Mastering Your Time: Why Classic Scheduling Doesn’t Work For You
Schedules. Either the word fills you with a sense of stability and tranquility or makes your skin crawl with the thought of being restricted and trapped. But not all schedules have to look like time blocks in your calendar, the same hour-long afternoon workout or deep work in the morning. While many people benefit from that type of daily structure, there are other routines that may be better suited for people with ADHD, ever-changing rhythms, or personalities that enjoy shaking things up.
The key is that you reinforce your schedule with interspersed rewards that allow you to take a break before diving back into work. Today, we’ll explore four common types of reward reinforcement schedules: Fixed Interval, Fixed Ratio, Variable Interval, and Variable Ratio. Then, we’ll dive into five steps you can take to determine which schedule will flow best with your style.
The Fixed Interval Reward Schedule
The Fixed Interval Reward schedule is what we normally think of when we imagine a schedule. This schedule encourages you to work in fixed time intervals, like a 2-hour block or a 25-minute Pomodoro session of writing a proposal. After you complete your work interval, you enjoy a timed reward, like 10 minutes of YouTube or reading before hopping into another fixed time interval.
While this schedule is the easiest to visually plan out your days and the necessary tasks, it can also lead to drops in motivation for people who are easily distracted or find themselves feeling like they are pulling teeth to suddenly focus into two hours of pre-scheduled study time.
The Fixed Ratio Reward Schedule
In the Fixed Ratio Reward schedule, you receive a reward after completing a certain fixed task. For example, you may set a goal of writing 3 pages or answering 8 emails before you take a quick break to call a friend or cook a meal. This is another common scheduling strategy advocated by productivity experts.
This schedule can be highly effective if you can easily split large tasks into small doable chunks. Now your quarterly financial report doesn’t feel so overwhelming when you write it up month by month. But like the Fixed Interval Reward Schedule, you may struggle to get back into your task after enjoying your reward.
The Variable Interval Reward Schedule
The Variable Interval Reward Schedule is very unstructured. You enjoy a reward after an interval of work time that is constantly changing. Perhaps you find yourself in a 2-hour deep work session and later you operate in 15-minute bursts before enjoying rewards.
The constantly changing circumstances of this schedule provide unpredictable rewards. You may also be influenced by external factors that change up your work intervals, like a sudden work call, a feeling of hunger, or a drop in motivation for the task.
The Variable Ratio Reward Schedule
The Variable Ratio Reward Schedule is similarly unstructured. However, instead of working with changing bursts of time, you complete varying amounts of work before you take on a reward. If you need to write a 10-page paper, perhaps you focus on writing the outline, then you send a few emails, finish 5 pages, schedule some meetings, and finish your rough draft with bursts of rewards in between each task.
This schedule is quite flexible, which gives a sense of freedom to some, but may be entirely too unstructured for others to operate. It allows you to look at a wide list of the things you need to do and choose what to tackle based on your motivation at the moment.
Assessing Your Inner Reward Motivations
So which of these schedules pique your interest? Do you tend to take things out in time intervals or task completions? The Interval schedules are best if you find yourself thriving on timed sessions for deep work or other activities. If you notice rushes of motivation when you cross off things from your ever-changing To-do list, then one of the Ratio Schedules may match your workflow.
Do you feel relief at interruptions in your workflow? This can also be a good indicator that the Variable schedules may be best for you. If you feel irritated at work interruptions, perhaps the Fixed schedules will fit better with your lifestyle. Take time to reflect on your past attempts at scheduling to see what worked well and what didn’t. Then it’s time to build your ideal schedule. Here’s how:
Five Steps to Crafting Your Ideal Schedule
- Soft Scheduling
Whether you prefer the scheduling patterns of fixed ratio or variable intervals, consider adopting a practice of “soft scheduling.” This means that when blocking out time for an activity, you allow yourself a large buffer of time at the beginning and end of a task to allow yourself time to build motivation, deal with interruptions, and fully enjoy rewards and leisure time.
