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From Deep Tallies to Deep Schedules: A Recent Change To My Deep Work Habits

December 7th, 2016 · 49 comments

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The Tally Problem

When I was writing Deep Work I was a heavy user of deep work tallies: a record kept each week of the total hours spent in a state of unbroken concentration (see above).

This strategy provides concrete data about how much deep work you actually accomplish, and the embarrassment of a small tally motivates a more intense commitment to finding time to focus.

I’ve written about this idea on this blog (e.g., here and here) and featured it in the conclusion of Deep Work, and for good reason: it works well — especially as compared to no tracking at all.

Over the past year or so since publishing my book, however, I’ve found myself drifting from this particular productivity tool.

I increasingly found it insufficient to support the long periods of deep work (think: 4 – 7 consecutive hours, multiple times a week) that I need to really support my increasingly complicated pursuits as a professional theoretician with heady aspirations.

The problem was timing.

By the time the average week started, I had already agreed to enough meetings, interviews, appointments and calls in advance that no such long unbroken periods remained. This was true even after I drastically reduced these incoming requests with sender filters and my attention charter.

As I found myself repeatedly frustrated with the fragmented nature of my weeks I knew something had to change…

Deep Scheduling

In response to these issues I began to drift toward a new and even more effective strategy: deep scheduling.

The idea is also straightforward. I now schedule my deep work on my calendar four weeks in advance. That is, at any given point, I should have deep work scheduled for roughly the next month.

Once on the calendar, I protect this time like I would a doctor’s appointment or important meeting. If you try to schedule something during a deep work block I’ll insist I’m not available.

This four week lead time is sufficiently long that when someone requests a chunk of my time and attention for a given week, I’ve almost certainly already reserved my deep work blocks for that period. I can, therefore, schedule the request with confidence in any time that remains.

Interestingly, this strategy did not really change my availability. I still end up participating in roughly the same number of these scheduled commitments in a given week as I did back in the tally days, but these commitments now tend to be much more consolidated in my weekly schedule.

The people making the requests can’t tell the difference, but I certainly can!

Deep scheduling, of course, is just one of many always shifting and evolving strategies that support deep work in my schedule. Perhaps the larger point here is not that this one strategy is vital, but instead that it’s vital to keep questioning and tweaking your own productivity habits.

A deep life is indeed a good life, but it requires, as I’ve learned, constant cultivation.

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Longtime readers know I’m a big fan of 80,000 hours — a non-profit organization based at Oxford University that offers evidence-based and incredibly effective advice for building a working life that matters (as oppose to, for example, naively chasing “passion”). Anyway, they just published their first book and they are giving it away for free. If you worry about career satisfaction and impact, it’s worth checking out.

49 thoughts on “From Deep Tallies to Deep Schedules: A Recent Change To My Deep Work Habits

  1. As someone who’s just starting to schedule in terms of days or weeks, scheduling for a month at a time seems very daunting, but I suppose if you want to be at the peak of your career, you gotta do what you gotta do. That being said, two questions:

    1. Once you’ve made your schedule a month out, how much does it change? Do you stick to it completely (except for absolute emergencies), or does your actual time usage look very different from the plan?
    2. Do you ever have trouble sticking to the plan, even if you stick to the schedule, i.e. how often do you procrastinate, or not do something even though it’s scheduled in?

    1. X says:

      Hi guys – you and others with questions:
      Cal is a person who put a time value on every aspect of his life. So, do you think he has pencil in time to respond to queries on his blog…not likely, unfortunately!
      If I were you, I would simply read his article and silently appreciate him time for sharing the wisdom, and find answers myself by trying different approaches (one of which won’t be relying on a response from him though).

      1. Study Hacks says:

        I’m not great at responding to comments in a timely fashion, but I do read them all, and try to chime in when I can…

        1. Cheyanne says:

          I’d like to see a post addressing your time put into blogging, both creating posts and engaging with your audience. Obviously there is a marketing value to it, but I’m curious to know if that is the sum total for you.

    2. Study Hacks says:

      An important clarification: I’m not scheduling my full professional life one month in advance, I’m just putting some deep work appointments on my calendar one month in advance. I schedule out each week usually on Monday morning of that week.

