Why We Are More Productive When Our Schedules Are Full

On leaving high school, I made an interesting observation: My grades were higher when my schedule was busier.

It was easy to make the distinction between busy semesters and less busy semesters. You may have guessed based on reading around here for a bit that I’m a nerd. Befitting that, I was in the marching band in high school.

A marching band that was regularly the number one band in New England.

For those of you who have not been in a competitive marching band, it is very time consuming.

We practiced for three hours after school two days a week and practiced all day on Saturday.

Once competition season started, we would bus out to competitions on Saturday and Sunday each week.

That’s a lot of hours.

Marching band season was the fall semester. The spring semester was jazz band season.

Jazz band was a lot lower key. We rehearsed two days a week after school and occasionally went to competitions. It was nowhere near the strictly regimented schedule of marching band. (Plus, I didn’t even decide to join the jazz band until my junior year.)

Looking back on my grades, though, I discovered that they were better in the fall than they were in the spring.

I thought it was strange that I did better when I had less time to commit to my studies, but I didn’t really do anything with that information.

These days, I see a similar pattern play out on the weekends.

Despite having far more free time available to me most weekends, I seem to get less done than I do on weeknights.

I haven’t written a blog post on a Saturday in many weeks. I am writing this right now on a Wednesday.

Despite having far more time, I am less successful at getting things done.

So why am I more productive (and more successful) when my schedule is more crowded?

The Theories

I’ve got two theories on this: procrastination and prioritization. The end result may be a product of one or the other, both, or some other factor altogether.

Procrastination

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to procrastinate when a deadline is farther off?

There’s less pressure to get your work done immediately and less guilt involved in putting it off a bit.

There’s no harm in that, as far as it goes. This type of procrastination doesn’t seem like it would hurt your end product all that much.

For example, if you had two hours to complete an assignment, your results should be similar to a situation in which you had eight hours to complete an assignment but procrastinated away the first six.

The problem that I find is that the procrastination makes the assignment feel larger. More daunting. More important.

This makes it harder to actually end the procrastination and start the assignment. The deeper you dig that hole, the harder it is to get out.

So instead of comparing two hours of work to two hours of work, you end up with only a half hour of work due to procrastination inertia.

In school, when I was forced to get my work done right away, it got done. I didn’t have time to build up any sense of overwhelm. I didn’t have time to develop that procrastination inertia.

Prioritization

Forced prioritization is another factor.

When you have a limited amount of time, you cannot necessarily do everything that you want to do. You need to choose the most important tasks and go forward with those.

You can’t reread the whole text book. You have to skim and review the points that seem the most important.

This process trains you in efficiency. You learn to distinguish between important and non-important. You learn how to properly prioritize everything that needs to be done.

This learning process may often be painful (and unsuccessful) in the short term, but in the long term it leads to better results.

Going Forward

I have been working on restructuring my days and my work to try to get the more positive results from busyness without actually having to live such a busy life.

Breaking my day into small blocks has worked well on this front. Instead of having a daily to do list of ten items, I will have my day scheduled in two hour blocks with one to three items per block.

Instead of having my nine hour work day to complete the ten items, I now have two hours to get a couple items done. This forces me to get right to work and avoid the procrastination inertia. It also requires me to pick out the most important elements and prioritize those.

Another tip that I have heard (although I have not tried it as of yet) is scheduling time to relax. This entails blocking out chunks of time in your calendar during which you will not work. You can read a book, watch television, listen to music, or any other relaxing activity, but you cannot work.

This has the dual benefit of shrinking the amount of time dedicated to tasks and forcing you to get some relaxation into your day.

This is an area that I am still working on optimizing in my own life. Have you found any success with other tips and tricks? Do you have any other thoughts or insights on why we may be more successful when we have less time? Share them in the comments!

18 thoughts on “Why We Are More Productive When Our Schedules Are Full”

  1. I’m really good at frittering my time away when I have a lot of it. I know I get less done than when I was working a regular full-time job and getting my master’s. But some of that is because I’m doing different stuff too, like cooking more elaborately or taking my kid to activities (and waiting for her to finish).

    I will say my simpler life is way less stressful now. So while I was more productive and effective in some things when I was busier, there were some real tradeoffs. Some of my “wasted” time is probably “rest and reset” time. I suspect that while I need to do a better job of prioritizing, More isn’t always better.
    Emily @ JohnJaneDoe recently posted…Consequences: The Hardest Lessons You’ll Teach Your KidMy Profile

    1. It really is all about what trade-offs make sense for you at any given time. I am at a point where I have a lot of big picture things that I want to do and often feel like I am not making enough progress on those fronts. I have had other points in my life where slower living was a priority. I am trying to figure out how to have more traditional “productive” time these days while also maintaining enough of that “rest and reset” time.

