If you want to do something, block off time for it. This includes everything from the task you have to finish at work to the walk you want to take with your family. The novel you want to write. The weekly game night or date night. The sleep you want to prioritise.
Why? Because if you don’t block off this time — and yes, that includes “time to think” and “time to plan” and “time to do nothing” — you might get distracted by something else and end up spending your day in a vastly different way than you intended.
In the most recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show, podcast guest Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and the forthcoming Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, shared the following insight:
In this day and age, if you don’t plan your day, someone else will. What I found in the research I did is that, for the vast majority of people, we don’t guard our time. We let anybody interrupt us whenever they want, particularly when it comes to these technologies. We use them on somebody else’s schedule, right? Whenever we get a ping or ding we use these technologies, as opposed to planning our day. Now this uses some very old, very well-established research called setting an implementation intention, which is just a fancy way of saying planning out what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it. The mantra I want folks to remember is that you can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from.
Eyal explains that during the research process for his book, he talked to a lot of people who told them how distracting the world was and how Twitter and Facebook were keeping them from focusing on the rest of their lives. But when he asked “Can I see what it was that you planned to do today?” they pulled out their calendar app and showed him a day that was predominantly unscheduled and therefore available to any distraction that came along.
“Turn your values into time,” Eyal advised—and as soon as he said that, I felt this frisson of, like, yes.
We’ve all heard the “spend your money according to your values” advice, which often means creating a budget in which we allocate our money towards where we hope it will go.
Eyal wants us to spend our time according to our values as well, which often means creating a calendar in which we allocate our time towards where we hope it will go (and then updating our calendar to reveal where our time actually went).
When I teach writing classes, I often hand my students a blank sheet of paper with a week’s worth of hours laid out in a grid. Then I ask them to mark off all the hours they’ve already committed to something: work, kids’ soccer, choir practice, and so on. Next, they need to mark off the hours they spend on the basic demands of life: sleep, hygiene, food prep, cleaning. Shopping for groceries. Commuting to work and soccer and choir.
Then I ask them to look at how many hours are left over, and what they want to do with them. How many go to family? How many go to friends? How many go to rest and relaxation? How many hours need to remain unscheduled in case something unexpected comes up? And—because this is a writing class—how many hours can you put towards writing?
This is always an eye-opening exercise, and it shows my writing students that they need to prioritise writing in order to make it happen. Put it on the schedule. Turn their values into time.
I know, because I’ve been doing a lot of this kind of scheduling myself, that it’s sometimes hard to stick to this kind of calendar. If you don’t sleep well, for example, your “time to think” or “time to write” might become “time to rest.” If you don’t complete your work as scheduled (or get assigned work you weren’t expecting), you might have to give up your gym time or push back your date night.
But, just like a budget shows you how your actual spending differs from your ideal spending, this calendar method shows you how you ideally want to spend your time vs. where your time actually goes.
And then you can ask yourself whether you’re really spending your time according to your values, or if something needs to change.