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Fixed-Schedule Productivity: How I Accomplish a Large Amount of Work in a Small Number of Work Hours

February 15th, 2008 · 142 comments

My Schedule Should Be Terrible…Schedule

I should have an overwhelming, Malox-guzzling, stress-saturated schedule. Here’s why: I’m a graduate student in a demanding program. I’m working on several research papers while also attempting to nail down some key ideas for my dissertation. I’m TA’ing and taking courses. I maintain this blog. I’m a staff writer for Flak Magazine. And to keep things interesting, I’m working on background research for a potential new book project.

You would be reasonable to assume that I must get, on average, 7 – 8 minutes of sleep a night. But you would also be wrong. Let me explain…

For Some Reason It’s Not…

Here is my actual schedule. I work:

  • From 9 to 5 on weekdays.
  • In the morning on Sunday.

That’s it. Unless I’m bored, I have no need to even turn on a computer after 5 during the week or any time on Saturday. I fill these times, instead, doing, well, whatever I want.

How do I balance an ambitious work load with an ambitiously sparse schedule? It’s a simple idea I call fixed-schedule productivity.

Fixed-Schedule Productivity

The system work as follows:

  1. Choose a schedule of work hours that you think provides the ideal balance of effort and relaxation.
  2. Do whatever it takes to avoid violating this schedule.

This sounds simple. But think about it for a moment. Satisfying rule 2 is not easy. If you took your current projects, obligations, and work habits, you’d probably fall well short of satisfying your ideal work schedule. Here’s a simple truth: to stick to your ideal schedule will require some drastic actions. For example, you may have to:

  • Dramatically cut back on the number of projects you are working on.
  • Ruthlessly cull inefficient habits from your daily schedule.
  • Risk mildly annoying or upsetting some people in exchange for large gains in time freedom.
  • Stop procrastinating.

In the abstract, these all seem like hard things to do. But when you have the focus of a specific goal — “I do not want to work past 5 on week days!” — you’d be surprised by how much easier it becomes deploy these strategies in your daily life.

Let’s look at an example…

Case Study: My Schedule

My schedule provides a good case study. To reach my relatively small work hour limit, I have to be careful with how I go about my day. I see enough bleary-eyed insomniacs around here to know how easy it is to slip into a noon to 3 am routine (the infamous “MIT cycle.”) Here are some of the techniques I regularly use to remain within the confines of my fixed schedule:

  • I serialize my projects. I keep two project queues — one from my student projects and one for my writing projects. At any one moment I’m only working on the top project from each queue. When I finish, I move on to the next. This focus lets me churn out quality results without the wasted time of constantly dancing back and forth between multiple efforts. (As also discussed here and here.)
  • I’m ultra-clear about when to expect results from me. And it’s not always soon. If someone slips something onto my queue, I make an honest evaluation of when it will percolate to the top. I communicate this date. Then I make it happen when the time comes. You can get away with telling people to expect a result a long time in the future, if — and this is a big if — you actually deliver when promised.
  • I refuse. If my queue is too crowded for a potential project to get done in time, I turn it down.
  • I drop projects and quit. If a project gets out of control, and starts to sap too much time from my schedule: I drop it. If something demonstrably more important comes along, and it conflicts with something else in my queue, I drop the less important project. If an obligation is taking up too much time: I quit. Here’s a secret: no one really cares what you do on the small scale. In the end you’re judged on your large-scale list of important completions.
  • I’m not available. I often work in hidden nooks of the various libraries on campus. I check and respond to work e-mail only a few times a day. People have to wait for responses from me. It’s often hard to find me. Sometimes they get upset at first. But they don’t really need immediate access. And I will always respond within a reasonable timeframe and get them what they need. So they adjust. And I get things done.
  • I batch and habitatize. Any regularly occurring work gets turned into a habit — something I do at a fixed time on a fixed date. For example, I write blog posts on Sunday morning. I do reading for my seminar on Friday and Monday mornings. Etc. Habit-based schedules for the regular work makes it easier to tackle the non-regular projects. It also prevents schedule-busting pile-ups.
  • I start early. Sometimes real early. On certain projects that I know are important, I don’t tolerate procrastination. It doesn’t interest me. If I need to start something 2 or 3 weeks in advance so that my queue proceeds as needed, I do so.

