How the Strategy of Scheduling Helped Me Make a Habit.

In my study of habits, I’ve identified many strategies that we can use to make or break our habits.

The Strategy of Scheduling, of setting a specific, regular time for an activity to recur, is one of the most familiar and powerful strategies of habit-formation—and it’s one of my personal favorites.

For most people, and certainly for me, there’s a kind of magic about seeing an item actually appear on a schedule. Scheduling makes us far more likely to convert an activity into a habit (well, except for Rebels), so, for that reason, I schedule even some slightly ridiculous habits, such as “Kiss my husband every morning and every night.”

One of my most helpful Secrets of Adulthood for Habits is, “What I do every day matters more than what I do once in a while.”

However, while I want many of my habits to happen daily, or almost daily, there are other habits that I want to follow just once a week.

Many of my habits revolve around trying to read more. Reading is my favorite thing to do, and it’s also essential to my work, yet I still have to work on reading more and reading more widely.

This is one of the most surprising thing about habits — at least to me. I understand why we find it tough to make habits to do something that we don’t want to do, but why is it often so hard to make a habit to do something we do want to do? That we love to do? (One of the big themes of Better Than Before is how to make habits that allow us to do more things we enjoy.)

In my case, I made a habit to get me to do more of something that I both like and dislike to do. I used the Strategy of Scheduling.

I’ve acquired a large pile of books that look fascinating — but also demanding and dense and perhaps a bit boring. Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, Plutarch’s Lives, and Victoria Newhouse’s Art and the Power of Placement were at the top of the stack. I needed to schedule a specific time for this kind of reading. It wasn’t work reading, for which I always make time, and it wasn’t pleasure reading, for which I make as much time as possible…it was study.

I decided to add thirty minutes of Study Reading to my weekend, to tackle those books. I can read more than thirty minutes, if I want, but I can also stop at thirty. That’s another Secrets of Adulthood for Habits: To keep going, sometimes I have to allow myself to stop.

I became a little discouraged when it took me a month to plow through Understanding Media. Should I abandon this habit? Then I realized—well, I wasn’t reading the McLuhan very fast, but it was faster than I’d been reading it for the past two years, when it sat untouched on my bedroom nightstand.

For more tips on reading more, check here. If you want to hear when Better Than Before hits the shelves, sign up here.

How does the Strategy of Scheduling work for you? Do you find, like me, that just seeing something “on the schedule” makes it much more likely to get done?

  • debbiedarline

    I have blended two of your great ideas together this summer, the strategy of scheduling and power hour. Every morning at 10:00 a.m. I dive into some annoying task that I have been putting off. It most often falls into the category of important but not urgent. I’m feeling very encouraged because I have accomplished so many things this summer – some of which I’ve put off dealing with for YEARS. At the end of the hour I give myself lots of “words of affirmation”, congratulating myself for a job well done. Thanks again for the great suggestions! I’m greatly looking forward to your new book.

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific! I’m so happy to hear that those strategies are working for you.
      I’m impressed that you have Power Hour EVERY DAY. It’s not easy.

  • Laura

    I just had an Ah Ha moment when I was reading this
    post. I am a Rebel who likes to write things
    down, but not because I’m a Rebel, but because I’m ADHD. Putting things on paper allows me to see,
    understand, and figure out activities, the time it will take to do them,
    and to see if it’s worthwhile. I enjoy
    lists and schedules as a “tool for understanding reality”, but NOT as
    a task list. I hope this makes sense
    to someone other than me! 😉

  • Carolyn

    I am very bad at figuring out how long a job will take and, therefore, find scheduling very difficult. Maybe I would do better with debbiedarline’s power hour idea? The problem with most of the jobs that I put off is that a big mess is required before the job is complete. If I don’t finish the job in the required amount of time, I’m often left with the big mess which is frustrating!

    • Sarah

      I am just like this! I have totally screwed perception of how long a job will take and usually give myself not enough time to do it, My boss did this amazing thing where for a month she just recorded EVERYTHING she did (and I mean everything) and then reviewed it to learn what real time looks like…I keep meaning to do that but i am a perpetual procrastinator.