      Thanks for the comment, Emily.
      Matt recently posted…You Always Have a ChoiceMy Profile

  2. I am the *worst* procrastinator! I really like your idea of scheduling a couple tasks for every 2 hour chunk of time… I will have to give that a try. It actually reminds me of how I managed to get a huge task list done the day before we left for our wedding (it was out of town, so we had to leave a couple days ahead of time). I remember that I scheduled one errand for each hour from 8am to 8pm. It was a lot of running around, picking up this, buying that, delivering this… But we managed to get it all done!
    Jena recently posted…Random DeclutteringMy Profile

    1. Sounds like we had very different last semesters. I believe I took two “real” classes and a whole bunch of easy filler stuff. I must have been much more of a slacker than you. 🙂

      Thanks for the comment!
      Matt recently posted…You Always Have a ChoiceMy Profile

  3. I’m constantly writing all of the items that I want to finish for the day on a list. I then mark through them. I always try to overestimate how much time it’s going to take to finish tasks which in turn makes me work diligently to finish all the tasks faster. It seems to work as I’m always surprised when a 2 hour task ends up taking 45 minutes 🙂
    Mustard Seed Money recently posted…Top 10 Must-Read Finance BooksMy Profile

    1. I do find that I am often surprised by how quickly I am able to complete tasks. I’ve had writing assignments that I put off for days because they felt so overwhelming and then when I finally just sit down and start I finish in an hour. In my block schedule I sometimes reward myself with “wasted” time reading the news or watching youtube with the extra time before the next block starts.

      Thanks for stopping by!
      Matt recently posted…You Always Have a ChoiceMy Profile

  4. This is really interesting! I never really thought about it, but I definitely am more productive when I have a full schedule. At least to a certain point. Just not when I get to the point of overwhelm – then I’m not productive at all. Right now, I’m re-reading Essentialism because, well, I need to. I have the tendency to try to do it all. I love the focus on doing less, but better. And also questioning what’s absolutely essential (and what doesn’t really need to be done at all).
    Amanda @ centsiblyrich recently posted…Make home a place you love to be (and save money)My Profile

    1. I could probably use a read of Essentialism, as well. I had done a good job of simplifying and getting down to only the most important things, but I have slowly added more and more projects to my slate. I now have too much going on again and need to figure out what to cut back on. Less but better is definitely a great goal.

      Thanks, Amanda!
      Matt recently posted…You Always Have a ChoiceMy Profile

  5. “procrastination inertia” – very true concept! I am a teacher, and I’ve taken the summer off. (I have taught summer school in years past.) I wake up every day thinking of all of the things I’m going to get done . . . but since there’s no schedule and no rush, I don’t get to them! Your idea of breaking the day up into smaller blocks is one that I will apply – even though it flies in the face of “relaxing” during the summer. I don’t find it relaxing to be in procrastination inertia! (By the way, my trip home from DC was brutal! What was supposed to be 3.5 hours ended up being a 12 hour frustration-fest. Still, loved DC so much, I’ll be returning with my husband in August – by car. You’ve got a great city there!)

    1. The point about not finding it relaxing to be in procrastination inertia is one that hit me pretty hard. I will sometimes find myself sitting on the couch and watching TV after a long day, and I will start to get antsy and anxious about the fact that I am not doing anything. I won’t have the willpower to actually stop procrastinating and do something, but I won’t feel relaxed at all from the down time.

      Sorry about the trip home! Glad it hasn’t spoiled the city for you, at least. If you’re coming in August be sure to bring plenty of changes of clothes! It gets quite humid down here.

      Thanks for stopping by, Ruth!
      Matt recently posted…You Always Have a ChoiceMy Profile

  6. Interesting!! I find this to be true in some respects, but the biggest factor I have found in my productivity levels is a clean diet. When I’m eating primarily whole foods, I am super productive. When I’m loading up on processed food or flour and sugar, I am definitely less productive. The whole foods lifestyle leads me to have an abundance of clarity and energy. That being said, I do find at times that I have an intense state of productivity at times when I realize I have a boatload to do and very little time to do it. 🙂

  7. I think it’s a good idea to schedule a few tasks in a block of time. I find myself getting distracted easily and I move from one thing to another. I feel like I’m multi-tasking and being productive but I’m sure I’m getting less done because I’m not able to focus.

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