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A 4.30am start and three-minute toilet breaks: are you ready for microscheduling?

Work is one of the biggest sources of stress in our lives, second only to health problems, according to a survey for the Mental Health Foundation last year. What work and productivity coaches call “overwhelm” is widespread, as notifications, conversations, distractions and interruptions all get in the way of actually getting stuff done. And not getting stuff done because you are overwhelmed is sure only to make matters worse.

One response favoured by productivity gurus is microscheduling – creating a deliberate and detailed roster of work, broken down not by weeks and days but hours or even minutes. This goes far beyond most people’s idea of being organised: compulsively writing to-do lists (and, usually, instantly losing track of them). How does anyone stick to such a finely detailed plan? And does it make work – and life – any easier?

Elaine Lui is the fast-talking founder of the celebrity news site Laineygossip. She wakes up every day between 4.30am and 5.30am, but will, if she needs to, stay up all night to finish a book or, say, cover the Golden Globes. Normal days for her are broken up into mostly 10- to 15-minute chunks. The smallest slot is three minutes, to go to the toilet; the longest, her weekly 90-minute email session.

It started in 2013, when Lui was asked to be the co-host of CTV’s talkshow The Social, which she describes as Canada’s answer to Loose Women. She was already working on a book, writing or editing upwards of 3,000 words a day for her website, contributing to another CTV show and recording two weekly podcasts. Despite being a natural overachiever whose parents drummed the importance of structure into her from an early age, she realised she would have to raise her game if she was to fit in a daily live show on top of everything else. “That’s when I started to really drill down into very precise slots of time,” she says.

Lui admits that she does have downtime – at the weekends, when she makes the most of her ability to nap on demand. But, from Monday to Friday, her intense schedule leaves little time for basic human stuff such as saying hello to a colleague by the coffee machine or running late. “If someone gets to a 10am meeting at 10.02, I’m not very patient,” she says. It also makes the idea of having children unfathomable.

Another example of the limitations of microscheduling comes from Hussein Kesvani, a London-based editor and writer. Last year, faced with a seemingly insurmountable workload, he tried to follow the YouTuber Casey Neistat’s brand of extreme hyperactivity. Neistat has “Work harder” written in big neon letters on the wall in his studio and tattooed on his left wrist, “just in case I forget”; his left arm also displays another tattoo, saying “Do more”. In 2015, he detailed his daily routine in a video that has since racked up 2.6m views. From a 5am start, Neistat’s schedule goes: one hour of email; three hours of exercise (which he says makes up for the little sleep he gets); 10 hours of work; three hours for family (to, say, “put the baby to bed”); another three hours for work; and, from 1am, four hours of sleep. Free time, he says, is the enemy of progress, which is why he has eliminated it entirely from his life.

Judging from this, Neistat seems to have also eliminated commuting, shopping, cooking, cleaning, school runs and all the other tasks that interrupt most people’s working lives. And that, in part, is where Kesvani’s attempt to live like Neistat ran aground. Although he could make the rigid schedule work in theory – “I could plan out everything out; I knew when everything was coming,” he says – the events he couldn’t control (such as a late train, or not getting a seat when he was supposed to be working) would derail his entire day. Having to reschedule, even as the work piled up, nearly destroyed him. He ended up in therapy, where he finally asked himself why he had taken on so much work in the first place.

Perhaps the solution was to simply do less, better. “One thing I’m doing this year is setting out pockets of time where I don’t stare at screens,” he says. “Reading paper books, using an MP3 player rather than a phone, doing some form of exercise every day.”

The psychotherapist Alex Neumann says that breaking things down into manageable steps is always a useful foil against being overwhelmed, but that doesn’t mean you have to plan out your every minute. Doing so for a while can be instructive if you want to get a better sense of where your time flies. That said, she cautions against any method you feel you should deploy to be more productive. Self-awareness is key. Think about it like this, she says: “Would you want someone doing that microscheduling to you?”

Microscheduling has a lot in common with methods used to manage ADHD and other behavioural disorders, which suggests that it can have a profound effect not just on your day, but on your psyche. When Kelly Pigram, a London-based culture journalist, fell ill a few years ago with anxiety and depression, a psychologist helped her to structure her day’s work into chunks of no more than 15 minutes, with a break – for tea, or a walk in the park – on either side. “Fifteen minutes is such a short, achievable amount of time,” she says. “Even if you’re feeling really stressed, you can just shut it out for 15 minutes, then go and have a cup of tea.” Working for a quarter of an hour at a time means there is a lot of work you are putting off until later, but Pigram didn’t feel any guilt because this procrastination was built in. With her day filled with lots of tiny tasks, being able to tick them off one by one gave her back a sense of capability.

Moyra Scott, of the corporate productivity consultancy Then Somehow, says that people need to learn how to work more than anything else. “Nobody teaches you that,” she says. When a sense of chaos descends, she adds, the single most effective thing to do is to pause and plan out your available time on a calendar, complete with relevant alerts.

Chamanthie Sinhalage

This idea chimes with another method that could be suitable for a broad range of lives and careers. Chamanthie Sinhalage, a New Zealand-based PR, is at once an impressive overachiever and a professional crisis manager: she is paid to deal with chaos. She opts for a kind of choose-your-own-adventure schedule that combines detailed timings and a freeflow attitude. Instead of planning out a full day, she takes time out every three hours to schedule tasks for the next three, scribbling on whatever she has to hand – Post-It notes, her phone, a napkin over lunch. First, she goes through her big-picture planner to see what needs to be done. Then she identifies and grades tasks from A to D, in order of priority. She then figures out how much time is reasonable to spend on each A, working in five- to seven-minute chunks. “I have been known to go down to two minutes to, say, go to the photocopier,” she says.

It may sound involved, but the whole planning process takes five minutes. “Making the schedule can’t become a chore in itself,” she says.

Sinhalage came up with this system after working for the mayor of a city in New Zealand, whose team would micromanage her daily diary, including dog walks and bedtime. Similarly, she factors into her own days the stuff she needs to do to keep going: an apple a day; a reminder to drink water; time to read, or go for a walk. And, crucially, time to just think and be. “If you’re a natural procrastinator, why not harness that,” she says. “It’s so important to consciously give yourself time to do nothing, especially in an incredibly stressful job.”

Source: TheGuardian