Freedom Through Structure: How Schedules Make You Happier and More Productive

Freedom is not doing nothing, except it sure feels that way. We want to escape our 8-5 jobs, our responsibilities, and just do whatever the hell we want. Sleep in until noon, watch TV all day, eat all of the food, forget all our troubles, forget all our cares (so go downtown).

In reality, the people who finally end up with the freedom to do whatever they want encounter a number of problems. They get bored. They get depressed. Complete freedom creates a lack of structure, which in turn creates a lack of control over one’s life. Even if schedules and commitments force us to do things we don’t want to do, it provides rhythm and routine to life. We need structure to flourish. Without it, well, life is a bit of a bummer.

Dog Days of Summer

When I think back to my happiest times as a child, I think about summer break. I had complete freedom to do what I wanted. I played outside with all my friends. My bike was my second home, commuting to friend’s houses and exploring my neighborhood. When I wasn’t outside, I was delving deep into various nerdy hobbies like comic books and Star Trek CCG. It was the best time of my life.

Or was it? Nostalgia is a powerful force and the past is often examined with rose-tinted glasses. For as many times as I played with friends, I probably spent an equal amount of time watching the Disney channel all day because I was bored out of my mind. When my friends were away on family trips, I would throw my Star Trek cards into a big pile and mix them up, just so I could organize them. Why? Again, because I was bored out of my fucking mind.

I’m not saying these weren’t incredibly happy times, but the happiness didn’t stem from having complete freedom. When I think of the best moments, they came from actually doing things I loved. I wasn’t happy because I was doing nothing. I was happy because I was filling my time up with people I cared about or activities I was invested in. Having nothing to do was the worst part of summer break, not the best.

My Fabricated History of Freedom through Human History (citations needed)

For a long time, humans didn’t have much time to think about freedom. They were too busy trying to stay alive. Every moment of their day was focused on finding food or shelter.

Then tools were invented and life became a little bit easier. Tasks could be completed more efficiently. This allowed a tiny fraction of time to escape the monotony of a very tough life. Our first sense of freedom.

Working to survive really sucks, we realized, how can we make it easier so we don’t have to keep doing it? As we advanced more and more as a civilization, we were allowed more and more freedom from work. Our cultures flourished with art and music. Our technology advanced greatly as we had time to actually think about stuff instead of simply surviving. Wow, we thought, this is great!

Now, hundreds (thousands!?) of years later, we are still trying to escape our jobs. Freedom from work is seen as freedom from the soul-crushing existence of cubicle life and bosses we hate. If only we can hold on another few decades we can escape and finally be happy!

Truth Bomb

If your singular goal in life is to retire and do nothing, you probably aren’t going to enjoy it. And you probably aren’t really enjoying your life right now either. Having nothing to do is going to be awesome for a month or maybe even six months, but the lack of structure will catch up to you eventually.

After graduate school, I planned to take time off from life. For four months I had no job, no school, and no responsibilities. It was a mini-retirement, a return to summer vacation, a quarter life crisis, whatever you want to call it. I wanted to recharge my batteries before trying to enter the workforce.

The first couple weeks I didn’t do anything except catch up with friends. It was just like being a kid again. We played outside (more so lawn games than tag), went out to eat, stayed up late, and binged a bunch of stuff on Netflix. There were an obscene amount of hours put into Skyrim. It was great! But it wasn’t long until I felt that a complete lack of structure wasn’t so great. My life had little direction or meaning.

Thankfully, I had some goals I wanted to accomplish in my downtime, like start a novel I’ve been kicking around in my head for awhile. So I created a very basic schedule for my life that included writing first thing in the morning (or what was slowly become late morning). I would eat, write, eat, relax, then hang out with friends in the evening. It wasn’t long until my friend and I began working on a separate project that we dedicated to Tuesday and Thursday nights.

When I followed my schedule I felt my productivity (and in turn self-satisfaction) improve. The challenge was sticking to a schedule. I found that my natural sleep patterns led to me staying up later and later. This, of course, led me to sleep in later and later, which eventually started to conflict with the structure I set for myself. When this began to occur I noticed a return to the original “lack of direction” feeling.

As was my plan, I eventually landed a job in my field and entered the pre-defined 8-5 work structure that is so common. But the brief freedom I had between school and work was an interesting exercise in structure (or lack thereof). What I remember the most, other than catching up with old friends, is how productive I was (for a while) and how that made me feel: happy.

The Great Escape

Many dream of the day they can escape their 8-5 job and finally have the freedom to do what they want. But freedom without structure isn’t satisfying for long. We see it all the time. Depression is common among retired individuals. Often times these folks even return to the work force. That’s because we crave structure and meaning in our lives. Without it we flounder.

As humans, we need structure, even self-imposed structure. For a lot of people, structure is provided by our 8-5 job though most of their lives. When they lose it, they don’t know what to do. They have spent so long planning to escape from their job, they don’t know what they are escaping to.

And lets not forget to mention that jobs are stressful. The structure provided by our job is rarely of our own formulation. It is imposed on us by higher ups that we often have conflicts with. It’s common to feel that you could be doing something better with your time or that the work you are doing doesn’t fulfill you. No wonder we see structure as a barrier to happiness.

Yeah, but, I don’t wanna

Structure is seen as a burden. It’s responsibility. It’s stuff we “have to do” and that really isn’t something you want more of in life. But you should.

We grow by being uncomfortable. No matter what it is in life, if you want to be better, you have to overcome discomfort. Whether it’s your physical body (exercise, diet) or your emotional state (being vulnerable, accepting you don’t know something), we must encounter resistance before we can improve.

