Does a Fixed Schedule Help or Hurt Your Productivity?

The biggest benefit of being self-employed?Fixed vs Flexible

Many would assume that it’s the freedom to work on your own time.

But as those of use who’ve been doing this for a while know, “on your own time” isn’t always the dream setup that many people assume it to be. Fact is, flexible scheduling can also lead to flexible discipline, not to mention that your ‘always on’ availability can result in you doing work at odd hours, which interferes with your free time.

Just like the fixed rates vs. hourly rates debate, freelancers seem to be quite divided on this issue. It’s for this reason that I’d like to present the compelling cases from both sides of the argument, and find out whether you feel that a fixed schedule helps, or hurts, your productivity when you work for yourself.

We’ll examine a fixed scheduling system from a college professor and MIT graduate, and compare his assertions with arguments made by a CEO and best selling author.


Let’s take a look!

The Case for Fixed Schedules

Fixed Schedule

A fixed schedule, otherwise known as working a set block of time with zero extra work and minimal exceptions, has seen a resurgence in popularity among the self-employed as of late.

It’s easy to see why—in a world with a seemingly infinite amount of choices, it’s often nice to be guided by constraints, as strange as that may seem at first. In the book The Paradox of Choice, research is discussed that reveals a fairly shocking (but understandable) conclusion: when we have a too many options, we tend to feel unhappy, because we focus on the many “what-ifs” instead of engaging in our much needed time on autopilot.

Can this abundance of choice affect our work lives as well? Proponents of the fixed scheduling system seem to think so, and they propose a solution of voluntary simplicity that limits when you can commit to work.

One of the leading supporters of this fixed schedule discipline is Cal Newport, MIT grad and professor at Georgetown University.

Through a system he calls Fixed Schedule Productivity, Cal showcases how he manages to only work from 9-5 (plus a little on Sunday morning) to manage all of the things he has on his plate. It’s quite impressive when you come to realize that he juggles a myriad of activities, including research papers, TAing for his university, and writing multiple books.

The premise of Cal’s system is simple on paper, but difficult to put into practice:

Fix your ideal schedule, then work backwards to make everything fit — ruthlessly culling obligations, turning people down, becoming hard to reach, and shedding marginally useful tasks along the way.

Cal argues that this seemingly backwards way of organizing your schedule is effective because it forces you to work within constraints.

When your day must end at 5pm, you become more willing to abandon excessive tasks that don’t move you towards your big goals, and you’ll find yourself with a focus that’s hard to emulate without this sort of impending deadline.

His thoughts are supported by academic research—one study in particular by Dan Ariely clearly revealed how strict deadlines were able to help college students increase performance (consistently). Remember that your average college student actually does have a pretty flexible schedule, one that is far more similar to a freelancer than your “traditional” 9-5 job.

When you have confinements, you are forced to let stuff go and prioritize what matters. Without this pre-commitment and pre-set amount of work time, you can often find yourself saying yes to everything, which often leaves you working on the minutiae.

Here’s a simple metaphor: If you had an unlimited amount of suitcases to use for a big trip, you’d probably end up over-packing. Yet, if you limited yourself to a single suitcase and a carry-on, you would probably be surprised with how little you actually needed.

The same idea applies to having a fixed schedule—we often make mountains out of molehills by giving ourselves too much leeway in getting things done. With a strict schedule, we certainly amp up the urgency, but we also truly find out how much we can get done when our time is consolidated.

The Case for Flexible Schedules

Flexible Schedule

As much as I tend to agree with Cal’s premise, I find myself torn when it comes to whether or not I should implement it—as a matter of fact, the last time I outlined tactics on how to be more productive as a freelancer, I cited an argument from Tony Schwartz on the Harvard Business Review that somewhat disagrees with Cal’s assertions.

In essence, Schwartz argues that controlling our time isn’t nearly as important as controlling our energy. The person who sits at their desk for 9 hours isn’t necessarily getting more done than the person who is at their desk for 7 (Cal would obviously agree with this part).

In practice, Schwartz simply argues that you should structure your day around doing your “synthesis work” (when you are creating something) at peak productive hours. Through the use of tactics like planned breaks, Schwartz recommends a total avoidance of pacing yourself in favor of working hard and taking a rewarding break afterwards.

