Sometimes I fantasize about an empty calendar. No meetings. No obligations. Nothing but time for my work, myself, and the people I care about. Then I remember: I’ve already lived that dream, more than once.
I had an empty calendar in 2015, while writing my book, Sprint. I had it when my wife and I were traveling in Central America and our only commitments were to each other. When we first moved to Milwaukee, there it was again—an empty calendar. Nothing but possibility.
And then I remember something else: The reality of an empty calendar does not live up to the dream.
When Time Becomes Abundant
Time is a finite resource, and normally, it’s in short supply—something I learned firsthand during my time at Google Ventures, where I helped create the Design Sprint process. In a way, that makes it easier to use time well. When you only have a limited number of hours to spend how you’d like, you make the most of them.
On the flip side, when time becomes abundant, it can be challenging to make good use of it. If you’ve ever spent a Sunday evening wondering how the weekend got away from you, or blown a big chunk of money on an ill-advised purchase on payday, you know what I mean. When we’re faced with abundance, it breaks our mental framework for how to manage that resource, and we go bonkers.
That’s basically what happens to me when I have an empty calendar. My brain can’t handle the shift from scarcity to abundance. I get overly optimistic about what I can achieve, and then I set myself up for a spectacular fall down to earth as I waste all that time. I get distracted. I procrastinate. I wait too long to eat and forget to exercise.
The way around this, I’ve learned, is to create some structure for myself.
Elements of a Good Day
I’ve done a lot of experimenting with my days. By now, I know that each day needs:
- Time for deep work in the mornings
- Meals and breaks to keep me energized
- Admin time in the afternoon (for email, meetings, or chores)
- Exercise or other movement
- Evenings of quiet and face-to-face time with my wife and friends
These elements show up in my calendar every day. Yes, I literally schedule email, breaks, and exercise. Sometimes I change my schedule, but it’s always there to support the way I want to live. Author Annie Dillard explains it perfectly: A schedule, she wrote in her book The Writing Life, is “a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.”
I think of the “worker” in this description as the version of me that’s in the moment, trying my best to stay focused and get the job done. The version of me that puts up the scaffolding is very different. He’s strategic. He knows that Worker Me needs support. He’s not tempted by distractions and procrastination. He can take a step back and think about what’s best.
Creating Structure With Calendar Templates
I recently started doing something ultra nerdy: I created a calendar template that contains all the elements of a good day. Like scaffolding, my calendar template is there not to control or confine, but to support and secure. It has been life-changing.
I started by sketching out my ideal day, starting when I wake up at 6:30 a.m. and ending when I go to bed at 10 p.m., and I set it to repeat every weekday. (I don’t have a calendar template for my weekends. I’m not an animal 😝)
In some cases, I put two events in the same time slot to represent a choice of what to do at that time. For example, some afternoons I have meetings, while others I work on small projects or catch up on email.
Here’s how it looks:
I have experimented with a couple different ways of using it, both of which have pros and cons. Here they are:
Method 1: The Day Overlay
In Google Calendar, I created a new calendar called “Template,” made it light blue (my main personal calendar is a medium blue), and built my ideal day template there.
In daily use, I’ll toggle my template on and off for quick reference. Sometimes I copy an event from my template to my real calendar. But most of the time I don’t need to—even just knowing my template is there helps me stick to the plan.
I sometimes use my template as a canvas for experimenting with changes to my schedule. Since it’s not my real calendar, I can make a mess and not worry about deleting a meeting or causing myself to show up for something at the wrong time.
Method 2: The Full Bonsai
In this method, you create your calendar template right on your real calendar. I call it “The Full Bonsai” because, like caring for a bonsai tree, this method is all about pruning.
Once your template is built up, you start each day with a full calendar, and you have to decide when and where to trim. You’re invited to a meeting—what element of your ideal day are you going to give up? You want to go to the gym three times a week: If your Monday visit is preempted, where do you fit in a visit later in the week?
This approach is powerful because it forces you to confront the trade-offs required when you agree to do something new.
How to Find What Works for You
These systems may sound totally unrealistic. I get it. I know this approach is easier to pull off when you’re self-employed like I am. But when I had a full-time office job at Google, I still used these tactics to plan my days around what was important to me. And they worked.
You can ease yourself into a calendar template with small steps or broad strokes. Maybe the first version includes a 9-to-5 block labeled “office.” You might establish a morning routine and put that in your template.
Then, you and your co-workers might agree to a small shared calendar block—say, no meetings before lunch on Mondays. You could schedule in a slot during your workday to step outside for some fresh air or a walk. Add it to your template. And build from there.
Having a similar plan for every day might sound like drudgery, but I have found that the opposite is true. When I think proactively about how I want to spend my time—when I separate the planning from the doing—I can throw myself into each moment with joyful abandon and my full attention.
No second-guessing, rationalization, or discipline required.
My calendar template gives me the confidence and freedom to trust that I’m doing my best to make every day a good day.