A Strategy for More Effective Planning

How to make more realistic plans for tomorrow

Posted Dec 07, 2009

Planning our goal pursuit is one of the most challenging things we do on a daily basis, yet it's planning to which we rarely give much conscious attention. How often have you said things like, "I'll do that later, tomorrow or next week" without any real consideration of what "later, tomorrow or next week" already have in store?

If you're having problems managing your tasks, particularly in terms of procrastination, here's a technique that I find useful. It's something that I think I first read in Edwin Bliss' now out of print book, Doing It Now: How to Cure Procrastination and Achieve Your Goals. Unfortunately, my copy of his book is in my campus office, so I can't check the reference right now. In any case, the important thing is the technique. I'm just emphasizing that I didn't invent it, but I do use it, and I have adapted it. I think you might want to use it too.

The technique is called the "un-schedule." It's pretty simple and powerful. In fact, I use it constantly, and it has made me much more efficient and honest in terms of my time use. It's also a great memory tool, as I can reconstruct (and analyze) any day in great detail. In this sense, it's like a careful accounting of your bank account cash flow for budgeting purposes. However, given that I think time is a more precious commodity than cash (or at least as important), I spend more time using this technique than financial budgeting.

Here's how it works. Take a blank calendar page for tomorrow (or as I like to, a blank view in my computer calendar iCal program), and carefully put in everything that you have to do tomorrow. And, I mean everything from the time you wake up. Yes, all the most mundane aspects of your life, because each takes time, time that we often think is really "free" for the task we're putting off today.

My typical day will begin sometime between 5:30 and 6:00 a.m. with "Cuddle time with the kids." Oh, the mundane, beautiful moments of our days. This alone could last an hour if time permits, but that's part of the issue here, and I digress. My schedule is a beautfully "choreographed dance" with my wife's, and it varies based on the day of course, but I'll focus only on my end of things and use today as my example. From "cuddle time," my day then quickly moves to something like this:

  • 6:20 Alex on potty, diaper change, dressed
  • 6:30 Laurel dressed
  • 6:40 Coffee (ahhh!), juice for kids, breakfast prep for at least one kid, find a puzzle for Alex & cartoon for Laurel
  • 7:10 Getting light now, out to feed the horses and dogs, plus related chores (an hour may seem a long time for this, but I have an 11-dog sled dog team, including older dogs with health issues)
  • 8:10 Help get kids coats and hats on and into the car with mom
  • 8:20 Prep/eat my own breakfast, tidy the kitchen, make beds, do a load of laundry
  • 9:00 Shower, dress
  • 9:20 Get to my desk, begin with graduate-student thesis

Well, that's just about 3 hours of my day, but it's enough to make a few important points. First, one of the whole points of doing the un-schedule for today was to decide when I would get to the thesis I needed to review. The realistic plan was somewhere around 9:30 a.m. 

Second, if the night before I thought about delaying some task to early this morning, that would be a big mistake. The sleep deprivation necessary to get an hour's worth of work in before the kids wake up is too punishing and ultimately self-destructive. In addition, if I want to forgo the personal punishment and do the work when I wake up, it means that my social obligations to others go unfulfilled, and they have to pick up the slack for me. Yes, it can happen occasionally, but too often that becomes the bad habit of the procrastinator. I've called this the harmful effects of "second-hand" procrastination.

Third, if the day before I have procrastinated tasks to late that night, I'm setting myself up for sleep-deprivation. My day begins early, and getting a good night's sleep is one of the most important health behaviours. Postponing health behaviours is one of the reasons procrastination is related to poor health outcomes. The un-schedule helps me see the potential folly in my plans. It's a case of "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

I think you can see how planning of this sort is making a difference already. Being realistic about what is expected of me apart from the actual "work" that I have to schedule is crucial to my success and well-being. This un-schedule really helps me identify when I can assign time for tasks. Retrospectively, it can also help me think through how I can change my life to enhance my well-being. For example, what task can be delegated to others, streamlined, or done at a different time.

Most importantly, this simple technique lends itself to the real "procrastination-busting" technique of making implementation intentions to supplement my goal intentions. I've discussed implementation intentions at length previously, so I'll just summarize a few key ideas here to show the link to the un-schedule. An implementation intention is phrased as, "I'll do behavior X in situation Y to achieve sub-goal Z." It's effect is to put the cue for behavior in the environment, helping to break habitual action. This is exactly what the un-schedule facilitates. It allows us to see when, and possibly where, we can do behavior X, and it provides a way of committing to this action for a specific time or situation. What this means, is that we no longer only have a goal intention, we now have a part of the plan towards implementing this goal. I would add that I think it's probably more realistic as well, because this intention is now considered within the framework of everything else scheduled in our lives. My discussion above about my recognition of how late-night task commitments are unrealistic given my early-morning commitments to kids, dogs and horses is a mundane instance of this my own life.

Of course, our lives are a dynamic flow of people, events, roles, relationships, tasks, etc. Our schedules are never static, so this un-schedule technique needs to become routine in our lives as we look ahead and plan our goal pursuit. And, of course, we'll have lots of intention updates, as we have to change plans and delay one task that was scheduled or planned in lieu of another. This is not necessarily procrastination as I've emphasized before. Delay is a normal and necessary part of our lives. It's part of making choices based on priorities and time. Procrastination is a breakdown in self-regulation where we clearly have an intention to act on that task now, but voluntarily and irrationally delay action despite knowing that this delay is neither in our best interest nor necessary given the circumstances. This difference is important to understand.

In itself, the technique can guarantee nothing. In fact, you could waste time and actually procrastinate on another task while doing this! (My first and one of my favourite Carpe Diem cartoons was about this mis-use of a schedule to justify procrastination.) However, if you're looking for a simple yet effective tool for helping you to make more concrete realistic implementation intentions about your goals, I recommend it highly.

BLOGGER NOTE: Listeners of my iProcrastinate Podcasts often use the Psychology Today blog space for their replies and comments. Among the comments I've had, it was suggested that we establish a blog posting to encourage readers (and listeners) to share successful techniques they use to beat procrastination (thanks again Karen!). Here's your invitation, the first of many, to share your tips for success!