Time Organization

How to Stay Productive When You Make Your Own Schedule

Studying for exams, freelance contracts or working on bigger projects can mean freedom with your schedule. But it can also mean procrastination, stress from deadlines and an organizing nightmare. Working on your own schedule can be easier. However, there are more ways to waste your time if you aren’t being paid by the hour.

Setting Up Your Work Schedule

Whenever you start a new project, start taking classes again, or simply run into a block of flexible work time, you will need to set up a schedule. A good schedule is one that accomplishes the work you need to do and you actually stick to it. Unfortunately many people forget the second step and make impossible schedules that would require a machine to follow.

If you need to set up a new work routine, I prefer the top-down approach. The top-down approach focuses you on deciding what work needs to be done, and by what deadlines. Once you know the time limit for the work you need to do, this automatically creates the pressure to come up with a productive schedule.

Many people, however, try to go the bottom-up approach when they need to structure their time. They start by setting aside blocks of time, and micro-managing how time will be allocated to different tasks. This method only ensures you spend a lot of time working. It doesn’t ensure you get a lot of work finished. Bottom-up approaches make it easy to waste time, and they can cause stress if your work doesn’t fit neatly into your pre-arranged schedule.

Avoiding the Bottom-Up Curse

Students often take the bottom-up approach with their study habits. They start by defining how many hours a day they need to “study”. This is a recipe for wasting hundreds of hours re-reading textbooks in the library.

Although it’s less obvious, a top-down method would make studying more productive. If you started by defining the grades you want, then moved down to what you need to know, then moved down to a list of tasks and activities designed to learn that knowledge, you wouldn’t need to assign arbitrary hours for “studying” in the library.

Students aren’t the only people who get trapped in a bottom-up method. Bottom-up approaches are popular whenever the actual work tasks are vague and finishing points are not clear. If your job is to improve the performance of a website, for example, it seems easier to start with a certain schedule of working each day, rather than tasks and projects with specific deadlines.

Scheduling Freedom = Productive Laziness

Another trap that is easy to fall into when you control your own schedule is to assume that the time spent not working, is unproductive. While hours spent not working may be frowned upon by employers who pay by the hour, it isn’t important when you control your own schedule.

The only thing that matters when you control your schedule, is whether the work gets done.

If you aren’t able to meet the deadlines you set, you aren’t being productive. It doesn’t matter whether you spend ten hours a day working, either the deadlines are unrealistic or you aren’t working effectively. But the opposite is also true. If you’re meeting your deadlines, working fewer hours each day isn’t something to be worried about.

Setting Up a Top-Down Schedule

Setting up a work routine from the top down, means you need to start with your end results. If you’re working for an employer or client, those will probably be given to you. The end result is the completion of your project or reaching a specific target set by your employer.

If you’re a student on you are working on your own projects, this means you need to figure out what the final outcome should be. If you can clearly define this as a starting point, you can work backwards to figure out the tasks and deadlines you need to set in order to reach it.

Part of the challenge can be picking an end result. If your job is increasing traffic for a website, you might want a million visitors a day. But that might not be realistic if you’re only getting a few thousand a month. Picking an end result means cutting off vague possibilities and creating one target.

Once you have the end result, you need to work backwards setting milestones and tasks designed to reach that target. Except for goals that are completely within your control, this will often mean adjusting the plan frequently to meet your milestones and deadlines.

At the end of the process, you should end up with a list of tasks. For projects completely under your control, like writing a book or finishing a design, the tasks to complete won’t change much from your initial plans. For goals that have some uncertainty, such as getting A’s or increasing website traffic, the tasks may vary from the initial plan as you get more feedback.

When you end up with a list of tasks, you have the chance to be far more productive than with a bottom-up set of assigned hours. You can work whenever you want, with flexibility, but you stay accountable to the end result. Working on your own schedule can have challenges, but it also gives you the opportunity to do more while working fewer hours.


19 Responses to How to Stay Productive When You Make Your Own Schedule

  1. Glen Allsopp says:

    Do your most important task first. Even if it takes all day there is no way you can be more productive 😉


  2. Shanel Yang says:

    Great tips, Scott! And, I can recommend no greater self help book to overcome procrastination than Brian Tracy’s Eat that Frog! which I summarized at http://shanelyang.com/2008/06/02/eat-that-frog/

  3. janelle says:

    @Glen….I agree. Definitely get the hardest or most challenging task out of the way first because it will make the rest of your day less stressful. Additionally, this is a great post- it is so important to know how to organize your time. Keeping a small day- calendar really helps me out :)

  4. Leisureguy says:

    I find that an outline great tool for breaking down goals into tasks and those into subtasks. Here are some links that go to lists of outliners.

  5. Pete says:

    Really excellent post. I have to say, this will really help me out. I always want to schedule things, but i always put it off, rationalizing other things are more important.


  6. melissa says:

    I wish everyone I will ever work with could read this post! Taking the time to figure out what exactly needs to be done, and how much time that is going to take is the only way people should prioritize. Too many people prioritize by deadline so they do the tasks that are due tomorrow, today and leave the ones that are due next week for later without even understanding what those tasks entail. Then later comes and they realize that the task they put off actually needed about 3 days of work to complete and they totally miss the deadline.

    It only took me a few all-nighters in college to realize that I needed to take a new approach to my scheduling. I figured out how much time I would need to put into each project or paper and started that work far enough in advance to finish with time to spare. Then I would smile smugly at the end of the semester, when I was off to have a few drinks at the pub while the rest of the gang was frantically trying to finish papers while studying for finals 😉 Clearly I still had some maturing to do, LOL.

  7. Samantha says:

    Thanks for sharing this post. It gives a clear meaning anddefination as to ‘what is procrastination’. Here is a website http://www.stop-procrastination.org that has interesting information regarding procrastination. Might want to read up something from there as it has plenty of easy guides on how to stop procrastination.

  8. watson says:

    ron’s link is spam (though ironically i like his idea of checking in that frequently with what you’re doing)

  9. DanGTD says:

    I also agree with the first poster.

    The most important task must be done first thing in the morning. Well, after exercising and eating.

    How do you know what the most important task is? Ask yourself for each one of the scheduled day’s activities, “If this was the only thing I accomplish today, will I feel productive?”, and pick one or two for who the answer is yes.

    How you start the day is how you end the day.

  10. E-Motivate says:

    I find that block scheduling (bottom up) is useful for deciding what kind of time you can commit to a new project or undertaking. It is NOT terribly useful for actually planning what you need to do and when you need to do it. But I still do often start there for new projects.

    I’ll enter my schedule as it currently stands and then highlight the blocks that are left over. I will then compare it to the project I am contemplating and decide whether or not it is worth going forward.

    But when it comes time to actually decide what to do and when to do it, that is done top-down.

  11. Excellent post, a bunch of these articles would make for a good ebook.

  12. Shiela says:

    Every one of your articles are great reading and reminders to me. Thank you for your site and incite.

  13. Pingback: How to Turn Around an Unproductive Day | PickTheBrain | Motivation and Self Improvement

  14. Abegailsuriao says:

    wew… ganon lna pla eh!!!!

  15. Abegailsuriao says:

    wew… ganon lna pla eh!!!!

  16. Now I understand why I was successful in college: using the syllabus, I marked the midterms and finals, and I put down a reminder of each about a week beforehand so I knew to review.

    Otherwise, I would read homework and work my problems as I could: sometimes fall asleep as I read and wake up and pick the book back up.

    Having a specific place to be undistracted for some courses (like math courses) always irked me, but they were effective for getting the problems done.

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