Why This Works

You could fill any arbitrary number of hours with what feels to be productive work. Between e-mail, and “crucial” web surfing, and to-do lists that, in the age of David Allen, grow to lengths that rival the bible, there is always something you could be doing. At some point, however, you have to put a stake in the ground and say: I know I have a never-ending stream of work, but this is when I’m going to face it. If you don’t do this, you let the never-ending stream of work push you around like a bully. It will force you into tiring, inefficient schedules. And you’ll end up more stressed and no more accomplished.

Fix the schedule you want. Then make everything else fit around your needs. Be flexible. Be efficient. If you can’t make it fit: change your work. But in the end, don’t compromise. No one really cares about your schedule except for yourself. So make it right.

142 thoughts on “Fixed-Schedule Productivity: How I Accomplish a Large Amount of Work in a Small Number of Work Hours

  1. Joyce says:

    That is awesome advice. Hats off to you for instilling such discipline in your work :) but as always its predicated by the desire to set out and accomplish a goal – something that is often missing.

  2. Evan Meagher says:

    That’s really cool. I’m excited to find parallels between your workflow habits and my own. I’ll definitely be trying some of the ones you mentioned that I’m missing. Good post!

  3. Chris L says:

    Hmmm… I take case with two things:

    1) I know that it behooves most people to be flexible enough to drop everything and seize an opportunity. Being “not available” during significant chunks of the day won’t permit that flexibility. I’ve gotten valuable freelance jobs that teetered on replying to an email less than an hour after getting the first. I’ve come up with ingenious ideas when a friend burst into my room to strike up a random conversation.

    2. If you’re working your butt off 9-5 during the week, how do you schedule meetings with people?

  4. Vincent says:

    Cal, what is your new book project? Will it be your third book about study hacks? I bet so many of us are interested.

  5. Study Hacks says:

    @Chris:

    This is actually a really interesting question. Reflecting on my own schedule, I realize that I too frequently drop everything to go after a sudden idea or make a random pitch. The best way I can explain it is that my stripped down schedule allows more flexibility than if I was constantly up to my ears in tons of little things that had to get done right away. It’s definitely interesting, however, to think through these facets…

    @Vincent:

    I’m still keeping it under wraps for now, because I’m not sure yet if I’m ready to commit to the idea. But I can tell you this, it is not an explicit how to book, but more general non-fiction. It does involve college, but, to use Study Hacks categories, it is more from the “Deconstructing Success” arena than the “Study Tips” or “Student Productivity” arena.

    Stay tuned…

  6. Gradhacker says:

    Great post. This is exactly what is advocated by Neil Fiore and I’ve been thinking about the viability of working this 40-45 hour a week schedule as a grad student in a research intensive, competitive environment. The one thing that makes me second guess whether I can get enough done with those hours is seeing people like my adviser who work 60+ hours and do produce things to show for it. You don’t find folks at MIT, students or professors, that work insane hours and do have the output to show for it? Did you run into any “super successful” folks in your book research that also worked more than 50 hours a week?

    Regardless, this post convinces me that it is possible to be, I should you use the word effective, in terms of output, with those hours. Thanks for that!

  7. Robyn says:

    The truth is, people are too demanding of others time anyways. Unless it’s a serious emergency, I don’t let anyone disrupt me while its my study time. I often do the same (after reading your straight-A book)… hiding in secret nooks in the library and finding study places where it isn’t easy to find me. Unfortunately for my boyfriend, if he doesn’t answer his cell phone at any given time in the day, his parents and sister practically file a missing persons report. Literally they start calling me and all his friends as well to try and find him. I wish he had the gonads to just shut off his phone, instead of catering.

  8. Study Hacks says:

    @Gradhacker;

    A lot of really successful people work a lot of hours. I discussed this once in an earlier post. The basic idea is that productivity makes you more organized, work less hours, and be less stressed. But it is more or less independent from being successful, which is more a function of being able to focus on things and get them done. That is, it doesn’t matter, in terms of raw accomplishment, if you consistently finish things in all-nighters or in nice, spread out, GTD style chunks. The latter, however, is a lot easier on your sanity.

    I should add the disclaimer that I am in theory — my research involves solving math proofs. So I am spared most of the unavoidable time sinks of other sciences; e.g., debugging code, running lab equipment, massaging data sets or other activities that can suck up a huge number of hours regardless of how efficient you are.

  9. Study Hacks says:

    @Robyn:

    You should point your boyfriend to Merlin Mann’s most recent talk. His premise is that the key to dealing with modern lifestyle is controlling who gets your attention and when.

    The video is here.

  10. Gradhacker says:

    Cal:

    So successful folks are obsessed with completion. Did you find the inverse to be true? That the reason some people aren’t as successful in terms of impactive output was that they simply do not finish what they start on a regular basis?

