The Unschedule: A Counter-Intuitive But Highly Effective Time-Planning Method to Beat Procrastination
My seemingly never-ending struggles with procrastination force me to read a lot of books on the topic. The Now Habit by Neil Fiore is one of the better ones.
I especially like a time-planning method he’s come up with called The Unschedule.
In today’s article, I want to show you what The Unschedule is, how it works, and why it will help you procrastinate less.
I’ve been using aspects of this approach for a while now and it does work well. Not only do I procrastinate less, I also feel less guilty about it when I do, I get more work done when I’m actually working, and I find more enjoyment in my leisure activities.
Without further ado, here’s The Unschedule…
The Unschedule in a Nutshell
In its essence, The Unschedule is a time-planning method with a massive twist.
Instead of scheduling time for the very thing you’re procrastinating on (work), you first schedule fixed commitments (e.g., sleep, meals, commute, showering), self-care activities (e.g., exercise, meditation, yoga) and guilt-free play (hobbies, meeting friends, socializing, reading) – and lots of it, including at least one hour of play a day and one full day off per week.
In fact, you never even schedule any work. It only goes on the schedule only after you’ve spent at least 30 minutes of quality, focused time working. And when does it happen? In-between your fixed commitments, self-care activities, and play.
Instead of creating a week full of work interspersed with play and leisure, you create a week full of play and leisure interspersed with work. Your calendar changes from a list of unrealistic and overwhelming expectations to a place for fun stuff and a record of your achievements.
Immediately, a few things change. Having a schedule allows you to see where your time goes, reducing feelings of guilt and self-criticism. Work becomes less overwhelming because you see clearly that you do not have as much time for work as you may have thought until now – in-between fixed appointments, sleep, eating, commuting, and play, there’s really only so much time left in a day to get some quality work done. It’s almost like work becomes a kind of rare commodity, making it more attractive for you – you’ll find yourself wanting to work more.
As you’re about to see, The Unschedule is a brilliant, reverse psychology approach to procrastination. It eliminates many, many procrastination-related problems that I wasn’t even aware of existed before I read The Now Habit.
The Unschedule has 11 guidelines that we’re about to discuss. For every guideline, I’ll tell you exactly why it makes sense to follow it. By knowing why something works, you’re more likely to actually do it and stick to it. So let’s go.
The 11 Unschedule Guidelines (and Why They Work)
Here are the eleven guidelines for using The Unschedule:
1. Schedule Only:
- Previously committed time such as meals, sleep, meetings
- Free time, recreation, leisure time
- Socializing, lunches and dinners with friends
- Health activities such as swimming, running, tennis, working out at the gym
- Routine structured events such as commuting time, classes, medical appointments
This is the very basic principle of unscheduling. You do not fill your calendar with any work. Instead, you fill it with as many non-work related activities as possible.
Start by adding in the hours when you’re asleep. Then put in stuff like meals, showers, personal hygiene. You’ll be surprised, your calendar is filling up quickly. Next, put in any fixed appointments such as a doctor’s visit. And most importantly, schedule ample amounts of free time, recreation, and leisure time.
That last point bears repeating. Fill your calendar with plenty of fun and health-related behaviors. Really schedule the time for socializing, exercise, meditation, etc. The Unschedule says, “You must exercise, play, or dance at least one hour a day. You must take at least one day a week off from any work.”
Once you’ve unscheduled your calendar, you’re in for a surprise. There’s not nearly as much time for working on your projects as you may have thought. This realization alone can be hugely helpful. Most procrastinators among us feel like we have 24 hours in a day to get work done. Then, at the end of the day, we wonder where all of our time went and we feel guilty for not getting enough done.
Without a record of our self-care and leisure activities, we can’t remember how we spent our time and are likely to feel guilty, depressed, self-critical. Why didn’t we get more work done? What have we been doing all day long anyway? We must have wasted so much time. We are so lazy.
Scheduling and recording leisure and “must-do” activities immediately helps us end this guilt trip. And by freeing ourselves of guilt, we’re creating a healthier and more positive environment, allowing us to be feel more calm, safe, and relaxed.
