How to design the perfect day

Tim Urban has a simple equation for measuring happiness.

Give it a spin, you’ll be surprised with its accuracy.

That dinner reservation you had to book exactly 30 days in advance?

That long-awaited family reunion?

The next Kanye album? (Yawn)

The formula is shows us how our happiness (and ultimately our lives) teeter on a razor thin equilibrium. When our expectations are too high, reality fails to keep pace. (Happiness, negative.) But do you want to live in a world of lowered expectations, just so that reality can clear this reduced threshold?

Now I want you to take Tim Urban’s formula to confront another stark reality:

Now you may not agree with the Internet’s Philosopher, but researchers, journalists and redditors seem to land on a shared consensus.

Knowledge workers have the capacity to do 2-4 hours of high-quality work per day.

Intuitively, this makes a ton of sense. Picture yourself on a cross-country flight with Wifi powerful enough for Google Docs (but not Netflix). Armed with some watery coffee (and safeguarded from kids demanding snacks) you could probably plow through a couple of hours of deep work. Eventually your ambitious big picture thinking would fade away – replaced by your email software and the $10 trek towards Inbox Zero.

There’s no shame in this behavior. It makes a lot of sense since once distractions are removed you run into a finite resource: Your cognitive energy.

So let’s return to Urban’s formula:

If reality is pegged at 2 hours what does it imply about your expectations for any given day? Let’s take you through a 5-step blueprint for designing the perfect day.

1. Busyness is the absence of priorities

No one is too busy to exercise. Or to get 8 hours of sleep. Or to start meditating.

Yes, I said it.

If you ever find yourself using the “too busy” excuse, use the following re-framing technique:

“It’s not that I’m too busy to exercise. It’s that I’ve chosen to not make it a priority.

Yet in a world of email whack-a-mole, unreasonable bosses, and an infinite fire-hose of information – isn’t everything a priority?

Here’s where a little bit of intentionality can go a long way. Everyone needs a framework for prioritization. Here are three you can use today:

Armed with a framework, you can use reflection questions to identify your highest-leverage tasks. One of my favorite questions comes from Tim Ferriss’ 17 Questions that changed my life:

“If I could only work 2 hours per week on my business, what would I do?”

This question aligns with the “reality” that our cognitive processing power is a finite resource. Ferriss continues:

“Yes, I know it’s impossible, but if you had a gun to your head or contracted some horrible disease, and you had to limit work to 2 hours per week, what would you do to keep things afloat?”

For Ferriss, that led him to some powerful conclusions:

  • He realized that “20% of customers were producing 80% of profits”
  • He eventually fired the high-maintenance ones and put 90% of retail customers on simple/standardized terms
  • This allowed him to “deepen relationships (and increase order sizes) with his highest-profit, lowest-headache customers.”

So remember. Sure you’re busy. But that’s not an excuse to punt your priorities. First you need to define them and next you need to assign them…

2. The week starts on Sunday (but for a mere 10 minutes)

Personal finance guru (and RadReader) Ramit Sethi says that your priorities are hiding in plain sight: on your calendar.

Read the tweet

Let’s face it. Without a plan, life just happens to you. However, who on earth has time to extensively plan their week in advance?

There’s an easy way workaround. Spending 10 minutes on the weekend to map out your week (which btw, should already be a part of your Weekly Review).

Now, armed with a list of priorities, allocate one $10K (i.e. very high-leverage) task to every single day of the week. Just one. Assign each of these high-priority tasks a DO Date representing the date on which you’ll actually do it. (This contrasts with DUE Dates that we recommend using sparingly.)

If your task manager lets you set Do Dates, go for it. If it doesn’t, nbd. Just allocate these 5 tasks into your calendar.

There you have it. Remember, we’re going to honor Urban’s happiness formula. Too many tasks lead to unreasonable expectations, and unhappiness. So start small. (And with time, build up to maybe two $10K tasks per day.)

3. Protect this house

Remember these Under Armour commercials from the company’s early days?

You’re now prepared to enter your week armed with your highest-leverage and most important tasks. Your next step is to “Protect this house.” If a given work week has 40-60 hours of work, these 5 tasks should represent no more than 3 hours and 45 minutes (45 mins multiplied by 5 days).

Even if you have the world’s worst boss, you can commit 9% of your week to work that actually moves the needle.

