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The Ultimate(*) Productivity System built around 'Design' and 'Intention'

Grounded in psychology and neuroscience research.

Charlotte Grysolle
Charlotte Grysolle
9 min read

A neglect to design your day with intention.

According to Peak Performance Coach Dr. Torrie Higgins, that is the main reason most of us struggle to get the work done that matters to us.

Design and intention.

Let’s look at some ideas grounded in psychology and neuroscience research that can help us get better at both these concepts.

Phase 1 :  Design

To design is to plan.

It’s deciding in advance how something is going to look and work. It’s building prototypes, testing, and adjusting.

It’s the opposite of diving in head first and hoping for the best.

When it comes to “designing a productive day,”  there’s a lot of complicated advice impossible to remember or stick with. Plus, most of it misses the point.

It’s not about managing your time. It’s about managing your energy levels — and that is highly personal.

The simplest and most helpful approach is to design your day based on your hardwired biological systems. There are 3 key principles:

  • Know your sleep chronotype
  • Work in ultradian cycles
  • Build in movement and mindless wandering (and chores!)

Know Your Sleep Chronotype

Many experts and sleep coaches agree there are different sleep chronotypes. All of us have genetically predetermined factors that drive our levels of alertness and productivity throughout the day.

80% of the population experiences a common pattern of energy and mood fluctuations throughout the day: Energy and mood tend to rise in the morning, go down in the afternoon, and rise again slightly in the late afternoon or evening. Those people are called morning larks or third birds.

The other 20% of people are night owls. They experience the same pattern but in reverse and shifted later in the day: Energy and mood tend to be moderately high in the early afternoon, low in the early evening, and highest in the late evening and into the early morning. - Todoist
Source: Todoist

It’s important to know when you are biologically programmed to do your best work and design your day that way.

Are you a morning lark or a night owl? There’s no right or wrong. But knowing that answer can help you direct your highest energy state to your most important task(s) of the day.

Forcing yourself to do a task that is not a good fit for your current state of mind is not only a poor use of time but also counter-productive (I call that Energy Quicksand — very dangerous territory to be in).

Research has shown that 1 hour in your peak zone = 4 hours outside of your peak zone when it comes to productivity.

Honestly, that was a huge reason I quit my job. I craved more freedom and flexibility in setting my schedule. I know not everyone has that luxury, but even if you work a traditional office job or have kids, you can look for small, incremental ways to re-organize your day.

I go into detail on how to sync your schedule to your biological energy flow here.

Work in 90-Minute Work Bouts

It’s important to internalize that slowing down and feeling low energy throughout the day isn’t you being “lazy” or “undisciplined.”

It’s simple biology that our bodies go through cycles with varying energy levels throughout the day.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a morning lark or an evening owl — pushing yourself to focus for hours on end - while possible - is not in line with what is known about our underlying biology.

The ideal work day, recommended by neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, is one where you schedule your cognitively demanding work in 90 minutes blocks.

He calls these ‘focused learning bouts.’

This recommendation is based on ultradian rhythms, which are natural cycles of approximately 90 minutes that exist in all of us. Our nervous systems go through these all day and all night, and biologically we are optimized to work and focus in these 90-minute blocks.

Source: Hubspot

The average person can do 1–3 of these deep focus work bouts per day. It depends on how well you’ve slept and are nourished, and how trained your focus capacity is.

The more you practice this level of focus, the more you’ll be able to do this.

Check out my post here to learn more about the science behind ultradian rhythms and how you can use them to structure your workday here.

Build in Movement and Mindless Wandering (and Chores!)

Here’s what’s hard to internalize, especially when there's an endless to-do list:

The discipline to stop is just as important as the motivation to start.

The science is very clear here: you need to give your brain a rest. So, after 90 minutes of deep focus, force yourself to take a break.

This doesn’t need to be long. 20 minutes is ideal, but any break is better than nothing.

Avoid energy-sapping activities (phone, tv, news) that dump dopamine, and go for low-stimulation breaks.

The best ones are those that get you out of your head and into your body, like:

Yes, chores! Those annoying daily chores.

Modern advice is to outsource everything. Groceries, driving, cooking, cleaning, laundry.

But as we know by now, it’s biologically impossible to be productive and ‘on’ every single waking hour. So why not use chores as a way to move your body and rest your brain?

Simple moments of complete disengagement where you can let your mind wander.

Research suggests that people’s most creative ideas strike when they’re not actively thinking about anything. You’ll come up with more interesting ideas and solutions if you allow yourself to ‘waste’ some time on mindless tasks. Counterintuitive, but true.

And here's another counterintuitive point:

You’ll be able to focus better when you go sit back down to work. The science behind ultradian cycles tells us that giving your brain a rest after intense focus is essential for your ability to focus again later in the day. Like any skill, focus is something you can get better at. Not by focusing more, but by stepping away.

Phase 2: Intention

Great — you’ve designed your work day around your energy levels, broken it down into 90 minutes sprints, and included regular brain breaks and body movement.

You’re now working with, not against, your natural abilities.

That’s the foundation.

Now, we start building.

Being intentional means being clear about what you want and how you’ll get there. It’s about focusing on the essentials.

Here's how I do that:

  • Do a regular brain dump
  • Define key priorities and MVP every morning
  • Color-coded time blocking
  • Ruthlessly remove all distractions

Do a Regular Brain Dump

When there are too many moving pieces, and you feel overwhelmed, do a big brain dump.