These buffers prevent the stress that comes from rushing to the next task because of hard time stops. For example, if you have class from 2 to 3:30, schedule a block from 1:45 to 4 pm to give you time to check your phone or review materials before class, and talk to the professor or call a friend after class.
Another important aspect of soft scheduling is not treating your calendar like a to-do list. When you have many specific tasks, try to group them under one umbrella so you grant yourself the freedom to take anything that falls under Work Comms for two hours (sending emails, scheduling meetings, messaging teammates for project updates). By making your themes broad, you can take advantage of your motivation in the moment.
- Identify Work Rhythms
Do you tend to perform your best work in the morning or afternoon? Knowing your peak productivity time will help you determine when to schedule particular tasks. If you’re a morning person, then you may benefit from seizing that 6am workout or meditation so you feel ready to immerse yourself in deep work by 9am.
Alternatively, you may not wake up until 9am and experience high energy in the afternoon, so it could be best to wait to schedule deep work until after lunch to give yourself time to complete smaller work tasks in the morning. Don’t try to fight against your internal clock; instead, create schedules that honor your ebbs and flows of energy.
- Randomized Rewards
The key to creating a work experience you feel satisfied with is to engage with fulfilling rewards. What do you tend to do when you wake up in the morning, want to relax, when you complete a job well done, and when you are procrastinating? Make a list. These are some good ideas for potential post-task rewards because they hold your interest. But how do you ensure that these interests don’t win over your need to complete important tasks?
Our brains can engage in rewards for a long time. So if you have more things you need to continue doing, put on a timer while enjoying your reward. Remember that list of potential rewards you made? Consider everything that may count as a high-stimulation versus a low-stimulation reward. If all your rewards are highly stimulating (usually involving screentime), then your brain will not be able to fully recharge before moving on to the next task and you’ll burn out of motivation very quickly.
So browse through your rewards and choose things that are low-stimulating, like journaling, stretching, or reading a book. Also, consider if social activity is more draining or charging for your battery.
- Experiment with Schedules and Tools
It’s time to put theory into practice. Try out each reward reinforcement schedule for a day to see what you naturally flow with. Journal your results to track your satisfaction and productivity. The act of writing in physical planners, calendars, and to-do lists may help some people process and remember information better.
There are also plenty of tech solutions to help you with your schedules, like digital calendars. Find to-do list templates online to use each day. If you like unpredictability, use an application that randomizes lists to randomly select a low-stimulation reward after you complete each work task, which can give your day a sense of something unexpected and new. Other apps like Notion, ToDoist, and NTask can also help you lay out everything you need to get done with work.
- Integrate the Freedom App for Focus
It’s easy to tell yourself you’ll enjoy your rewards once you finish a task or time block, but do you actually have the willpower to stay away from your screens? When it comes to keeping your mind free of distractions, Freedom is a great app to integrate into your daily schedule. It creates customized lists that block you from accessing distracting apps and websites on all your devices for a certain period of time.
The app allows you to schedule in-the-moment timed blockages or recurring prescheduled blocks to help you stay concentrated on your work, classes, or personal projects. The app even has 25-minute music clips that link up with Pomodoro sessions to help you build momentum and focus and then gently drop off so you can enjoy a reward for those who enjoy Interval Schedules.
Maintain Your Schedule
Having a personalized schedule is essential to maintaining a workflow without burnout, whether you opt for the Fixed Interval Reward, Fixed Ratio Reward, Variable Interval Reward, or Variable Ratio Reward schedule. By offering yourself rewards between time periods and tasks that truly recharge your brain and fulfill your soul, you’ll be able to maintain a workflow without burnout.
When you create more flexible days with soft scheduling, understand your daily energy rhythms, and incorporate aids from physical planners to digital tools like Freedom, you’ll be able to mold a schedule that works with your unique work style. Happy scheduling!
Written by Lorena Bally