Planning a perfect productive day without stress

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Planning a creative day

In a creative profession, there is a powerful tool that ensures high productivity and low stress: the routine. Best creative minds in their best creative spells employ a well-tuned daily routine. Such a routine will always need to be perfectly adjusted to the natural creativity cycle for best outcomes. Repeatability of the schedule makes it easy to make minor adjustments with major consequences. While modern lifestyle can be visualized as a meandering trip on a bumpy road with frequent traffic jams, creative lifestyle is more like a rocket where minor nudges in the trajectory ensure a steady course towards a remote target. SuperMemo for Windows includes a schedule manager known as Plan. This simple schedule manager provides an escape from the chaos of modernity. By protecting the creative lifestyle, Plan has a powerful impact on productivity and stress.

Some of the general ideas behind Plan can be implemented without a computer. If you do not want to use a computer or SuperMemo, read about Natural creativity cycle and/or How to solve any problem? Both explain how to employ the power of the circadian cycle for maximum creativity.

Magic of Plan

The option Plan in SuperMemo has magic powers! Many users consider it redundant. Few ever tried to use it. Those who tried often failed. Those who survived admit: Plan is magic and Plan is addictive.

Plan has an uncanny capacity to turn the monotony of life into a stream of never-ending productive pleasures. Plan is about planning your day to the last detail. It may feel like a tool for a robot, not for a human being. How does it do its magic then?

To really love Plan, you must be a bit of a productivity freak. If you love learning, problem solving, breaking records, or achieving milestones, chances are good that Plan will do the magic for you. It will do it without any risks to your mental or physical health or well-being. If you love productivity, but suffer from procrastination, the joy may even be greater.

Disclaimer: Plan works for me. Many people around me tried it and did not experience its magic power. It is a bit like my formula for avoiding colds and flu: it works great, but it is a religion without followers. However, I have seen that on dozens examples, things that work for me, nearly always meet with skepticism in my surroundings. The same things, if documented well enough, finds followers decades later, or may even turn into a worldwide phenomenon. This happened to spaced repetition, which was ridiculed at first, even in my own family, and has been inching up in popularity for exactly 30 years now (Dec 13, 2017).

Magic powers of Plan are derived mostly from matching human productivity needs to the circadian cycle. Circadian cycle is one of the most underappreciated phenomena in human physiology. The same activity that causes a torment, can bring immense joy to the same human being at a different time of day. The astronomical chasm in perception in joy comes from one factor: circadian phase. We all transition from geniuses to dumbheads in the course of a single day, assuming it is a good day. We all transition from heroes to weaklings. From creative artists to uninspiring zombies. Why don't more people follow the rules of the circadian cycle? Because in the chaos of modern life, the cycle can be weakened, flattened, or even, for most people, chaotic. A working mom rushing to daycare at 6 am cannot possibly avail of the joy of her maximum brain potential for creative achievements. It is the lifestyle and necessity that suppresses the best part of life. For most kids, school totally ruins their chances for a happy day. For individuals suppressed by corporate rigor, there is little room for free creative thinking that rejuvenates the mind and the body. I realize that planning the day, as suggested in this text, can only be achieved by a small fraction of the population: those who are free, healthy, and determined enough. However, the ideas outlined should at least serve as an inspiration. Most of all, I want to build the appreciation for the power of the circadian cycle.

Main idea behind Plan

The main idea behind the Plan is very simple: list what you want to do, and how much time you want to allocate for individual activities. The Plan will compress your desires into a frame of a waking day. It will help you fix the activities that must occur at a specific time (e.g. siesta), and keep rigid the activities that cannot be compressed (e.g. a shower). It will also compensate for mishaps and irregularities that are bound to surprise you during the execution of the schedule.

For details see: Plan.

Advantages of Plan

  • perfect adjustment of activities to the circadian cycle
  • perfect protection of the natural creativity cycle
  • perfect adjustment to priorities and emergencies
  • balanced learning, creativity, exercise, meals, sleep, etc.
  • enjoying every minute. Thus: self-discipline is no issue, and procrastination is gone
  • no breaks needed
  • teaching the world that your time matters. Building social pressure resilience
  • conditioning yourself that every minute counts
  • easy adjustment to priority shifts
  • easy adjustment to unexpected events
  • easy adjustment to surplus creativity
  • easy management of bad days
  • easy adjustment to mood swings
  • easy incremental drive towards perfection: repetitive schedule makes it easy to remember a hundred little rituals
  • good progression builds enthusiasm
  • small allotments favor focus
  • easy compensation for circadian slowdown (e.g. choosing energizing slots)
  • dedicated schedule for exception days or emergency days
  • oversleeping is not a problem
  • easy management of chronotherapy (e.g. to produce a phase shift, to avoid insomnia, to plan a future event, etc.)
  • monthly and annual statistics of performance
  • low-cost diary with a daily record of activity
  • future: circadian analysis. I would love to see SuperMemo plot circadian graphs for individual activities. One day, it might be possible to correlate productivity indices with circadian variables

