System: The Unschedule

The ‘unschedule’ is a system developed by psychologist Neil Fiore. It forces you to be honest with yourself about time you actually have available to work each day; ensures you do not keep pushing off enjoyable tasks for later; and encourages you to work in short, productive bursts (just like us!).

When we first encountered it years ago, it seemed like just way too much work. But then, in the early days of lockdown, Laura decided to give it a real go. She now recommends it to anyone struggling to work efficiently while honouring their commitments to life outside work.

With the unschedule, your weekly schedule is a grid of one-hour squares. You can use a spreadsheet; a template you find online; or just paper, pen and ruler to draw your own. You schedule appointments, commuting, meals, runs, yoga, television, bike rides, happy hours, time with your kids, etc. You do not schedule work on projects.

Here is a summary of the rules:

  1. Schedule only must-do commitments and leisure time.
  2. Fill in time spent on projects only after you have completed at least thirty minutes of (uninterrupted!) work.
  3. Reward yourself with a break or more enjoyable task after each work period.
  4. Keep track of quality time worked each day and each week.
  5. Leave one day each week for leisure and small chores.
  6. Focus on starting. Keep starting.
  7. Think small.
  8. Never end down.

You may fiddle a bit as you play with the system, deciding what counts as must-do, what counts as leisure, what counts as quality work. You may have to negotiate how this system tracks with your usual diary (try using it alongside your current calendar). This experimentation is part of the process. 

What has been most stunning for Laura is how much quicker she is to start working during work time. It’s almost become a game to see how many 30-minute chunks she can fit into a day (or, rather, half-a-day, as she is one of the parents locked down with small children, rather than one of the people bragging about how many online workouts they’re doing and showing off their newly painted bathrooms on Instagram… not that she’s on Instagram…for that reason…).

The unschedule is explained in much greater detail of Chapter Six in Fiore’s book The Now Habit, which is a good read for anyone stuck in the guilt/avoidance procrastination cycle. It is full of useful metaphors, notes on self-talk, and explanations of the relationship between perfectionism and procrastination. Highly recommended.

NEXT: The One Who Is Not Busy