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Try this framework to get more done every day

I didn’t have enough time.

I’d offer myself this excuse every time I fell short of a goal or let a side-project die from neglect. It killed me a little every time that happened, but what choice did I have? I needed an excuse and this one beat I’m not capable.

When you keep hearing that you don’t have enough time, you start to believe it. I could barely get anything done at work so how could I possibly learn a new language or pick up a new skill? I wanted to start a company but if I couldn’t manage my own time how could I let others trust me with theirs?

Before I quit my job, I had to see whether I didn’t have enough time or whether I was just using it wrong. For the twenty five years leading up to this moment, I focused on changing myself. When things didn’t work out, I directed my disappointment at the core of my being. Something about me just wasn’t equipped to make consistent progress on things that I cared about. 

This time I tried to change my environment and my approach. The result is this routine. It’s still a work in progress but it has kept me from going crazy and losing all hope so far.

By the way, this is a framework I use to manage my time since quitting my job. If you want a weekly digest of everything I'm learning from working for myself, sign up for my newsletter.   

The order system

Everything I do is either a first, second, or third-order task. Each task is assigned an order based on its urgency (y-axis) and creative difficulty (x-axis). In this framework, creative difficulty literally means how much energy is required to create something that did not exist before. 

First order work

Tasks that require creative energy or focus. The quality of these tasks matter. These are the tasks that need to be redone if you don't get it right. I spend this time writing, designing, or strategizing.

First order work demands no distractions and clear thinking. For me, this happens in a two hour block right after I wake up. I make coffee, meditate, and start my first-order tasks. I don’t check my phone or my email. I clear my mind and start working.

Second order work

Tasks that are critical to the success of whatever you’re working on. I spend this time editing, communicating, debugging, and coding.

Second order work comes after the completion of first order work and a break to recharge the brain. I take a break after completing first-order work to shower and go to the gym. Then, I sit back down and work until lunch.

Third order work

Tasks that are mundane and less urgent, but still important. I spend this time doing repetitive tasks that should eventually get automated like doing data entry.

Third order work can come whenever you have time and feel like it, because task switching and distractions are less costly for these more mundane tasks. I do these throughout the day when I’m bored or my brain feels fried.

Benefits

“Working smarter is better than working harder” just means do the most important thing at any given time. If you take away only one thing from this framework, it’s to do the tasks that require the best of you before you do anything else. The other stuff just falls into place.

A typical day of mine looks like this. This works best for me because I love the mornings, but you could move things around to suit your needs (like if you were a night owl):

  • 6:00 - Wake-up 
  • 6-6:15 - Coffee 
  • 6:15-6:30 - Meditate 
  • 6:30 - 8:30 - First order tasks 
  • 8:30 - 9:30 - Break
  • 9:30 - 11:30 - Second order tasks 
  • 11:30 - 12:30 - Lunch 
  • 12:30 - 6:00 - Periodically do Third order tasks while I hang out with my girlfriend, read books, etc. 
  • 6:00 - 7:00 - Dinner 
  • 7:00 - 9:00 - Hang out with people and read
  • 9:00 - Bed

Sometimes I don't feel like doing third order tasks and just call it a day after four hours of deliberate work. Before, I let my anxiety about productivity poison my free time. Now, I can actually enjoy my free time knowing that I've made progress on my most important tasks every day. It's bizarre. I get more done but spend fewer hours working. 

It took me a lot of trial and error to come up with a routine that balances getting stuff done and making sure I don't burn out. This works for me but might not work for everybody.

What works for you? 

Recommended reading: Your Brain at Work gr


My current first and second order tasks all focus on writing and publishing a book about our generation's relationship with jobs. I'm sharing the whole process in my newsletter that you should join.