As children, we are taught to follow a schedule and that being disciplined is the best way of becoming great achievers. It works great for us, and works even better for the adults supervising us. Disciplined children are certainly easier to teach and deal with.

If a little bit of something is good, then a lot of it is much better

As a teenager, I often created a weekly personal schedule for myself, where I scheduled activities like studying, piano practice and having fun. I would follow it the first day, give myself excuses for the second day, and by the end of the week, I would completely abandon it. Do you blame the lack of discipline? Or the faulty—and somewhat pointless—schedule?

People are happy making plans and schedules. We like to feel in control of our own destiny, and there is nothing like a roadmap or a schedule to make us think that we know what is going to happen. We don’t like unknowns and take comfort in making them appear as knowns.

The problem with schedules

Even though schedules make us feel proud and in control. Here’s why more often than not they set us up for failure.

We suck at making time estimates and at planning. Yes, we all do. Anything beyond the next couple of hours and our estimates start getting worse and worse. If our estimates are off by a couple of hours, then what is the point of an hourly schedule. If our estimates are off by a couple of days, then what’s the point of daily schedules. You get it.

Schedules are boooorrring! Our minds need stimulation and hates routine. Do anything x number of times and our minds go into auto-pilot. We stop being creative. We stop trying to solve problems. We turn into zombie-workers.

Schedules introduce interruptions. Let’s say you scheduled an hour to work on your thesis. The first 1/2 hour is warming up and organizing your thoughts and then you slowly start ramping up to getting the work done, by the time you are in ‘the-zone’ and at the peak of your productivity, it is time for your next scheduled activity. Schedules assume that you can shift focus on demand and can be productive doing anything at any point. Not very realistic!

The worst sin of schedules is how they make us blindly follow them. We get attached as we try hard not to deviate from plan. Deviating from plan means we failed, and sticking to plan means we succeeded. Right? Wrong! Things change, and deviating from plan might be the best course of action. Maybe you found out that the direction you’re heading is not getting you the results you need. Or maybe you found a better new design for your project and you need to start over...etc. In such situations, a strict plan creates huge resistance to doing the right thing.

Be unpredictable

Schedules still have their place, but only as rough, changeable estimates. Here is how to embrace the unpredictability of life and stop setting yourself up for failure with strict schedules:

  1. Have fun workingWhen you are enjoying your work, time flies. Our minds hate routine and like to be challenged with different activities; if you get bored with the task at hand, take advantage of the situation and distract yourself with something else you need to do. In other words, take a productive break.
  2. When the unexpected happens, embrace itIf your schedule is just an estimate and defined in broad strokes, it will be a lot easier for you to shift your work around.
  3. Measure productivity, not hours workedWhat we measure is what we pay attention to. When a measurement tells us something is broken, we make sure it gets fixed. So we need to change measures of progress so they point to where we really want to go. Do you want just clock more hours, or get more done in less time?

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