    If so, this leads to a simple remedy: Once you decide something is worth doing, finish it. Period. (Barring a significant reason to change priorities).

  11. Sunny says:

    Hi Mr. Newport,
    Your book is amazing!!! I absolutely love it. I realize your extremely busy but don’t EVER stop writing this blog, it rules dude!!!
    Taker easy,

    Sunny

  12. Study Hacks says:

    @Gradhacker:

    Let me throw in an extra wrinkle. Just as important as the completion obsession is a finely-tuned filter that lets them know what’s worth completing and what’s worth chucking. I know other people, who finish a lot of things, but the things they finish aren’t helping them. (Think: the blogger who perfects stats and ad placements instead of pushing throw better articles.)

    The filter is tough. I’m still trying to figure that one out…though I have some ideas. (As you can tell, this is a topic I’m fascinated by.)

    @Sunny:

    Thanks! I’ll keep at it…

  13. heath says:

    hi cal,

    great post, great blog – i’m implementing lots of your ideas and having success with them. I’m curious about how you serialize your projects – i am also a phd student in a very demanding humanities program (and have a 17 month old, which is a whole different wrinkle!) and am currently writing articles, studying for exams, and reading/thinking about dissertation stuff. I’m not sure how to queue things in this kind of situation – i mean, if i put one article at the top of the list, it might be 2 months before that gets totally done. does that mean everything else has to fall by the wayside till then?

    i’d love to see a post on how you manage the serialization!

    thanks,
    heath

  14. Study Hacks says:

    @Heath:

    Good question. I think that would make for a good post. The short answer is that I’m serializing chunks of bigger projects; not the full projects themselves. For example, the top of my current student project queue looks as follows:

    [ ] complete requested minor revisions on journal article
    [ ] construct brainstorm document for new idea I’m working on
    [ ] do literature search on topic X
    [ ] review conference paper

    And so on…

  15. Kabir says:

    Just wanted to make sure, so from 9 to 5 on week days, Saturdays no work, and in the morning on Sundays with your ritual. So do these work hours include going to class, doing homework and research since your are a grad student? or just doing work? I’m an undergrad right now, first year, so I’m not really sure if grad students have many classes to attend. And if so, then in perspective undergrad shouldn’t be too difficult as long as one stays on top of things even if it’s engineering.

  16. Study Hacks says:

    @Kabir:

    As a 4th year grad student I’m not attending a lot of classes these days (taking 1, TA’ing 1) so work, while it does cover homework, really means research. For undergrads with a hard major you might have to pump up the number of work hours just because classes and labs can eat up so much time on their own; but the same philosophies hold. Choose the (reasonable) schedule first, then make it happen.

  17. Jamie says:

    Can you elaborate on this method a little? I’ve been adopting all sorts of methods from study hacks, but I still fill overloaded even when I’m using all my free time.

  18. J.Rufe says:

    i’m a little confused about the concept of project lists. do projects apply to regular hw assignments, papers, etc

  19. Study Hacks says:

    @J:

    Regular stuff should be capture on some sort of autopilot schedule or similar regular systems. Project lists capture the bigger, non-reoccuring tasks: a big paper; studying for a more exam.

  20. Kare says:

    I love the dropping projects idea. I see so many people who take on too many things at once, and explode from it… literally. I’ve always dropped projects or new activities whenever I find that it’s too much on me, despite what others think after I do it.

  21. Finja says:

    1. I always wonder if you don’t WANT to work longer hours? I am trying constantly to downsize the rest of my life so I can put more time into my studies, because I love it so much…

    2. Your 9-to-5 schedule works only for people who don’t have to work part-time, right? I work three or four times a week four hours, then attending lectures… I leave my apartment around 9 and are back at about six in the afternoon, and haven’t even started on researching and really working… How would you deal with this?

  22. Study Hacks says:

    Your 9-to-5 schedule works only for people who don’t have to work part-time, right?

    Right, my 9-to-5 schedule is what seemed like a good fit for my particular demands as a senior grad student — which has a small number of long-term projects and few short-term obligations. Different schedules work for different people, the key, however, is picking what would be reasonable for your situation then making it happen.

  23. Saint Anselm College Dude says:

    Thanks! i’m excited to start my own fixed schedule.

  24. Brian says:

    this is just parkinson’s law you rip off.

  25. apteryx says:

    I’m in my first semester of grad school (math/comp sci), and I’ve been having a horrible time. Your article is giving me hope that this can be done!

