This is the Asian Efficiency guide to Structural Productivity.
What exactly is Structural Productivity?
It’s one of the underlying ideas behind a lot of what we teach at Asian Efficiency. It comprises of things like rituals, scheduling, timeboxes and timeblocks. It provides you with structure and order in what would otherwise be chaos. It helps you set boundaries for your time.
It’s an environmental structure that helps you form, become familiar with and ultimately adopt productive habits – which makes it perfect for people who struggle with that.
Here’s what we’re going to be covering in this guide:
- Components of Structural Productivity.
- Basic setup and fixed times.
- Morning Rituals.
- Evening Rituals.
- Meal times.
- Sleep times.
- Learning time.
- Using and allocating your remaining time.
Let’s get started.
Components of Structural Productivity
What exactly is Structural Productivity comprised of?
- Morning Ritual. This is your success ritual to help you kick start your day. It gets you from asleep to awake and alert and ready to go, every day.
- Evening Ritual. This is your cool down ritual at the end of the day. It gets your mind, body and attention ready to rest – and rest well.
- Exercise. This could also be called “physical training”. We’re going to cover why it’s important and how it fits alongside everything else.
- Meal Times. Eating seems mundane, but it is critically important. We’re going to show you how to fix your meal times and make them work for you.
- Sleep Time. A crucial and often neglected part of productivity. Sleep is the restoration of our energy and resources like willpower.
- Learning Time. Everyone should be learning 1 new thing every day. This one is tricky, but you’ll walk away from this guide with a number of ways to approach it.
- Remaining Time. To be discussed below.
Setting Up Structural Productivity
Structural Productivity is all about scheduling. We start by setting up our days to be structurally productive.
An example framework that everyone can use is:
- Morning Ritual and Learning.
- Meal 1.
- Allocated time.
- Meal 2.
- Allocated time.
- Meal 3.
- Allocated time.
- Evening Ritual
And then it goes back to #1.
If we break this down into more detail, it can look something like this:
- 6am-7:30am – Morning Ritual and Learning.
- 7:30am-9am – Exercise/Meal 1.
- 9am-12pm – Allocated time.
- 12pm-1pm – Meal 2 (has built-in 30 minute break).
- 1pm-6pm – Allocated time.
- 6pm-7pm – Meal 3 (has built-in 30 minute break).
- 7pm-9pm – Allocated time.
- 9pm-10pm – Evening Ritual.
- 10pm – Sleep.
Here are my personal times as of time-of-writing:
- 5am-6am – Morning Ritual.
- 6am-6:30am – Learning.
- 6:30am-9:30am – Allocated time.
- 9:30am-12:30pm – Exercise (includes commute).
- 12:30pm-1:30pm – Meal 1.
- 1:30pm-7pm – Allocated time.
- 7pm-8pm – Meal 2.
- 8pm-9pm – Evening Ritual.
- 9pm – Sleep.
Let’s break each of these things down into more detail and explain how they work together to make us structurally productive.
Every day (and everything) begins with the morning ritual. We have a podcast and in-depth guide to morning rituals on the blog already, so I’ll just cover it briefly here.
- Drinking at least 500ml (16oz) water.
- Using the bathroom and washing up.
- Some light stretching or movement or calisthenics to get the body moving.
- Getting ready for the day (dress, pack bag).
- Reviewing our goals and outcomes for the day.
Properly completing our morning ritual every day sets the tone for the rest of the day – you should do it regardless of the time you wake up, and it should be done whether you’re at home or away traveling. This is a very popular ritual even in our productivity community, The Dojo.
Tip: In the beginning, write out your morning ritual as a checklist and refer to it. Over time though, it will become second nature.
The evening ritual is the complementary opposite of the morning ritual. It ends our days.
For an in-depth guide, check out this article we wrote a while back.
- Clear your social media and turn your phone off.
- Review and reflect, best done in a journal entry.
- Use the bathroom as needed.
- Some some brief meditation or visualization to quiet your mind.
- Stretch out (to fool your body into relaxing).
- Do a calming activity – a short walk, more meditation or reading fiction.
Much like the morning ritual signals our bodies and minds to wake up and be productive, the evening ritual tells them that we’re done for the day – and that it’s time to rest and recover for the next day.
Now that we know how to start and end our days, let’s look at what happens in-between.
If you aren’t currently exercising, then starting to do so will have more of an effect on your productivity than anything else you can do right now.
And it doesn’t have to be complicated. Go find an exercising or training routine that you like and that you believe in – and then just go do it.
Everyone has individual preferences for what they want to do. Some people like yoga. Some people like Crossfit. Some people like circuit training. Thanh likes playing football. I personally prefer resistance training.
In the beginning it doesn’t really matter all that much anyway – some exercise is always better than no exercise. As you get more into it – then you can take some time and read up what is optimal for your health goals, and then you can start to worry about physiological programming and adaptation and performance.
The key to making exercise work as a component of Structural Productivity is to make it regular.
Pick a number of fixed times every week (I recommend 3) – and FIX THOSE TIMES.
