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The All-Powerful Schedule
31st January 2022 • The Science of Self • Peter Hollins
00:00:00 00:12:36

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• A schedule can be just a schedule in the way that a hammer can be just a hammer. But why not use it to its greatest potential instead of as something you only take out for passive purposes? Scheduling is powerful because it very clearly sets out our intentions and goals often on a daily or hourly basis. So why aren’t we using them more? In this chapter, we lay out two divergent methods of using a schedule: timeboxing and unscheduling.

• Timeboxing is all about living in your calendar. Whatever is on your mind needs to be scheduled first and foremost. In this way, a calendar is a commitment device that keeps you on track, and organized as well, because timeboxing involves accounting for time, environment, context, energy, desire, and difficulty. It really is as simple as devoting yourself to a schedule and making sure that nothing falls through the cracks. It turns out that when we set out our intentions, we tend to keep them more often than not.

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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.

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So far, we’ve spoken briefly about making lists, breaking tasks into chunks, and then scheduling to do them at various times. Let’s now take a more detailed look at what this actually entails—proper schedule technique isn’t necessarily common knowledge! Before we begin, however, it should be noted that although there are many different techniques and approaches (some of them directly contradictory, as you’ll soon see), there isn’t a “right” way, except for the way that practically works for you and gives you the results you want.

First, consider a basic fact: time is limited, and time is in fact all we have when it comes to completing tasks. A calendar is just a piece of paper (or digital equivalent), but it represents the available time you have to devote to achieving your goals. The technique of “timeboxing” is something that will seem obvious and natural to some but a complete revelation to others.


The principle is simple. Your to-do list only really comes alive when you take the time to convert each task into a “box” of time on your schedule or calendar. To timebox, you allocate a fixed period of time to work on a certain task. That’s it. Though simple, it means you’ll be more focused, more efficient, and more consciously balanced in how you tackle the smaller tasks we’ve already discussed creating.

It’s a straightforward technique but needs to be done right. First, consider the tasks or area of life that you’d like to try timeboxing. You can apply this to work, your social life, a fixed project, or all your projects in general—it’s up to you. Let’s say that you’re a person from one of the previous examples, and you worked carefully on your emotional barriers causing you to procrastinate, but you still needed a way to realistically plan out your task. You might sit down and timebox for an important work presentation after breaking it down into smaller chunks that then go in your schedule.

A big consideration is the length of the timebox. You can make this what you like, although the hours in the day naturally break down into 15-, 30-, or 45-minute chunks. Less than 15 minutes and you risk skimming the surface and not doing any real work, and more than 45 minutes and you may start fatiguing, getting distracted, and generally earning diminishing returns as your attention and energy flag. Just as you need to rest between reps and sets when you physically train, your brain also needs to take pauses and recoup before it can carry on with a task.

Consider the length of your breaks. Bear in mind what we now know about the state of flow and how perfectly balancing perceived skill with perceived task challenge can allow us to work easily for long periods without even noticing. There are no easy rules for how long your work and break periods should be. These are going to be unique to you and will vary with the task at hand, the day, or even the time of day. As usual, pay attention and notice how you feel, whether you’re procrastinating, and how productive you really are.

If you feel like you could do more at the end of a 30-minute chunk, make a note and extend it for next time. If a five-minute break isn’t doing the trick, extend it and see what happens. It’s important to try to make the contrast between break and work clear: physically step away from the activity, stretch and take a deep breath, go outside, do something different. It’s not really a break if your brain is still whirring along with the task or if you just switch browser tabs online and waste time for a few minutes!

If the task is a new, extra-challenging one or something that you know pushes your emotional buttons somehow, you might need a smaller box and a longer break. Don’t be afraid to take breaks—the person who takes them wisely is always more productive than the person who forces themselves through fatigue only to find themselves procrastinating for a whole week later because they’re burnt out.

