A Schedule that Doesn’t Stifle

I know how you feel. Scheduling sucks. Planning your day, month, year is a form of torture, more painful than having someone slowly peel your nails off. Alright, maybe not that painful, but it’s still high up there.  It’s too restrictive and takes too much time to sit and decide when you could just be out there, DOING.

I agree.

However, there is one type of schedule that, although hadn’t changed my view at the time, still my caught attention and remained at the back of my mind: Cal Newport’s day & month schedule. (Mentioned in his earlier work, “How to Be a Straight A Student”, and a few times on his blog.)

The gist of it is this:

  • Have a monthly calendar where you write down due dates, appointments, etc.
  • Grab a piece of paper and divide it in half
  • Left-side: list time blocks and their corresponding tasks
    • Example:
      8-10 classes
      11-12 meeting with group members
      12-12:30 lunch
      12:30-1:30 start on calculas project
    • Note: make sure to list fixed events first, like classes or appointments, and then fill in the tasks you have control over around it
  • Right-side: “things to remember” side, where you list things that come up throughout the day that you need to add to your schedule later. For example, the physics midterm was moved up a week.
    • The items from this side will get moved over at the end of the day. This just  gives you a space where you can get things out of your mind and not lose track.
  • Each day, start your list on a new piece of paper. 

As someone who loves to overcomplicate matters (especially when it comes to planning), I really loved the simplicity of it. But it still felt too restricting. Especially since, the time it takes to complete a task can’t accurately be predicted.  Any time that happens and you overrun the time allotted, you may feel discouraged or frustrated. Which is a serious blow if you already suffer from weak willpower/drive to keep going.

However, in his recent release “Deep Work”, Newport addresses this issue (read my full book notes on it here). Newport understands that sometimes you may underestimate the time required to finish a task and if you’re in the working world where you have control over your schedule and no classes to interrupt your workflow, you can go grossly into overtime. Should you interrupt your flow and stick to your schedule or keep going and eventually have to throw your schedule out the window? If you’re a perfectionist who hates planning because you become too attached to your plans, but you’re also someone who has a hard time switching between projects, then you want nothing to do with either options.

As someone who is exactly the type of person described in the last sentence, Newport makes things easy by making the decision for me and it’s a decision that resonates WITH me: if you’re in the flow, keep going. A schedule is just a mindful way to approach your day, not something that should be set in stone. Ingenious.

The purpose of a schedule is to provide you with one POSSIBLE direction. It does not call for strict adherence. It serves to keep you focused on actions that will get you to your big-picture goals, and prevent you from taking up random tasks throughout the day that have no or little long-term value, but still take up your time.

An example to illustrate:

You set the following schedule for today:

8:00-9:30 writing session (min. 500 words)

9:30-11:00 research thesis: annotate two sources

11:00-12:00 group meeting

12:00-12:30 lunch

You scheduled a writing session from 8-9:30, but you get into the flow of it. The next time slot is 9:30-11, which is allotted to researching for your thesis. Although this is important, since you’re already deeply invested in writing, you should keep going until you run out of steam. Then take a break and readjust your schedule. You may change it to:

10:30-11:00 research thesis: start reading one source

11:00-12:00 group meeting

12:00-12:30 lunch

12:30-2:00 research thesis: annotate two sources

Sometimes, you may need to restructure your schedule several times a day. This might seem tedious, daunting, and frustrating. That might be because you are hanging onto the belief that schedules should be perfect and never deviate. Gently remind yourself that this is not the case. Schedules are not meant to be perfect. They are just to provide you with one possible route you can take to navigate through your day. Sometimes you might stop to at a certain attraction and go past your time, but you can always readjust your route.

Conclusion

Point is to make conscious decisions at the start of your day of what your day should include, but allow yourself to go where your heart takes you when you’re engrossed in a task. You’ll get more done while in flow than if you had interrupted yourself. Readjust your plans and include the tasks for the day you had planned beforehand, so that you keep decision fatigue to a minimum and focus on things that will matter in the end.

As always, best of luck!

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