Oliver Burkeman is preoccupied with the topic. Obsessed, even.
Recently, the author and Guardian journalist confessed that he’s “unreasonably fascinated by other people’s daily schedules.”
His mental library includes specific details, like how fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld sleeps exactly seven hours a night (regardless of when he goes to bed) or that Out of Africa writer Karen Blixen (pen name Isak Dinesen) subsisted on oysters, champagne and amphetamines.
Burkeman says, like all humans, he’s a natural voyeur. He also admits that he’s looking for tips; ways to boost his own success.
And he’s not alone.
Lately, we’ve seen an explosion of articles, podcasts, blog posts, and books on the topic of daily routines.
So naturally… I’m going to share my own. While I would never consider myself a public figure like Lagerfeld, people often ask how I structure my days at JotForm — and if I can offer a few hints or tricks in the process, I’m happy to reveal what I can.
My trainer is waiting for me at the gym. Knowing that I’ll stand him up if I hit “snooze” quickly gets my feet on the floor. We work out together for an hour, with a combination of cardio and weight training.
Arrive at the office. I grab a fresh cup of coffee (heaven) and open AI Writer on my computer.
10 am-12 pm
Creative time. This is the most important part of my workday. It would be so easy to answer emails and get lost in my inbox, but I protect these hours at all costs.
After the gym, my brain is full of oxygen and I can think clearly. What do I think about? Anything from business problems to product ideas.
First, I write morning pages to get the garbage out, then I see what bubbles up. By the end of those two hours, I try to structure my thoughts into an actionable format, whether that’s an email, a plan, or a presentation.
I don’t always sit at the computer for two full hours, either. Sometimes a conversation fuels creative thought, so I might chat with a colleague or team member
When your business or your work is going well, it’s easy to shift into automatic. That approach works for a while, but eventually, success demands change. And even if change is slow, staying in automatic can mean missed opportunities.
Creative time should also include strategic thinking. When you feel clear and energetic, and you’re flowing in those peak hours, try to dig in and look at what’s going on in your business or your work life: What are the weak points? What’s going well? How can you amplify your current success?
Game-changing ideas won’t happen when you’re on a (metaphorical) treadmill. But if you think deeply and look for solutions, you will eventually find them.
Walk to lunch, either with someone from our team or a local colleague.
Eat lunch and get to know our employees better. I often learn as much from these conversations as I do during meetings and demo days. From personal goals to product issues, we cover it all. The 30-minute walk each way is equally energizing.
Meetings and emails. I used to routinely stay at the office until 8 pm or later, but my oldest son just started kindergarten, and I wasn’t seeing him very much. I decided that I would pick him up at 5 pm, at least four days a week (Tuesdays are longer meeting days).
Now that I’m home earlier, I’m reminded of an obvious truth: young kids are exhausting. I get down on the floor and play with them for an hour, then I need to rest for an hour. Then we play again. This continues until their bedtime.
When I’m not playing, I read or watch a TV show — usually something light, like House, Mars or nature documentaries. Never the news. It makes me crazy. I love having so much time at home now, and I try not to work during the evening. Separating work and family is important to me, and I encourage — and often require — our staff to do the same.
Work creates more work. The more time we spend developing new ideas, the more time we’ll need to spend executing them. That’s not necessarily a problem, but here’s what’s more important: creating work that matters.
Meaningful work requires deep, focused concentration, but it also demands downtime. Stepping away from the office, when possible, allows your mind to reshuffle the deck. Rest can generate more breakthroughs than metaphorically banging your head against the wall for 10+ hours a day.
In the 13 years since I started JotForm, I’ve also learned to hone in on critical problems and ideas. My days at the office aren’t (usually) very long, but I try to make every minute count.
Even leaving my desk and taking employees to lunch keeps me connected to every part of the company. I realize that’s a privilege, but it’s also my job as a leader.
Identify your most meaningful work, and what helps you to produce it. Then, do everything in your power to create a schedule that supports, instead of depletes, your individual genius.
Energy gains and drains
Poor or inadequate sleep can certainly be a problem, but several other factors can also affect our energy — and how we structure our days. Over the years, I’ve developed a list of what increases, versus decreases, the energy we need to produce work that matters.
- Daily workouts and exercise
- Integrated rest — sleep, spending time outside, taking breaks, walking meetings and lunches
- Asynchronous communication — instant messaging tools like Slack can waste time and sap energy. It’s easier to consider what you want to say, write a clear email, and then get back to work while the recipient takes the time they need to respond
- Having control over your work — if someone is constantly telling us what to do, or tasks repeatedly arrive that require immediate attention, that’s an energy drain
- Having a purpose — knowing the reason behind our day-to-day work is energizing. It’s also easier to decide what to do, and what to set aside. When we tackle projects based on that purpose, we feel alive and excited, even when the work is challenging
- A room of your own — whether it’s a team room with a door that closes (like we have at JotForm) or a clear, dedicated space for creativity, it’s essential to eliminate distractions and find your flow
- Appreciating others — people need to know why their contributions matter. Understanding the impact of our work is invigorating, whether we’re coding, teaching, cleaning, or designing. Say thank-you at every opportunity and recognize outstanding effort
- Constant communication — the repeated “ping” of instant messages, Slack notes, texts and calls is exhausting. Whenever possible, disable notifications. We all need mental space to focus, whether we operate on a manger’s schedule or a maker’s schedule
- Loud places — chatty phone calls, nearby meetings, a colleague’s music, and the proverbial watercooler conversations can be an instant energy drain. Quiet is a valuable currency when we’re trying to go deep
- Too much work — when we juggle too many different balls, we rarely keep any of them in the air for long. Something inevitably suffers, and that can lead to more work, frustration, and even some guilt. Focus is almost always more effective
- Deadlines — stress can provide an addictive energy hit, but it’s impossible to sustain that feeling for the long run. A rare, short-term deadline — like a major launch — is fine, because we’re usually meeting a need and we typically feel a sense of accomplishment at the finish line. But constant deadlines will quickly lead to burnout
- Too many urgent tasks — beyond real deadlines, managing too many daily requests and time-sensitive questions can create anxiety.
Our ritual fascination
It’s tempting to believe other people’s routines hold the key to success — even when the details border on eccentric.
After all, if the 85-year-old Lagerfeld begins his day with Diet Coke and steamed apples, he must be doing something right, right?
But even Burkeman admits that he’s unlikely to become a legendary fashion designer by guzzling cans of pop, or by logging a four-mile run at 5 am, like the former PepsiCo CEO, Indra Nooyi.
“The best defence I can offer,” Burkeman writes, “is that poring over others’ schedules makes me, in a fruitful way, more conscious of my own; experimenting with the tricks I learn is fun, and making daily tasks a little more entertaining surely isn’t a crime.”
Becoming more conscious of our own daily rhythms and routines is the true key to success: Understanding what works, and then building on it. Harnessing and protecting our energy. Having the discipline to prioritize essential activities and bypass the rest.
That’s when our human curiosity, and a little voyeurism, truly pays off.