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Schedules… Good or bad?

I know that many people hate routine. In fact, I didn’t lie it at all… it seemed so uncreative, so “stuck” … I was ok to schedule runs (mornings, after getting up), but when thinking about scheduling creative activities, such as writing, it seemed like a completely stupid idea to me. If I’m honest, the result was not exactly very good: in fact, while I was usually pretty good at sticking to the scheduled activities (running, meetings and the teaching that I had to do as an academic), all other things “sort of happened” with a bit of luck. I know this is probably especially an issue for people who have a large degree of autonomy over their time (like academics, artists, writers or freelancers)… so I’m really intrigued to hear how you deal with it… so If you do have some good hints or tips, please share them below in the comments section!

When I started my career as an academic, I had a lot of teaching. This meant that pretty much all of my time was spent preparing and delivering the classes. I was also finishing my PhD. Of course, that was less structured, and so it took longer and happened more “on off” rather than at specific times. The biggest problem however was not that it took more time than it should have, but actually that it stopped me from enjoying much of my other time: I had a constant nagging feeling of “I should be writing”. This “I should be writing” continued even after the PhD (when writing articles and books) – and I’m pretty sure it is one of the most frustrating experiences of being an academic (or a writer, freelancer… you name it).

The real frustration for me was always that I often “drifted” through days with no scheduled activities… and then was really frustrated in the evening when I didn’t do what I wanted to have done. Even worse, once I then sat down and started to do things, I had lots of ideas. These ideas were great – but then it I kept on not acting on them, as actually I ran out of time again – or forgot them by the next time I actually sat down and did something.

Eventually I found out that the only way to overcome that problem was to overcome my resistance to scheduling… and also be easy with myself when it came to not quite making the schedule.

Of course now my schedule is even freer: Since moving and being a “free man”, I can basically schedule around as much as I want. But to be honest, that also makes the issue of actually scheduling a bit harder…  because now it has become super flexible, and that can be a challenge. Especially as I’m not just trying to have a nice and relaxing time, but actually want to do a lot of things.

The way I went about trying to cope with that flexibility was to actually make long lists of everything. They are great not only because I tend to be good at finding things out – but I’m even better at forgetting what I found! So I often spend a lot of time looking up the same information. Now things are a little easier: I can go back to my list of things or places, and slot them into my schedule. For example, I have a list of new places I want to explore for lunch (I know this sounds completely mad…. but… ). So when lunch time comes, I can look down the list and figure out where I want to eat that day. That gives me some flexibility, and at the same time, it also allows me to explore lots of new places.  I know this sounds all a bit anally retentive, but I’m noticing just how much time I actually have to do the things I wanted to do – rather than doing the things that are easy (or even just doing nothing).

So now, I’m doing the schedule for the next day every evening before having dinner/doing something… I have read often advice that says do it before bed, but actually I found that a little difficult. Often I would forget by the time I’m home, or it just seemed like something I could quickly do the next morning. Therefore, I decided to move the scheduling towards the end of the “working day” (of course, sometimes I will still read or do things in the evening that are on the schedule!) This timing actually has two purposes: Firstly, I can think through what needs to be done the next day and pick what I want from my lists where necessary while it is relatively fresh in my mind… and secondly it actually gives me something to look forward to the next day. Generally I try to schedule tasks I don’t really like in the morning, and then a few more fun tasks in the afternoon. That way, my day gets better as we go along… and I can look forward to what is coming.

To be honest, the one thing I’m still struggling a bit with figuring out how to stick to my schedule… Not just because it is often hard to attribute a specific time for something. But actually I think that is ok. In the end, I’m still happier to be able to stick to 80% of what I had planned, rather than do nothing and then regret it afterwards. And at the end of the week I can still see that usually I have made massive progress on most of the things I wanted to do – so that really is the most important thing. And then, yes, I can really kick back and relax … and without the nagging feeling of “I should be doing this or that”… because if that feeling comes, I just put the culprit activity on a list, and I know it will be dealt with at some stage later.