How to Stick to Your Schedule (& Get More Done)

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Schedules get a bad rap. When people think schedules, they usually think of something restrictive, tedious, and boring. We want fun, freedom, and the ability to do whatever we want. Don’t schedules work directly against that? Not exactly. In fact, I’d argue that creating and sticking to your schedule will add more freedom to your life, not less.

 

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The foundation of this post is that “every system is perfectly designed to produce the results it gets.” Therefore, we must follow a process to create a system that incentivizes us to behave in a way we want, and makes it difficult for us to deviate from that path.

 

1 | Discipline Equals Freedom

As Jocko Willink says, discipline equals freedom. And I agree with him. In this context, we’re referring to self-discipline, which means “the ability to control one’s feelings and overcome one’s weaknesses; the ability to pursue what one thinks is right despite temptations to abandon it.” Our default state is to be wildly distractible and impulsive, doing things that make us feel good in the moment, while avoiding those things that make us feel bad.

 

Seems to make sense, right? But this is not an effective way to live one’s life. By practicing self-discipline and creating a schedule that you stick to, you can create the day, and ultimately the life, that you want. This empowers you to actually choose whether spending 3 hours watching TV or browsing Facebook is actually aligned with your life goals, or whether it’s a distraction that numbs you in the moment, but pulls you further away from becoming an effective doctor.

 

It’s most effective to focus on one of two things at any moment: intentionally maximizing work, or intentionally maximizing relaxation and fun. This is why I advise against having the TV on in the background while you try to work. Rather, focus on deep work and getting into a flow state for 2 hours. Crank through your homework, studying, or whatever it is. Then spend the next hour, or whatever you designate in your schedule, to relax with friends, play a sport, or meditate. This intentional dichotomy of time allocation allows us to maximize the rewards from being productive and the enjoyment and pleasure from relaxation and free time. Mixing the two simply doesn’t work.

 

2 | Why is it so Hard to Stick to Our Schedules?

People generally avoid specifying their goals and creating a schedule for three main reasons:

 

1) Upfront Effort and Planning

It’s much easier to simply not put in the effort to list out our long term goals or create a schedule to help us achieve them. It often feels like work.

 

2) Knowing When you Fail

Second, people do not like to specify goals because then they they are drawing the boundaries as to when they failed. For someone to admit they failed is painful, so instead we keep ourselves blind. Jordan Peterson calls this “willful blindness.” The issue is that by setting goals and knowing when we fail, we’ll ultimately come out ahead. By not setting goals or knowing when we have failed, we end up failing all the time.

 

3) We Identify with Our Failures

Third, many of us succumb to the phenomenon of learned helplessness and assigning identity to our failed actions. Without diving into the psychology derivatives and the theory of depression, learned helplessness is essentially when we believe that we have no control over what happens to us. We learn to believe that we are helpless.

 

We practice a form of this when we assign our identities to our failures. For example, if you get a C in math, you tell yourself that you’re the kind of person that is not good at math. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where you will continue to do terribly in math. If instead you remove your identity from the equation and say “I did poorly this semester in math, which means my study habits were not effective and require tweaking,” you have now empowered yourself to make the changes in the future that will secure the grade you want.
It may seem subtle, nuanced, and even a little woo-woo, but believe me when I say this is tremendously powerful and you’re almost certainly not using it to your advantage.

 

3 | How do I Stick to My Schedule?

1) You’re Not a Failure

First, remove the idea or thought that you’re a failure from your vocabulary. This is key. If you start this process and resort to calling yourself a failure, you will quickly get discouraged and return to your old ways. Here’s the thing – you will not 100% stick to your schedule. I guarantee it. I consider myself a highly disciplined and structured person, and even I don’t get anywhere near 100% in sticking to my schedule.

 

Rather, we want to work towards achieving as much as possible in the schedule, and strive to increase the accuracy week after week. And sometimes that won’t happen. But it’s better to his 50% accuracy for an entire year than it is to hit 90% for one week but then give up because you fell short by 10%. Consistency is key.

 

2) Understand How you Spend Your Time

Next, it’s important to be cognizant of how we spend our time. For me, I only tracked my time for a couple weeks, after which I was much more aware and didn’t feel the need to track my time as closely. My tool of choice was RescueTimer on my computer, and now Android and iOS offer features to show you how you’re allocating screen time on your phone. By understanding how you’re currently spending your time and energy, you’ll be better equipped to figure out what could be sapping more time than you expected. You can then determine how to reallocate that time and energy most effectively.