This is not a matter of “if I feel like it” or “if I have time today” – this is where you set the times you are going to go exercise and then going and doing it.
Whatever you have to do to make sure you show up – get an accountability partner. Give your kids $100, to only be returned if you go. Book and prepay for a personal training session. Whatever it is, make sure that you show up to your fixed exercise times.
And here’s why.
Firstly, regular exercise WILL make your more productive.
Secondly, having a set exercise time, adds EVEN MORE structure to your day and lets you better gauge your energy levels and productive capacity at different times during the day and during the week.
For example, if you exercise on a Monday, you may know that between 7:30am-9am you’re unavailable as you’ll be in the gym. You’ll also know that at 9am, you’ll get a rush of good hormones in your system which will make you bright and alert and productive for the Monday morning meeting.
And say on a Tuesday you don’t exercise – you know that you’ll have an extra 1.5 hours of “allocated time” to either spend at home or at work in the mornings.
In short: schedule in regular exercise and show up. Just do it.
Structurally fixing your meal times seems so simple – and yet is extremely effective.
All you need to do is this: decide the number of meals you will eat a day, and then eat them at the same time every day.
And don’t snack in-between. You can drink tea, coffee, soda – anything with low or no calories in-between, but fix your meal times and don’t stray from them.
Not only is this going to help with your diet and nutrition (because of the reduced snacking), but it is also going to make you more productive.
Why? Because you won’t have to use physiological cravings (hunger) as a measure of when to eat – you KNOW when you’re going to eat. At the same times every day.
You know exactly when you have to start preparing dinner. You know exactly what times you will be unavailable for calls, for meetings or for other things – the times you’ll be eating.
If you want to take it a step further – fix your meal portions in advance as well (but that’s a topic for another time).
But wait – what about if I have a dinner appointment? What about sitting down as a family and breaking bread together?
Well, this is where you build in some flexibility.
In the first instance, where you have dinner plans or social engagements, bring in some flexibility. If you usually eat at 7pm and your dinner plans are at 7:30pm or 6:30pm – that is perfectly fine.
In the second instance – food with family. If you have a say, make it a fixed time, “Every day, we have dinner from 7pm-8pm”. Otherwise, work out what time everyone typically eats and schedule your own dinner to coincide with that time.
Structuring your sleep times is easy – just go to bed the same time every day.
Learn to wake up at the same time on weekends as you do during the work week.
Sleep is probably one of the most important aspects of Structural Productivity, because it determines your boundary rituals (morning and evening rituals) and lets your body know when it can reliably rest.
Bonus Tip: If you want to wake up earlier, just go to sleep earlier. If you want to do the 5am challenge, you need to be in bed by 9pm latest!
What we call “Learning Time” is a bit of an odd one.
One of the things that we teach in the Productivity Blueprint is that you should learn something new every single day. This helps instill a growth mindset and gives you different perspectives to handle the the challenges that come your way.
But it’s a hard question answer: when is the best time for learning?
I’ve personally tried multiple times. So have all the team members here at Asian Efficiency. And we’ve talked to different readers and customers and friends, and there doesn’t seem to be a universal time that is “best” for learning or skill acquisition.
You could do it first thing in the day – but then you may feel that you’re missing out on the “eat that frog” effect of handling your most important task first.
You could do it after lunch – but if you have a carbohydrate-heavy meal or some red wine, you may not feel too much like learning after lunch.
You could do it after your work is done for the day – but let’s face it, most of us are thinking about television and downtime at that point.
You could do it at a fixed time randomly during the day – but sometimes, things come up and we don’t want to interrupt our flow of work to read for 30 minutes.
I honestly don’t think there’s an ideal solution to this – you just have to experiment a bit and work out when the best time is for you.
If say you have a 30 minute commute in the morning, that might be a good time for an audiobook or podcast. If you’re like me and you want to guarantee that it’s done every single day, do it first thing in the morning as part of your morning ritual.
Using and Allocating Your Remaining Time
So what about the rest of your time?
This is where your “work” goes – be that your job, working on your business, your side projects or whatever it is… you will have plenty of time in-between your fixed structured times to do other things.
Something to keep in mind is that everything we’ve mentioned in this guide is already conspiring to keep you productive – the confluence of exercise, rituals, set meal times and otherwise all help make sure that you have optimal energy and focus for doing the work that is important to you.
All you have to do with this “remainder time” is to know what you want to accomplish, then go do it. If you have to, use solar flaring or timeboxes or timeblocks. Use whatever you have to to get productive things done, and remember that you’ve already set things up so that this time IS available for you to make the best use of it.
Note: Structural Productivity naturally builds in Parkinson’s Law (“work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”) – you know exactly between what times you can work.
This guide has everything you need to get started with Structural Productivity. In future articles we will look at structuring weeks, months, quarters and years as well.
If you want to go in-depth on some of the items mentioned, you can check out our articles/guides to:
- Morning Rituals
- Evening Rituals
- Sleep time and Better Sleep in general
- The Productivity Blueprint where we go in-depth into the most important productivity concepts.
Great article! Any ideas and suggestions on how I can learn something everyday? It sounds awesome; I love the idea of learning something everyday. But it’s a tall order to set out each day to achieve.
