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Monday Master Class: How to Reduce Stress and Get More Done By Building an Autopilot Schedule

April 7th, 2008 · 43 comments

The Schedule That Wasn’t ThereAutopilot

I had an interesting conversation last week. A friend asked about my schedule for the rest of the semester. “I have it all planned out,” I replied. “I’m going to alternate, back and forth, between working on the big research paper I have to write for my art history seminar and the early parts of my dissertation.”

The friend was quick to challenge me. This schedule, he noted, missed a lot. What about the hundreds of pages of weekly reading for my art history seminar? What about writing and grading problem sets, and prepping and running recitation sections, and student e-mail, and all the rest of the random logistical effluvia emanating from the course I am TA’ing? Or, for that matter, what about all the non-MIT projects I keep brewing? My blog? My freelance articles?

It didn’t occur to me to mention this work. These tasks — numerous as they may be — rarely make an appearance in my scheduling decisions. Why? Because I use a simple but devastatingly effective student trick: the autopilot schedule.

It works as follows…

The Autopilot Schedule

There are two types of work in my world:

  • Regularly occurring tasks.
  • Non-regularly occurring tasks.

The former typically outweigh the latter and take up the bulk of my time during. These regular tasks are so numerous that I don’t trust myself to schedule them, week by week, in a reasonably efficient and spread out manner. If I made scheduling decisions on the fly for all of my regular work, I would likely:

  • Get behind on my regular work, letting it pile up and instigate last-minute scrambles.
  • Make very little progress on my important non-regular work. “I’ll start that paper tomorrow, I have all this reading to get done today!”

So here’s what I do instead:

  • I assign every regularly occurring task to a specific day in the week. (Sometimes I even assign the task to a specific time.)

For example, here is the schedule I am currently using for non-regular work in my student life:

  • Reading for my art history seminar: Friday and Monday. If I don’t end up finishing, then I also use Wednesday before class.
  • Develop new problem set problems: Thursday morning before class.
  • Build a prep sheet for problem set problems: Thursday morning right after the problems are chosen.
  • Prepare for office hours: One and half hours before office hours start on Tuesday. (The process is simplified by the prep sheets put together the preceding Thursday.)
  • Work with graders to discuss problems, setup rubrics, and review procedure: Two hour meeting, in conference room, Thursday afternoon.
  • Reassemble problem sets, print sample solutions, print graders notes: Tuesday morning before class.
  • Write draft of Monday and Wednesday blog posts: Sunday morning.
  • Edit and post blog articles: First thing Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
  • Reply to student e-mail for class: Right after blog posts on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and first thing on Tuesday and Thursdays. Also at end of work day.
  • Work on non-MIT writing: Friday, Sunday, “early-evenings” during the week.

I call this an autopilot schedule. It took some tinkering, as it does every semester, to get it to a place that works. But now that it has been fine tuned, I no longer have to expend any scheduling energy to make sure I accomplish all of these regular tasks. They run, in effect, on autopilot — getting done when scheduled.

The Power of Autopilot

Here’s why I love having an autopilot schedule: my scheduling energy can be focused 100% on the large, non-regular tasks in my life. This is why I was able to tell my friend that my schedule for the next two months consists of alternating between my research paper and my thesis. All of that other crap he mentioned is already taken care of. I’m only interested in what happens in the time that remains.

Let me give you two reasons why you should consider placing the regular work in your life onto autopilot:

  1. Your regular work gets done consistently and with a minimum of stress.
  2. The clarity gained by having this regular work “taken care of” allows you to focus on the important big projects in your student life.

Getting Started

There’s no magic 10-step process here. Identify what work you do every single week and then start fixing it to specific days. You probably won’t get it right at first. The biggest mistake I make each semester when forming my autopilot schedule is to put too much on one day. So play with your work. Slice. Dice. Spread it out. When possible tie work to specific events. (Much of my TA work is attached to the hours immediately before or after classes or office hours.) These triggers make it easier to get started. If a given task is big and scary and ambiguous try to break it down and systemitize it. (A post for another day is the amount of mechanization I’ve applied to my TA responsibilities to minimize any wasted or unnecessary time spent handling papers.)

Once you get to the point where your regular work is getting done with a minimum of thinking, you’ve hit that low-stress sweet spot where you can start turning your attention to the bigger things. Like that terrible massive art history research paper that I have no idea how to start. Still working on a way to automate that too.

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43 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: How to Reduce Stress and Get More Done By Building an Autopilot Schedule

  1. Mike Brown says:

    For example, here is the schedule I am currently using for non-regular work in my student life:

    Did you mean for that to say regular work?

  2. Study Hacks says:

    @Mike:

    Yes. Good catch. I made the edit…

  3. Jenny K says:

    Bing! The light went on for me. I’ve been trying to implement your daily task-list routine that you outlined in your book, and I was getting bogged down each day trying to figure out what to do that would be efficient, not be a black hole of endless work, and still let me feel as though I’d accomplished something valuable. I wasn’t breaking or “slicing and dicing” as you put it, the tasks into do-able measurable chunks.

