I returned yesterday from the dry, mid-70s weather of Provence, to be greeted by the hazy humidity of a Boston heatwave. As I sat shirtless in my dark apartment (lights are hot!), a box fan blowing at full intensity, the message couldn’t be clearer: summer has arrived!
For students like us, summer is a great time. Mainly because the intensity level of our lives plummets. For those of you taking courses, the vibe is more relaxed than the normal school year. For those who are working, the general wonderfulness of being able to be done — no late night reading, no looming exam deadlines — every day, at 5 sharp, is probably still sinking in. For those lounging on your parent’s couch: we’re insanely jealous.
Time to Get Some Things Done
To me, the best part of this slower pace of life is that it provides the time needed to make big progress on big projects. I’ve written many times before on how to keep your attention focused on a small number of projects to ensure consistent progress, but summertime projects are fundamentally different. Life becomes so simple, that many of the mechanisms described in these past articles — mechanisms invented to handle the chaos of life during the school year — are rendered unnecessary.
In this post, I describe a simple technique, dubbed the 3×3 Method, that I deploy only during this season, to make sure that I don’t just get things done, but, instead, accomplish the crap out of really big things.
The 3×3 Method
This method can be summarized as follows:
Finish three big projects during each of the three months of summer.
My preferred implementation is deliciously low-tech. At the beginning of each month of summer: I print out a document that lists three project names, and, for each, a quick description of the completion criteria. I print this document then hang it on the bookshelf next to my desk at my office at MIT. This ensures that I see it every day.
Notice the following:
- There are no complicated rules for what work I do on what days and when.
- The autopilot schedule of the regular school year has been deactivated and replaced with something much more bare bones, covering only the essentials, like blog posts.
- Though I still capture to-do’s in my gmail based GTD system, I am much more lazy in reviewing those next action lists. I don’t want to get too caught up in minutia.
Living the 3×3 Method
When faced with a small number of projects and a lot of time, your mind turns out to be a fantastic scheduler. For example, I tend to fall into a rhythm where I alternate, day by day, between two of the projects. Once the first of the two projects finishes I substitute the third into the rotation. I sometimes will go 3 or 4 days in a row focusing on the same project when I’m near completion and want to get it done.
What’s important is that these rules don’t need a fixed, complicated work schedule. Your daily work habits will vary depending on your projects and your mood. As long as you maintain the general rule that all three projects need to be completed by the end of the month, the rest has a way of working itself out.
Choosing the Projects
There is a bit of an art to choosing appropriately sized projects. If they’re too small, you won’t get enough done. If they’re too large, you’ll be frustrated by lack of completion. Chop up things into a size that you think, with relatively consistent effort, will allow three things to be easily completed among your other summer obligations.
I also tend to vary the size of the projects, with some of the three being larger than others. I’m not sure why. The variety just seems to make work easier.
For example, on my list for June (which is starting 10 days late due to my vacation), I have the following three projects:
- A specific chunk of my dissertation. I had to draw an arbitrary line in the sand and decide which collection of chapters seemed reasonable to complete in 20 days.
- The final draft of a long-form profile I’m writing for Flak Magazine. I’ve been interviewing the subject since February; time to get this done.
- The annotated table of contents for a new writing project. I can’t talk about it yet, but you will know more, I promise, by the end of the summer.
Why three projects? I don’t know. That’s just what has always worked for me. Any less, and the projects tend to get too large, which causes my motivation to falter, which, in turn, causes me to not finish things. More than three, on the other hand, and I destabilize the relaxed vibe I like to ride during the summer months.
By all means: experiment. If, for example, you have one big thing you’ve been eager to conquer, then make this the 1×3 method. Or, if you have some crazy bucket list burning a hole in the pocket, do more. The ultimate observation behind 3×3 is to take advantage of the simple summer lifestyle to simply get some major things done.