As a dojo member or podcast listener, do you have any ideas on sources where we can do this learning from and examples of the types of things we can include as learning every day?
Really helpful article! I’ve been wondering how to incorporate routines with tasks and projects.
Quick question: In GTD, the advice is not to put anything in your calendar that is not strictly an appointment. Do you think it’s a good idea to structure this into the calendar? Or better to have it more fluid?
(p.s.: probably not good for health or productivity to drink soda between meals, even if it is low-cal ;)
Great article. For me, the hardest thing with 9pm-5am sleep is when I go out with friends until say midnight. It really disrupts the schedule. There’s not much getting around it, I like to go to bed early and I like to occasionally go on evening outings. Do you have this problem? If you do, how do you adjust to it and maintain your flow?
Thanks in advance,
That’s definitely a tough one.
I guess I’m getting old and try to wrap my nights before 10pm, but on the occasion where it does happen and I’m out a bit late it’s simply a matter of adjusting your wake up time for a bit later (e.g., sleep 12am-8am) and then recognising that there will be some productivity overhead in terms of a shorter day the next day and in terms of not maintaining the same sleep times every single day.
It also helps if you limit those late nights to Friday/Saturday nights, as I imagine the most critical days for getting up at 5am would be Monday-Friday.
I know that seems like fairly standard advice but unfortunately there is no magic pill for reduced sleep hours!
Hey Aaron, how do you enforce this schedule? I’ve had lots of short-term success with rigid schedules like this, but after a few weeks, I would find that I’d blow off one small part of the schedule. That then creates a snow ball effect that disturbs the whole schedule. Any advice?
Also, I agree sleep time is super important for getting up early, but I’d add that people shouldn’t be too ambitious all of a sudden. I’ve seen a lot of my friends try to go from waking at 9am to waking at 6am. Naturally, they fail miserably because the body can’t adjust to a sudden sleep schedule change like this.
Instead, I typically advise them to go to bed and then wake up 15 minutes earlier each day until they reach their target time.
Haha, I actually find that this is *really flexible* for me. Rigid would be timing everything down to 15 minute increments.
But I see the point. I think having some flexibility goes a long way, and realising that on some days you have to wake up earlier or eat later or do certain things at certain times and be OK with that.
For me understanding that was a matter of chunking up a couple of logical levels and handling it at a belief/mindset level – just because 1 thing is off it doesn’t mean that everything is off. I know, really hard for a perfectionist to internalise, but it’s worth it. A couple of analogies:
* Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
* If you have an infection on your arm, you treat the infection – you don’t amputate the whole arm.
RE Sleep I’m more of the dive-right-in opinion. First 2 weeks will be BRUTAL, but then it gets much easier. I know Thanh did the 15 minute thing, but the only way I got it to stick for me was jumping straight in. Something else that can really help too is to set early-morning appointments that you HAVE TO get up for!
Great Stuff Aaron. Having kids has actually helped me with setting up similar patterns:
– Waking up early and morning routines
– Exercising once the’ve been sent to school
– Fixed Time family dinner
– Early sleep (if no meetup or social engagement)
And I use a kanban board for my daily tasks (Trello being my weapon of choice).
Thanks Eric. Trello looks pretty neat – will have to look into it deeper sometime :)
Trello is amazing! Check out this blog I found. He uses it in a way that combineds Steven Covey and GTD.
I would love to see and article about it!!!
I really love these articles that you guys have written.
Much respect for creating something so solid and credible – I’m constantly amazed by the content.
May i know where i can get to ask Aaron some questions – Email?
Feel free to shoot me an email – aaron at asian efficiency.
I find that I do my best work in the mornings, and get tired in the afternoons–so I only work in the mornings. Is that recommended?
If you get all your work done, sure.
Have you looked into why you’re getting tired in the afternoons? Is it type of work, diet, energy levels or otherwise?
And do you get a second gust of energy in the evening?
Now “learning 1 new thing each day” that is to me an ideal outcome for each and everyday. But I don’t believe that you should force yourself to achieve the outcome. In the process of “doing ones day” something new to you, is likely to occur. Being mindful or living in the moment will assist in the capture of it.
Good point – that works too. I know Thanh is a big fan of being mindful and letting new ideas come organically.
As one who can easily get distracted I like the overall structure and framework this provides.
Thanks Joel :)
Great article as always. Lately I have focused a lot in creating habits so this is very relevant.
However I find myself struggling with one thing. Taking some time off to relax.
I either feel like I am taking things too casually and I need to be more productive or that I am really productive and will possibly burn out.
I am tempted to create a habit of “relaxing” and creating a time slot for it. Agile Results would call it my Personal time.
How do you guys approach this? When and how do you know that it’s OK to relax? Do you set milestones? Take some time off each day?
I would love to hear your input.
For me: M-F work hard, Saturday is guilt free relaxation. Sunday is 50/50 depending on how I feel.
It’s all about setting boundaries for yourself and adhering them. Start small first and adhere to those boundaries. Then extend them over time as it gets easier.