Another reason why this guideline is so important is that it prioritizes guilt-free play. First of all, we know that, contrary to popular belief, taking time off is not a sign of laziness but a way to become more productive. Frequent breaks, days off, and vacations help us perform at a higher level. Here’s how Neil Fiore himself explains it in The Now Habit:
“Guilt-free play is based on the seeming paradox that in order to do productive, high-quality work on important projects, you must stop putting off living and engage wholeheartedly in recreation and relaxation. That’s right, you can be more productive if you play more! And as you put the strategy of guilt-free play to use, you’ll learn to play more and complete more quality work.”
Instead of seeing play as a weakness, as unnecessary, as something we only deserve after getting work done, after becoming more disciplined, after achieving our goals, The Unschedule says that we need guilt-free play in order to be more productive.
Making sure you spend more time engaging in guilt-free play creates another interesting side effect – it changes how you see work. Right now, your thinking probably goes something like this, “First comes work, then I can do something fun.” Sounds good, but the problem is that for procrastinators, the ‘something fun’ part never actually comes. Procrastinators don’t know where their time goes, feel guilty for thinking they wasted time, feel that they don’t deserve any rest, and thus never really allow themselves any guilt-free leisure time.
This creates a terribly negative image of work – it’s something that deprives you of leisure time, fun, play, and pleasure. Work is something that gets in the way of your personal interests. You unconsciously resent work, which creates an (unconscious) desire to work less.
By prioritizing play over work, you reverse the whole thing. You may do focused work on a project for one hour before realizing it’s already time for some play activity. You may actually be kind of annoyed because you were making progress and having fun on your project. You may think, “Damn! I’d love to keep going. This was actually kind of awesome.” Can you see how, all of a sudden, you may want to work more? Here’s how Neil Fiore puts it in The Now Habit:
“Our usual habit is to schedule our work time and to leave our play reasonably unstructured. By requiring you to schedule and stick to recreational time, and to limit your work activity at first to predetermined periods of thirty minutes, the Unschedule builds up a subconscious desire to work more and play less.”
2. Fill in Your Unschedule With Work On Projects Only After You Have Completed at Least One-Half Hour.
The Unschedule is like a time clock that you punch in as you get started with work and punch out when you’ve completed a session.
This forces you to really commit to working efficiently. It’s like entering a race. 5-4-3-2-1-GO! Once you punched in, you give it all you’ve got. You’re excited about how much you’ll be able to accomplish in the next thirty minutes.
It’s almost like you’re throwing yourself a challenge. The resulting motivation can urge you to work harder and more efficiently.
Another benefit of recording each period of work is that it helps you keep track of progress. This may not sound like a big deal, but it is. Why? Because making progress is about the most motivating thing on the planet. Teresa Amabile, a Harvard professor who’s studied this subject extensively, refers to this phenomenon as The Progress Principle. She explains:
“Through exhaustive analysis of diaries kept by knowledge workers, we discovered the progress principle: Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.”
Making your progress visible by writing it down will help you make use of the progress principle. You see, unless we actively record our progress and give ourselves credit for it, our negatively biased mind will just wash over it as if it never even happened. It’s like I said earlier, most of us forget the actual work we did at the end of the day, leaving us with feelings of guilt instead of a sense of accomplishment.
Not only does recording each period of work keep your motivation levels up, it also rewards you for good behavior, making that behavior more likely to occur in the future. You see, behavioral science has long known that, “what gets rewarded, gets repeated.” By rewarding each period of work, you start creating a positive feedback loop. You start associating work with rewards, thus giving yourself incentives to work more in the future.
Best of all, you are rewarding yourself for performance, not outcome. You reward yourself for putting in the effort, not for completing a work project. If you’ve read my article on process versus outcome, you know how crucial that is.
3. Take Credit Only for Periods of Work that Represent at least Thirty Minutes of Uninterrupted Work
This is another ingenious part about The Unschedule. You are only allowed to give yourself credit if you work for the full 30 minutes and just as importantly if you do so without interruptions.