  • Mary

    Those of you who follow Dan Ariely… he studies behavioral economics… he participated in creating a new calendar app that takes this into account. It’s called timeful. You can schedule in your habits, or the app will find free time in your schedule and suggest you do it then. 😉 It takes a little tinkering. For instance, it suggested that I floss my teeth at 3:00pm, and I’d rather do it before bed.

  • Anna

    Great advice as usual. And here’s a piece of unsolicited advice from me: Plutarch is great, but don’t feel like you have to plow straight through. Not all the lives are equally interesting, so try to start with some of the highlights. Offhand, I remember really enjoying the lives of Brutus, Coriolanus, Aristides, and Alcibiades. (And a bonus with the first two, you have the fun of seeing what Shakespeare decided to change in his versions; personally I actually find his renditions less powerful and dramatic at certain points.)

  • Gail Trowbridge

    Thank you, Gretchen. Can’t wait for your book. I make to-do lists, but I’ve never thought of making an “every day” to-do list. For example, I’m terrible at remembering to take a vitamin or calcium every day. Why is that? I try to develop a routine, but it seems so trivial that I never establish one. Maybe I need to realize that it’s the small stuff that ends up mattering quite a bit. Like kissing my husband before he goes to work, saying “good morning,” flossing my teeth…
    I appreciated your secrets of adulthood for habits in this post: it’s tough to make a habit to do something I like (odd but true), and to keep going sometimes I have to allow myself to stop. I too, love to read, and have found success in reading more difficult/dense books in the early morning. Sometimes I need to be sitting at a table for really difficult reading. I also like the habit of limiting myself to a half an hour. And I just learned about the Power Hour. Did I miss that from an earlier book?

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that you’re intrigued by the next book.

      I talk about Power Hour at greater length there.

      Habits – so fascinating!

  • That is something I have been wondering myself for a long time. I don’t understand why it sometimes seems so hard for me to do something I like. Than I red your “The Happiness Project” where you talk about what it is we actually like to do and which activities only give us pleasure thinking about doing them and not actually doing them. That gave me to think. Still I find it hard to figure out what activity actually gives me pleasure and which I only like to imagine. : )

  • What brings me more joy than seeing items on a schedule? Seeing all the crossed out items on my schedule. Sometimes, like you, I add “slightly ridiculous” items to my list OR things that I JUST accomplished – just so I am able to cross it out. I suppose it offers me a bizarre sense of accomplishment. *teehee* Loved this post and look forward to adding some more “study reading” to my To Do List. Thanks 🙂

  • Gretchen,

    I started reading your book (Happiness Project) as I was recovering from a breakdown and ‘scheduling’ was one of the first new skills I learnt in my recovery because I couldn’t read for long (as my concentration wasn’t strong enough) so I would tell myself I would read for 5 minutes a day and then 10, 15 and so on.
    Now I do it everywhere in life so that no task ever feels totally overwhelming and I get into the habit of completing small tasks often or big tasks by small chunks at a time 🙂

    Thanks!
    Toni

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that it works for you.

  • AnnaKate

    A weekly happy-hour painting class goes on the calendar each week, as does my work hours to pay for it. I am really enjoying my painting class. And I like having a calendar on the fridge that tells me the name of the class and the day and time that it is. I also look at my calendar to look up the dates for the week. Each week I write down that week’s date and look up the class times on the web-sight.

  • Hey Gretchen!

    Nice post. I’ve been following a schedule I set out for myself diligently (obsessively) for weeks now and honestly I’m much more satisfied doing so than I was just hangin’ out and enjoying all of my free time.

    The trick isn’t designing an ideal calendar, that’s easy. Eat well, sleep enough, less Facebook – we all know that.

    The trick is finding the the right emotion to ride and cultivate that’ll force yourself to do those things when they aren’t easy. That’ll force you to grocery shop at 11:00 pm when you’re already passing out tired because you know that if you don’t, you’ll have to settle for a fast food breakfast instead of fruit salad.

