The All-Powerful Schedule – Unscheduling

Unscheduling is the radical opposite because it takes the focus off of work. In some ways, it is more realistic, because it dictates that you fill in your schedule with all of your nonnegotiables and life priorities. That way you can see how much time you actually have to work and think. It also allows you to see what is missing from your life and is harming you emotionally. Work comes last in this type of schedule, which is a weird thing to desire, but unless we have emotional energy and psychological comfort, then we will never get around to our tasks anyway, right?

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Enter unscheduling. Devised by author of The Now Habit, Neil Fiore, this approach is designed to tackle procrastination from the completely opposite direction as timeboxing does. This approach is excellent for those struggling to make normal scheduling techniques work for them or those who feel overburdened by guilt when they do procrastinate. The mind is a tricky thing. Waking up each morning to stare down a demanding to-do list can be the very thing that provokes guilt, resistance, and the deep feeling that life is simply a joyless conveyer belt.

Instead, unscheduling starts on the other end, far from the task and stated goal. First schedule all those things you can’t help but do—eat, sleep, commute, groom. Next, schedule in those things you need to do to maintain your mental and physical well-being, like running, the gym, meditation, or therapy. Next, schedule in necessary playtime and relaxation, like time for hobbies or being with friends and family. According to Fiore, a minimum of one hour a day and a day a week of leisure time is needed.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Even better, you don’t schedule actual work. You only record work done once you’ve spent at least 30 minutes doing it. The idea is to shift your focus: your life is rich and filled with varied activities, one of which is work, loosely interspersed with all the rest—it’s not a wall-to-wall list of overwhelming expectations, leaving your human needs as an afterthought.

What’s great is that this approach really seems to work for some people, despite being literally the opposite of what most productivity gurus recommend. Its power lies in how swiftly it removes the heavy emotional burden of setting your life to revolve around a series of tasks. You cut down on self-criticism, guilt, boredom, and the feeling of forcing yourself. The magic is that with this approach, you could end up actually wanting to do work you might ordinarily have avoided like the plague.

As with the timeboxing technique, there are a few things to keep in mind if you’re to practice unscheduling effectively. Begin with those hours in your day that are spoken for—sleep, commuting, health activities, classes, cooking, etc. Add in leisure time, and don’t skimp. It might feel weird at first to tell yourself “you must play and relax,” but essentially, you must.

Two realizations come from this first step. The first is that you don’t have nearly as much time as you thought you did. Many of us assume that we have “24 hours a day” when in fact the amount of time we have to work, after sleep and everything else, is far, far less. It’s unavoidable: if you want to get something done, you’d better do it—you don’t have endless time.

The second realization is that you are not a lazy good-for-nothing if you get to the end of the day not having accomplished everything on your mountain of a to-do list. With unscheduling, you have a record of where all your time did go. It went to other important, unavoidable things. To maintaining your health and relationships. To cleaning and traveling and sleeping and enjoying yourself. In other words, to being alive! This shift can be incredibly freeing. You are so much more than a machine whose worth rests solely on your output within a very narrow range of activities (i.e., economic ones). If you’re the kind of person who beats yourself up at the end of every day because you’ve “done nothing,” this reframing can be surprisingly empowering.

If you succeed with unscheduling, you may find yourself heaving a sigh of relief as untold burdens are lifted off you, and for the first time you may actually feel what it’s like to start working on a project because you want to. Without trying, you may become more productive anyway. A little paradoxical Zen in your daily work schedule. So instead of starting each morning and looking at your day like it’s a boring, burdensome inbox and nothing more, prioritize your well-being, joy, and sense of personal satisfaction outside of work tasks, and you may be surprised that not only are you more relaxed, but you somehow end up being more productive anyway. Let’s look more closely at some of the underlying principles that create this fundamental shift in attitude.

You don’t have to work first before you can enjoy your life.

The myth is that you work and then reward yourself afterward with an enjoyable, guilt-free life. If you are having a good time, resting or playing before your work is done, you’re being like a naughty child and feel bad. Therefore, procrastinators feel ashamed and worthless and are unable to enjoy their downtime even when not working.

To follow this approach, you need to commit to prioritizing play. Notice when you feel guilty or anxious. Remind yourself that play and rest are part of being an effective human being entirely, as well as more effective at your work. It’s not weak or self-indulgent to enjoy your life. In fact, guilt and obligation may make it much harder to be productive. You deserve to rest—yes, even now, before you’ve completed the ever-increasing list of tasks on the to-do list. The psychology of this approach is about taking a kinder approach to rest and play—as well as to work. It’s not some terrible burden. Flip the standard narrative on its head and you actually give yourself the privilege of seeing that work can be really enjoyable; you build up an unconscious desire to work more.

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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.

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