    Would you believe I actually mapped out your schedule visually on a week calendar to really ‘see’ how you spaced the tasks out?

    It really helped me to call it ‘autopilot’ so that it didn’t feel like a nagging list of have-tos that I wanted to avoid. ‘Autopilot’ seems to insinuate (to me anyway) that procrastination isn’t an option, since it’s bypassed my ‘do I feel like it’ filter. Thanks for writing this!

  4. Ted says:

    I’ve always wanted to have an autopilot schedule, but too many “new” tasks would always come up.

    I always did most of my daily and regular work in between classes, leaving the long, important projects for night. I was always able to concentrate better during the evenings. It was assigned readings I always had trouble with…got too easily sidetracked.

    As far as your schedule, it was interesting to see when you made time for writing your blog posts. Some days I feel like writing and I’ll hammer out 3-4 post, while other days I won’t. So, writing a blog post is not always something that can be auto-piloted, in my opinion.

  5. Study Hacks says:

    @Jenny:

    Excellent. I shared your experience. Trying to keep all of my regular student work on my daily task list made it all seem too overwhelming. Once it went on autopilot I could once again experiencing seeing just one or two things on that piece of scrap paper: a wonderful feeling.

    @Ted:

    It’s debatable about the blog posts. There would be too many days in which I would want to write for hours, and I think my MIT work would suffer from it. So I’m very regular. Whether or not I want to write the post, it goes up.

  6. @Ted

    I believe that your blog can be on a schedule. It may be difficult but it is a key to a good blog. There is a post from Darren Rowse from ProBlogger.net that touches on this topic. I will have to find it. It also depends if you blog professionally or for personal reasons.

  7. jackmo says:

    BOOM BOOM

    that was quality, I just found your link via scott young blog and I am loving it.
    Subscription added.

  8. Aargh! I had a “fixed” schedule for completing recurring tasks until I started a “real job” in Feb. Now I have to plot and plan each week on an individual basis. I need to get back to the autopilot. Thanks for the reminder!

  9. Study Hacks says:

    @Stephen:

    That’s why I avoid real jobs. :)

  10. Matt says:

    A post for another day is the amount of mechanization I’ve applied to my TA responsibilities to minimize any wasted or unnecessary time spent handling papers.

    Ooh, as a fellow TA I’d love to see that post!

  11. Émilie says:

    (A post for another day is the amount of mechanization I’ve applied to my TA responsibilities to minimize any wasted or unnecessary time spent handling papers.)

    I’d love to read that! Maybe it’s already posted but I just didn’t find it?

  12. Study Hacks says:

    (A post for another day is the amount of mechanization I’ve applied to my TA responsibilities to minimize any wasted or unnecessary time spent handling papers.)

    I’d love to read that! Maybe it’s already posted but I just didn’t find it?

    Alas, it remains a post for another day. At a high-level, however, I can you tell that the two things that made the biggest difference: (a) I revamped the problem set system — from the required format, to how they are handed in, to how the graders recorded their grades — to minimize the number of times I had to touch a piece of paper; (b) I took my repeated responsibilities — preparing problem set problems, meeting with graders, etc — and moved them all to set times on set days in set places. Combined this shifted the responsibility from something that was always “on” (as happens with many TAs) and into something that occurred in set, minimized times.

  13. Sam says:

    Wow. I have been trying to figure out how to avoid procrastination for the past 2 years, because I know I am a smart student, it’s just, originally I have a lot of work and when I put it aside, it only builds up.

    This post is exactly what I have been looking for.

  14. RT Wolf says:

    This post is brilliant. I started doing this a coupla weeks before reading this post. I think I got the idea from 7 Habits of Highly Effective People where he recommends organizing to the rhythm of the week rather than the day. Pavlina suggested the same thing.

    It’s been a bit harder to implement it, but I’ve made progress. Thank you!

  15. Nicky says:

    This post was for regular work but what about work you set aside for yourself..since no one is going to chase after me for that work, i don’t feel an urge to complete it…
    and also 1 more question: If a student can only read one post in your blog, which post would you suggest for him/her to read?

  16. Study Hacks says:

    This post was for regular work but what about work you set aside for yourself..since no one is going to chase after me for that work, i don’t feel an urge to complete it…

    You can have autopilot blocks for any type of work — be it self initiated or imposed. Whether or not you actually do it is a different issue.

    If a student can only read one post in your blog, which post would you suggest for him/her to read?

    http://calnewport.com/blog/2009/03/09/the-straight-a-method-how-to-ace-college-courses/

  17. I’m having a big problem at the moment working out what regular work I’m going to get. Every time I think I’m sorted I find out I have more! How do you deal with very irregular assignments?

  18. Kam says:

    This was really really great
    The term autopilot really helps with the procrastination issue =]
    I’m also very forgetful. I jot things down and forget to check my schedule all the time. so being automated will help cure that too.

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