“Unschedule” to stop becoming a workaholic

Now, steady on. Workaholism is only an ugly word, it’s a completely fine way of life, isn’t it?

The site 99U just turned this up: it’s a 2007 piece by a designer about advice gleaned from The Now Habit by Neil Fiore. I feel like I’m quoting someone quoting someone quoting someone’s book but while I think about it, this is what’s intrigued me:

I’m a very very bad person. Why? Because I procrastinate. I put things off, leave them to the last minute, or simply never finish them. To beat these lazy habits, I’m reluctantly reading Neil Fiore’s The Now Habit. I still haven’t finished it after three months, but I have hope. (I have 40 pages left.)

According to Neil Fiore and 30 years of research, procrastination isn’t the result of laziness. Rather, procrastination is a symptom, a way of coping with deep psychological self-criticism and fear. It’s because we’re taught to believe that working is good and playing is bad. To reverse this unhealthy model, Neil proposes a tool: the Unschedule.

The Unschedule looks like a normal schedule, but with a twist. Instead of scheduling work you have to do, you fill in everything you want to do.

How to Unschedule your work and enjoy guilt-free play

Read the full piece to see how you can leave out work parts of your diary and add in things you want to do instead – yet still get things done. The book The Now Habit is available on Amazon. You’re not shocked, I can tell.

Reclaim the day

It kills me that there aren’t enough hours in the day. Then I work all the hours in the day and that kills me. Here’s an idea for getting back some of the time that otherwise fritters away on, you know, like relaxing and socialising and stuff.

Take Back Afternoons: Productivity After the Post-Lunch Slump

When lunchtime breaks up my day, I’m terrible at getting back into a productive flow. I’m not unique in struggling to work through the afternoons, though. Most of us tend to have a dip in energy in the early afternoon, often known as the “post-lunch slump”. Research suggests that our bodies are designed to have a short sleep around this time to complement our nighttime sleep.

This regular slump in energy is obviously bad news for anyone, but it’s especially bad when you work remotely (as I do) and need to discipline yourself to complete tasks.

The best way I’ve found for kicking myself into gear is to have a deadline to push up against. If you remember ever writing furiously at 11:45 p.m. to finish a school essay and submit it by midnight, you’ll know exactly what I mean. There’s something about deadlines that help us overcome our worst procrastination habits.

So I took this self knowledge and used it to hack my routine in such a way that I’m now getting significantly more done with less last-minute scrambling.

Experiments with Time: How to Take Back Your Day from the Grip of Procrastination – Belle Cooper, Zapier (17 March 2015)

Read the full piece for what she does with the rest of the day. I sound flippant here, I think, but she has good points to make and the topic occupies my head a lot.

Know your limits by setting them

Today I started around 7am, I’m going to write until about 4pm, then I’ve various errands I need to do and I’ll cook at maybe 6:30pm. That’s nice.


This is new. It’s new for me or at least it’s fairly new since I lost my biggest single client as a freelance writer. Wait – I’ve just looked that up: it was three years ago next month. Unbelievable. Is that really right? Only three? Feels like a decade. It seemed like such a bad day at the time but, wow, I wish it had happened sooner.

Anyway, having a big regular client gives you structure in two ways, doesn’t it? There is the time you have agreed or are contracted to work with them. That stops you doing anything else, gloriously it also removes the churning as you think constantly about what is the best thing you could be doing right now. What can you do this minute that will help you? Nothing. You’re committed, you’re contracted. Stop churning, get working.

This type of contract also defines the rest of your time: it is the bits when you’re not working for them and so therefore must get all your other work done. What is the best thing to do at this minute? Work.

When that contract goes and you’re suddenly doing much more irregular and many, many, many more jobs all at once, the structure of your working life changes. I’d say for the better: I have come to adore jumping from one job to another, switching tasks a dozen times a day. Do note that I say switching: I will always and forever do one thing and then do the other, I will not attempt multitasking. I’ve learnt that much at least.

However, switching and jumping plus irregular and many, many, many more jobs does rather mean that you can be always working. I like this. I like this a lot.