Circadian perfection

The biggest part of Plan magic is the adjustment of the schedule to the circadian cycle. All learning, creativity, problem solving, writing, etc. must proceed immediately after good night sleep or a good siesta. It is the first 3 hours that count most. If that best slot is missed and creative pursuits are delayed, the efficiency drops, the pleasure drops and the enthusiasm might be a third of what is possible. If kids could get down to their own favorite learning in the morning, they could be smiles for the rest of the day. If they have to get up early and go to school, they hit the other end of the spectrum: torture! To an uneducated eye: these are just two forms of learning. In reality, very different processes occur in the mind that is fresh, ready, interested and eager.

That emphasis on starting days from creative productivity does not means that later portions of the day are wasted or less fun. There are dozens of fun things that do not demand that crisp morning brain. There is exercise, socializing, family, making orders, DYI, social media, to-do chores, etc. A degree of eustress can then be dosed into the schedule to propel the mind. Finally, before sleep, there is still a great room for fun. When the brain is slowing down and not too happy to take on new intellectual challenges, passive learning is still an option. I love to listen to lectures and interviews in the last 2 hours before sleep. News or movies are also fun. Even a novel is great for those who do not struggle with early waking as a result of late night reading. Passive and undemanding nature of those activities is a perfect match for the time of day. Too many people these days, busy with work during the day, and busy with family in the evening, try to squeeze in demanding activities for the time before sleep. Not only does it have a bad impact on the quality of sleep due to stress, bright lights, computer screens, etc. It is also a violation of brain hygiene, and an exercise in futility. The brain ready for sleep, shows a fraction of its ability to solve problems creatively. The brain can be flogged into action with the demands of life, however, the magic of Plan comes precisely from avoiding this type of displeasure. Activities must be matched to the circadian cycle!

See also: Natural creativity cycle

The value of 1 minute

Perception of the value of one minute of your life changes dramatically when using Plan. If a friend calls you at 10 am, and you have the whole day ahead, one minute does not feel like much. If a friend calls you in the middle of your 10 minute slot allocated to processing e-mail, you are likely to be quite upset. There is always more e-mail to respond to than time available in life. Every disruption adds to the backlog and stress. Tight schedules in Plan can be very stressful. They can even make you sick. It is only a matter of time before you learn all tricks to avoid disruption. To avoid stress, you will quickly employ simple tricks like, for example, turning off your phone. If you are on a Plan schedule, you value every minute of your time. After a bit of training, your stress levels go well below the baseline. Both you and the world will have been conditioned to respect your time. In the long run, Plan can actually reduce stress, and increase the fun of productivity.

No breaks needed

All productivity gurus tell you to take breaks or pace yourself. This is not needed with Plan. This comes from the fact that there are only two types of breaks you really need:

  • breaks for sleep
  • breaks due to fatigue

Breaks for night sleep and siesta are already wired in your schedule. They are part of your plan and they cause no disruption.

Breaks due to fatigue can easily be remedied by change of activities. If this is a motor fatigue, you can easily rest by employing your brain. If this is a brain fatigue, you can easily remedy it by change of type of activity. If you get into a good rhythm, you will know very precisely when and what kind of fatigue shows up. You can then plan your day in a such a way that one type of activity is a form of rest from another type of activity.

Naturally, there are also imperfect days and bad days. Those may call for some changes to the schedule.

Imperfect days

In the ideal case, a good schedule should be executed step-by-step without modification and in allocated time. However, perfection can never be achieved. All days differ to a degree. Even the tiniest details of work that is part of the schedule can affect execution. High creativity may call for longer slots. If creativity does not come often, it is particularly precious. Low creativity may also change allocations to add to some less inspiring slot allocations. High creativity may delay sleep. This can cause circadian ripples and lower efficiency in the days that follow. There are always risk to health that never seems to be constant. Even minor diet violations can make an impact. There are also other people and their needs. There are many defenses against imperfection. Swapping activities is one.

Then there are particularly bad days, e.g. caused by bad sleep, bad health, bad mood, etc. If fatigue comes faster, the remedy I recommend is to speed up the schedule.

Speeding up schedule

On a bad day, when fatigue comes faster, you can try to speed up the schedule. Instead of 90 minutes of reading, you can do 60 minutes of reading. This approach will decompress later activities, which are usually less demanding, or more energizing. You can then spend more time in those later activities, or more time in activities you particularly enjoy, or just go to sleep faster. Inserting a not-so-productive "break" activity, e.g. "doing social media", "browsing gossip websites" should be the very last resort. You could still aim at inserting something of value: yoga, exercise, meditation, etc. You will know better what works for you.