  2. Cal, love this.

    Question: you don’t find that when the week arrives, (or for that matter, when the day arrives) there are new things on your plate that are so urgent or important that you end up letting them into the deep work blocks? (4 – 7 hrs is a large chunk of the day)

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I have many hours left in each week that I can play with for dealing with various last minute things that might drop onto my calendar. But for the most part, as a professor, there’s not usually a lot of instances where something really time consuming falls on your plate with a very short deadline, so that helps.

      1. Rudy says:

        This is exactly what was frustrating to me. As a consultant, I don’t really have the level of stability in my schedule to carve out deep work as I would like. Usually, the client will leave something unattended, which become an emergency for me when they decide to tell me about it and need it back right away. The best thing I can do is decide the meetings I will and will not attend, then use that time to focus very intensely on producing work.

        The other strategy is to print out my weeks schedule and write out when I’ll be putting in preparation for things later in the week. At the end of the week I will review all the items I didn’t complete and add them to the next week, so I don’t lose track.

  3. Vishal says:

    This is awesome Cal.

    I guess knowing which hours have been reserved for work outside makes us conscious of managing our time for deep work.

    I have read that Warren Buffett follows an interesting method. If someone wants an appointment with him, his secretary requests the person to call just one day prior and check Buffett’s availability. How effective would a method like this be, according to you?

  4. Dave Small says:

    This is great Cal. What are your thoughts about moveable blocks?

    The blocks for “deep work” are the most important and need to be scheduled (let’s say a four-hour block of time). Then a great opportunity — but, of course, less important than the “deep work” is placed in front of you. It seems we have four options —
    1. Turn down the opportunity.
    2. Delay the opportunity.
    3. Allow the opportunity to encroach on your block of time.
    4. Move the “deep work” to equally productive time period.

    As a general rule it seems we should do this in the following order: 2-4-1 and avoid 3 if possible.

  5. Gerlach says:

    4-7 deep hours with deep breaks in there somewhere, right?

  6. Adam Marlin says:

    How do you pick your times?

    How did you decide what times to leave open?

    1. Fan says:

      What about your tooth brush? Your tooth paste?

    2. Study Hacks says:

      I teach two days a week, so those are not going to be deep work days. And Friday’s are often when we have faculty meetings and speakers, etc. So I tend to schedule the deep work on the two days that remain.

  7. Miss Deep says:

    A deep comment for a deep blogger: this was deep! Have a deep day, in this deep month. 2017 is going to be deep!

    1. Bjarke says:

      i was deeply moved by that comment xD

  8. Geoff says:

    Great post and great idea Cal.

    I think others comments have raised some really valid questions. The one that comes to mind for me is where do you get the confidence to schedule your time a month in advance?

    I don’t think I have the foreknowledge to block away such large chunks of time so far in the future.

    Do you have any tips on how to go about this?

    How do you deal with the unexpected in these situations?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      You’d be surprised how well it works out. Basically, once you have blocked out some time you schedule around it as things come up. Like water flowing around big rocks in the stream your schedule will adapt pretty seamlessly to those constraints, just like it would adapt if you shifted to start your day two hours later, or if you had a medical problem that required you to miss two mornings a week for treatment, etc.

      1. Thanks for the thoughts Cal!

        I decided to start doing this deep scheduling this year, and I found it’s tough at first to believe that everything will work out.

        But once you consistently see that it works, you have the courage and desire to keep with the system.

        I found that for my deep work, blocking out Wednesdays is the most effective strategy. I put up an out of office and try to avoid meetings. I really can get a lot more done on key projects, like writing a book, than I would otherwise.

        To your brilliance!
        Elizabeth

  9. Emerald says:

    I totally agree with the idea of blocking of time well in advance. I’m a virtual assistant and I recommend this method to my clients on a regular basis. Figure out the things that are most important to you that are not getting done: time with kids/spouse, checking in with employees, prospecting for new clients, or deep work as Cal suggests and the block it on your calendar.

    The key is to make it sacrosanct, don’t touch it! My clients that have the most success are the ones who respect the time blocked for those most important things. A month in advance may seem daunting but the days will pass anyway. When the day comes you’ll be glad that you have that time set aside for what matters most both personally and professionally.

