I am a serial procrastinator. My saving grace is that I’m a productive procrastinator. The easiest way to tell when I only have one, very important thing to do is when I’m doing nothing. I will put a lot of effort into avoiding that number one, very important (and usually hard) thing that I need to get done. As long as there are other things under that number one list item I will work on those as much as I can.

I’ve found I can be pretty effective this way. Especially when I take a large, very important task and break it into smaller tasks. I can work on the high priority task by completing smaller, less important pieces as a method of avoiding whichever subtask is now sitting at the top of the list.

My other major work flaw is that New Year’s Eve is all. the. time. I sit down and make a resolution to work on something and throw myself in head first. Usually without bothering to see if there’s any water in the pool first. I push hard against whatever I’m working on in intense bursts. Then I take a day off. Then three days. Then a month later I remember that thing that I was working on.

It’s not a new idea, by any means, but I’m finally starting to figure out the value of the schedule to both of these problems

The schedule creates an automatically prioritized list. Want to know what the most important thing is that needs to be done? It’s probably the item that’s got the shortest distance between now and its due date.

Scheduling forces me to break projects into smaller pieces. It allows me to work piecemeal, making continual progress toward the larger project. It also allows me to look ahead and work on lower priority pieces, as I’m inclined to do. It also allows me to front load as much difficult work as possible. The schedule provides a date and I want to hit that date or at least get as close as possible. Small, immediate subtasks are much more motivating to me than the large project “some time” in the future.

What tends to happen is that I work hard in advance, slack by working ahead, and then come back to priority work when it’s nearly due, but also nearly completed. As the hardest things are out-of-the-way the rest goes fairly smoothly. That sense of progress is a great motivator to move toward completion.

The schedule tends to mellow my aggressive, yet distracted work habits. My plan is never to “work on that project.” It’s very simple and elegant. I simply work every day. Sometimes a little and sometimes a lot, but everyday. The schedule keeps track for me. I don’t have to keep things in my head all the time for when I sit down to work. I simply sit down and look at what’s in front of me. If I don’t want to do that I move to the next item.

It’s a massive time and motivation saver for me. I can see at a glance what I need to do and I don’t have to remember where I was or what I wanted to do next. More importantly, I don’t have to make any decisions. I’ve already made them in advance and all I need to do is execute them.

Which brings me to the schedule itself. I schedule time to schedule. At the end of every month I review what I’ve got ahead of me and what new projects I’d like to add. If I need an entire work session to plot it all out I will take the time to do just that. It’s worth it for the savings it provides in the future. When I’m tired or distracted or simply not in the mood, it gives that critical first step forward to get moving and keep moving.

This all comes with a very big caveat; the schedule can not rule me. It is entirely and exclusively a guideline. Sometimes I will come in ahead of schedule. Sometimes I will come in behind. Sometimes I will need time away and the schedule will take a hit. When that happens I need to be motivated to return and start working again. When the schedule is absolute it is a guaranteed future point of disappointment and failure when the work does not inevitably meet or exceed it.

Live by the schedule, by all means. Just don’t die by it. It’s a tool, like any other. It can be modified, subverted, or ignored entirely.