    How have you dealt with clashing projects in your subconscious? For me, this has been the main headache with grad school: I’m taking three classes and teaching a fourth, and all demand subconscious seeding–to set up that thinking time in the shower that you mentioned in another article. Each class is trying to “seed” that subconscious process; three at the same time have mostly just fouled each other up. The result for me has been a thoroughly unpleasant stretch of cogitus interruptus (“noise in my head” and difficulty concentrating pretty much from waking up until falling asleep).

    Do you run three or four subconscious creative processes at once, or do you mostly have just one baking at a time?

  26. Study Hacks says:

    Do you run three or four subconscious creative processes at once, or do you mostly have just one baking at a time?

    I follow the two-a-day rule — no more than two hard things to think about in a given day. A typical day will be working on one thing in the morning, catch-up on e-mails and lunch, then working on the second thing in the afternoon. Some days I work on just one thing. Some days I give over to lots of small stuff.

    You could think of doing something similar for your classes. For example: Monday morning you seed the problem set for Class A while Monday afternoons you do serious work with your group on the problem set for Class B (which, presumably, you prepped on another day), and so on.

    The bigger question, however, is why are they making you take/teach so many courses?

  27. Study Hacks says:

    this is just parkinson’s law you rip off.

    But the key difference between fixed-schedule and parkinson’s so-called “law,” is that I am saying that you have to turn down and delay things in order to stay within your fixed schedule. Parkinson’s law says that the work you do will expand to fill time. These are two different propositions.

    You can read about my thoughts on parkinson’s law here:

    http://calnewport.com/blog/2008/06/11/debunking-parkinsons-law/

  28. Sohbet says:

    That is awesome advice. Hats off to you for instilling such discipline in your work but as always its predicated by the desire to set out and accomplish a goal – something that is often missing.

  29. A.T. Lynne says:

    Study Hacks, Thank you. This is a very useful outline for self-directed accomplishment. It is wondrous that so much actually gets done, on campuses and in the professional world, when the prevalent philosphy continues to insist that acheivement relies on a brutal Bataan-like march, as one is bullied ever onward by hour-gobbling to-do lists and joyless, exhausting effort.

    When I read apteryx’s comment “The result for me has been a thoroughly unpleasant stretch of cogitus interruptus (”noise in my head” and difficulty concentrating pretty much from waking up until falling asleep),” I wondered if it were actually the multiple topics he was working on at the time or the thoughts of worry, self-doubt, and editorial criticsm that made up the tortured, silent-scream “noise in [his] head.”
    I’m currently completing a book which allows its users to differentiate between the thinking that serves us and that which can destroy us: 53 GAMES FOR THE MIND THAT WON’T SHUT THE $%&* UP! I once heard that a writer was advised to “write the book you need to read,” and this is exactly what 53 GAMES is for me. Even though I was able to strive my way to a magna cum laude graduation, my college lives (begun half a dozen times) would surely have been well-served by my knowing how to quell the near incessant shrieking, along with my relationships with professors and peers, and with my own long-suffering student self.

    My companion’s son will be attending college next fall — I’m definitely going to send him your site’s link.

    Cheerfully, A.T. Lynne

  30. John Rete says:

    no one really cares what you do on the small scale. In the end you’re judged on your large-scale list of important completions.

    I love it. In the past, I used to find it difficult to give up something, even I know that is not useful for me, and I might need some change, because I care very much how people look at me. But now I don’t have to because it’s all my work.
    I will make it impressive in a large scale, and to do so, I am ready to give up some very miserable things no matter how the others look at me.

    I will love yours,

    Regards.

  31. apteryx says:

    @A.T. Lynne:

    If you’d like a beta-tester for your book, send me an email! :) It’s in the link from my name.

    I think the noise in my head is mostly from too many things to think about. Worry and anger join in and make it worse, but I think those are “secondary complications”.