Where Schwartz’s ideas begin to offer a counterpoint, however, is that this management of energy doesn’t really rely on a set schedule—you could easily end up “working” from 8am – 8pm, but with many long breaks in between.

While this view on doing more with less isn’t specifically averse to your standard work schedule (that is, Schwartz encourages 9-5 workers to apply it as well), the idea that you should work around your energy instead of around time definitely is.

We also have to consider the well reasoned arguments from outside of the academic circle.

Perhaps you find that your best work is done early in the morning and then sometime much later at night. This sort of reoccurring habit may fit best with your energy levels, but it definitely doesn’t fit the rules of the fixed scheduling system.

Or perhaps you like and actually thrive on a solid 12-hour work day… but only when you have a nice, easy 4-hour day afterwards.

Schwartz’s soundbite on our differing levels of energy:

It’s not just the number of hours we sit at a desk that determines the value we generate.

…also paints a clear picture that if your work and state of mind are inhibited by confining yourself to a schedule, you should do your best to avoid it, and sit down only when you can produce your best work.

I don’t think many of us would disagree, but as aforementioned, this goes against some of the very convincing points made by Cal Newport and others on the benefits of rigid scheduling.

So which one is correct?

We Need to Hear from You

This post needs your voice!

When it comes to your productive output and overall enjoyment of your work, do you rely on a strict schedule, or do you find that a flexible schedule is better?

Why is this the case for you? Have you ever considered trying the opposite?

We’d love to know, so get those opinions locked and loaded and fire away in the comments!

CC photos by Myxi, wagaboy,

About Gregory Ciotti

Gregory Ciotti loves small businesses & startups and gets nerdy about behavioral psychology on his blog Sparring Mind.

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Elaine Weber

For me, it’s not how to best work, but how to do my best work. I agree with Tony Schwartz’s thinking. When I am in the flow, I can accomplish in 4 hours what it would have taken me 8 hours if I forced myself to sit and do it. I can do production work or other daily tasks at any time during the normal workday, but creativity is a different matter. My best creativity occurs after 11pm when I return to my studio after watching 1-2 hrs of TV. Then I go to sleep knowing that unsolved problems will work be processed while I sleep…

Gregory Ciotti

Exactly the sort of commentary I was hoping for Elaine, great stuff! Totally agree, which is why I’m more inclined to the flexible schedule you outlined, despite the fact that I think Cal makes some great points, and I know that concrete deadlines definitely help my motivation.

Suzanne Wesley

What has worked for me is a fixed phone/office hours schedule that I relay to clients for when they can contact me directly, but I in fact work before and after these hours when necessary. I do take frequent breaks and also run errands in the middle of the day when I need to. Early morning and later in the afternoon are my most productive times of the day. I find that my actual work schedule changes from season to season due to having young children. Right now they are on summer vacation and I can sneak in a lot of work before they are even up and needing to be fed. During the school year I spend a good chunk of that same early morning time getting them fed, dressed and on the school bus. You learn to work around whatever you need to, and it is up to you to train your clients on the best methods and times for them to reach you to avoid any conflicts, (or more importantly to avoid working 24/7).

Stephen Little

i work more of a flexible schedule. i find it works best for me. sometimes its good to walk away from my computer and go back to it when i have a clear head rather than sit staring at the keyboard and mouse when i have lost focus 🙂

Ken Rubotzky

Things break, meetings are postponed, and calamities flock together. I have yet to find a To-Do App that can deal with moving deadlines, cut corners, changing user needs, misplaced resources, and the dreaded “pouring, when it rains”. It’s a tad different when you’re the new girl on the team — like … every new project. So you stay sharp on the latest, keep all your tools handy, marshal backup resources when you can’t shop for what you need. You guess where your plan will break so when somebody or something “snaps”, you’ve stymied it’s brother calamity lurking in the shadows. Otherwise, sure, if you’re working solo, you work on a schedule, push when you’re strong, rest when you’re weak, play when you can.

Tim Chorlton

I favour a lot of Cal’s approach with some ‘flexibility’ built in.

I recently read ‘The Now Habit’ by Neil Fiore who favours the ‘reverse planning’ tactic. Diary in all the stuff you want to do, then the stuff you need to do and then work to a schedule – the stuff you want to do is the motivator to get the stuff you need to do out of the way. The logic being at School you had a lesson plan for the week and never got to a friday and though ‘s**t – we missed maths!’ (unless you were playing truant).

