Stochastic Scheduling for the Sciencey

Once upon a time, in a land far far away – we were all able to schedule our days perfectly and know exactly what was going to happen. We also knew, down to the very minute details, the content and timing of these happenings.

Doesn’t this sound like the start of a fairy tale to you?

Every time I try to write about scheduling, productivity, and organization, I end up coming back to the one key factor in everyone’s daily routine: stochastic events. A stochastic system “is one whose state is non-deterministic (i.e., “random”) so that the subsequent state of the system is determined probabilistically” (Wikipedia article). Unless you’re fortuitously hidden under a rock for most of your life, it is likely that you will have variables (e.g. kids, mortgage, career) that will interact to unexpectedly throw your neat little day planner off balance at the most unexpected times. 

However, whenever an established, rigid system is disrupted by an external shock, a resilient system will adapt and reorganize while a resistant system will collapse entirely. Although on a small scale, one’s daily schedule can be seen as a panarchy (here used with reference to the pivotal work of C. S. Holling on the complexity of economic, ecological, and social systems). A panarchy can refer to the system that is able to test and invent new modes of existing in the face of multiple, interacting stressors (Holling, 2001).

So when your days regularly erupt into massive, concussive explosions of confusion and stress, you play around with new modes of being until it all works out. Sometimes, it simply won’t work out – so you just ‘wing it’ and move on, while trying to disassociate the confusion of uncertainty with an embarrassing, upsetting, or generally negative event. Uncertainty in your day should be taken for granted.

For example, I have a list of my daily to-do’s (with time allotments, priority, etc.) tacked up on the wall next to my desk – I think I adhere to this schedule, on average, 3 out of 5 days of the working week. The other two days account for complete pandemonium. Now I’ve heard that scheduling every hour of your day leads to great success (for example, Adam Grant was tenured before he was 30 years of age with Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania due to his time-tracking skills). People who achieve this harmonious level of perfection must be sages, or Omnipotent Beings. They are truly super human.

We have a multitude of soothing platitudes that we use to describe this phenomenon, but I think that at a very simple level, Holling’s analysis of complex systems is applicable. Every day has layers, and within those layers, variables interact to create stressors, which we must respond to creatively and responsively. Stochastic events are a certainty in our days, but nothing else is. Good luck, everyone!

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. robertlfs says:

    So . . . I have also starting looking at this from the other side, on perhaps a more macroscopic basis. If I look back over any five-year period of my existence, there is no way I could have then predicted my circumstances of today. Consider that in the past year I have had the opportunity to collaborate on what will be a long-term research project in Peru that will last as long as I am physically able. Or consider that my wife and I are now beginning over the next three years the transition to our retirement back to only place I have ever called home, New Orleans. Five years ago, I could not have predicted the possibility of either of these circumstances. That type of list goes on and on. So . . . I think of what are the unplanned cool things that will happen in the future. (The gypsy told me I was going to live until I was 94, so I got a bunch of 5-year periods yet to come.)

    So . . . is the solution to schedule or leave room for the unscheduled?

  2. marialegault says:

    Wow, great comment, Robert! Very thought-provoking, as always 🙂

    I was initially focusing on the reactive, small-scale events of the every day while writing this post. However, these daily events do add up to the much larger events that you refer to – chance encounters and spontaneous decisions can lead to much longer-term experiences.

    I think it is important to leave room for the unscheduled and random occasions that give flavor to life. But conversely and proportionately, this lack of scheduling makes me (personally) feel anxious and more prone to needing a state of certainty.

    To overcome these feelings of anxiety, I have to remind myself that resilient people will adaptively respond to their environment and situation. Change is thus not to be feared, but embraced! (Though it remains a personal challenge for me).

    Thanks for commenting!

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