But I have felt overwhelmed this year and when I’m being close to nasty about how good or bad my work is, I can’t help but note that longer days do not get better results.

So yesterday I tried laying out one hour on this, one hour on that, plus not checking emails until the top of the hour. This is all stuff I advocated in my book The Blank Screen and it is all stuff that I have learnt to do, that I have regularly done. But somehow doing it again in the midst of feeling under water, it helped even more.

I’m trying it again today. It means I know what I’m doing for the next several hours and I know when I’m stopping. Which means that for once I can tell you I will be having a very good time tonight relaxing with a copy of Pride and Prejudice.

I’m actually looking forward to that. The evening is now a thing to look forward to instead of just a different set of numbers on the clock.

Happy for me, isn’t it? But I hope you can do this too. Right up to re-reading P&P, though get your own copy. Obviously.

Don’t ask for permission

There’s the old idea in writing and possibly most of all in journalism: don’t ask for permission first, just do it and apologise afterwards if you’re caught. But there is another thing you can do that avoids the pitfall of permission and the way that abdicates your responsibility to whoever said yes. There is another thing that takes this lack of permission and produces productive results:

Instead of higher-ups making decisions, often far removed from the real problems that team members face, you give the decision making power to those that are closest to the problem.

24 People, No Managers: Our New Experiment in Getting Work Done at Buffer – Leo Widrich, Buffer (6 October 2014)

I’m not sure that gives you the whole picture. But then the full piece goes into a lot more detail than I think you need. So here’s the halfway skinny: don’t ask for permission but do ask for advice.

Buffer is a technology company and author Widrich details how they go about making decisions on the way from idea to product. It’s rather empowering: have a read.

Also a hat nod to 99U for their take on this.

Unconvinced: To Do Lists are Evil, Schedule Things Instead

Prolific productivity writer Eric Barker – hang on, you can’t have lazy productivity writers, can you? – argues that whatever doesn’t get scheduled doesn’t get done. He has a point. I disagree with the logical extension of this that To Do lists are therefore worthless and the calendar is king. Here’s the core of is argument:

To-do lists are evil. Schedule everything.

To-do lists by themselves are useless. They’re just the first step. You have to assign them time on your schedule. Why?

It makes you be realistic about what you can get done. It allows you to do tasks when it’s efficient, not just because it’s #4.

Until it’s on your calendar and assigned an hour, it’s just a list of wishful thinking.

How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m. – Eric Barker, The Week (18 September 2014)

Read the full piece for more but I’m unconvinced. I seethe logic and I am actually scheduling times for certain things every week yet, I don’t know. I have a recurring task to check the Writers’ Guild email inbox that I’m responsible for. It takes about two minutes if there is email in it, less if there isn’t. I could schedule an hour for that and relax for 58 minutes.

But I think you’d argue that it would be sensible to schedule an hour for doing, say, all Writers’ Guild stuff. That’s certainly less time-consuming than taking each Guild task and assigning a time to it.

So let’s say Tuesdays at 9am, I do Guild work. That’s what I need to schedule, not every single damn task in it. And come Tuesday at 9am, what will I open to start work? My To Do list.

I nearly skipped pointing you at this piece because I think it’s one good point puffed up to be a whole article. But there is an interview within it with a professor who sounds remarkable at getting a lot done. So do have a look, if only for that.

Do get dressed in the morning, don’t get dressed in the morning

Whatever. I give up. It’s as if we’ve reached saturation point on articles that say writers working from home should pretend they have a real 9-5 office job and instead now we’re embarking on a round of articles saying they shouldn’t. Here’s a shouldn’t:

I polled some of my freelance friends to find out what rules they commonly break. Here’s what came up again and again:

“Work on a schedule, just like you would at a regular job. ”

No thanks, said writer Christine Hennebury: “I don’t set regular hours. I don’t set aside chunks of time. And I don’t turn off my work at a specific time. The whole point of freelancing and working from home is to blend your work and home life together a bit better.” Instead, Hennebury plans her day using author Jennifer Louden’s “Conditions of Enoughness,” deciding what she needs to get done to be satisfied at the end of the day. Then when she’s done, she’s done.

