Acting on Inspiration vs. Working on Schedule

I believe in many aspects of life that opposing extremes are unideal and that the optimal approach lies somewhere in the balance between. I tend to have a concave temperament, as Vitalik defines it, or an appreciation for the “Middle Way” or the “Middle Path” as it was described by the Buddha. This is why I think a lot is often lost in tweets where character count limits context and it can be difficult if not impossible to explain the nuances necessary to better convey complex balances between extremes.

One trap of concave thinking worth keeping in mind is that for many questions for which one may seek to find a balance between, there may be no determinable answer. Vitalik makes an interesting argument for “being concave about concavity” since in some cases convex approaches are better. I would encourage being concave about concavity for another reason too. One must realize that, in trying to find an indeterminable answer between extremes, neither not trying at all nor searching indefinitely for the answer is the right approach. Discovering some guiding principles may be valuable but if there is no ultimate answer to be found then it is likely that additional time spent trying to find the balance beyond some point has diminishing returns. I myself probably lean on the side of searching too much for answers to unsolvable questions, but I somewhat enjoy the process of discovering the interesting guiding principles along the way, or building wisdom one could say.

Anyway, one of the questions of extremes I have been trying to find the balance between in 2020 is whether to work on inspiration or on a schedule. Of course, given my perspective above, I disagree with the premise of the question as it is posed since I do not believe the right answer is purely one or the other. I believe both working on inspiration and on a schedule each have their own merits justifying employment for at least some of the time, but it is difficult to know when each is most appropriate and how best to strike a balance. 

The primary benefit of working on inspiration is obvious. When one is inspired, one tends to do good or great work relative to one’s own standards of performance. There is a reason we think of great art as products of inspiration and commonly refer to athletes having a great games as “inspired performances”. People mix the concept of inspiration with that of motivation and drive and in this way inspiration may be at the root of most or all of our work if it is to be considered broadly enough. Regardless, it is generally accepted that sincere inspiration leads to great work, and so acting on inspiration at least some of the time would seem to make good sense for a person who desires to do great work.

The primary benefit of working on a schedule may be less obvious though the practice is more popular. Consider how much of most people’s days are spent on some semblance of a schedule. Think about how many people you know who work from 9-5 on weekdays or on certain scheduled shifts. Even around these working schedules which comprise the majority of people’s waking days, most also implement additional schedules of some sort, either explicitly or in practice. For example, a person might workout on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday or make breakfast at the same time every morning or read or watch TV around the same time every night. On the weekends, we make plans. Of course, some people live more spontaneously, leaving more room for acting on inspiration, but subjectively it seems to me that a scheduled life is the far more popular norm of our time.

No doubt, operating on a schedule can be super beneficial. There is a common sentiment I’ve heard a lot of people share which says that “showing up is half the battle”. Earlier this year, when for several months I followed my own rule of writing and posting a blog every weekday without fail, I came to recognize clearly the value of simply showing up on schedule. Many days I felt inspired to write (and I do believe there are ways to attract inspiration), but on other days it felt more like a chore or something that I had to do. On some of those days when I did not very much feel like writing and/or did not know what I wanted to write about, I ended up producing some of my best work. Sometimes inspiration came halfway through the writing process so although I was not inspired to write in the first place the piece ended up being truly “inspired” in the end. If one is only writing when one is inspired and one is typically inspired to write on average around once a week, that person might be better served by sticking to a schedule of writing 5 times per week and seeing what happens if they follow it for some time.

So while there is certainly some value in having some regular scheduling, I think most people’s lives are so heavily scheduled that they would benefit from leaving more room for acting on inspiration. The thing about inspiration is that, unlike a schedule, it cannot be forced. The best ways I have found to design around inspiration are to schedule less, engage in activities which seem to attract inspiration (like walking or reading), and set some ground rules for when one should or should not abandon one’s plan or current involvement to act on inspiration instead. A rule to always act the moment inspiration hits sounds romantic but it is impractical from my perspective and probably unwise anyway. If I am preparing for a podcast and minutes before it is time to record I get inspired to write about one of the subjects I’ve noted for discussion, that is probably not the best time for me to do so. The big benefit of being less scheduled is that there are less moments when it is impractical to act on inspiration. There is plenty of room not only for inspiration to hit, but also to act on it. That said, the extreme of acting only on inspiration may lead to a life of largely doing nothing, and since you’re always doing something, nothing just means nothing significant enough to really identify. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with that, and I wouldn’t suggest that there is, but as someone who seeks to do great things, I am considering the question of whether to work on inspiration or on a schedule from a perspective that should resonate with others like me.

As you might have imagined by my introduction, I do not have a definitive answer to offer on the question of whether to work on inspiration or a schedule. Still, I hope my consideration might be useful for others besides myself who have thought about it before, as well as to others still who may have never considered the question so explicitly. What I can say is that I do believe the optimal path in this instance like many others lies somewhere in the middle of the extremes. A heavily scheduled life may be uninspired where an inspiration-only approach may be unproductive. For those who wish to be both productive and inspired, there must be a sweet spot in the middle ground, and it is up to you to find that for yourself. 

I tend to believe that most “productive” work is really just a distraction to make oneself feel good about getting things done. An inspired action which may take only an hour could be more impactful than weeks or even months of drudgery checking off items on one’s to-do list in a highly scheduled sort of job. Even in my writing, had I not abandoned the weekdaily schedule which I mentioned I saw such great benefit from, I may have never given myself enough room in my days to feel inspired to start the podcast. In a somewhat scheduled fashion, I have been aiming to release two podcasts per week, but perhaps that schedule too will one day be relaxed so that inspiration may point me in another direction as well. Perhaps I will get to a place where I have a few things that I like to do like writing, podcasting, and investing, and I can simply spend my time bouncing between them as I am inspired to do one or the other. In 2019, I worked all week on someone else’s schedule. In 2020, I removed everything including my job to leave plenty of room for inspiration and then started adding back some scheduling of my own design. I will continue to operate in between extremes, and hopefully over time get nearer and nearer to perfecting the art, even if I will never get there.