Overview: During your time at university, you will pick up work and productivity habits that you will carry through with you into your career. Some of them will be helpful. Some not so much. I am continually experimenting with and modifying my productivity methods. In this post I share those that I am using in 2022 to structure my work days, focused around time blocking, journaling and a dedicated morning routine. You might find some of the ideas helpful in structuring your study life. Reading time ~ 12 minutes
Whilst my main job is talking about mental health, I am also interested in productivity and getting shit done. This reflects an opinion I hold (which I don’t believe is controversial) that being competent and productive at our work/study contributes to good mental health (and vice versa).
This interest in productivity has translated into some of the resources, programs and articles that I have created over time. For example, Studyology is a 5-session program designed to help students tackle procrastination. I have a time management post you can access here on the blog. I also maintain a handout called “Evidence-based study and exam preparation tips”.
In this post I thought I’d share how I am structuring my days as I get started with my work for 2022. Certainly in the last few years, I have tried to at least start each year with good habits in place, drawing on lessons I’ve learned from previous years.
Why is that? Well I don’t consider myself a naturally productive person, so I am always interested in experimenting with how I can increase my output, but without it coming at the cost of my health and wellbeing. I know from past experience that I can simply work ‘long hours’ and get stuff done, but it comes at an unacceptable cost, namely to my health, my happiness and my life outside of work. So I am always refining towards a good balance of happiness and busyness.
How I am structuring my days – 2022
The structure/ideas presented below reflect how I am working at the moment and intend to work well into the year.
BUT, it is important to note that this structure may not be what I am using at the end of the year.
Finding a good work structure is a delicate mix of planning, workability and flexibility. You need to have a plan, but that plan needs to be flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances and workable such that it allows you to manage the workload you have.
I’ll review this structure every few weeks to see if it is holding up, and if not, make changes. Otherwise, it provides me a great framework for thinking about my work days.
Anyway, enough context, let’s dig in. Take and use whatever might be helpful to you.
My structure is based around 3 core activities/concepts:
At the core of how I structure my days is time blocking. I learned about this from Cal Newport.
Instead of allocating tasks to specific times of the day, you allocate blocks of time during the day to certain categories of tasks.
For me it is as follows:
9-11am is writing time. I can work on blog posts, self-help guides, talk notes, journal articles or program manuals – basically anything that really just consists of writing. Writing is probably the hardest thing I do, so I allocate it during the time of the day that I am most alert and creative (this podcast from Andrew Huberman has some great stuff on when in the day to put certain habits). This blog post was created during writing time.
11am-3pm is work task time. I can do any of the other work tasks I have (with the exception of emails/communication) which includes recording lectures, making powerpoint slides, creating or editing program materials, editing websites, meetings, readings etc. Placing this block after the writing block is helpful. Often content that I have written in the morning can then be turned into something during this part of the day (e.g. talk notes get turned into powerpoint slides).
3pm-5pm is communications time. I answer emails, make edits to FLO topics, respond to messages sent to me and post on social media. This time of the day is about nurturing my social connections and collaborations. Correspondence that comes through at this time might form the basis for tasks that will be allocated to the next day.
How many and type of blocks you create is up to you. But think about the things you need/want to do and seek to allocate blocks of time to those things.
Importantly, during a time block, you only work on the things allocated to that block. It is about protecting space for the things that are important to you. If I didn’t protect writing space, it would get eaten up with emails or other work tasks.
This year I introduced journaling into the time period just before I start work (i.e. around 8.30am).
I’m using a program called workflowy to host my journal entries. The program organises things using nested bullet points which appeals to how I organise information in my head.
My journal entries are fairly structured.
The first few dot points are personal reflections – how I’m feeling, what is on my mind, wins I’ve had, setbacks I’ve encountered. They are like a moment of ‘checking in’ and sitting with how I am feeling that day.
The next few dot points are used to allocate tasks to the different time blocks of the day. What will I do during the writing session? Who do I need to contact that day and why?
The final dot point section is where I put any work-related tasks/thoughts that have not yet been allocated to a time block or placed on my calendar. They are things that I ‘need to think about’ but don’t have an answer yet. I use this spot throughout the day to place any thoughts/ideas/concepts/tasks that pop into my head during the day but which aren’t ready to be allocated to a time block. By giving a tangible home to these pop-up thoughts, you reduce the likelihood that a) you will forget them or b) they hijack your attention when you are trying to get something else done.
I’ve found this journaling process provides a brief period of reflection, mindfulness and planning at the beginning of the day.
It doesn’t take me long – 15 minutes tops. I don’t worry about grammar or writing style. I just get my thoughts down and allocate my tasks.
Getting it down in writing means I can revisit any previous entry to locate stuff that might have got lost.
I’ve found that how I structure my early morning (from wake-up to starting work at 9am) strongly influences how the remainder of my day works out. Do it well and it sets me up for a good day. Do it badly and I spend the rest of the day playing catch up.
Certainly in the last few years, I’ve been very mindful to have good morning routines to get me off to a good start.
My morning routine at the moment consists of the following (which work well considering I do the bulk of my work from home).
- I get up around 6.30 and head off for an hour walk
- I will usually listen to either music or learning content (e.g. podcast) during the walk
- I may walk with another person (my sister lives locally) as well
- I often stop off to get groceries or hardware items/plants during these walks as well (if shops are open)
- I try to get healthy light exposure to the eyes to help with sleep cycles
- When I return from the walk, I jot down anything interesting I’ve learned from what I was listening to in a separate learning journal (as a registered psychologist, I need to keep evidence of my ongoing learning)
- I make a good breakfast (currently berries and greek yoghurt)
- I may do some small tasks around the house & garden, depending on time
- Around 8.30 I do my journal entry (see above)
You’ll notice that this routine isn’t particularly complex but it does mean that I hit 9.00am with my interest/creativity activated (from what I’ve listened to), a decent sense of how I want the day to unfold, knowing what things I will work on, and generally in a positive (at worst neutral) mood.
So, the keys for me are:
- time blocking
- journaling/planning for the day &
- healthy morning routine
These three things provide the structure for how my day unfolds that is both organised but flexible. I can, depending on the demands of the day or urgency of tasks, allocate different things to the 3 time blocks. So I can adapt to the needs of the day but still also protect my writing time and protect my health and wellbeing.
Now I am sure things will pop up during the year that will challenge this underlying structure. I look forward to blogging about how I handle those challenges as they pop up.
Remember, the goal isn’t some kind of system that is implemented rigidly and unwaveringly. It’s about a flexible structure that provides focused time for good work, whilst maintaining health and wellbeing in a way that ensures you can sustain productivity over long periods of time. It is totally OK to change and modify it as you discover its strengths and weaknesses.
With 2022 now up and running, have you thought about how you are going to structure your days?
Would love you to share your thoughts and strategies in the comments below.