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?