How to organize your time to maximize your mental capacity, create more, and have more impact.
You have to organize your time into these 3 categories…
To do anything in a given day, I rely on my brain to provide me the necessary mental power and energy to go do those things. However, without taking care of my brain, how am I expected to perform optimally, maximize my productivity, and live my best life? How am I expected to make an impact in the world when I don’t have enough energy to even just get by?
I have found that my brain is actually very much like my stomach. We all know that to maintain a healthy lifestyle, you should probably be mindful of what you eat and how active you are during the day. However, I think much less people truly understand that it’s the same with your brain. To have the energy to be active and make the most out of your day, you need to take care of your brain. Despite being invisible, it’s part of your body after all.
Thus, in an effort to take better care of my mental health, I’ve started to divide my time up into 3 categories in which my brain functions:
1. Input time
The modern world is made up of so much. So much information to learn, entertainment to consume, and experiences to be had. I call this input. Most of my input these days (now that I’m off social media) comes in the form of real life experiences such as time spent with friends, meeting new people, seeing new sights, etc. However, I do of course still consume digital media — news, podcasts, articles, videos, movies, songs, etc.
“Garbage in, garbage out.” Just like nutrition, the information and experiences you actually consume is very important (and is a whole other topic for another article). However, what I want to focus on here is that once you have found the right things to be consuming, you should fully immerse yourself in the experience of doing so.
If you are having a conversation with someone new who is telling you things you haven’t heard before, try to listen deeply and don’t let your brain wander. If you are seeing a new place, do a visual scan around you and breathe in the air to really feel what it feels like to be in that moment. Dedicating time to learn, take in the world, and be present is important for developing a deeper sense of self and a better understanding for what is around us.
Personally, I know I get distracted quite easily, so I really need to actively remind myself to be present in the moment and not let my background mental processes interrupt my experience of life. One way I aim to do this is to read more. When reading, I am dedicating “input time” to solely take information in (and not multitask).
My hope is that this will allow me to take in the world as it is, and not just immediately react to all these inputs, because sometimes my initial reactions are not very helpful. Most of the time, I need a moment to actually gather my thoughts on how I really feel about a particular input. This leads me to my next category.
2. Reflection time
I also call this processing time. Just as a computer needs time and energy to process information, you also need to give your brain adequate time and energy to process everything it has taken in within a given timeframe. If we continue with the mental diet analogy — this reflection time category is essentially the digestion for your brain, and it’s the process which everyone underestimates.
Reflection time can be in the form of going on a drive somewhere, eating alone, or just straight chilling on your bed staring at the ceiling. The point is to try not do anything “productive” and allow your thoughts some time to organize themselves.
Reflection for me personally comes in the form of having a deep conversation with a friend, meditating, working out / going on a walk by myself (with either no music, or just instrumental music without lyrics), or journalling. The most impactful is usually journalling, because it allows me to slow my train-of-thought down to writing-speed, and really visualize my thoughts so I can get them organized. However, meditating and walking alone helps me just let my mind wander wherever it wants before I go into a journalling session.
In recent days, at least one of these “reflection” activities are required to make it into my day somehow. I find that if I miss scheduling this time for myself then I lose my mental energy, I create more brain fog, and this leads to feelings of burnout. Nobody likes burnout. It’s kind of like the feeling you get when you swim too quickly after eating — yeah don’t do that.
The benefits of spending enough time mentally digesting your life mostly includes mental clarity. This mental clarity allows us to orient ourselves on the map of life, and get a better picture for the direction we need to take moving forward. Very similar to the planning for a trip abroad— you may have some inspiration on where you might want to go based on your initial reactions to the inputs you consume, but to make the trip a reality, it’s good to have at least a bit of a plan and not just go blindly (especially if it’s your first time travelling). Once you have a plan, you know that anywhere you end up is exactly where you should be — even if you plan to get lost a bit, you’ll know that it was intentional and that you have at least some direction to make it to your next destination.
3. Output time
If input is the food, and reflection is digestion, then output is the activity we ultimately spend the resulting energy towards. Pretty self explanatory. Once we’ve organized our thoughts and built up the mental energy, we need a place to release this energy.
Most people understand this “output time” as the traditional “productive time.” I would argue that all three categories count as “productive,” but I do recognize this is probably the one that feels best — especially when you have a clear direction on where you want to go with your actions and the purpose of your actions (which is obtained from reflection, see above).
Output can be so many things. For me, it’s writing articles like this, creating a video, telling a story about an experience in a conversation. Or it’s building the spreadsheets and information models at work. It’s the things that actually can have an impact on other people. This potential impact on others is what differentiates an activity from reflection, since technically journalling can be argued as an “output.” However, I think since my journal is personal and won’t be shared with anyone, it’s more of a reflection device. Whereas these articles are shared with you — my readers — and they may have some sort of external impact outside of me.
Whatever your output is, just remember it is guided by the other two time categories. Sometimes people pick an arbitrary output based on their inputs without ample reflection and self awareness of whether that output is right for them. For example, in university I decided on a post-grad job that I thought would be good for me, but didn’t take the time to reflect and really understand if that was the right fit for me. Thus, I was spending a lot of my “output time” and energy into this job that wasn’t aligned with my actual life goals and personal values.