Swapping activities

Drag and drop makes it easy to swap slots without changing the total allocation of time devoted to individual activities. Such an operation can be helpful in case of temporary setbacks such as:

  • circadian mismatch: even the best schedule can be messed up by circadian irregularites. Minor shifts to schedule sequence resolve the problem, e.g. by pushing a more stressful slot into a low-energy period
  • homeostatic fatigue: prolonged learning or high creativity may result in homeostatic fatique, which can be remedied by advancing low-priority high-fun slots
  • temporary health setbacks, e.g. a stomach ache may call for stretching on a sofa, which may also be the time for an important phone call or whatever else can be done while lying immobilized

Naturally, those are only minor and temporary setback that are unavoidable even in the best regulated lifestyle. A bigger problem comes when there are bad days of bad health or bad mood. Even then Plan can come to some help. You may think "this is the day when I will get nothing done. I am just not in the mood". One peek at your schedule may reveal that you can still negotiate with your weaker self a slot that would be acceptable at the moment. It may turn out that this slot will just turn your mind. Little productivity brings more productivity. This is a self-perpetuating process in people who care about spending their lives on meaningful things. With Plan you should never face the option of inactivity or time-wasting.

Mobile phones

In How to solve any problem?, I concluded that distraction and multitasking might be the main reason why big time problem solving is rare.

Friedrich August Kekulé needed a tiny conceptual step to realize that a benzene molecule is circular. The difference between a sequence of atoms and a ring seems trivial. However, for the brain it is often extremely difficult to jump away from a local minimum of an established concept. In Kekulé, sleep provided the seed for a breakthrough. Now imagine Friedrich August sitting down to his breakfast with an "itching idea" on his mind, only to be disrupted by a phone ring from his friend with some celebrity news. Luckily, in 1865, there were no phones.

Mobile phones are a blessing, but they should never be creative work disruptors. Plan teaches you respect for every single minute of your day. It also teachers others that you exercise that self-respect. It is possible that after many months of being turned off, your phone will never ring during your creative hours? All your friends and family will know this is not the right time?

Emergencies

Emergencies and disruptions are hard to avoid. If you did not listen to my advice about the phone, or, at the top pro level, you just need to go to the bathroom, you need to insert an extra activity in the schedule. If this is just 5 minutes early in the day, you can easily insert a new slot and the remaining slots will be compressed accordingly. You may lose mere seconds of your most important activities. If you insert an emergency slot late in the evening, the compression may be more painful, and you may lose a shorter activity slot or two. For insertion during longer activities, you will need the Split option to cut activates into sub-slots.

If you keep too many rigid slots that cannot be compressed (R), even minor emergencies can wreak havoc in the schedule. If you insert emergencies shortly before a fixed slot (F), the compression may be so severe that you will lose a slot (or need to move it beyond the fixed activity). All those little inconveniences have a wonderful side effect: you condition yourself to avoid emergencies. You build respect for every minute of your life!

Emergencies can ruin the schedule. A typical Plan dropout mechanisms is to spend too much time on morning slots or insert too many emergency slots. In the end, the second half of the day never gets executed. This defeats the purpose of the Plan. If this happens to you on a regular basis, the Plan is, sadly, not for you. Some self-discipline is necessary until the plan perfectly accommodates your needs and compensates for your weaknesses. It makes sense to keep your slots long and relaxed at the beginning.

It is easy to have a morning impression: I have many hours for work today. It is also easy to realize in the evening: the whole day passed and I got little done!

Bathroom break

If you record a bathroom break in your schedule, you may wonder if this is an extreme case of quest from productivity where perfection actually leads to futile optimizations. There have been cases of extreme OCD documenters who have recorded all their bathroom breaks for decades. Their statistics have been adorned with picturesque descriptions.

If your bathroom break follows a specific ritual, you should definitely have a slot dedicated to that particular ritual or its components. However, in case of Plan, even an unplanned emergency bathroom break slot may actually make sense. Inserting a slot in Plan carries a cost of some 4 seconds. Splitting a longer slot with a new activity takes roughly 11 seconds. If you plan for extreme productivity, you must also employ extreme precision measurements. To plan the future, you need to know your past. One of the most precious features of Plan are statistics. They make it possible to compare your effort on a monthly or annual basis.

All the time I spend writing articles like this one, I document. This helps me understand how much writing I can afford in a year, and what outcomes I can expect from such efforts. If I happen to have a 40 minute slot devoted to writing, and this slots gets interrupted by a 7 minutes toilet break, I end up with 33 minutes done. This could result in 21% overestimate, which is a whopping number in my books. Check your numbers, toilet might actually take more time than you spend jogging or swimming. This could only mean, you do not take those forms of exercise seriously.