    A few other tips:
    Set up a guideline ahead of time for exceptions to the rule. If it doesn’t meet this guideline then it doesn’t happen during the time block. For example:
    -health emergency
    -family emergency
    – VIP client (over XYZ amount)
    – once in a life time opportunity (you meet Beyonce or Tony Robbins while picking up your coffee and they want to have a chat)

    It may not feel like it, especially if you are not used to saying no but truly everything else can wait. The more you practice the easier it gets. Most of the people I schedule with are just as happy to meet on Wednesday as they are on Tuesday, you just have to suggest it. (no you don’t have to explain why)

    Start with a smaller time block, no more that 4 hours no more than 2 times a week. This leaves plenty of time in your schedule for other work, meetings, etc.

    Look over your calendar for the past couple months. Do you see any patterns that you can use to your advantage? If Monday and Tuesday are always a madhouse then schedule your deep work on Wednesday and Thursday. I would avoid trying to schedule big blocks of time on Monday morning or Friday afternoons.

    It’s ok to be a little flexible. A very little. I don’t schedule anything for the 1/2 hour before or after a time block. My general rule of thumb is that if something super urgent comes up (less than JK Rowling but more than I don’t feel like it) and it takes less than 1/2 hour then I may shift the block to accommodate. Anything that requires more than 1/2 hour needs to be scheduled another time.

    Give yourself 3 months to refine and figure out what works best for you. Maybe Thursday afternoons are the worst or you do your best work on Tuesday at 11:00 AM?

    Warren Buffet idea sounds like a good way to spend more of your time tending what is urgent today, regardless of how it fits into your overall goals/direction. However, I do try to keep a 1-2 1/2 hour blocks open here and there on my client’s daily schedule to accommodate last minute meetings.

    Good luck!

  10. ANATOLI says:

    A bit off-topic. I love your book references, Cal. I read them all – always worth reading, saves me a lot of time to read through reviews to pick a good one.
    Please keep posting references to the books you think worth reading.
    Thank you!

  11. Ravi says:

    The tracking elements and methods used to manage time are helpful when done for a few weeks or months, to help build a new pattern. Once the habit is built, it’s the specific tactic is less important. This has been my experience.

  12. Very accessible overview, Cal. As a home-based consultant/author with a four year old and a one year old at home, the simple act of mentally juxtaposing a month of your accomplishments against mine is a recipe for comedy gold. Look forward to putting these suggestions to work in my own household.

    1. Cheyanne says:

      I have a 3 year old and a 1 year old at home, I share your struggle. I’ve often said the hardest part of having children has been the removal of flow from my life. I just try to remind myself that I’m being productive in other ways and this season will pass.

  13. Abigail Valdez says:

    For once, I am ahead in a process! Cal, your articles on fixed-time schedule, time arbitrage and Murakami’s focus training have really helped me, thanks.

    I automatically blocked 9am-Noon on my Outlook Calendar (for deep work) all weeks; just label the time as Work. During my planning session Monday mornings, I assign tasks into the Work slots and change the titles.

    I leave afternoons open for meetings, calls and work that needs less focus – time arbitrage at play here as I work best in the mornings. I have occasional late evening calls (>8pm) due to time zone differences, but other than that, I am done by 5pm every day.

    I work in company where people can see my calendar slots and send meeting requests, this blocks out any requests before Noon and my deep time is protected. I’ve had no complaints about not being available.

    Sometimes a morning meeting is unavoidable, but taking that is *my* choice.

  14. Oliver says:

    I started using Google Calendar for exactly that a few months ago and it is working out great. I plan my week ahead and I use the Reminders for shallow tasks. They follow you from day to day and are batched into one field, instead of cluttering up the view space. I keep the calendar open in the day or view tab and take notes if I get interrupted or when things come up. The calendar blocks in the future represent my plan and in the past events I adjust it how it actually happened, so I can review it properly. Working great so far.

  15. Michael Weber says:

    Put the big rocks in the jar first…

  16. Mark Samples says:

    I see an opportunity to use these two tools—the tally and the schedule—in combination. One of the powerful aspects of the tally is that you can chart your progress (the 4DX scoreboard), and can indicate breakthroughs (the circle). The deep scheduling, on the other hand, would allow for the safeguarding of those hours.

    1. Mark Samples says:

      P.S. I just scheduled my deep work 4 weeks out, and created a new calendar in Google Calendar for that purpose.