What this does is it basically forces you to do deep work – the kind of work that has been shown to maximize work productivity. If you’re new to the term, here’s how productivity expert Cal Newport explains it in his book, also titled Deep Work:
“Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity. We now know from decades of research in both psychology and neuroscience that the state of mental strain that accompanies deep work is also necessary to improve your abilities.”
So, deep work is all about working for long stretches of time without distractions, fully engaged, fully concentrated, while stretching your cognitive capabilities to their limit.
I explain some of the reasons why deep work is so effective in my article on science-backed strategies to improve your productivity (especially check out tips 5, 6 and 7). For now, just know that this type of work has been shown to produce optimal performance according to Cal Newport and many other productivity experts. Cal sums it up nicely in Deep Work:
“To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes performance is deep work.”
The opposite of deep work is shallow work and it’s what most people engage in most of the time. It’s about doing noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, usually performed while distracted. People doing shallow work constantly check email, let themselves get distracted by push notifications, interrupt their work periods with small social media breaks, and so on.
By forcing you to work for at least 30 minutes and without interruptions, The Unschedule forces you to do deep work, which allows you to produce at a very high level. Over time, you’ll find that you’re able to get more done in 30 minutes of deep work than in 2 hours of shallow work.
A further benefit of this guideline is that working for 30 minutes is usually enough to get fully involved and interested in your work. Once you’re in it for this amount of time, you start enjoying the task, start making some progress, resulting in pleasure, pride, confidence, and other positive feelings associated with work, thus keeping you motivated and happy.
You could use just this tip alone and it would make a major difference in your life.
4. Reward Yourself with a Break or a Change to a More Enjoyable Task After Each Period Worked.
Whether you end up working for 30 minutes or 60 minutes or 2 hours, make sure you reward yourself for the completed work period. You deserve it! You overcame initial resistance and inertia, got started, and made that all-important switch from non-doing to doing.
I mentioned the power of rewards in guideline 2, but I want to give you some more info here. The basic idea is that “behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated.” That’s dog training 101. Tell your dog to “sit” and reward him with a goodie if he does so. Do that a couple of times and the dog will start associating the behavior with a reward, thus learning to sit down when you tell him to “sit”.
That’s basically how behavior works both in animals and in humans. Rewarding behavior gets repeated and unrewarding behaviors die out.
By rewarding yourself for each completed work period, you are starting to associate work with positive rewards, making it more likely that you will repeat the behavior in the future. You are basically training yourself to become a producer instead of a procrastinator.
To learn more about the interplay of rewards and procrastination, check out this article where I explain it in detail.
For now, just make sure that you reward yourself for every completed work session. Pat yourself on the back. Give yourself a silent “Atta boy!” And add some other reward in the form of watching your favorite TV show, eating a healthy snack, grabbing a beer, meeting friends, or whatever.
5. Keep Track of the Number of Quality Hours Worked each Day and each Week.
Keeping track of the work you actually did accomplish does a few beneficial things.
Frist of all, it’s rewarding in itself and of itself, thus establishing a positive pattern by following work with a pat on the back, and making it more likely that you’ll keep working hard in the future.
Plus, the mere act of measuring your total # of work will help you improve thanks to the what-gets-measured-gets-improved effect. It’s like Robin Sharma says, “what gets measured gets improved.”
6. Always Leave at least One Full Day a Week for Recreation and any Small Chores You Wish to Take Care of.
This avoids feelings of resentment and burnout that can come when there are no holidays because of too much work. You’ll feel more motivated to get back to work after spending quality time with friends and family and fully recharging your batteries.
It’s like I mentioned earlier, peak performers oftentimes surpass workaholics and procrastinators in taking more vacations, being healthier, taking more time off, while accomplishing more of the tasks that really matter.
Neil Fiore further emphasizes the importance of taking time off:
“Attempting to skimp on holidays, rest, and exercise leads to suppression of the spirit and motivation as life begins to look like all spinach and no dessert. To sustain high levels of motivation and lessen the urge to procrastinate in the face of life’s demands for high-level performance, we need guilt-free play to provide us with periods of physical and mental renewal.”
The idea of guilt-free play is very similar to what Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr recommend in The Power of Full Engagement.