Moreover, schedule optimization is based on Delays. This is to make sure that there is sufficient room for planned activity, and, importantly, sufficient freedom for executing the schedule in a healthy frame of mind. Plan is about harmony, not about the stress of productivity. Minor exceptions, such as bathroom break, should be reflected in lax setting for the duration of individual activities. If I did not have that room, I might often be forced to skip answering e-mail because of running out of time before exercise.

Last but not least, toilet might be the last refuge for paper books. You can easily read several books per year by just reading during toilet breaks. That should count for productivity too. Even productivity freaks should take it easy. Bathroom is not a place to hurry.

Oversleeping

There is no room for the concept of "oversleeping" in a creative lifestyle. For maximum creativity, sleep must be natural. As such it cannot be planned for a specific waking time, or interrupted with an alarm clock. It is possible to aim at waking daily at 8:00 am, but natural sleep will rarely terminate at the desired time. I have documented cases of people who have an uncanny ability to wake up with just 2-4 minute variations from day to day. However, these are elderly with perfectly polished rituals. Explosive creativity quarrels with regular sleep. If you hit on a great idea, it is normal to have your sleep delayed and/or shortened. I have no doubt that creativity contributes to the DSPS epidemic. Plan makes it easy to handle irregularities in sleep. If you wake up late, you just adjust your schedule accordingly. You do not "oversleep". You just sleep a bit longer and adjust your schedule:

Schedule manager adjustment for oversleeping

Figure: Schedule manager Plan makes it easy to adjust the schedule in case of waking up late. Unfix is the default: let your schedule flow as if nothing happened. Leave unchanged may need to be used if some of your fixed activities cannot be moved (e.g. a meeting). Shift in proportion is useful for those who struggle with phase shifts: it compresses the schedule to ensure early bedtime.

Origins of Plan

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
As soon as Plan showed up in SuperMemo some two decades ago, it was hailed a "ballast option" incongruent with the program. In contrast, I have always been an enthusiastic user. In 2017, there wasn't a single day that I would "improvise". This millennium, I occasionally skipped Plan-ing only while on vacation away from the computer. Even then, I would run my schedule from "muscle memory", i.e. I would follow similar circadian ritual with a book in place of incremental reading, etc. Long before SuperMemo, I needed two main things to improve productivity: (1) well organized day, and (2) better memory. With my first computer, ZX Spectrum, I took on Plan first. I started programming in 1985, i.e. before even having the microcomputer on my desk. In those days, Plan was computationally too hard. I tried to match the algorithm to the mess in my life. I wanted the computer to organize the mess hoping to extract more value. ZX Spectrum turned out too slow for that idea. Good schedule required 2-3 hours of calculations, and I could hardly afford 10 minutes in the morning. A decade later, I was smarter in understanding that eliminating the randomness of "mess" in life is key to solving the problem of low productivity. Today, Plan mutated into a simple tool for proportional allocation of time. The complexity is gone. As for SuperMemo, it had to wait until I had my first PC with a floppy disk drive (360 kB). To keep things in memory, I first needed non-volatile memory in the computer. Until now, Plan could indeed be made into a standalone application. This hopefully will change. As much as I needed SleepChart integrated with SuperMemo to look for correlates between sleep and learning, Plan is needed for the analysis of circadian aspects of productivity.

Evolution of Plan

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
The evolution of my thinking about productivity passed the following stages:
  • 1976 (aged 14) - 1980 (aged 18): my productivity was driven by the learn drive, interest in sports, etc.
  • 1980-1983: due to school and college obligations, exhausting schedule, and a resulting decline in the learn drive, I started noticing that I do not live up to my potential. There was a growing gap between: Who am I? and Who do I wanna be?
  • July 1983: starting a progression towards higher productivity with a set of simple micro-rules such as 30 min. of learning every day, 10 min. of exercise every day, etc.
  • 1983-1990: systematic progress in tightening the rules of productivity, increasing the compulsory quotas for learning, exercise, improving sleep, etc.
  • 1991-1993: due to work obligations, exhausting schedule, and a resulting decline in the learn drive, I was increasingly unhappy with my productivity
  • 1994: starting work along a fixed whole-day schedule (e.g. 8:00 get up, 9:00 repetitions with SuperMemo, etc.)
  • 2000: starting flexible schedule in Plan, which was a true breakthrough for me
  • 2000-present: high productivity based on Plan
The overarching conclusion that seems to emerge from the above history is that the progression from low to high productivity must be incremental. It pays to start small and to make progress relentless. This makes it possible to transition from life based on self-discipline to harmonious life based on the fun of doing good things



For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru