Productivity Hack: Schedule Work and Focus!

Schedule everything

Schedule everything Photo credit: Oli Dale

A great habit to get into to make your juggling of school, work, and life go more smoothly, is to Schedule Everything! In quality improvement, the saying is, “What gets measured gets done.” In nursing, we say, “if it wasn’t documented, it wasn’t done.” Well, the same idea is behind scheduling work — if it doesn’t get scheduled, it doesn’t get done. 

In this post, I’ll talk about the power of using a schedule for tasks, such as work or school projects, and to committing yourself to follow through on your scheduled tasks.

First, What is a Hack?

I’ve used the term “hack” before. “Hack” can mean a lot of different things. The way I’m using the term is as slang to express a shortcut, a workaround, or a way to do something better, or in a way that is not usually done. You’ll see hack used in this way to denote ways to travel cheaply (e.g., travel hacks) or tips to live in a more efficient manner (e.g., life hacks or lifehacking). 

The productivity hack of scheduling work is a way to do something better — that is not to leave your work or school projects to “whenever” but to schedule time on your calendar to really focus on your projects. Once you start planning your work more deliberately — and following through by doing the work you have scheduled — you’ll see that you will feel more in control and your stress from last-minute efforts or all-nighters will dissipate. 

Make Scheduling Your Work a Habit!

“Something that can be done at any time, often happens at no time.” Gretchen Rubin, writer, blogger, and podcaster

Gretchen Rubin writes about happiness and good habits. I’ve told you in previous posts that I am a SuperFan of Gretchen’s. Her books are insightful and her podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin, (hosted with her sister Liz Craft) is entertaining and informative.

I reviewed her book, Better Than Before in a previous post. In this book, Rubin has outlined 21 strategies for positive habit formation. The Strategy of Scheduling is one of those strategies. The Strategy of Scheduling means “setting a specific, regular time for an activity to recur” (2015, Kindle location 1210). 

If you are committed to being successful, you should get in the habit of scheduling the time to tackle your tasks. Depending on our life situations, we all have different tasks to complete. 

  • When you are going to school, your big tasks include studying for exams, collaborating with your small group, searching for evidence, writing research papers, or completing assignments.
  • As a practicing nurse, your big tasks may be working on a report for a unit council you lead, coordinating annual staff competency checks, revising the preceptor packet, or teaching the critical care class.   
  • As a parent, scheduling is a must for keeping track of after-school activities and social events.
  • For everyone, exercise, social interactions (coffee with the girls, movie night, etc.), tasks and errands that need doing, and especially downtime, are things that could be scheduled. 

For all of the above, you need a schedule for all of it!

Schedule with Intent: Scheduling seems so simple, even trivial – if you do it mindlessly by just jotting down things on a calendar. The scheduling I’m talking about is for you to make an appointment with yourself to get your work done. Rubin stated, “putting an activity on the schedule tends to lock [most people] into doing it” (location 1210). If you can make an activity automatic — e.g., do the readings for Theory class every Tuesday from 3-6p and draft/complete assignments on Saturday from 8a-12p — it is more likely to become a habit. Your courses will change of course, but while in school, you might carve out Tuesday from 3-6p for reading and taking notes, and Thursday from 7-9p and Saturday from 8-12p for working on assignments.

That’s 9 hours of prep and school work time for one class. I know, right? But if you don’t schedule this time, you are more likely to put it off and then have to scramble to catch up later. 

Just a reminder that outside of the time it takes to attend class (e.g., 3-hour face-to-face class or online class activities), most instructors expect you to spend 3-4 hours PER course credit PER week doing prep work and homework (reading the assigned text/articles; group work; research for discussion board postings and papers, etc.). So your one 3-credit class equals 9-12 hours per week working on that class! (This is a convention in universities across the nation — I didn’t make up the rules!) 

When you get in the habit of scheduling — and stick to the plan — you’ll find that you’ll make progress in your projects. Scheduling works for any type of project or tasks, from work to school to exercise to life!

Cultivating the Habit of Scheduling 

“Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort.” Paul J. Meyer, author

Habits are good because they are rote, muscle memory, unconsciously done — you don’t have to use any effort or energy to think about doing them! The time needed to ingrain a new habit, according to multiple research studies, varies with personal characteristics and circumstances and the complexity of the task. Sixty-six days is the average amount of time one researcher found to ingrain a habit; but a minimum of 21 days to up to a year has been reported (Clear, 2014; Rubin, 2015).

The Strategy of the Clean Slate: Whenever we have a new season, a new beginning, or a transition in life, we can use this “clean slate” as a time to cultivate new habits. Rubin (2015) identified transition times (major or minor) as perfect times to make changes in our lives. January 1, a new school semester or school year, a move, a new group of friends, a change in job or work responsibilities, a major life change, etc. are all common times to start fresh and form new habits. 

