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.



Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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