    Scheduling strategy is a big part of that! If I were to add anything for readers, I’d add that you have to commit to it like you’ve got a gun to your head. It’s worked for me, and I can safely say from the other side that I never wanna go back.

    • Hi Chad.

      You hit the nail on the head. We’re emotional creatures and are driven by emotion more than logic.

      As you said, we need to find the right emotion at the right time.

      Nathan.

  • Ash101

    Hi Gretchen, great thinking with this. I’m really excited for when “Better Than Before” comes out.

    I think scheduling like this folds well into “stacking” habits (something Leo has a few posts on over at Zen Habits). Sometimes one big change can lead to an opportunity for other changes as well.

    My example: I too love reading, but I have trouble prioritizing it, especially when I have so much reading I “should” do for work. As a result, I have a bookshelf full of books I should read (maybe even feel “obligated” to read) but haven’t. Guns Germs and Steel has been on that shelf for ten years!

    I recently started riding the bus to work some days of the week (a big habit-change). It’s about 15 minutes each way. Not a lot of time for reading, but a little is better than not at all! While I only get through a few pages on each 15 minute ride, I’m now almost done with Guns Germs and Steel (and that is a TOME, let me tell you).

    To keep me from becoming discouraged, I think I’ll switch back and forth between the big “obligation” books and the shorter fun books. I am really looking forward to emptying that shelf!

  • Penelope Schmitt

    I am not a good ‘time’ person, except in big blocks, so I am good at ‘routines’. I have a morning routine, and and evening routine, and I keep putting new items into those routines. That’s good for ‘maintenance’. However, scheduling would no doubt help me to get some of the daytime ‘big rocks’ in the jar. Hmmmm

  • MidwesternGirl4ever

    I subscribe to audible.com. When I read “study” books, if I listen to it on audible as I am reading, it is a much more engaging experience. This week, I am finishing up “Hard Choices” by Hillary Clinton by listening to it on audible and reading it on by iPad simultaneously.

  • Hi Gretchen, I’d like to thank you for inspiring me so much to get my life organised! I was diagnosed with a chronic illness earlier this year and after a stint of self pity your Happiness Project came to me at the right time. I have really had to learn how to pace’ myself because of my illness so scheduling my days is perfect. As a control freak it suits the type A element of my personality too. I have just started a Masters in Writing via correspondence – and we all know how hard it is to be disciplined with distance study – so scheduling study reading time is great too. I really enjoyed and appreciated your book and look forward to reading more of your ‘happy things’

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that my work strikes a chord with you – great to hear that Scheduling has been a help —

  • graciado

    Scheduling is really essential to me. There are just too many things to keep track of — personal, professional, social — to keep everything in my head at once. Making time and making promises to myself by scheduling things is one of the best ways to make things happen! I’m interested in the sorts of techniques that people use for scheduling activities that bring them joy, though. I blogged recently about using apps that ‘intelligently’ plot a schedule for you (http://lagraciada.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/to-diarise-or-not-to-diarise-that-is.html), but I know that would suck the joy out of the activities for some people!

  • Steve Sisko

    Ha! I’ve added “Kiss ” to my calendar years ago. It pops up later in the day and I go do it! Very simple yet valuable thing to do. 🙂

  • Barbara

    What resonated with me was your statement: What I do every day matters more than what I do once in a while! And the idea that sometimes to keep going, we need to stop. I found that with exercise, setting my goal for 30 minutes as many days as possible worked so much better than and hour x3/week. Because of that shift, I’ve been exercising 5 – 6 days / week for four years now

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific! that’s great to hear.

  • I love the concept of scheduling and I totally get it intellectual but my Rebel style has yet to allow me to follow it. If it is an appointment with someone else I can totally keep it, but if I schedule in a to do task….it is a crap shoot as to if I will actually do it. Usually not.

    I had my blogging scheduled in and after a year of not doing my blogging at the time that I scheduled I finally took that out of the calendar. lol

    Any tips for rebels to make the schedule work?