There are a few ways to protect these 5 tasks. A timeless method would be eating the frog and doing it first thing in the morning. This tactic dates back to Mark Twain, who said:

If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.

Another way to protect the house is by using time blocking. The Clockify blog describes this time management technique as follows:

Allocate a fixed time period to a planned activity. You work on the activity during the fixed time period and stop working on it once the time is up – then, you assess whether you’ve reached your planned goals.

Next, I want to introduce you to a seldomly discussed way to ensure that your most important priorities are protected and executed upon. It requires re-imagining how you allocate your most precious resource.

And no, this isn’t your time. It’s your energy.

4. Manage your energy (and not your time)

Let’s return to our (measly) two productive hours per day. While that may feel disheartening, rest assured that it doesn’t mean that your day is toast once those two hours are consumed.

This involves abandoning a long held paradigm of how we organize our days. The building block we’re accustomed to is units of time. What if instead we organized our days around our energy?

Consider the typical day of a morning person (like me):

This energy map has some serious implications for how I spend my day. For starters, any $10k work (strategic or creative) must be done before noon, which ties to the saying:

“If it isn’t done before lunch, it probably won’t get done today.”

But what happens after noon? Rest assured, a lot.

In the yellow zone (i.e. medium energy) are Zoom calls (with clients and prospects), improvements to my processes and infrastructure, marketing, ops and customer research.

Then as soon as I hit the red zone, I step into the endless buffet of $10 work. Inbox zero, Tweetstorms, Notion emojis, paying bills and responding to YouTube comments. Not only are these dopamine-inducers fair game, but I allow myself to do them guilt-free.

This paradigm is comprehensively described in the 2003 book The Power of Full Engagement. In this unheralded classic, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz describe energy as “the fundamental currency of high performance.” Compared to its finite counterpart, time:

Energy is a different story. Defined in physics as the capacity to work, energy comes from four main wellsprings in human beings: the body, emotions, mind, and spirit.

Now earlier we established that energy is also finite. But unlike time, energy has restorative process. Stated more succinctly, you can increase the amount of energy you have (and even better, shift your entire energy baseline upwards).

Loehr and Schwartz add that in each of the four wellsprings:

Energy can be systematically expanded and regularly renewed by establishing specific rituals—behaviors that are intentionally practiced and precisely scheduled, with the goal of making them unconscious and automatic as quickly as possible.

Hopefully you’re starting to see it all come together. Define the priorities. Protect them ruthlessly. And then map them to your energy.

5. Use your emotions to build momentum

My fellow children of the 90s, do you remember NBA Jam? This iconic video game popularized the statistical concept of the hot hand – if you hit one basket, you increased your probability of making the next shot. (As an aside, the statistical component has been debunked.)

The most obvious instance of momentum is the transcendent state of flow. Popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he describes how momentum can tip the scales in our favor:

“Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.”

My issue with flow is that it’s always been too nebulous of a concept to actually incorporate on a daily basis. But here are two tactics that can harness our emotions to propel us towards the perfect day.

Tactic 1: Temptation bundling

This approach comes from the world of habit building and combines a not-so-fun task (updating your mid-year OKRs) with a fun task (testing out a new software tool). By dressing up the “fun” task as a reward for the “tedious” task, you can fabricate some momentum to score quick wins.

Tactic 2: Sprints

Just like the hot hand, if you’re able to string together a series of small wins, your confidence and energy will exponentially grow. In the book Sprint: how to solve big problems and test new ideas in just 5 days, Google Ventures’ Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky describe how sprints help teams get more done:

It’s not just about speed. It’s also about momentum, focus, and confidence. The companies who use sprints (in fields like oncology, robotics, coffee, and dozens more) see consistent results from the process.

And while Zeratsky advocates for week-long sprints at the team-level, we can mimic the approach in how we organize our own days and capture the following benefits:

  • They help you start
  • They limit context-switching
  • They move from abstract to concrete
  • They keep you focused on what’s important
  • They force crisp decision making
  • They encourage fast follow-up

6. Be kind to yourself

If we return to Tim Urban’s formula, you’ll find that even with all these tactics the tendency to beat yourself up for not “doing enough” will endure. And as you shut that laptop and power down your phone at the end of day, throw everything you just read in this article and replace it with a few simple questions:

  • Why am I actually doing this work?
  • In a decade, what would I regret not having enjoyed more?
  • Did I show up for the people I love the most?

These questions will remind you that productivity is just a means to an end. Not the end, itself.

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