The habit of scheduling will require you to take some time to record your tasks or projects on a calendar or in a planner. — begin by recording deadlines for your tasks and projects for the school semester. Then reverse engineer those assignments and put in soft deadlines to plan time to work on them in the weeks before they are due. Discipline yourself to review and revise that planner each month.

Remember that habits take time to form, so don’t rush the process! 

“The Strategy of Scheduling helps us make time for the things that are most important to us. How we schedule our days is how we spend our lives.” Gretchen Rubin, Better Than Before, Kindle Location 1461

Using a Calendar and Planner

I want to share with you how I put this productivity hack into practice.

To make progress on my work — teaching, consulting, writing my blog posts or column — I use three tools: a content planner, focused work session pages, and a goalsetting planner. I use two specific types of planners that I’ll detail below (I love office supplies and I love planning!). But you can find many types of planners at Amazon or your favorite brick-and-mortar store. 

Content Planner: One of the first tools I used was designed to schedule content creation work (the term online entrepreneurs and bloggers use to denote the writing process for blog and product creation). I modified a content planning template I saw in an eBook on content marketing by Hubspot.

content schedule

Content Planner Schedule
Photo credit: CJThompson

I use this tool to outline my month with the type of projects I’m working on (website, consulting, teaching, CNS column, etc.). I mark the days I’m planning to work on each project — this gives me an overall plan for the month. I’ve been using this tool for almost a year now and it has helped me focus on one or two projects a day — and not work on many things at once. 

You could use a regular calendar or planner to schedule your focused time for work or school projects. 

  • Decide which days and times you will set aside for concentrating on your projects. Schedule this time in your calendar (or the family calendar) or planner. 
  • Again, if you can keep the time consistent, people (your family, friends) will come to know that those days and times are your work time and not available for other activities. 
  • Make a commitment to yourself that you will adhere to your schedule. Of course, you may need to make changes at first to fit your lifestyle, but once you get in a groove – stick with it! 

After I review my content planner for the day, I use the pages from John Lee Dumas’ Mastery Journal to write down specific tasks on which to focus.  I use the Pomodoro technique I wrote about in my post on procrastination; though I work for an hour and then take a short break, instead of the 25 minutes suggested in the original technique, as my time frame.

  • The Mastery Journal – The promise of this journal is for you to “master productivity, discipline, and focus” in 100 days!

I use this journal to focus my work sessions because it has you write down your work goal and then decide on how much time you will spend. I set my Focus Timer app for 60 minutes and then take a 10-minute break. If my work item doesn’t get done in the first work session, I continue on for a 2nd, 3rd, etc.

Schedule focused work sessions

Schedule Focused Work Sessions

At the end of each session, you reflect on how well you did: what was your main accomplishment? and then give yourself a discipline score and a productivity score. At the end of the 10 days, you review your pages and analyze what worked and what you need to work on to be more focused and productive.

This mindful approach to productivity has definitely helped me to pinpoint how I’m sabotaging or distracting myself. Then I try to figure out solutions to fix the problems. 

You can get this journal from JLD’s website or from Amazon.  

Goalsetting: A planner I use to set short- and long-term goals for the quarter and the year is The Full Focus Planner – This planner designed by Michael Hyatt was just published. I am a Michael Hyatt fan, read the blog and listen to the podcasts, and appreciate his advice on productivity and life, in general. While this planner is geared toward goal-setting, I use this planner to plan life! Besides scheduling my work for the website, I schedule other tasks and projects such as when I’ll engage with students and grade class assignments or when I’ll work on my CNS journal column.

  • Short- and long-term goals are recorded and broken down into smaller tasks. The smaller tasks are deliberately scheduled to make progress on your goals. There’s a weekly review section to think about what you got done and how to do better. 
  • You can use this planner to set goals around soft deadlines for school or work projects. 

I have started using a journal and work session pages to concentrate on the work that I need to get done. I break any large project into chunks and plan time to complete each piece of the project (I’ll detail how to “chunk” your work in a future post).

I haven’t always been this organized in planning my work, I’ll admit. But since I’ve used these processes, I’m so much more productive and less stressed when deadlines are looming. I wish I had learned this process when I was a new faculty member!

How do you get yourself organized to get your work done? What tips do you have to help others stick to their plans? Let us know in the comments!

References

Clear, J. (2014, April 10). How long does it actually take to form a new habit? (Backed by science). JamesClear.com. Retrieved from http://jamesclear.com/new-habit 

Rubin, G. (2015). Better than before: What I learned about making and breaking habits–to sleep more, quit sugar, procrastinate less, and generally build a happier life [Kindle ed.]. New York, NY: Broadway Books/Crown Publishing.