    Here’s an example. Last week in one class, I had a really cool but difficult assignment–to complete in two days. I already had a lot of noise in my head from having just come from a class in real analysis. But, the percolation on this new assignment got going–adding to the din, causing something like physical agony. Within an hour, a vague idea came. Sitting at my computer that evening, though, I couldn’t write anything. Too much of a flood, not able to bring anything into focus. Every other thing I’m on is also jumping to mind: oh, I should email the grader; oh, I should run the dishwasher; oh, here’s an idea for how to make this other project fit the definition of machine learning; oh, I never understood the definition of this one operator and should ask about that; oh, damn, I still haven’t finished my taxes; etc. It took me about three days to actually run the dishwasher, because each time I walked to the kitchen, I remembered something else and got distracted. Much of the time, when the noise is at its most intense, it’s no longer any specific thought coming up and interrupting; it’s just a general roar of the ocean, unable to settle down into an articulable thought. Sometimes, after an hour or two sitting at the computer or with a notebook, I’ve settled down enough to actually do something tangible. Daytime spoils that because scheduled classes interrupt the “settling down”. So, work that requires concentration (almost all schoolwork) has to wait until evening. My evenings last week were useless–just lying down and waiting for the noise to die down.

    Under normal circumstances, like a job (where there is only one thing to do), I would love a two-day challenge like that. I thrive on that sort of fast, intense creativity. In grad school, though, I’ve got four irons in the fire, and it’s driving me insane. (Taking three classes and teaching one is considered a moderate load. It’s the minimum allowed to be eligible for funding.)

    What I’m experiencing must be commonplace. It would certainly explain all those cartoons about miserable grad students who learn to hate the subjects they once loved. A cure would make life enormously better for a great many people!

  32. apteryx says:

    There’s a bug in the URL thing. If you want my email, try the link from my name on this message.

  33. Burt says:

    What type of breaks do you take during these 8 hours?

  34. Study Hacks says:

    What type of breaks do you take during these 8 hours?

    I don’t have some organized system. A lot of days I work in a run. There’s always lunch. In the afternoon I’ll usually go for a walk for a snack. Beyond that, it’s mainly just work. The fixed-schedule focuses me.

  35. Burt says:

    So you don’t take the 10 min break every hour?

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  37. MS says:

    @ apteryx:
    What you describe sounds a lot like ADD. I suffered similarly, trying one new “system” after another w/o success, until I finally saw a psych, got diagnosed, & got RX for 1 time-release stimulant pill every morning. The noise is gone; now I can simply take on the challenge of multi-tasking like a “normal” person, w/o the struggle to settle my mind into a productive mode. [& btw, most jobs don't let you concentrate on one thing at a time; they offer the same grad-student-style multi-task overload, w/ possibly even more pressure from anger/worry.]

  38. apteryx says:

    @ MS
    Thanks for the suggestion and telling me your results. I got diagnosed ADD a little before this semester, and am now experimenting with the drugs. No effect yet, but this is a new angle. Your comment that “the noise is gone” gives me some optimism: you know what I’m talking about, and wow, you found a solution that works!

  39. Christine says:

    What do you mean 9-5? does it included classes? or work? or does it only include the chunks of time with no obligations? do you still rest 10min for every hour?

  40. Study Hacks says:

    What do you mean 9-5? does it included classes? or work? or does it only include the chunks of time with no obligations? do you still rest 10min for every hour?

    I wasn’t taking many classes a grad student, and none now as a postdoc, but yes, it included classes, and meals, and exercise. There wasn’t a lot of free time in there as that’s what the evening was for.

  41. Bill W from Canada says:

    Great article Cal. I find your blogs very informative and inspiring. One of my habits is to read about 5 to 10 minutes of your blogs before my studies, to get psyched up.
    I would highly appreciate if you could answer a few questions related to this blog.
    How much time approximately do you take for lunch?
    Also, how much sleep do you get each night on the average, and at what times do you normally wake up and go to sleep?

  42. AhtiK says:

    My solution was to braindump all the ideas, dreams and stress into TimeGT. Then organized all bits between Inbox, Next Actions and Someday.

    After that applied the Eisenhower important+urgent flags and then the list became pretty small as I try to work only with important AND urgent tasks.

  43. Denny Sugar says:

    I like the way you’ve organized your schedule, but I think that you may be really over simplifying your day just a bit. Would be great to see another post breaking out the that 9-5 time budget. Still, very impressive!

  44. gradstudent says:

    Hello all,
    I have a problem with procrastination… and my ability and capability to achieve things in a timely manner has been significantly effected by this…
    When I start doing something, my mind keeps getting distracted and gets side tracked..
    I am sure you’ve felt it at some point in your life..
    How can I get myself re focused and avoid procrastination…Help Please…

  45. risatrix says:

    Agree entirely that “ruthless culling” is necessary in academia, or the work will rule your life. But wondering about a couple of things. Where do you schedule those annoying time-sucks like errands and housecleaning? Are those “free time” activities? They’re not exactly relaxing, and if there are enough of them, they’re downright stressful.

