in praise of structure

When are you the most productive? Does it tend to be:

  1. When your schedule is wide open?
  2. When you’re almost booked solid?

For me, work is slow right now. My students are gone for the summer, and next fall’s freshmen won’t be here for college orientation until June. There’s preparatory work to be done, but very little of it has to be done right now. Most things can wait until after lunch. There are few meetings and no classes to teach.

This lack of structure is nice for a couple of days. It’s just relaxing to have fewer immediate deadlines and commitments, you know? It’s a pleasant change.

But soon, a curious thing starts to happen: my productivity drops off. I put things off – even little things.

I have all this time, but I’m not using it efficiently.

What’s going on here?

Lack of structure.

What Is Structure, and Why Do We Need It?

In the context of time management, let’s call structure a firm commitment to do a certain thing at a certain time.

There are two kinds of structure: that which is imposed by others, and self-imposed structure (although technically, it’s all self-imposed). Structure is essential because it forces us to confront how much time we really have at our disposal.

At the beginning of a busy day at work, I might look at my calendar and see that I have the next ninety minutes free, and . . . wow, that’s it! The rest of the workday is completely filled with meetings and appointments.

That gets my attention, right? Whatever I wanted to get done, now’s the time. I dive right in. No time to waste.

No need for self-imposed structure here.

At the beginning of a slow day at work, on the other hand, I might look at my calendar and see only a single meeting in the afternoon. “Sweet, I’ve got the whole day to catch up! I’m going to get so much done.”

Ninety minutes later, I’ve answered a few emails, made a cup of coffee, and watched the latest John Oliver clip. And I don’t even feel bad about it, because look, I’ve still got the rest of the day! Plenty of time.

At some point, I realize what’s happening and start to feel guilty. The end of the workday is closer now, providing some structure. I attack my Next Actions list with vigor and salvage some productivity from the day.

Not a great game plan. I should have created some self-imposed structure.

How to Create Structure

There are several ways:

Accountability. It’s always better to sidestep willpower when possible, and using someone else to hold you accountable is a great way to do that.

Tell a coworker or a friend that you’re going to have a certain task done at a certain time, and ask them to check in with you. The fear of looking like a slacker will spur you to action.

Break Up Big Chunks of Time. You can decide to go for coffee, take a walk around the building, or run an errand in an hour. Breaking up the day this way keeps you from feeling like your time is limitless.

The Pomodoro Technique. The Pomodoro Technique consists of 25 minutes of focused, predetermined work followed by 5 minutes of rest. I love this little trick because it forces me to decide up front what I’m going to work on, instead of cherry-picking the easy stuff from my Next Actions list.

The takeaway is that a day with little structure is unlikely to be productive. We all need a break now and then, but if you have big plans for the day, make sure you have structure.