Trying to stick to a “normal” nine-to-five workday can present logistical problems for freelancers, too, as former freelancer Holly Case pointed out. “I remember one big article I was working on required me to interview an important expert. I spent nearly a week trying to reach him and never could. He finally called me at eleven p.m., explaining that he was on his way to a party in a limo and wondered if I could do the interview then. I said yes because I didn’t know if I would get it otherwise

Always Get Dressed in the Morning, and 6 Other Rules Successful Freelancers Break – Meagan Francis, The Freelancer, by Contently (27 February 2015)

Read the full piece.

Crisis talks #5: did it work?

Yes. Compared to the start of the week, I am back working and back at least knowing exactly what I’ve got to do.

I’m not there yet and there is much still to do to repair the damage from delays, much to get me ahead again, much enough waiting for me that there are people who won’t believe I’m back.

I am, though, and as well as feeling better from the cold slipping away (after a month) I am feeling better for being on top of more things.

Not everything, not yet. But more. Nearly most.

Listen, this series has been an attempt to show you how to restart when everything has fallen down and you’re overwhelmed. I’d like to end it by telling you three lessons I’ve learnt:

Don’t hide from your To Do list. Especially not if it’s OmniFocus. Be more ruthless about what work you do and don’t take on
Take time off before you have to

They’re hard-won lessons but they’re won.

Airbnb’s Co-Founder on productivity

I’ve used Airbnb many times and it is as good as they say. Here’s one thing that its co-creator says about handling his workload:

I try to fill my calendar in reverse, from the end-of-day to earlier; I try to reserve the morning for doing “real work.” I find I can focus more in the morning whereas it’s harder to get focused after having been bombarded by meetings, so I try to save meetings for later in the day.

I’m Nathan Blecharczyk, Co-Founder Of Airbnb, And This Is How I Work | Lifehacker Australia

Read the full piece.

How to spend the last ten minutes of your day


Alternatively, do this to get yourself ready to sleep tonight and start fresh tomorrow:

Start by identifying an exact time when you want to be in bed. Be specific. Trying to go to bed “as early as possible” is hard to achieve because it doesn’t give you a clear idea of what success looks like. Instead, think about when you need to get up in the morning and work backwards. Try to give yourself 8 hours, meaning that if you’d like to be up by 6:45am, aim to be under the covers no later than 10:45pm.

Next, do a nighttime audit of how you spend your time after work. For one or two evenings, don’t try to change anything—simply log everything that happens from the moment you arrive home until you go to bed. What you may discover is that instead of eliminating activities that you enjoy and are keeping you up late (say, watching television between 10:30 and 11:00), you can start doing them earlier by cutting back on something unproductive that’s eating up your time earlier on (like mindlessly scanning Facebook between 8:30 and 9:00).

Once you’ve established a specific bedtime goal and found ways of rooting out time-sinks, turn your attention to creating a pre-sleep ritual that helps you relax and look forward to going to bed.

How to Spend the Last 10 Minutes of Your Day – Ron Friedman, Harvard Business Review (10 November 2014)

There’s more to it. Have a read of the full piece.

Don’t plan ahead

On the one hand, this feels related to the idea that you shouldn’t make resolutions. But it also reminds me of a poster I used to see on the London Underground. It was an ad for something ostensibly philosophical but actually was more a promo for a religious thing. It went on and on about how we repeat our dreadful days over and over, we keep doing the same things again and again, and we needed this course of philosophy to make us do new things.

The last line said “Classes every Monday and Thursday”.

Anyway Steven Farquharson from a a blog called 2HelpfulGuys has this to say about planning:

When you are looking too far forward into the future the uncertainty can seem daunting.

But every marathon is finished step by step, every wall is built brick by brick and every life is lived day by day.

If you live your life trying to get as much out of each individual day as possible, you can rest assured that you have done all you can to achieve a life that makes you proud.

You have to design your days to design your life.

Design Your Days to Design Your Life – Steven Farquharson, 2HelpfulGuys (19 October 2014)

Read the full piece where you’ll see the final section says “As usual, I’ll see you next Sunday.”