    And what happens when there are two academics sharing house, home, and children? Do you think it’s possible to keep an inviolable schedule and still do your fair share in the domestic sphere? I’m a little skeptical about that. Family life (and life in general) does not conveniently contain itself to weeknights and weekends. What happens if there’s an unexpected family issue at 2 pm on a Monday?

    If an unexpected event happens in your own life, you can impose your schedule on it. But if said event involves two or more people, it seems to me that someone’s going to have give up that inviolabilty.

    So while I think that you’ve found a great plan for making sure work doesn’t control your life — which is vital — I’m just not sure it covers the contingencies of all lifestyles.

  46. HSStudent says:

    I find this strategy very interesting. Though i am not in college, I feel the necessity to master this strategy now, so in college I can enjoy my time and succeed. I want to clear one thing is that the article that was published based on this. It may be stupid question but i wanted to clarify. It said, and I quote that “Fix your ideal schedule, then work backwards to make everything fit.” Does that mean i should make a schedule and follow the schedule backward. However, I dint see any remarks of you mentioning it. So, if you can just clarify that that would be great thank you in advance

    P.S the link to the article is following: http://www.boingboing.net/2009/11/20/getting-meaningful-t.html

  47. steve says:

    I’m guessing you don’t have kids.

  48. whitney says:

    At the core of getting things done is seeing the evil in mistaking motion for progress.

  49. Gary says:

    How do you manage your schedule/queue? Do you use software or paper and pencil or do you just have a really good memory?

  50. Gary says:

    By the way, WordPress generated an error while trying to post with firefox, complaining about javascript and cookies, when both are enabled. I had to use Opera to post.

  51. Study Hacks says:

    It may be stupid question but i wanted to clarify. It said, and I quote that “Fix your ideal schedule, then work backwards to make everything fit.” Does that mean i should make a schedule and follow the schedule backward.

    Fix your schedule first. Then look at your work and figure out how to make it fit. This is “backwards” in the sense that the normal pattern is for people to let their work dictate their schedule.

    How do you manage your schedule/queue? Do you use software or paper and pencil or do you just have a really good memory?

    I’m flexible. Right now, for example, I have a Google Doc labelled “Research Vision” that captures the queue of academic research projects I’m working on or have the potential of working on.

    By the way, WordPress generated an error while trying to post with firefox, complaining about javascript and cookies, when both are enabled. I had to use Opera to post.

    I’ve found that if you take a long time writing a comment, you “timeout” and get the javascript error. The solution is to hit “back”, then “reload,” (your comment will be saved), and then submit again. The issue is one of timing, not browser — you had success in Opera because you didn’t timeout. As far as I can tell the culprit is a spam filter I have which does a little javascript interaction with your browser to make sure you aren’t a robot.

    Sorry about the trouble. I should look for a new version of the plug-in, but it literally catches thousands of spam comments I would have to otherwise manually moderate, so I’m tolerating its quirkiness for now!

  52. Christine Smiley says:

    I would say this is related to a concept I call the “Task to Time Equalization Principle”. This principle states that a task will either expand or contract to fill the amount of time you have allotted to get it done. This is illustrated by the situation in which you wake up late and must hurry to get ready and out the door. Somehow you manage to get ready much faster than usual. So – don’t allow yourself to have unlimited time to do a task or it will just drag on. Another productivity tip – if you have 3 things you must do, start with the least favorable one. Then when you finish, you can move on to a more enjoyable one and thus you reward yourself for finishing quickly. if you start with the most favorable one you’ll tend to drag it out so you don’t have to move on to the more favorable ones. As an example, if you have decided to vacuum, put up the dishes, and check your email and you most want to check your email and least want to vacuum, then force yourself to vacuum first and check email last.

  53. Mark says:

    What time do you wake up and go to sleep?

  54. Cal, this is a great post. I am happy to have stumbled across it. Excellent stuff. The concept of freeing up time is one that is discussed a lot nowadays, and to see yourself putting this together, and performing awesomely with it, is great. Keep it up, and good job!

  55. thechilibuddy says:

    You have a time-schedule and a task list to be envied. I was wondering what the comparison of your to-do list and what sort of system and tools you employ. GTD? Things for Mac?

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  57. SteveLaudig says:

    Thoughts on rephrasing:

    Fixed-Schedule Productivity

    A slight [intended as friendly] editorial suggestion:

    The system has these two rules:

    Rule 1. Choose a schedule of work hours that you think provides the ideal balance of effort and relaxation.
    Rule 2. Ruthlessly obey the schedule obtained under Rule 1.