Just take a piece of paper and write down everything on your mind: jobs, decisions, obligations, commitments, projects, annoyances, worries, lingering questions, etc.

One 2021 study found that participating in a brain dump activity helped lower intrinsic cognitive load. Other research shows that writing things down can improve recall and memory.

The point is to get everything out of your head, and onto paper. Because then you can start organizing.

For each point on your list, assign it to one of these 4 categories:

  • Do
  • Defer (Delay)
  • Delegate
  • Delete (Drop)

Don’t overthink this. This shouldn’t take more than a second for each point.

Defer / Delay is the most powerful one for me.

I often get stuck worrying about a future task that is not yet actionable or outside of my control.

A better way is to write it down, schedule it, and then forget about it until I can do something about it.

“Brain dumping can relieve a lot of anxiety, especially for people who constantly have racing thoughts or ruminations or people who tend to overthink things,” psychologist Dr. Marsha Brown says. “It takes those thoughts from their head so that they’re not constantly bouncing around in there, and it puts them somewhere, so they know they’re not going to forget, that it’s written down somewhere and that it can be taken care of later.”

You don’t need to do this every day. Probably once a week, at the start or at the end of the week, so that you can plan ahead.

Define 3 Priorities + MVP

Every morning, I write down in my notebook what I’m going to be working on that day.

There’s no point in having a long list of tasks that “would be good to get done today” because it dilutes your focus and attention (and freaks you out every time you look at the list.)

So pick the 3 key priority tasks. Make sure these are small enough so they can be done in a day, and specific enough, so you are clear on how to get started.

Then, for each of these, define the ‘Minimum Viable Product.’

What is the minimum you need to do in order to be able to get this done?

Being clear on what a ‘successful’ day and knowing when to stop working on something is crucial, or you’ll never feel satisfied (even with excellent output).

Color-Coded Time Blocking

Don’t make a list of your priorities and then ‘fingers crossed’ you’ll find the time to get to it.

You need to schedule it.

And I mean this literally: block time in your calendar and name it [Task].

Don’t let anything get in the way.

Cal Newport, author of Productivity Bible ‘Deep Work’, goes as far as to recommend you “schedule every minute of your day” (including breaks, lunch, exercise, etc.).

This isn’t as extreme as it sounds. It just takes a few minutes every day, and you can reschedule things as you wish. But we’re visual creatures, and seeing tasks on our schedule is proven to help us get them done.

There's the Parkinson's Law, which states that work expands to fill the time allotted. If you give yourself all afternoon to do something, it will take all afternoon. But instead, if you block out 2 hours on your calendar to knock it out - chances are, you'll get it done in 2 hours.

Since learning about ultradian cycles, I've added another layer to time-blocking: color coding.

According to Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, most people hold their productivity back by not rigidly scheduling both work & rest breaks throughout the day.

So, I’ve been using color coding in my calendar to ensure I’m balancing ‘focused bouts of work’ with ‘mind-wandering breaks.’

  • 🔵 = personal tasks
  • 🟣 = work
  • 🟡 = exercise + tasks that require movement like cleaning, groceries,..
  • 🟢 = writing, reading

With one glance at my calendar, I can see if I have enough yellow in between the blue and green + move things around if necessary.

Ruthlessly Remove All Distractions

Cool, we know what we're working on, and we have a beautiful, colorful agenda. What could possibly go wrong?

There's one more thing. You have to be ruthless about removing all distractions. This is absolutely crucial.

If we switch tasks or reach for our phone the second we feel distracted or frustrated, we never make it to the point of deep focus.

I've gone a bit obsessive with this because I just notice time and time again how my phone or social media derails all my best intentions.

This will be different for everyone, so make sure you know your triggers and you put rules in place for yourself so you can protect Future You.

Here's what I do:

ColdTurkey on my computer.

This is a website blocker that allows me to block specific websites for specific chunks of the day.

I’ve set up daily recurring blocks every morning and every afternoon, every weekday, with no way of disabling them.

Screenshot of my ColdTurkey schedule for blocking Twitter

Then for my phone, there's one simple rule: it needs to be out of my visual field.

At a minimum, I leave it in another room while I'm working.  By having your phone in your field of view, your brain must work hard to ignore it, but if your phone isn’t easily accessible or visually present, your brain can focus on the task at hand.

I have noticed that I still fall into the trap of “quickly checking my messages” on my way to the bathroom or while taking a break.

So I also bought a Phone Safe so I physically can't use it for a few hours. I don't do this every single day, but mostly on the days when I can feel I'll be particularly distracted or have lots of work to get through.

And That's It!

As a quick recap:

Design: Organize your day based on your hardwired biological systems.

  • Know your sleep chronotype
  • Work in 90-minute work bouts
  • Build in movement and mindless wandering (and chores!)

Intention: Be clear & specific about what you'll work on every day.

  • Do a regular brain dump
  • Define 3 priorities + MVP
  • Color-coded time blocking
  • Ruthlessly remove all distractions

(*) Obviously, even with this system, you'll still have plenty of throwaway days. Ultimately, we're trying to make 40,000-year-old brains function in a very strange world, so cut yourself some slack. But implementing just a few of these ideas in your daily routine will 100% help you get more done, with less stress, and with better output.


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