Think back to a super-important, hyper-busy day in your past. I’m talking about a day filled with mission-critical tasks; a day in which nearly every minute was “go time,” everything had to go right, and everything had to get done.

  • Maybe it was hosting a convention for 4,000 people after 18 months of prepping.
  • Could’ve been an orchestra audition in a faraway city requiring complicated travel plans.
  • Perhaps it was a wedding in which you featured prominently.

Whatever example you’ve called to mind, I’d bet my boots you were operating from a schedule.

[blog readers groan collectively]

Wait, wait, I have good news!

The dark side of daily scheduling

Look, we all know schedules make us more productive. But they have a dark side, too—that icky feeling we get when we’ve made a schedule but we’re not sticking to it. This isn’t a problem on the busiest days, because we have no choice. We know we have to stick to the schedule or everything will fall apart.

But anyone who’s tried to increase their productivity by writing out a schedule on a daily basis has experienced this cocktail of negative emotions—two parts guilt, one part shame, and a splash of embarrassment—that comes from deviating from the schedule. It’s enough to make us throw up our hands and say, “Forget it! I’m not going to stress out over planning out every minute of my day. I’ll just go back to my old ways—they worked well enough.”

For this reason, we tend to operate from a schedule only on the busiest days (when we can’t get by without one). On “normal” days, we don’t want to risk feeling guilty, so we don’t bother.

But there’s a way to reap the benefits of scheduling without feeling bad when our plans change, and it’s actually quite simple.

The correct way to think about a daily schedule

We tend to view a daily schedule as a promise. “I’ve made this schedule, and I hereby swear to follow it faithfully until 11:59 PM, so help me God!” And invariably, things come up:

  • A crisis lands in our email inbox
  • Our boss needs to move a meeting
  • We come up with a great idea and want to work on it while it’s fresh
  • Each task just takes a little longer than it should

The result is the same: we get off-schedule, and it feels like we broke a promise to ourselves. We feel bad.

Instead, see your daily schedule as a plan. A promise is a promise, but plans change.

When you get off-schedule during the day, simply take two minutes and revise your schedule for the rest of the day. Don’t ruminate on how the day’s gone so far—your only concern is how best to spend the time that remains.

How often will you have to revise your schedule mid-day? I’ve been scheduling my weekdays for about three months, and I don’t think I’ve had more than a handful of days go according to my original plan.

“But what about spontaneity?”

Viewing your schedule as a plan instead of a promise also allows spontaneity into your life.

  • Want to work on an interesting new idea for the rest of the afternoon? Quickly change your schedule and go for it!
  • Need to go for a walk to clear your head? Block out an hour and take a nice long one. Grab an espresso on your way back.
  • Get a text from an old friend who’s unexpectedly passing through town? Cut out at 3 PM, move your remaining tasks to tomorrow, and meet her for a couple pints.

While you might feel vaguely guilty about doing any of these things, scheduling every minute of every workday will make you so much more productive that you’ll be able to afford a little more spontaneity.

And who couldn’t use a little more spontaneity?

How to schedule your workday

I recently wrote a related post about scheduling your day the night before, so allow me to borrow my own verbiage from said post:

Sit down with a blank piece of paper and your calendar. Look at your upcoming day and walk through these steps.

  1. Ask yourself, “What’s the most important thing I could do tomorrow?”
  2. Ask yourself, “What’s the earliest I could get it done?”
  3. Ask yourself, “What else must get done tomorrow?”
  4. Divide your day into 30-minute blocks.
  5. Assign a task or group of small tasks to each 30-minute block.

When you schedule your entire day but see it as a plan instead of a promise, three things happen:

  1. You get far more done each day, and the days add up fast. After a few months, your additional accomplishments accumulate noticeably.
  2. You get better at sticking to a schedule. You still make revisions nearly every day, but they are less drastic.
  3. You get a better sense of what you can accomplish in a day. You’re less willing to waste time and more sanguine when plans change. You have a better sense of the value of your own time.

Schedules are simple yet powerful tools, and they’re most effective when viewed as flexible plans, not ironclad promises. As is so often the case, a minor tweak in our outlook can deliver lasting positive change in our lives.