being productive

How to Make a Schedule You Can Stick To

Have you ever been surprised at how much you can fit in when you’re at a conference? When we have a schedule provided for us, we manage to get from one event to the next at the right time; the imposition of external timings means that even if we’d like to stick with one task a little longer, we move on quickly. We deal with emails in brief breaks, sending shorter replies than usual, ditching any junk without even opening it.

In day to day working life, though, we tend to find ourselves struggling to stick to self-imposed schedules. One or two things overrun; emails and phone calls come in; our boss dumps an urgent task on us.

However beautiful your schedule looks, just writing it out isn’t going to help you.

Don’t Over-Plan

The biggest mistake which most of us make when it comes to scheduling is to over-plan. We’re optimistic, even unrealistic, about how much work we can really fit into a day. We look at a blank seven or eight hours and think we can cram them full – when the reality is that we never can.

Whatever your job, you’re almost certainly going to have to face all sorts of little interruptions and hold-ups. You’ll probably also find that some tasks invariably take more time than you realize. Try timing how long it takes you to clear your inbox each day – perhaps you’re budgeting half an hour when it’s actually more like a whole hour.

Build in Margins

Often, when we write out a schedule it looks like this:

  • 8am – 9am: Write report section 1
  • 9am – 9.30am: Clear inbox
  • 9.30am – 10.30am: Conference call with Jo

…and so on. Rather than letting each item run right up against the next, allow a buffer of ten minutes or so. This covers the time which it takes for you to mentally task-switch, and any preparation time for the next item. (For example, that conference call will end up eating into your “clear inbox” time if you need to take ten minutes to dig out the relevant papers and to refill your coffee before the call.)

Margins also apply at a larger scale. If your boss needs the report on his desk by Friday at 5pm, then set yourself a target of having everything complete by Thursday at 5pm. This means you won’t end up rushing things at the last minute, you’ll have considerably more peace of mind on Friday, and you can cope with any sudden problems or other urgent tasks that come in.

Plan for Interruptions

Of course, you can’t literally plan on being interrupted at a convenient moment. But you can plan for the fact that you will have interruptions during the week. Don’t schedule every single minute – allow a “spare” hour or so each day as a bucket for any tasks which have to be delayed or deferred.

When you’re giving an estimate to your boss or to a client on how long a piece of work will take, allow for the interruptions to that piece of work which will inevitably arise. If writing that piece of sales copy will take fourteen full hours, don’t say that it’ll be done in two days – there’ll inevitably be something which comes up to derail you.

Give Yourself Regular Breaks

Your schedule should not look like an endurance test. If you’re focusing single-mindedly on each item and putting in full effort, you will need to take breaks at regular intervals. No one can focus at full capacity for hours on end.

When you come to the end of one task, give yourself a short break. Obviously, this is easier to do if you work for yourself: even though playing Grand Theft Auto for half an hour every morning and afternoon may well make you more productive overall, your boss probably won’t see it that way. But you can at least get up, walk to the water cooler, get a coffee, or do something which requires little mental energy (like tidying your desk or sorting out your filing) while you’re mentally recharging from a high-focus task.

What does your schedule look like? Do you have any tips for success to share?

  • http://nlp-way.com Ben Tien

    I think it’s also important to review again our schedule. Analyze the project schedule and examine the sequences, durations, resources and inevitable scheduling constraints. Validate the schedule correctly models the planned work. In this step you’ll not only validate the duration estimates are accurate, but validate the resource allocations are correct.

  • http://www.timelessinformation.com Armen Shirvanian

    Hi Ali.

    We sure are unrealistic about how much we can fit into a regular daily period. It is much easier on the mind to under-plan and over-deliver than to over-plan and come out unable to finish set plans. This is the same thing for gathering with friends. It is best to plan one or two specific items than to have a vague plan of what will happen.

  • http://www.morefreetimezone.com/time-junkie Andrea Feinberg

    Nicely said Ali and an important message! I’m a big believer in taking ‘well-timed’ breaks that, rather than acting as interruptions, are scheduled at appropriate times and often! And, since life is unexpected anyway, why not plan for it by scheduling only 65% of a day and leaving a good chunk available for emergencies. That way, we can respond without sacrificing already intended activities.