Believe me, anyone can do something they want to do. We all feel motivated sometimes and for a brief period our goals are fun to work towards. But motivation disappears quickly and so to does our productivity. We think, “If only I could stay motivated I could keep working towards my goals, but I guess my mind doesn’t work that way.”

No one is always motivated. That is the motivational myth. The mega-successful people in life aren’t that way because they are always motivated. They are that way because of sheer determination. They took the important step of working towards their goals even when they didn’t feel like it. Even when it was the last thing they wanted to do. They had to overcome their own challenges to continue their work and they grew as individuals because of it.

Discipline Through Structure

Look, I get how negative this heading looks. Discipline through structure? Who wants that?! I just want to read a fucking book, man, not be the karate kid.

But both “discipline” and “structure” shouldn’t feel constricting, they should feel liberating. When you define your goals in life and you create the structure to get there, you are the one learning and growing. When you create structure around your life, you are the in control of your destiny.

If you want to read that book, you must set aside time to read that book. A lot of people think that I am a fast reader. I’m not. I just read more frequently. And there is structure to that, both through scheduling and goals. I always read over lunch and before bed. I also have a page count I try to reach every day. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading, but I have to provide structure to it otherwise it will fall by the wayside of my busy life.

You Don’t Have to Change the World

It’s important at this point to bring everything back to reality. It’s easy to start talking very philosophically about the meaning of life and the most successful people of our time, but that isn’t what structure is about. You don’t have to be Bill Gates. You can be you.

Structure is a tool that helps you be the person you truly want to be. Don’t just structure whatever you define as “work”. Structure your relaxation time too. I’m not saying you have to block your day out into 15 minute chunks (“Commence designated fun time.”). I’m saying you have to plan joyful activities for your free time or even just plan when you will have free time.

Again, we must resist seeing structure as a negative burden on our lives. Many cringe at the idea of adding more structure to their lives when they just want to relax. But structure can help you relax by organizing your day.

Quality Work

There is a theory that we only have 4 hours (or less) of quality work in us every day. I think that a lot of folks who work typical 8-5 jobs can relate. There are times of the day where we feel like we’re on and we’re able to conquer our workload. Then there is the rest of the time, where we feel unmotivated and unproductive, watching the clock and waiting for the day to be over.

While I doubt we can save ourselves from the excess and unproductive work hours in our day, we can use scheduling to make sure we are being as productive as we can during our quality work hours. Make sure to schedule uninterrupted work time during your day. Write down the projects and goals you hope to complete. And schedule in some walking breaks to get your blood flowing and your mind thinking freely.

A lot of office jobs can be soul sucking, but by applying some structure to your workday you can take back some control of your life. Your productivity will improve and in turn so will your overall enjoyment.

Preparing for the Future

For most of us, we dream of a day when we are done working, at least in the traditional 8-5 sense. Free from our bosses and responsibilities, we finally return to the endless summer break from our youth.

But I argue that this transition is something you need to prepare for like everything else in life. You can’t just jump from a highly structured and social environment into one with neither. You have to know how to structure your days such that your life can be fulfilling and happy.

By using structure now, you are preparing for your future. You are learning a tool that will only help you more as you get older. Humans crave structure and without it they face the consequences of mental and physical deterioration. Learn the tool now to make the transition as easy as possible. Find ways to structure fulfilling activities into your life.

Two Examples of Structure

I think there are many ways one can apply structure to their lives, but I wanted to discuss two in particular. Neither of these are going to be mind-blowing. You’ve certainly heard about them before, as they are basic concepts that have been around for ages. But I hope to talk about how they have helped me and increased both my productivity and happiness.

Schedules!

Here is my typical Monday through Friday schedule that I created for myself:

5:30am – Get up
5:45am – Work on Tome of Nerd
6:30am – Prepare for work/breakfast
7:30am – Leave for Work
8am-4:30pm – Working (daily subschedules exist here)
5pm – Arrive home, water garden
5:15pm – Make and eat dinner
6:30pm – Physical activity (running, weights, etc.)
8pm – Netflix time typically
9pm – Prepare for bed, read, journal, eventually sleep

The above schedule is in no way set in stone. There is a lot of flexibility, especially in the evenings. After dinner, I might be running errands that take up most of the night. Or the opposite, I might binge a few episodes of a TV show. But the idea is that you should have some structure or routine to your day that you thought about beforehand.

I try to do something outside everyday, even just taking a walk. I read as often as I can. I run three times a week. These don’t all have to be structured to the minute everyday, but as long as you know what you want to accomplish and provide a general structure, you will get things done. And getting things done makes you productive and, most importantly, happy.

Goals!

Another way to add structure to your life is through goal setting. If you want to accomplish things (even typically considered “lazy” things) you need to think critically about your life. If you want to write a book, then set that as a goal. If you want to socialize every day, set that as a goal.

When thinking about goals, keep the actions small whenever possible. For example, if your goal is to write a novel, don’t stop there. You need to create actionable goals that you can work towards everyday. One goal could be: Write 500 words everyday. This is something you can easily perform, track, and measure. A goal to work towards a larger goal.

They don’t have to be huge undertakings either. One of my goals is to ride my bike to work everyday. It almost feels silly to type out at this point, because I accomplish the goal often. Sure, there are a few days where the weather doesn’t allow it or I simply need a car, but because I have set a goal to bike every day I can, it happens more often than not.

Structure as Freedom

Structure should not be seen as restrictive. When you add structure to your day, it allows you to live the life you want to live. By taking control of your own life, you improve your own productivity and happiness. Structure doesn’t mean being inflexible. Schedules shift, goals change, and that is wonderful. The most important point is that you are trying.

I say don’t be afraid of structure, just because some structure in life is negative. Create your own positive structure through establishing schedules and goals that work for you. Take control. Be productive. Be happy.

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