After deep reflection, I made a change to a different job which was more aligned with my values, as well as my vision / mission for my life. Now when I go to work, I am able to output my time and energy towards something that I know aligns with my authentic self, and I feel the sense of purpose and empowerment. The goal is to not burn out, maintain a sustainable energy source, and to increase the sense of empowerment that you feel when you do show up in the world — whatever “showing up” looks like for you. This will allow you to show up as your most authentic self, which will hopefully also inspire others to do the same.
Balance is key
Everyone wants to optimize output without realizing that to do so, you must balance the time spent in each category above.
To give you an idea of how this framework of time categories plays out in my life, here’s a breakdown of a typical day in my life:
6:30–7am Reflection time: Usually in the form of an insightful conversation with Max about our thoughts in the past day, and what they mean. We’ve been serving as accountabuddies for a little while now, so we get on a call every morning at 6:30–8:30 to make sure we progress towards our goals.
7–8:30am Output/Input time: I usually write these articles in the mornings. When I’m not writing, I am learning about a new topic. During June, I spent most of these morning blocks studying for my CPA program.
9am-12pm Input/Output time: During my day job as an accountant, my mornings bounce between time spent learning new things to understand my work for the day, and time spent actually doing my work.
12pm-1pm Reflection time: I usually eat lunch by myself, and lately have been going to the park to eat and journal. It’s a nice way to reset my brain in the middle of the day.
1–5pm Output time: Usually my afternoons have more direction after spending some time in the morning learning things, as well as spending time during my lunch break to reflect and realign myself.
5–6pm Reflection time: After work, I either go to the gym, or I go home and cook dinner. During either of these activities, I try not to input any content/media to allow space for thought. Yes, technically I am also “outputting” my energy towards working out or cooking, but those activities don’t require much active thought so I won’t count that time category here.
6–8pm Input/Output time: In the evening, I usually listen to podcasts, watch youtube videos, or read something to take more information in and shift my mind from my accountant brain to my personal/creative brain. Sometimes, I have meetings for my side projects where I get to put my pent up evening creative juices to work.
8–10pm Reflection time: Usually I like to go on sunset walks to allow my mind to wander and process how my day went or organize the new information I learnt. Sometimes, my journal comes along on my walk and I stop at the park to write down my thoughts. This serves as a good wind-down for the night, but also allows me to not fall prey to information-overload in a single day.
10:30pm–6am Sleep and repeat. I could count this as reflection time because technically our subconscious is processing our day during sleep (which sometimes translates into dreams). However, this could also just be a totally separate category on its own — sleep is so fascinating!!
If there’s one thing to takeaway from this article, it’s how the most underrated (and arguably most important) time category is reflection. Too many people just take what life throws at them and immediately respond to those inputs. However, doing this puts so much pressure on our brain to spend its precious processing power on things that might not even be worth spending out time and energy on.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for being able to think quick on your feet, as well as using “gut feeling” responses to tackle life’s hurdles. However, I believe to truly sustain our energy levels, we need to reduce our inputs so we don’t waste our precious brainpower on useless thoughts. More importantly though, we should implement more reflection time to ensure the inputs we do consume are properly processed as useful / not-useful. Pausing to decide whether something truly adds value to our lives allows us to not waste time and energy investing in things that don’t serve us.
The challenge with all this is that it also takes incredible self awareness for reflection to be most effective. This self awareness doesn’t come easy, and it may not be clear right away whether something is useful for us or empowers us to live our best lives. However, once this self awareness is developed, we can have a better idea if we’re on the right path or not. It just comes with more time spent reflecting. Once the mental-waste is removed, we gain the mental clarity to take all our inputs and have a good direction for our outputs.
For me, I know that reflection time allows me to fully take in my life experiences / learnings and then be energized to create things during my output time, including articles like these. Furthermore, the more I can create / output, the more impact I can make in the world because I know that every one of my actions is guided towards a greater purpose.
With these articles for example, the goal is to improve my writing so that I can make more impact with my audience. If I allow myself to reflect properly, I can show up in these articles as my most authentic self and hopefully provide the most value as I can. After taking in life experiences and truly reflecting on what those experiences mean to me, I will be overflowing with my own energy to share — and that energy will come in the form of stories.
I’ll leave you with this — whatever your output is, just make sure to find the balance of input, reflection, and output that works for you. I can’t guarantee any specific formula for each of these time categories that will make you the most productive version of yourself. I can’t guarantee that you will be living your best life and make a huge impact on the world tomorrow if you just spend time journalling tonight. However, what I can provide is just a framework for thinking about your time which hopefully helps you clear up your mental headspace, take back your energy, and help make the most out of your day. How you decide to actually spend that energy and time is up to you.
Thanks for reading and sticking to the end! I really appreciate you, like so much. Let me know if this was valuable or if you clicked with anything in this one — I’m always open to hearing your feedback. I’m also always open to having a chat about anything your heart desires . Until the next one, hope you have a great life!