 

3) Choose and Use your Calendar & Planner of Choice

For some people, like me, it’s Google Calendar and Things 3. For others, it’s an old fashioned physical calendar or planner. It doesn’t really matter. Choose whichever option you prefer and stick to it. Get in the habit of using it every day. Not just for boring work things, but even planning out fun and activities with friends.

 

4) Schedule Inflexible Items First

If you’re in school, make sure you mark off all the class time in your calendar. This is something that is not negotiable. If you have a work schedule, mark that off, as that too is non-negotiable. If you’re in medical school and classes are optional, intentionally decide whether or not classes are a good use of time, and reflect that in your schedule accordingly. I attended lecture during my first year of medical school, but stopped attending lecture in my second year. If you’re not sure, run an experiment for yourself to decide. Which brings us to point number five…

 

5) Run Self-Experiments

Figure out what you want to test. For example, does attending lectures in medical school help you, or are you better off studying alone? We can sit here and describe the pros and cons of each. The group setting enforces focus and reduces the temptation to fall behind, therefore attending class is great for students who are prone to procrastination. The solo-studying method allows flexibility with your time, the ability to speed up your lectures, and the opportunity to pause and look up concepts if you are lost in the middle of lecture. It’s hard to know what actually works for you unless you put it to the test.

 

For a week, change only that single variable, being whether or not you attend lecture. Every day, keep a journal as to your thoughts of how you’re doing. Do you feel it’s working for you? Are you staying on top of each lecture or falling behind? How’s your retention? Do you feel more or less tired? Do you feel lonely from not seeing your friends in class? After you have run this experiment on yourself, you’ll be better equipped to make a decision.

 

6) Schedule Flexible Items, But Be Realistic

Once the non-negotiables are set, it’s time to fill in the rest of your time with whatever you want. As a student, I recommend two hour blocks of studying utilizing the Pomodoro Technique. At longer breaks, schedule gym time, dinner, running errands, or other breaks that are rejuvenating – not thirty minutes of Facebook.

 

There are two traps people often fall into when creating their schedules, and I am intimately familiar with both. The first is not allocating enough buffer time for things like time in transit, packing and unpacking, and things of the sort. For example, I used to give myself only 1.5 hours for the gym without factoring in transportation and other buffers. That meant I needed to spend 15 minutes going to the gym, 5-10 minutes unpacking, putting my things in the locker, and getting situated, another 10 minutes for warm up, and 5-10 minutes to pack things up and another 15 minutes to get back from the gym. In the end, that 1.5 hours allocated for gym time only gave me 30 minutes to actually work out! I now block out 2 hours of gym time in my schedule.

 

The second trap is being too ambitious with how much significant work you can get done each day without burning out. This is an insidious trap that is difficult to escape, especially if you’re in medical school or residency, where you feel like you’re perpetually behind and playing catch up.  After a certain point, the more you work, the more your efficiency will drop. That decreased efficiency slows down your rate of progress, which makes you feel like you need to work more to make up for it. It’s a dangerous cycle. Instead, focus on quality of studying time, not quantity, and allow sufficient time to unwind, relax, and recover. It’s tough to do, but you’ll find that scheduling shorter blocks of intense studying and longer blocks of relaxation is more fruitful than depriving yourself of adequate relaxation and simply pounding on the books for hours on end.

 

7) Review & Adjust Daily

Remember that all plans, even the best, require regular adjustments. Day of, remember you can change your schedule as needed. It’s not set in stone, but at the same time do your best to stick to it, otherwise you defeat the purpose of scheduling in the first place.

 

The key isn’t to create one schedule and stick with it indefinitely. Rather, consistency is key. Review your schedule for the day – what worked and what didn’t work? It’s a series of experiments where you develop a hypothesis, test and collect data, analyze, readjust and repeat. Using that knowledge, make tweaks to your schedule moving forward. Soon, you’ll have a schedule dialed in that maximizes your productivity and your fun.

 

Concluding Remarks

I invite you to enjoy the process. There are no shortcuts to magically sticking to your schedule. It’s simply a matter of implementing a series of steps and creating a structure in place that incentivizes you to live the life that you want to live, and disincentivizes distractions. Run your own self-experiments, watch yourself improve, and appreciate that process and the results you achieve.
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