Bottom line: Take at least one full day off a week and you’ll come back with more motivation, more creativity, and more energy to work on the things that really matter.
7. Before Deciding to Go to a Recreational Activity or Social Commitment, Take Time out for just Thirty Minutes of Work on Your Project.
This refers to work days, not the off day we just talked about in guideline #6.
This guideline works by using the oldest parent trick in the book, “You can get your ice cream, but first you have to eat your spinach.” Neil Fiore calls it the ‘Grandma Principle’.
It’s all about giving yourself a reward, but only after you’ve done some quality work. This reward can create motivation for the activity it follows. It can help you get started and build the habit of doing so.
According to Neil Fiore, this can even help you get started on avoided projects:
“Soon you’ll find that work that previously was difficult or unpleasant is easier and more enjoyable. This technique can even become a springboard for getting started on avoided projects. It (1) uses your attraction to the pleasurable activity to get you started more often; (2) allows you to enjoy the leisure activity without guilt; and (3) starts your subconscious mind working on the project while you play, creatively resolving blocks while your attention is elsewhere, increasing your eagerness to return to the task with your newfound solutions.”
8. Focus on Starting.
This is crucial. Your only task is to get started. Don’t worry about finishing at all. In fact, forget about how long it might take, or how hard it’ll be, or when you’ll finish, or anything like that. Forget about all of that – just focus on when, where, and on what you can start.
This combines two more of my favorite ideas on overcoming procrastination. First, the focus on getting started I talked about in this article. Second, the idea of focusing on the process rather than the outcome that I talked about in this article.
9. Think Small.
This goes hand in hand with the previous guideline. Don’t worry about finishing a project, writing an entire chapter of your book, completing your income tax, or even just working continuously for hours on end.
Think small and focus on the process. Aim for thirty minutes of quality, focused, uninterrupted work.
10. Keep Starting.
Never worry about finishing a project. It will take care of itself. Thoughts about finishing will only create negative emotions of fear, insecurity, stress, and so on. Remember, the last thirty minutes that will finish a project will be an act of starting, too. In order to finish, all you have to do is to just keep starting.
Fully commit to focusing on the process, without worrying about the product or outcome.
11. Never End “Down”.
That means, do not stop when you’re somehow blocked, at the end of a section, ready to give up, or experiencing some other difficulty. Always stay with a tough sport for a few more minutes, trying to come up with at least a partial solution that you can improve upon later.
Neil Fiore explains why that’s important:
“You’ll find that staying with a difficulty for a few more moments is often enough for your brain to creatively resolve it. Gently pushing through a block or starting on the next section before you quit creates positive momentum, making it much easier to get started next time, thus eliminating the need to procrastinate.”
Summing Up: How The Unschedule Flips The Script On Procrastination-Inducing Tendencies
Let’s look at some typical tendencies that lead people to procrastinate and how The Unschedule flips the script and helps us overcome them and thus tackle the problem of procrastination…
Play - A Weakness or Necessary Ingredient for High Performance?
Procrastinators see play as a weakness, or, at the very least, not as performance enhancing. This means they don’t feel the need to prioritize it, which results in further problems down the line (see the next point).
The Unschedule sees guilt-free play as a necessary ingredient for achieving peak performance. Like the guys from The Power of Full Engagement, Neil Fiore sees play as necessary for peak performance: “Guilt-free play is based on the seeming paradox that in order to do productive, high-quality work on important projects, you must stop putting off living and engage wholeheartedly in recreation and relaxation. That’s right, you can be more productive if you play more! And as you put the strategy of guilt-free play to use, you’ll learn to play more and complete more quality work.”
Unconscious Desires to Work More or Less
Procrastinators unknowingly create an unconscious desire to work less. Procrastinators prioritize work over play and think they only deserve play once they’ve become more disciplined, more successful, etc. This results in a life devoid of fun, pleasure, play, and leisure. This then results in resentment towards work because work is something that deprives you of all the fun things in life. Ultimately, this creates an unconscious desire to work less.
The Unschedule creates an unconscious desire to work more. The Unschedule prioritizes play over work. You must commit to self-care and leisure activities and are only allowed to work in-between those times. This creates a desire to work more, as Neil Fiore explains: “Our usual habit is to schedule our work time and to leave our play reasonably unstructured. By requiring you to schedule and stick to recreational time, and to limit your work activity at first to predetermined periods of thirty minutes, the Unschedule builds up a subconscious desire to work more and play less.”
Focus on Finishing VS. Starting
Procrastinators focus on finishing stuff. They tend to think in terms of, “I need to finish my homework in the next 2 hours.” “I need to finish chapter 2 by the end of the week.” The problem is, human beings are terrible forecasters. We always tend to think we need less time to get stuff done than we actually do. The procrastinator, not knowing this, sets a goal of finishing something. When he doesn’t accomplish that, he feels guilty, rids himself of any sense of accomplishment, feels like a failure, doesn’t reward himself, and so on. Not even mentioning that focusing on getting something finished creates overwhelm, anxiety, and unnecessary stress. Frankly, focusing on finishing sets procrastinators up for failure.
The Unschedule focuses on getting started – over and over again. If you keep starting, finishing will take care of itself. It’s like Neil Fiore says, “When it is time to start the last thirty minutes that will finish the project, that too will be an act of starting – the start of the conclusion of your current project, as well as the beginning of your next.” Focusing on starting reduces overwhelm and doesn’t create unrealistic expectations that inevitably lead to disappointment, guilt, and self-criticism.
Focus on Outcome VS. Process
Procrastinators worry about the outcome. They wonder, “How much longer will it take?” “What are all the things I still have to do?” “When can I get all of this done?” This type of thinking creates overwhelm and distracts you from doing the work. Guess what happens when you allow yourself to get overwhelmed by all the stuff that’s still left to do? You procrastinate.
The Unschedule focuses on the process. It aims for thirty minutes of quality, focused work. That’s easy. That’s simple. No need to procrastinate on that.
Procrastinators rarely reward themselves if they do get some work done.
They tend to have high standards and are oftentimes very self-critical. They always feel like they should have done better. Because they don’t reward themselves, they don’t create any incentives to do more work in the future.
The Unschedule tells us to reward ourselves for every single period of work completed. This allows us to associate work with positive rewards, thus creating a desire to work more in the future. Behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated.
Expectations - Realistic VS. Unrealistic
Procrastinators think they have 24 hours in a day to get work done. One reason people procrastinate is because they create unrealistically high expectations of themselves and get overwhelmed by it. The narrative goes something like this, “OMG! I have so much time that I could use to get things done. I must use all of that time wisely, otherwise I’ll feel guilty.” Can you see how that creates overwhelm, anxiety, and stress? Ultimately leading to procrastination?
The Unschedule shows you clearly how much time you really have to get work done in a day. Because your schedule is already packed with fixed appointments, self-care activities, and play, you realize just how little time there’s left for working. You go from thinking, “OMG, I have so much time. This is overwhelming!” to “I only have 90 minutes before I’m going to play some tennis. I better get some work done.” This reduces overwhelm and creates a desire to work more.
Knowing Thy Time
Procrastinators have no clue where their time goes. Most of us have no clue where our time goes. This is problematic for procrastinators because, even if they might accomplish a lot in a given day, they’ll still feel guilty because their mind only reminds them of the five minutes they spent on Facebook and the ten minutes of TV they watched. This leads to guilt, self-criticism, and more procrastination in the future (more on that here).
The Unschedule gives you a clear picture of how you’re using your time.
Thanks to the what-gets-measured-gets-improved effect, seeing clearly how you’re spending your time is in itself helpful. Plus, it eliminates a lot of the guilt and self-criticism associated with thinking we waste a lot of time.
What an Unschedule Might Look Like
So, how could your Unschedule look like in real life?
I've created a sample week that you can check out by clicking the link below:
And here's the template I used to create it. Feel free to copy it:
Now I’d love to hear from. Are you using parts of The Unschedule? What are your other go-to strategies to overcome procrastination?
P.S. Want more tips to overcome procrastination? Then you'll enjoy the new free guide we've just created. It outlines 33 proven tactics to overcome this dreadful habit for good.
You can download the 17-page guide below: