When Schedules, Goals, and Rituals Don’t Work

I only passed my sociology A Level because my lecturer thought I wouldn’t.

“You won’t achieve anything more than an E in the exam, and even that’ll be clutching at straws,” he’d said, with his sweaty brow nicely furrowed.

Up to that point, I hadn’t got to grips with the subject, because I wasn’t interested enough.  I’d been skipping lectures, and turning in carelessly written essays strewn with half-formed arguments. 

Back then, I couldn’t think of any career that actually needed an A level in sociology, so why try harder? 

My lecturer could have been using reverse psychology, but in writing me off as a sociology star of the future, he galvanised me into focus.  I was not going to prove him right, so I read all the books, spent time on crafting compelling arguments, and took the exam seriously enough to emerge with a B.

I didn’t draw up any schedules, devise a learning routine, or set any particular goals (other than wanting to prove my pompous lecturer wrong.)  I studied because I wanted to study, so I naturally created time and space for it.

This is an early example of one of my most frustrating habits: no schedule, routine, or SMART goal has ever made up for the fact that if I don’t want to do something, I won’t. 

This is a relatively new discovery I wish I’d made earlier in life.  Maybe then, I wouldn’t have wasted precious years on different methods of time-blocking and intricate scheduling and meticulous goal setting, only for every attempt to fail miserably…

…leaving me feeling like a complete and utter failure with it.

You can feel even more of a failure when you write for a living, and schedules take on an intense new level of importance.  You’re constantly told that you can’t achieve any kind of success unless you’ve got a clear goal, a fixed word count, or a regular routine.

(To achieve maximum success, you’ll also have a strange ritual that involves brushing your teeth with Marmite before you can write… these crazy creative types, eh?)

But the truth is that goals, schedules, routines, and rituals have never, ever worked for me.

Even simple ‘To Do’ lists leave me cold.  If I have to write a task down, I obviously don’t want to do it, so why create a masochistic reminder?  Meanwhile, the ‘Got Done’ list, where you write down all the things you’ve achieved that day, feels pointless, and on days when you didn’t do anything except stare at Netflix, guilt-inducing.

Having made these realisations, I’m gradually learning to work according to my instincts, and to trust myself rather than set a demanding schedule. 

That is, on any given day I know exactly what I need to do, in order to feel a genuine sense of achievement at the end of it. 

Client deadlines and unavoidable jobs are givens, of course, but if I don’t spend some time working on my novel, or doing some personal writing, I’ll feel restless… like something’s missing.

And I let that uneasy feeling guide me, just as I use the euphoria I feel when I exercise, to keep on exercising.  I’ve never had to ‘make time for fitness’ because I enjoy it, so I make time for it naturally.  If I miss an exercise session I don’t worry, because I know I’ll make up for it on another day… it’s become something I don’t have to think about.

I’m sharing all this because schedule-free working has been a genuine revelation to me in recent months.  I know I can’t be the only person on this planet who feels allergic to rules, rituals, and routines (yet has still – amazingly! – managed to achieve some level of success, no matter how small.)

So, if you’ve been wondering why you can’t ever stick to a plan, you could try relaxing the guilt, letting your instincts guide you, and seeing how you get on, instead.

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