  58. Rafe says:

    I’m interesting in scheduling and specifically your method however I’m not sure how you reconcile serializing and habitatizing.

    If I serialize into two types of activities when I complete 1st project from group 1 I move to the 1st project from group 2. When that is complete I then cycle back to group 1 and begin the second project. How can this not conflict with habitatzing (fixed time fixed date)?

    If serializing is prioritized over habits then won’t serialized project approach cause you to constantly work on the next group project? As project time is impossible to calculate you will eventually have to breach particular habit times.

    If habitatizing is prioritized over serializing then your staggered group approach only operates outside of times assigned for particular activities?

  59. Study Hacks says:

    If I serialize into two types of activities when I complete 1st project from group 1 I move to the 1st project from group 2. When that is complete I then cycle back to group 1 and begin the second project. How can this not conflict with habitatzing (fixed time fixed date)?

    Habitatizing is for regularly occurring work that you expect each week; e.g., class assignments for weekly time sheet submissions. Serializing is for bigger, semi-urgent or non-urgent, non-reoccurring projects

  60. Rafe says:

    Thanks for responding and i understand the distinction. What my question should be is : during your schedule do you have two distinctive event components; one for serialized projects the other for habitatized projects?

  61. J says:

    Good post. I’ve begun implementing this strategy over winter break, with decent success, to tackle studying and scholarship applications.

    Lately, though, I’ve deviated more and more from the reasonable schedule I’ve planned. I think it started when I gave myself a weekday off to watch a movie for some contrived reason, and now it’s harder to overcome the inertia that opposes knocking off the to-do list.

    I’ve read in one of your posts that you initially had trouble adhering to a fixed schedule (http://calnewport.com/blog/2009/05/13/my-focus-centric-work-day/) so I guess unfailing adherence comes with practice. But do you have any advice for getting back on the wagon as quickly as possible once you’ve fallen off?

    Sorry if I sound as if I’m looking for someone else to solve my problems (I’m not). I just don’t want to go back to the days where I feared deadlines and getting started.

  62. RT Wolf says:

    The Existentialists (at least the psychologists/psychotherapists I studied) claimed that there were certain existential facts that we all had to face and how we dealt with them was how we were defined. For example, it is a fact that we are all going to die, but many of us act in ways which indicate we are unaware of this fact.

    So, when you point out that, “I know I have a never-ending stream of work, but this is when I’m going to face it” that is a fact of modern human existence in developed countries for most people. It is immensely important to take a good hard look at it and decide what we our goals are and how we will get to them. Making enough money to survive does not necessarily require 9-5 every day, beyond that, what else are you trying to accomplish? Having an interesting or exciting life? Taking on big challenges? What?

    It’s interesting to hear how you tackled that particular fact. Fixed-schedule productivity applies equally well to people who are self-employed, where we have controls over our schedules.

  63. Douglas says:

    What do you do when you have to young kids and a wife? Telling a two year old to go away because it is daddy’s study time, does NOT work.

  64. Mike says:

    Great stuff! Thanks!

  65. Ravi says:

    I have a super simple method I’ve been using to get more done in less time with zero stress. It’s all about doing one meaningful thing every day.

    http://sethigherstandards.com/2010/11/24/one-powerful-technique-to-get-things-done/

    While I apply it to work…..it also works for personal life and would also apply to school/studying goals

  66. sankom says:

    What do you do when you have to young kids and a wife? Telling a two year old to go away because it is daddy’s study time, does NOT work.

  67. Moliva says:

    I have a super simple method I’ve been using to get more done in less time with zero stress. It’s all about doing one meaningful thing every day.

    http://sethigherstandards.com/2010/11/24/one-powerful-technique-to-get-things-done/

  68. Moliva says:

    It’s interesting to hear how you tackled that particular fact. Fixed-schedule productivity applies equally well to people who are self-employed, where we have controls over our schedules.

  69. Gastromid says:

    I’ve gotten valuable freelance jobs that teetered on replying to an email less than an hour after getting the first. I’ve come up with ingenious ideas when a friend burst into my room to strike up a random conversation.

  70. Devall Krem says:

    If serializing is prioritized over habits then won’t serialized project approach cause you to constantly work on the next group project? As project time is impossible to calculate you will eventually have to breach particular habit times.

  71. Sweden says:

    Hello Cal!

    This semester is finally over and I am prepering to apply everything you wrote in this blog into my life.