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It makes sense to schedule your most challenging, most important, or most urgent tasks for when you’re most productive. Similarly, give yourself a break when you’re naturally lower-energy. For your downtime, schedule activities that are less demanding or less important, like housework, planning the next day, or meal prep (assuming these are in fact less demanding from your point of view). Also keep in mind that you will need rest periods, and for those workaholics among us, scheduling nonnegotiable relaxation time is key to honoring the need for rest and taking some time for self-care.

This leads to the next (optional) consideration for learning to timebox effectively, and it’s whether to go with “hard” or “soft” timeboxes. Let’s say you set a timer and after 45 minutes the timer goes off, but you’re right in mid-flow, busy with an activity you don’t want to drop. What then? Also, what if you’re a few minutes away from the timer ringing but you really can’t push yourself to do any more?

A hard timebox is one in which you stop and start on the clock according to your plan, no excuses, whereas a soft one can be negotiated either way somewhat. Remember, timeboxing is not about bullying yourself and it’s also not about giving yourself endless room to slack off. As we discussed, you’ll need a period of adjustment as you observe and learn what works for you. You might start with all soft timeboxes until you know what works.

It’s a great idea to assign hard boxes to those tasks you know are a little challenging or you know you’ll be tempted to procrastinate with. Use soft boxes for those tasks that are less defined or less urgent or else a task you’re unsure of for the moment. On the other hand, some people find hard boxes helpful if they’re the type of people who push too hard, overwork, or are “perfectionists,” whereas soft boxes are better for those who are trying to catch their “flow” whenever they can.

As an example, imagine a couple are planning their wedding. They know that as the date approaches they have to get organized, but procrastination is creeping in. They realize that the rubber eventually has to hit the road—the wedding is important, so they commit to doing something to make the planning easier. There’s lots to do, so they sit down and identify their main goal—completely organizing their dream wedding by a certain date—and use timeboxing to do it. They decide on one 30-minute box every evening when they know they’ll be together but after their more pressing day jobs are finished.

They break down the project into several smaller tasks, then divide them up according to their mutual abilities (e.g., the one who finds a particular task less challenging gets to do it). They make the timeboxes soft since they’ve never planned a wedding before and don’t really know how long they’ll need, but they agree to adjust as they go. Every evening, they plan the following night’s tasks and reevaluate, ordering flowers, ironing out catering details, buying shoes, etc. With a blend of focus and flexibility, they are able to get the job done efficiently with minimal drama and time spent.

With timeboxing, the principles are simple but getting the attitude just right is vital. The point is never to make yourself a slave to your calendar or force yourself to go through tasks with robotic mindlessness. Remember that it’s only a technique that is meant to serve you and the goals you care about. You’re the only one who is ultimately accountable for how (and whether!) you work, and you get to make the call on whether something is helpful or not. The final thing to remember about timeboxing is that it’s meant to be flexible, and you’re meant to adjust it as you go. Stop and evaluate frequently to make sure you’re actually being more productive (without making yourself miserable).

Don’t be afraid to make adjustments or experiment with something completely new. It’s okay to realize that, with limited time, you might have to drop the nonessential boxes completely. Try both digital and old-fashioned paper methods. Closely watch your energy levels, not just the clock. If you stumble on a schedule you like, why not use it for the whole week? And if you earnestly try this approach for weeks and find that it does nothing for you, relax and know that you have full permission to drop it and try something else entirely.

One thing you might notice as you get more familiar with this technique is where your time and attention are actually going throughout the day. Are you suddenly alarmed to see just how hard it is to focus for a solid 30 minutes? Keep track of how often you’re distracted by your phone or something online and you’ll get a real insight into just how much of your time is leaking away instead of being channeled to your goals. If you timebox, at some point or another you’re going to have to develop a plan for dealing with distraction and managing the oceans of superfluous information that comes our way every minute.

If all this talk of timeboxing and to-do lists and schedules has left you cold, you’re not alone. If you’ve battled procrastination before, you might have read the previous section with a vague sense of distrust or amusement, having tried these methods yourself and maybe noticed that they even tend to worsen procrastination. Again, though, what works for some might not work for others.