  • http://efttappingtechniques.com/ Natalie (EFT Tapping)

    Ali, I got scared about not sticking to my schedules just reading the title of this post!

    But your good advice calmed me down.

    I loved imagining getting so much done at a conference. It’s true! Lately I’ve been using a timer. I do 25 minutes of one thing – pushed by the clock. Then switch to another task for 25 minutes.

    Really helps me stay focused instead of meandering from task to task, often without completing anything.

  • http://lookingtobusiness.com Daniel M. Wood

    Very true.
    People really have a knack for trying to either do to much in to little time or/and procrastinating everything as long as possible.

    By finding the middle road and doing what is most important every day and trying to improve our efficiency slowly but surely you will become better at planning and better at executing.

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    Carl had to visit his parents in Phoenix but he didn’t own a car so I recommended a car rental that will help him. Since it was urgent, he had to do it. It didn’t spend him much though and he got to Phoenix on time. He was grateful of the idea and he thought about buying a car in the future. I keep thinking about our trip to Disney Land this weekend. We don’t own a car but my father will be renting a car from a car rental near our place. He will be picking a big one since there are a lot of us in the family. I’m sure we will have fun in the trip with the car he has picked.

  • http://mountfuji.tk Nicolas Przybycien

    Mind if I use some of the information from this post if I provide a link back to your site?

    • http://www.pickthebrain.com Editor, Pick The Brain

      Hi Nicolas, please email me: erin@pickthebrain.com so we can discuss.

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  • eric

    I’m making a schedule now and I noticed something. It’s much easier for someone to do something in repetition. So I’m trying to make everyday more similar even though I have different things at different times. So for everyday I schedule myself to wake up at 7:00am and to finish most of my work at 5:00pm.

  • psycho

    Hey thnx for that article. I appreciate ur article, it is totally maintained very well but my problem is when ever i take a break , i never get out of it and my whole schedule goes to hell …. Any suggestion for this kind of problem?? i would be great full

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  • http://www.mychristiant.com christian t-shirts

    This would really help. Everyone would just want to make sure that they get to do the things that they wanted to do but with very little time, it seems impossible. This article helps people think that they are only humans and some circumstances are out of their control… now, its time to look at my own schedule and arrange. 

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  • Gautam Grover

    Thanks … For such a good Things …..

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  • Olawolemoses

    Nice article. I think I can do better at work now.

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    This helps me alot! I need organize my schedule better, so I can live the fullest.

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    Thanks for the article. I really need to follow your instruction to organize my busy schedule. 

  • Richard Johnson

    thanks to guide me for the making of timetable.thanks

  • Dee Deepamadhu

    i m not able to follow the timetable wt i planned i m totally upset but today i read tis hoping il success but if not  thinking wt to doo

  • Aimta04

    how do you make a schedule

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  • Natashaeve

    I always over schedule myself and end up not sticking to it. Iwill keep these tips in mind for sure when preparing my schedule!

  • Prettyperson01

    I have 3 hours to get ready for school and walk the dog is there a way to slow down a schedule apart from take the dog longer

  • Raunak Agrawal

    Thanks for the advice Ali, it will raly gonna help me.

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  • Mark Brady

    Loved all those tips. I find that morning (before work) and evening (bed time routines) are a must to keep VERY rigid. Because it mentally prepares you in the morning for work ahead with very low stress, when it the exact same routine everyday. And in the evening it helps to wind-down your mind, so you get GREAT sleep, and keeps your mind busy so you aren’t thinking about any stress for tomorrow. (Fall asleep quicker as well). Opposed to being on your phone, tv, or laptop at different times every night stimulating your mind, then trying to get a good night’s rest; and you generally fall asleep slower. I have an UP band that tracks my day-to-day activities and my sleep cycles. And i’ve noticed a substantial difference after I have a bedtime routine. (And shut off my electronics). Lastly, I can process time, and function MUCH better during the day now. I am a natural “night owl”, spontaneous, social, “right-brained”. But after FORCING myself to do this after a few weeks the change was AMAZING.

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  • jasir

    Thank you for the article. I think it is also important to see how other successful people schedule their day. This site helps to create a schedule and also to see how others schedule their day [ http://dailyschedule.jterminal.com ]

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