In Praise of Schedules, Routines and Plans: Structure is Freeing

John Cousins
February 7, 2023
4 min read
I’m free to do what I want

I’m a big fan of schedules and routines and morning rituals and any structure that helps me get things done. I love to focus on long term big projects and feel the sense of accomplishment that comes from working on something day after day.

The man

As I have become older it has become more apparent to me that daily practice aggregates up into worthwhile accomplishments. So now I focus on developing those things that I love. Its like a loving meditation to immerse myself in activities that I enjoy doing.

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order — willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.

This thoughtful piece of eloquence in praise of schedules is by Annie Dillard from her book The Writing Life.

I’m with Annie. I have found that creating a schedule and carving out time to do the things you really want to do, helps fashion purpose and meaning in life.

Another piece of advice I have found immensely helpful is breaking down big tasks into small manageable chunks. Planning things this way can take a huge task and make it doable. Recently I came across someone who said that, when they are writing a book, they don’t just write the book but know each day what part they are working on because they planned it out. They aren’t just writing the book but writing the second section of Chapter 3.

You can do so much in ten minutes’ time. Ten minutes, once gone, are gone for good. Divide your life into ten minute units and sacrifice as few of them as possible.

— Ingvar Kamprad (Ikea founder)

I have heard that Boeing makes five year plans and breaks it down into what needs to get done each day. That is granular and what it takes to chart a course for success.

Here is a wonderfully charming quote from Anne Lamott from her book Bird by Bird that is apropos:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

Inch by Inch Anything’s a Cinch

Just take it bird by bird. One task at a time in bite size chunks. Stick to your plan day after day.

Jerry Seinfeld shared his productivity secret for being such a prolific comedy writer: he uses a big wall calendar and marks off with a big red X every day that he works.

As the days add up in a chain, the challenge becomes not to break the chain.

It isn’t one shot pushes that get us where we want to go. Its consistent ordinary daily action that builds extraordinary outcomes. Move an inch every day.

Check out my slide deck on the subject below.

Checklists and Notes

Don’t underestimate the power of checklists and note taking. They are cognitive nets for capturing ideas and preventing us from falling prey to lapses of memory.

Atul Gawande wrote a great book called the Checklist Manifesto.

Focus means learning and daring to say no.

“People are effective because they say no.” — Peter Drucker

These are all hacks and ideas to help us start and stay on track in our efforts. All growth requires effort.

All growth depends upon activity. There is no development physically or intellectually without effort, and effort means work.

— Calvin Coolidge

These two quotes by two Annes have stuck with me and inform my days. Jerry’s exhortation not to break the chain helps keep my on track. I hope you find them helpful in charting your purposeful path.

This way…

Small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises.
— Demosthenes

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John Cousins
Author, Entrepreneur, & Teacher

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