Photo: A sample “daily rind” from my notebook
For years my task and schedule management lived across various apps — OmniFocus, Basecamp, Google Calendar, and others (and more recently, as I pared down my “productivity” tools, a simple combination of The Hit List + iCal.) But mapping out what to do throughout my day in a reliable way has always been a problem. Really understanding how little time there was and seeing patterns in time usage proved next to impossible, despite all the technology at my fingertips.
I think I’ve found a better way.
I still track my projects and tasks digitally, and keep a calendar (with online sync + backup) for planning ahead, but for mapping out what I’m going to do in the day ahead of me, I’ve devised a decidedly low-tech system which I’m lovingly referring to as “The Daily Rind.”
For me, it’s proved to be more enjoyable, quicker and more intuitive, and — above all — flexible enough to accommodate the inaccuracies and foibles of my inconsistent, unpredictable daily schedule as a freelance creative.
Re-introducing Analog -or- Can’t Get No Satisfaction?
I’d never really been attracted to using a paper-based day-planner. It seemed wasteful, mundane, and oh-so-repetitious. But gradually, I realized that my brain doesn’t work with the same rigid logic and demarcations that my digital systems require. I also realized that I missed the feeling of pen on paper more and more, and would benefit from taking more breaks from my glowing screen. But those thoughts alone weren’t enough to make me change as I’d tried using a conventional paper dayplanner and that hadn’t proved any better, really.
The Chronotebook has you schedule your time out using hours mapped out on the radii of a circle, much like the face of an analog clock. You use one circle for morning, and one for afternoon. It doesn’t feel as rigid as a conventional, linear dayplanner format does, you’ve got more room for expanded notes on whichever particular parts of your day happen to generate notes, and — let’s face it — I’m a sucker for novelty (which, it turns out, stimulates dopamine.)
As well, it’s a system that reminds me that days and years and life itself are inherently cyclical, as opposed to purely linear, and so challenges me by its very form to begin looking for patterns and recognizing habits — good or bad — where I might not have noticed them before.
Perhaps also as a result of its unique format, I feel like this Chronotebook system allows me to more naturally recognize the ebb and flow of my days, and attune to the rest of life happening around me. In this way, it prompts me to consider other parts of life in much the same way that Fiore’s Unschedule (which I learned about in The Now Habit) is suppose to (but failed to, for me, due to it’s rigid nature.)
Hacking the Muji Chronotebook
Though I loved the core concept of the Chronotebook, a few things bothered me about it.
1. Too much under-used paper. One sheet per morning and one sheet per afternoon? If necessary, sure, but most days I was ending up with not even enough content to fill one of the sheets, let alone two.
2. My day doesn’t start at midnight. Replicating the format of a clockface seemed like more of a “comfort zone” crutch of familiarity to help people wrap their heads around the concept than something truly optimized. I also don’t really use analog clocks, so I didn’t see even that benefit.
3. I lack discipline and don’t have many real routines, so as a general rule, my days are constantly in a state of flux. The things I plan to do are often different from the things I end up doing. Could I have a system that both accommodates my planning and helps track what actually happens?
So, I adapted the Chronotebook concept into what I think is a more responsive, adaptable tool. The clockface becomes double-rinded, with one circle for day, and one for the evening and night, and depending on how closely I keep to my schedule, may or may not have a layer of entries for what I actually did through the day on top of my planned events, within each rind.
Here’s a walkthrough of the basics of how it works. If you want to follow along, get a notebook. Something with decent-sized pages, like this or this. (Or failing that, just grab a sheet of printer paper.)
The First Rind — Day
I draw a circle. I write the date within the circle. I add 4 dashes along the curvature, or the “rind” of the circle, at the top, right, bottom, and left.
Now comes the first real departure. I move away from having a “12 o’clock at top” convention for the hours. I choose to start my day at 6am, write that at the 0° mark,and map out my hours around the “clockface” from there. But it could just as easily have been 8am, or 9am, or whenever seems most natural and optimized.
First I map out my day as I’m planning it, close to the rind of the circle, so that if plans change, I can write in new items further out. Question marks go beside tentative items.
The next day begins. I’ve slept in. So, I put an “X” beside the items I didn’t actually do (everything before 8:30am), move forward putting checkmarks beside the items I did do, and write in new items and plans as I make them.
The Second Rind — Evening
I’ve incorporated an optional second rind into my system — an “asteroid belt” above my daytime schedule — there for planning my evening (6pm-onward). This second circle is drawn far enough out and away from the first circle as to allow lots of space for daytime entries.
It is generally sparse and it is really meant just as a simple map for how the night will probably go forward, so I can make sure I’m planning in adequate family time, social time, sleep time, and am considering any evening events or chores. I usually create this during my morning review, and the main reason for it is not that I feel the need to thoroughly and explicitly plot out a set amount of time for my kids, wife, dishes, etc. Instead, I map out my evening and my sleep-time because if I don’t do this, I will subconsciously assume that I have “all night to do $this”. ($This being a variable that represents whatever task I’m currently procrastinating on.)
I have wasted countless evenings holed up in my office, feeling guilty about not spending time with my family, or missing yet another great event — or, even more often, hanging out with my family despite the mound of backed-up tasks, and then not getting enough sleep when I go back to work after they’re in bed — all because I didn’t consider how very little time I actually had available during the day.
So, my reasons for doing this evening schedule are perhaps not purely logical. They’re psychological. While the Daily Rind is about productivity, planning and tracking mostly in the positive sense, the Evening Rind, for me, is largely a trick to create more mindfulness through the day. If I don’t consciously and holistically consider all the demands my life — not just my work — make on my time, and make sure to juxtapose those life demands with the work I need to get done on a given day, something will simply slip through the cracks. Mapping it out at least forces me to make a conscious choice ahead of time, so that if something needs to slip, it can be something that’s less important to me than, say, getting to read my daughter her bedtime story.
Because I’m doing it primarily for this purpose, I don’t generally tick off X’s or checkmarks for my evenings. (Though I may start, just for purposes of life-tracking.)
One Final Touch: the Vital Tasks List
One more element I use is a short list of tasks tucked down in the bottom-left corner of the page. These are my vital tasks for the day, brought in from a morning review of my tasks in The Hit List and events in iCal. My challenge for the day is to fit each of these into my schedule in whatever way possible, and to accomplish them — be they client work-related, personal projects, or errands. Manually transferring these to paper helps emphasize their importance (especially if I need to write them down on multiple days), and keeps me from constantly going back to my productivity apps through the day, where I can often:
- become bogged down either with the inertia of fear caused by the amount of tasks and upcoming deadlines looming over me, or
- get distracted by fiddling with my calendar and project lists.
This shortened, curated list of only my most urgent and important tasks for the day pretty effectively avoids that happening. And with my notebook open to this page throughout the day for making other small notes and tracking my schedule, those vital tasks are never more than a glance away, which makes it much harder for me to forget them.
So, there you have it: “the Daily Rind” scheduling system. I have an inkling that it will work best for those with a particular creative disposition, while those whose thought-patterns are more regimented and linear may prefer more conventional scheduling methods. But if you’ve got a more fluid workstyle and struggle with finding rhythm and balance with the scheduling of your days, give the system a try — perhaps it’ll help you the way it’s helped me.
If you’ve got any tips or tricks of your own, suggested adjustments to the system, or have questions or comments for me, feel free to send an email.