However, as a small business owner, I find this approach too restrictive as ‘you never know when opportunity may come knocking’.

Because of this, I favour a ‘5 hour a day’ of scheduled activity with an hour for lunch and 2 hours of ‘wiggle room’. This is a buffer zone for work and commitments to slosh around in.

If somebody calls to say ‘can you come and discuss this new project with us’ I know I have some spare time allocated. I don’t have to turn down the opportunity or work to midnight.

As my wise old Grandma used to say ‘work is like water, it will fill all the space you give it’.

Jody Grenier

Based on the info presented in the article AND some of the linked articles AND life experience I would say the best bet is a combination of the two… and you would set certain things to go during certain times… like if you work best with accounting tasks in the morning then do those from 9 to 10. Better dealing with clients in the afternoon, then do that… set a limit for each task as well as a limit for the day on your time. You can work from 9am to 12pm, then 7pm to 12am if you like… as long as you set yourself the hard limits to stop and do something you want to do. It is also ok to deviate from this on occasion… there is always a need to accommodate someone outside of your regular schedule… but stick to what works best for you!

John Rapp

This article is fascinating, please post more things like this! And I totally agree with Elaine, I have a creative energy peak after 11:00 pm, and find that watching television (on Netflix) for a couple hours before the 11:00 hour seems to result in more of the creative energy surge. Thanks for making me think of this!

Sylvia Eker

I love a schedule flexible enough to allow me to manage my life as one and not compartmentalized. Within that schedule are intentional blocks of time to accomplish, create, think, complete whatever. It helps to schedule first what is of most importance (Faith & Family), then accept that I will say no to good events, charities, family gatherings, or promotions. When I am true to my priorities, I am free in those blocks of time to fulfill on my intention and do my best work.

Lee Gilson

I think whichever way you go it needs to fit in with your life style, I have a young family so my day starts with dropping the kids at school, I get into the office and work through until 3pm when I pick up the kids and have some time out.

Then I work the rest of the day at home with a break to make the dinner and help with homework. Then I work until 9pm, if that goes over wife wife gets the stick out! I also work on Saturday morning but I never tell my clients this. This gives me the time to catch up and finish off. Saturday afternoons and Sundays are family time.

I think its as important your clients know when your available and when your not even if you are working!

Joel Warren

I work to a “default diary” all the tasks I should be doing week to week are set by default (i.e. working on sales, surfing, lunch) and I fit in blocks of work around these points and aim keep my hours between 9-5. I think if you follow your energy I’d be working into the night many times but I try and use that time to find something to unwind me and enjoy with my partner.


How about this guys? A highly useful productivity tool to map your time and find patterns of your most productive hours?, and the rest of his tools here:

I think Dave’s a genius in this particular area 😀

imo everybody is different in a special way, and what works for me may not work for others, simply because we’re different person being:)

Coral Cashes

I’ve read a few of the comments and I agree that a combination of both works for me. Not only do I have a weird sleep disorder which makes me more active, energetic, and productive during “graveyard” hours, but I also have a young child. Finding a schedule that works for me has been difficult. In the year and a half I have been freelancing exclusively, I have had a set schedule where I worked from midnight-7am, and I’ve also worked as I needed to 24 hours a day. I can’t say either one has worked for me AT ALL! But, after reading this article I have a new idea which I have a lot of enthusiasm about. During summer when my son is out of school, my sleep disorder puts me all out of whack–I normally sleep while my son is in school, then work while he is asleep. During summer, I have to be awake during the day even though my body wants to be sleeping. The result is a few naps throughout the day that usually last 3-4 hours instead of getting a full night’s sleep. This makes it nearly impossible to do any work because I never know when I’m going to be awake. Perhaps I can have hour-long time slots sorted by priority. Then, all I have to do is check off each time slot as I finish it. After each nap, I can continue down the list. Now, if only I can figure out how to handle phone calls…

K. Powell

There’s a TED Talk by Elizabeth Gilbert (Author of Eat, Pray, Love) that I think relates to this topic. At one point, she gets into how her creative process is totally different from that of another.

I feel that I’m one of those is the latter group of this discussion, however, even though I work at whatever time is best for me, to keep some semblance of balance between working all the time and working whenever, I choose to work no-later-than a certain time if I’m in that mode really early in the day.

If I’m already past that point in the day when the Spirit hits, I just go with it.

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