Scheduling The Day

What to do on the Monday before Christmas? My 5-y-o son was beginning a long winter break from school. Thanks to Covid, we were home all day. I wanted my son to do a few chores and some learning.

There were some fun activities I knew we would end up doing that day, such as playing chess and letting him watch some TV. One option would have been for me to order him around all day. If he balked at cleaning up his room, I could threaten to withhold TV. Instead, I made a jar of activities written on slips of paper.

He picked papers out one at a time. The only rule I imposed was that he would do that activity immediately. If he drew tidying his room, then we went straight to his room. Mixing in papers that read “30 minutes of TV” and “pick a snack to share” made the game seem fun. He would have ended up watching TV anyway. I included a paper in the bowl that said, “give Mommy a compliment.” Everyone needs some affirmation!

This tactic was so successful that it got me thinking about how adults, including myself, could benefit from something similar. Adults need structure. I contemplated whether I would want someone to put all my activities for the day in a jar. Something I have done and even paid for is to go to a gym and have a fitness instructor tell me what to do for an hour.

One reason the jar game worked is that my son could not do all the fun activities first before the more unpleasant tasks (i.e. math worksheet). Almost every successful writer says that they write first thing in the morning. They don’t procrastinate.

If you’d like to hear from a real live human who actually does the writing scheduling thing, you can listen to Jennifer Doleac’s recent interview on The Hidden Curriculum podcast. She really does the thing! No wonder she’s so amazing and professionally successful. (She’s also generous with her time and supportive of young scholars.)

I think many of us could think of an excuse for not scheduling every hour of our work days a week ahead of time, as she does. I feel like I have excuses, but I also bet I could get closer. A great book on productivity is Deep Work. Something I took away from that book is that, even if you can’t go full Doleac, every person can do better.

The author, Cal Newport, points out something we all know by now: constantly checking email and social media eats up your day and reduces productivity. After arguing that it’s optimal to block out hours for exclusive intense focus, Newport deals with the objection that some people need to be accessible to others throughout the day. A manager or teacher needs to read and respond to emails promptly. Newport’s response was something like “Ok. However, you can probably check your email LESS frequently than you currently do.”

The New Year is coming. Let’s try again. Let’s try harder. I want to waste LESS time than I currently do. And I’ll so some more of the surprise jar game with my son.

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