science of us

You Need a Schedule

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Currently, time is a blob. But in a few minutes, it will morph into a gaseous state, dissipating into the air like the steam rising from the chimney outside my window, which I stare at for hours every day. And then, before I know it, the afternoon will crust over and harden into a solid lump, cold and impermeable, too heavy to lift. Until it melts again, and vanishes, and suddenly it’s time for dinner and I’m behind on all my deadlines.

I know I’m not alone in my sudden inability to grasp time the way I used to. The pandemic has swept aside the structures that used to parse our weeks into manageable chunks — commutes, coffee meetings, running out to grab lunch. It’s much harder to stop texting and start working when there’s no division between the office and home, social and solitary. Or when you’re taking care of children during the “workday.” Or when your brain is pickling in anxiety and you’re tired of constantly running late on everything, despite the many shapeless hours that you can’t seem to account for, which also stretch ahead for an undetermined period.

Enough! It’s time to make yourself a schedule. Yes, I’m sure you’ve tried this already, only to find that your once-adequate Google calendar now seems laughable when it’s 6 p.m. and you’re still in your bathrobe. And I’m certainly not suggesting that you should feel pressure to do more with your time — holding down the fort is enough. But wouldn’t it be nice to feel a smidge more in control, to accomplish at least one or two things you meant to do when the quarantine started (clean that drawer, hang that picture)? Or at least shower regularly?

When I consulted experts on how we can carve this new era into something more recognizable, they all explained that structure is key. “Right now, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by this sense of uncertainty and chaos,” says Dr. Fuschia Sirois, a psychologist who studies time management and well-being at the University of Sheffield in Britain. “A schedule gives you peace of mind because it creates order and predictability.” Here’s how to do it.

Before you start anything, write it down.

I envision a schedule as the mold into which you dump your raw to-do list so that it bakes nicely to fit your calendar. To begin, you need to assemble your ingredients. “Our research shows that people who keep to-do lists get more stuff done,” says Dr. Tim Pychyl, a psychologist who studies procrastination at Carleton University in Canada. “We also found that organized, paper to-do lists were more effective than haphazard to-do lists, or digital ones.” He uses a notebook for his “master to-do list” (which includes all of the things he has to do, including personal and professional), and keeps it handy to write things down as soon as they come up, so he doesn’t forget.

While studies do show that writing things down longhand helps people process and remember them better, technology can still be helpful, says Sirois. “I used to keep my lists on paper, but I found it got messy and I couldn’t keep track of things,” she says. “So now I use my simple notes app on my phone.” Whatever you do, she says, don’t make it complicated. Your to-do list is there to help you, not create busywork.

Make sure you understand what your tasks entail.

Once you’ve written out your to-dos, get clear on what each one means. “Sometimes we avoid a task because we aren’t really sure how to do it, or we aren’t totally sure what’s expected of us,” says Sirois. “And we may not be aware of it, but that uncertainty can easily snowball into negative thoughts like, ‘I’m not good enough to do this. I’m never going to know how to do this. I’m going to fail at this.’” If a project seems a little vague, for example, then break it down into smaller, clearly defined chunks.

Create a plan for your week the Friday before it starts.

Laura Vanderkam, the author of five books on time management including Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done, sets aside an hour or so every Friday afternoon to plot out the week ahead. “Chances are, you’re not going to be in the mood to start a big project at 4 p.m. on a Friday, so it’s a good time to set your goals for the next week and see where you can fit them in,” she says. Most importantly, this is when she cancels or postpones any over-zealous plans that are going to stress her out. “Think of it as triage: You want to get yourself out of anything that’s not a good idea for your week. And your list of goals should be very short, because stuff always comes up. It should just be a few big things.”

Every day, pick your “top three” to-dos, and get them done first.

Both Pychyl and Vanderkam recommend the rule of three: Every day, either the night before or the morning of, figure out the three things you really need to get done, and get a general idea of when you’ll do them. If you’re tempted to make your list longer, resist! Finish the three big things first. Then, if you feel like doing more, Godspeed.

Also, beware the siren song of little tasks that distract you from the major stuff. “Some people say, ‘Tackle the small, easy tasks first, and then you’ll feel productive, and that’ll give you the confidence to plow through the harder things,’ but I think that’s also a way to procrastinate,” says Sirois. “It’s why a lot of procrastinators have impeccable homes — they’re running around, organizing, doing insignificant stuff rather than the big thing.” (Tell that to the scallion farm that’s currently on my windowsill.)

Build in more time than you think you’ll need.

If there’s one thing that I know for certain, it’s that everything always takes much longer than I think it will. In fact, research shows that humans tend to vastly overestimate their future capabilities, even when past experience proves otherwise (taking a shower and getting dressed does, in fact, take me more than ten minutes). “Leave lots of extra space on your schedule, because you will need it,” says Vanderkam.

Also, plan time when you’re not doing anything. “I think it’s important to have breaks built into your day,” says Sirois. “Keep them to 15 minutes, especially since these circumstances make it easy to go down the rabbit hole of news and social media, and before you know it an hour has gone by and it’s no longer a break anymore.”

Make boundaries around email, Slack, etc.

Try not to hang out in your inbox all day, and mute Slack for periods of time, too. Vanderkam recommends the 45/15 rule: Stay away from email and Slack for 45 minutes, then dive back in for 15, and repeat. “You’re still going to respond to urgent things within the hour, which is reasonably fast,” she says. “If you have to check in more frequently, that’s fine too. The most important thing is to designate times when you are reachable and times when you’re concentrating on something else.”

Know that you won’t feel like following your schedule sometimes.

Just because you’ve planned something doesn’t mean you’ll want to do it. Self-motivation is hard! And it’s particularly difficult if you tend to do better with external motivators (i.e., a boss telling you what to do at the office). “In making a schedule, you’re simply creating structure in your environment, and your environment is always a cue for action,” explains Pychyl. “But I don’t want anybody to think this is going to be easy, especially if you needed structure before and it’s not here now.”

Enlist help sticking to your commitments.

If you’ve made a schedule that seems workable but still find that your morning has disappeared into recipes for garbanzo beans, there’s no shame in asking for more support. “Additional tools could include calling a friend and saying, ‘I’m having trouble starting this, can you help me strategize?’” says Pychyl. “My students often come to me and say, ‘I can’t write this paper.’ And I’ll say, ‘Tell me about it.’ Usually, after they’ve talked for a few minutes, I’ll say, ‘Great. Go type that up. That’s perfect.’”

You could even request that your boss be more hands-on. “If you need more accountability, ask for it,” says Vanderkam. “Sometimes bosses don’t want to micromanage, but you may want to be micromanaged for the next few weeks. And a good manager should understand that.”

If you still can’t get going, just look for the next, small action.

“You’re going to have negative emotions towards certain tasks, and you can’t suppress those emotions or pretend they aren’t there,” says Pychyl. “Instead, you have to learn to put your focus on the magic question, which is, ‘What’s the next action?’ Make that action as small as possible. If you’ve committed to getting up at 7 a.m. to go for a walk, maybe that action is to just put your feet on the floor. Then you’ve started, and getting started is the turning point where you go from the person who doesn’t live up to their schedule to the person who does.”

That moment of identifying with your schedule is key. Research shows that people are more likely to stick with new habits if they think of themselves as the type of person who does them. So, you didn’t just get up early and amble outside — you established a new reputation as someone who follows their commitments and walks in the mornings.

Create an end-of-the-day ritual.

Sometimes it seems like everyone is obsessed with morning routines, but Vanderkam believes we should put more emphasis on the evening. “I think drawing a line at the end of the day is really important,” she says. “I’m not saying you can’t check email or do some more work at night, which I know some people have to do. But it’s important to have a point where you can say, ‘Okay, I’ve put in an honest day’s labor.’ Otherwise, you’ll spend the evening sort of half-working and half surfing the web. And when you never have a feeling that you are ‘off,’ then you don’t get that rejuvenation that’s necessary to do your best work.” So: Go yell out your window at 7 p.m. Cook dinner. Put Slack on snooze. Change out of your daytime leggings and into your nighttime leggings. Consider it a deposit toward the next day.

Be nice to yourself. It’s a weird time.

There’s no “right” way to make a schedule, and you’re going to disappoint yourself during the process. But getting back in the saddle is infinitely better than wondering what’s wrong with you. “Don’t say, Why am I not being productive? Why can’t I get anything done? All that does is create a lot of negative feelings around scheduling, which will make you even more resistant to it and more likely to procrastinate,” says Sirois.

Instead, be gentle. This is all an experiment. “A lot of research shows that self-compassion makes people more motivated to get back to their goals, not less,” she says. “Remind yourself, ‘I’m not the first person to have broken my schedule, nor will I be the last.’ Don’t make excuses; just be honest. Acknowledge that we’ve all got weaknesses. None of us planned for this, and we’re all struggling. Nobody’s doing this perfectly.”

You Need a Schedule