Make an Order, Not a Schedule (But Only to be Creative)

By Nat Eliason in Productivity

“If you’re not getting it done, it’s because you don’t really want to do it. Or, you have so much else pulling at your mental energy that you can’t give it the attention it deserves.

What is the benefit to scheduling your work?

In school, classes start and end at certain times. In a job, meetings start and end and your workday starts and ends. You get a schedule, that thing that regulates when you work and when you stop and provides structure to your work day.

Where does the concept of a schedule come from, though? It’s not as if, 5,000 years ago, our ancestors would say “okay, we’ll hunt until the sun hits that point, and the moment it does, we stop and go home.” Maybe some of them operated this way, but I imagine their genes didn’t make it past a couple generations.

With the industrial revolution, we started working in factories, those wonderful places where everyone had to work on a tightly regulated schedule since the system relied on each worker being in their place. That method of tight scheduling of the workday has carried over into every other type of production since, mostly out of the convenience (for cooperation and monitoring) of having everyone in the same place at the same time.

When you start working on your own projects, the temptation is to bring that schedule with you… but why? If you’re doing client work or anything that you’re not passionate about, then I can see how it would be helpful. You need the schedule to force yourself to do the things you don’t want to do.

But if you’re trying to be creative? Ditch the schedule entirely.

The Problem with Schedules

Since going full time on writing, I realized a problem with the common productivity advice around creating a schedule. Sometimes I wasn’t ready to start when I hit my start time, and sometimes I wasn’t ready to stop when I hit my stop time. Some days I could write for hours and hours, other days I struggled to get half an hour out.

In a given session, you’ll either get into flow or you won’t. When you’re in it, you might get lost for 3-4.5 hours straight (but rarely more). When you’re not, you feel like you’re hitting your head against the wall trying to get a few words out.

You won’t be in the same quality of mind every day. It could be from environmental factors like bad sleep, a bad dinner the night before, or dehydration. It could be from emotional factors like an argument you got into with a friend. Or it could simply be creative fatigue: the dip in output that occurs when you burn your creative juices too hard for too long.

A schedule doesn’t allow for this fluctuation in output. It expects you to put the same amount out, for the same amount of time, every day. It will either force you to cut your sessions short and lose some of your potential output, or it’ll make you feel bad about yourself for not pushing yourself out for the whole duration.

Switching to an Order

Since realizing the problems with having a work schedule, I’ve ditched it entirely. I don’t set how long I should work each day, I just set weekly goals, and then I trust my internal “urgency sense” will regulate how hard I work during the week to hit that goal.

Instead of a schedule, I have an order. I follow this same order almost every day of the week, but I don’t schedule any of the moves from one stage to the next. This gives the comfortable familiarity of a schedule (to avoid decision fatigue), but without constrained periods.

By having an order, I allow for short or long work sessions depending on how I’m feeling. I could do more in the morning, afternoon, or evening, depending again on how into it I feel at the time.

This also makes sure that I never have to force myself through a lapse in productivity. I simply move to the next stage of my order.

That might mean a 3-hour session in the morning, but it could also mean a 30 minute one. By not forcing anything I maximize my enjoyment of the day while also optimizing productivity, only working when I’m in a prime state to work.

So what’s the order? It goes like this:

  1. Wake up (~8:00)
  2. Make tea and read
  3. When I start to feel antsy / tired of reading, shower and go to a cafe (between 9:30 and 11:00)
  4. Work at the cafe
  5. When I feel antsy, go get lunch (between 12:30 and 2:00)
  6. Go to the Austin Bouldering Project (between 1:30 and 3:00)
  7. Work at ABP till I feel antsy
  8. Go lift weights or rock climb + sauna (between 4:30 and 6:00)
  9. Work at ABP a little more (between 6 and 7:30)
  10. When I get antsy, go home.
  11. Occasionally, another session from 9:00pm onward, if I’ve had just enough Malbec and feel compelled