    I go in school from 08:30 to 16:00 every day. Is it okey if “add” the hours study time after one hour break when I come home?

    17:00 to 20:00?

  72. It’s interesting to hear how you tackled that particular fact. Fixed-schedule productivity applies equally well to people who are self-employed, where we have controls over our schedules.

  73. Kati says:

    RE: Coming up with a work schedule and sticking with it.

    I discovered just how important a work schedule was once I had a baby. I’m a grad student in a challenging program (physics); my daughter is now in preschool during the day, so the ONLY time I have to get anything done is during the day when she’s in school. Where before I just did stuff whenever, wherever–even pulling an all-nighter, if need be–now I’m hyperfocused on getting as much done during the school day as I can. No surfing the net, no Facebook, no procrastination. Get into the lab, or sit down at the desk, and WORK!

    Funny thing is, I get more done now as a mother than I did when I was childless. It’s all about focus and efficiency.

  74. apteryx says:

    @MS My experience in industry before grad school might have been different from yours. At nearly every job, I concentrated on one main thing, which stayed the same from day to day. Peripheral and defocusing stuff certainly came up, but by and large, I had day-to-day continuity. Almost every job I have ever seen except managerial work is like that. That’s the big difference from grad school: every day in grad school is ramping up on something mostly unrelated to what I just ramped up on yesterday. I’m constantly push-push-pushing without momentum. I never really settle into anything.

    Industry work usually energized me. My subconscious worked on it during evenings and weekends, and I was charged up on Monday to *continue* where work had left off on Friday. In grad school, I don’t continue. I restart from zero, over and over and over.

    Sometimes in industry I had to negotiate to fight off pressures to defocus. A couple times I quit, and a couple times we worked out a new arrangement, which kept me focused as well as kept the company’s work getting done. Maybe the problem is that I don’t know how to negotiate in the academic world. All my jobs were at small companies, where negotiation is straightforward: the decision-maker is the person who hired you, you talk with that person every day about what’s going on, and every day, you smooth out the current small difficulties. In grad school (and maybe in big companies), there doesn’t seem to be a person you can negotiate with. Or even people you work with. There are just some mysterious “policies”. Maybe the trick is to find out who is behind those policies.

  75. Daniel says:

    This is a great way to be repeatedly successful in the short term, and a good way to successful in the long term, too. But I wonder if it’s the best way to be magnificently successful in the long term. The issue that this vibrantly triggers in my mind is random ideation.

    Random ideation is first about capturing cool ideas when you have them, and then about taking advantage of the energy and inspiration these bring to chase them down and flush them out. Though there are ways to concentratedly facilitate ideation, it seems a waste to disregard the cool thoughts that pop up randomly. Plus, this random sort are often the most interdisciplinary (in my experience, at least).

    I bring up random ideation in response to this article because I worry it will get lost if one commits to doing “whatever it takes to avoid violating one’s schedule.” Many of the best ideas I’ve come up with have subverted whatever tasks I was doing at the times of their inceptions. Had I not written them down, I would have lost them. And often jotting them down is insufficient – often I get carried away and spew out illustrations, technical aspects, feature specs, people to ask, etc. across the subsequent ten minutes, and maybe three distinct ideas that have spun out of it, in the best scenarios taking hour-long detours from my original work. These detours are my very most productive work ever, however, because I’m so caught up in ideas. It’s like an electron firing, then bumping the next one along, on and on and on across the wires of my mind, lighting up one thing after another (an analogy that doesn’t actually hold true to physics, but you understand). I’d be more productive in the short-term if I didn’t permit this, and more likely to complete my assignments on time / at all, but there’s such a loss!

    Do you disagree? If not, would you amend your assertions, or take another direction? If so, why? (I feel like my questions for you are extremely essay prompt-ish.)

  76. Pdoof says:

    WOW! This post just changed my life. Thank you so much Cal for writing this. My life and my goals just became 10x clearer. THANK YOU!!!!

  77. Nike Air says:

    I’ve been surfing online a lot more than 3 hours nowadays, yet I never located any intriguing post like yours. It’s fairly worth enough for me. Personally, if all site owners and bloggers created excellent content as you did, the internet will be much more practical than ever before.

  78. Austin says:

    I am a grad student and someone recommended me GTD to be more productive. I spent whole day going through the book. While the idea of clearing mind seemed initially nice, the implementation details and some other things are just too much any real work! May be those things would work for MBAs but definitely not for Grad Students. Thanks for making it clear. I don’t want to “use” my time to maintain lists rather I would do the real work!

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