schedule is just a template and not set in stone. It helps you stay focused on the bigger picture instead of getting swept away in “urgent” tasks and busywork.
3. The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is a relatively simple scheduling method that can work alongside most of the other ones here.
A “Pomodoro” is a 25-minute block of uninterrupted work where you focus on a single task, followed by a five-minute break. The goal is to string together three to four Pomodoro “sessions” before taking a long break to recuperate.
When it comes to how to make a schedule with the Pomodoro Technique, you can schedule them into an open slot. For example, if you have a block of free time after lunch from 1 p.m.–3 p.m., you can dedicate that to Pomodoro sessions.
At the start of the session, choose four tasks you will focus on and then start your work timer.
What’s great about this method is that it helps you focus intensely without burning out. Twenty-five minutes is a relatively short period of time to block out distractions. And even if you only complete two during the day, you’ll still have a solid 50 minutes of focused work.
4. Energy flow (50–90-minute sprints)
Our energy levels aren’t consistent throughout the day (as anyone who’s hit the dreaded afternoon slump can tell you). Instead, we follow what’s called the “Ultradian Rhythm” of 90-minute cycles where our energy is at its “peak” before we need to take a break.
This means there are certain times during the day where you’re naturally more alert and ready to work, and times where you’re better off taking a break.
Once you understand when your body is at its peak, you can start to plan your day around this rhythm. This means working in 50–90-minute sprints before taking 20–30-minutes off to rest.
There are a few ways you can work this cycle into your schedule. If you’re more of a “maker” and need long periods of focused work to write, design, or code, you can schedule those blocks to work with your natural energy cycles to get more out of them.
However, if your days are usually a bit more scattered, you can do the opposite and use the Ultradian Rhythm as a guide for when to take a break.
5. Task flow
While the Ultradian Rhythm is all about working with your energy flow, you can also work with your task flow. This means bundling together similar work so that your brain doesn’t have to deal with so much context switching.
Here’s how author Paul Jarvis describes it:
“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 5–6 articles in one fell swoop.”
You can even spread this out across your entire week. For example, you could batch all your admin work into a “Catchup Friday” or book all your sales calls for Tuesdays and Thursdays.
As you batch work, be aware of your own energy habits and preferences. If you’re better at creative projects in the afternoon, batch your relevant tasks then.
6. The Chatfield Method
One of the biggest challenges of any scheduling method is that we’re notoriously bad at knowing how long a task will take to complete even if we’ve done it in the past.
But this is the cornerstone of time management. If you don’t properly estimate your time, you’ll always be behind on tasks and playing catch-up.
Prolific comedian, cartoonist, and voice actor Jason Chatfield came up with a solution to this issue:
“I make a habit of ensuring that on completion of a task, I adjust the calendar event to reflect the ‘actual’ time it took. ie. I may have allowed 30 minutes and it took an hour.”
That in itself is a good exercise, but here’s where this method becomes even more powerful.
“I then copy and paste those similar or identical tasks that I’ve completed before when I’m scheduling for the week ahead.”
Most of us have tasks that repeat each day or week. And this method lets you dig into how long they actually take to do.
If you want to automate this process, use a tool like RescueTime to automatically track your time in apps, websites, and even specific projects. For example, if I want to see how long I spent writing this article, I can look at my Activities Report in RescueTime and see.
7. Bursts and Flow
Most of us spend our days bouncing between emails, chat, and our “core work” (aka the stuff in your job description!) In fact, our research found that on average, most people check email or chat every six minutes!
But this puts a serious strain on your ability to get through your daily tasks.
Instead, communicating in bursts helps teams be more productive and more creative.
In this scheduling technique, you would set aside specific times a day for checking email and responding to chat messages. A good rule of thumb would be:
- Once after your MIT is done
- In the afternoon during a moment of low energy
This might feel like a hard shift to make, especially if you’re a part of a communication-heavy culture. Make sure you talk to your team about why you won’t be online and how they can get in touch if there’s a true emergency.
Bonus: The A/B schedule
Sometimes, we’re better off scheduling for the week rather than each individual day.
The A/B schedule is a way to differentiate your goals and priorities each day. This way, you won’t feel guilty about putting off important work.
Here’s an example. Splitting your time between coding features and managing a team can split your attention. Instead, split your week into days with an A schedule (coding) and a B schedule (managing).
If your work doesn’t fall neatly into two categories, try the Free, Focus, Buffer system. This means you schedule:
- Free days for personal work.
- Focus days for core work.
- Buffer days for planning, admin, and other “urgent” tasks.
According to James Clear: “Professionals stick to the schedule. Amateurs let life get in the way.”
A schedule is so much more than just a filled-in calendar. It’s a statement about what’s important to you and what deserves your 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?'”
How you make a schedule doesn’t have to be up to other people. The more control you take over your time, the better you’ll feel about your progress every single day.
This article originally appeared on RescueTime and is reprinted with permission.