So one day might look like this:

  1. 8:00 Wake up and read
  2. 11:00 Stop reading, go to cafe to work
  3. 1:00 Leave cafe for lunch
  4. 2:00 Go to bouldering project to work
  5. 5:00 Rock climb / lift, and sauna
  6. 6:30 Work a bit more
  7. 8:00 Dinner
  8. 10:00 Late night writing

But then another day could look like this:

  1. 8:00 Wake up and read
  2. 10:00 Stop reading, go to cafe to work
  3. 2:00 Leave cafe for lunch
  4. 3:00 Go to bouldering project to work
  5. 4:00 Rock climb / lift, and sauna
  6. 5:30 Work a bit more
  7. 7:00 Dinner

Same order, different schedule.

The Power of Short Work Periods

The 8 hour work day was created out of convenience. It’s easier to keep people in one place for 8 hours than it is to have them coming and going, but your mind doesn’t work that way. It runs in 90-minute cycles, called the “Ultradian Rhythm,” and you should fit your work to that.

I shoot for around 6 hours of work a day. Two sets of two 90 minute cycles with a big break between the sets, and a smaller break between the cycles. Each cycle has a specific goal in order to take advantage of Parkinson’s law.

In a short period I might sprint and do more, but if you want to preserve your creative mind, you can’t overtax it. Your goal should be to create as much space as possible for it to ruminate on what it needs to make, and not to simply bleed it for all it’s worth.

If you read that and went “only 6 hours? You’re lazy!” I’d challenge you to assess how much of your “8-hour workday” is spent on productive work. None of these things count as productive work:

  • Email
  • Reading the news, blogs, etc.
  • Talking to coworkers
  • Social media (including LinkedIn)
  • Lunch / breaks
  • Spinning around in your chair making “wheee!” noises

By being hyper focused and removing distractions, I can fairly easily write 3,000-5,000 words in 2-3 hours. When you consider that most books are 60,000-100,000 words, that’s anywhere from 1/12 to 1/33 of a book. If I kept that going for a month, I could draft 1-2 books.

It’s not the quantity of hours, but the quality of them.

Why You Shouldn’t “Push Through”

Common advice says that if you’re not feeling productive, you should “push through” the wall. Maybe go for a walk, grab some water, then get back to it.

I agree that this can be necessary if you’re on a deadline you have to meet, but if you’re doing anything creative, it’s a bad use of energy.

You’ll spend significantly more willpower if you force yourself to work instead of letting the work flow naturally, and if you burn your willpower out trying to be productive when you’re not in the right state for it, you won’t have that willpower for later when you might need it.

Also, any work that you “pushed through” is going to be lower quality. It’s going to require more editing later, or might have to be trashed entirely.

One caveat: if the reason for not getting started is just resistance to the work (a term from The War of Art), then I’ll set a timer for 20 minutes and say I have to do something in that time. If I still feel like shit at the end of the 20 minutes, I’ll pack up, but frequently that initial push was all I needed to get into flow, and I’ll ignore the timer when it ends.

What About Meetings?

You might be reading this and going “okay, that’s great… but when do you do meetings or calls?” I don’t, for the most part.

If I’m going to, though, I’ll try to always take them at 2pm. That’s when I’m at my biggest dip during the day and have the least energy for writing, so it’s the best time for less mindful work.

But if you have to do a lot of meetings, you could add that to your order too, and only offer people a narrow time frame for meeting with you. Say 3-5pm each day.

Creating Your Own Order

If you’re doing anything remotely creative, then I suggest creating your own order instead of schedule. Let your body and mind dictate when you move to the next stage, not an artificial indicator (calendars).

To do it, pick two or three places you enjoy working. Then, create an order that flows between them in an easy narrative you could follow every day, also allowing for meals.

Experiment with it to find what works best. I tried many different pieces until I settled on one that was reliable and facilitated eating, exercising, and being social.

Footnotes

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