      In a moment of dramatic flair, I made the color of that calendar JET BLACK. Hands off of my deep work time, y’all.

  17. Luiza says:

    I also have been using Google Calendar for my schedule. I used to use Pomodoro Technique during my deep work sessions, but I found that to be both restrictive and distracting. Now I am trying a different approach: to take “deep breaks” when I need it (instead of doing it every 25 min), for as long as I need it (instead of 5 minutes), with the condition that is actually a break: no cell phone, no email, no computer. It is working great for me.
    Thank you Cal, for your advice and for sharing your ideas with us.

  18. Jeremy Carter says:

    So true. As someone who doesn’t have many important meetings yet, I think that it it still the principle behind it of how to plan which, if mastered, helps you become successful for whatever it be that you are doing. From scheduling time between work, school, and social life, the better you get at this, then the better you can do in just about every other aspect of your life simply by leaning how to plan and schedule better.

  19. This is an important and useful clarification. The “four weeks in advance” threshold is an excellent idea, as it “leapfrogs” the planning horizon of the vast majority of organizations. Excluding significant events (annual /quarterly meetings, product/tech launch, Holiday Party) most organizations (and those who work in them) just don’t think about a daily operating time horizon which extends past the next 5 to 10 days max. In fact, if you think about it, I would expect that >80% of the “requests” for your time are for the current week or next week.

    This is not a trivial observation as it reveals a truth which Cal has frequently referenced – i.e., the vast majority of people are in a reactive state, planning and executing their actions in response to what is happening in real time.

    And thus, 1/2 of the beauty/elegance of this approach – by re-configuring your personal planning horizon beyond the immediate, you preserve your opportunity/ability to do deep, focused work.

    The other 1/2 lies in the “mental classification” of these blocked out times in the calendar. How many times have you seen a colleague (or you yourself) Cross our something like “reading club”, “yoga class” or another activity on their schedule because something “important” came up from work. Notice that in the post, Cal repeatedly talks about protecting these blocks of time and assigning them the same importance as a medical appointment. (which, while sounding a little dramatic could very much BE a matter of life and death). So, the other important element of following this approach successfully is the idea that once identified and placed into the calendar, “deep work blocks” need to honored and protected..
    Again, this is intuitive and while I think that many people would agree to the logic of it, some of those same people might be the ones who I mentioned earlier – the ones who are blocking out activities and times that are “nice to have” because there is something “blowing up” at work, or because they don’t want to be labelled as not being a team player.
    I think that this is similar to what Steven Covey wrote about in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, when he developed his four quadrants of time management. The deep work blocks are clearly what could be referred to as the Quadrant II, Important But Not Urgent tasks. I think, without digressing too much into a discussion on Covey, which would be more appropriate for a different venue, that it’s interesting to note the following. In his classification, Covey even notes that the reflection of the Important, but Not Urgent Quadrant II activities, are the Urgent, but Not Important Activities found in Quadrant III. Covey refers to this as the Quadrant of Deception (though it isn’t clear to me, at least, whether that deceit is self-directed or directed towards others). Covey notes that Quadrant III activities include such easy to recognize tasks as “interruptions, some calls, some meetings and…..many pressing matters”.

    To conclude, another important and enlightening clarification from Dr. Newport, rich with insight and loaded with practical application. Good Luck to All.

    Frank SanPietro is a doctoral student in Finance at the University of Memphis

  20. M says:

    Book from 80,000 hours is not free in any of the links, but worth checking out and maybe pay for it :-).

  21. Sascha says:

    This should be obligatory, in my opinion.

    I am not available at mornings. I tell this new clients in advance (I am a personal trainer and writer). This gives me at least 6x3h of uninterrupted hours a week.

    Two days are my full fasting and deep work days. I schedule a warm up and a cool down also which is important for me because a very intense focus is draining like intense training.

  22. John Williams says:

    Do you have a total number of hours that you aim for each week?

  23. Savanna Morlatt says:

    In a world that is constantly rushing, and as a college student taking 21 credit hours, I lose my marbles on a daily basis. I really enjoyed reading this because I struggle to complete all of my homework while holding down a job, being there for my family, and the list goes on. After reading this, I realized that I could set aside certain time frames for my homework, my family, etc. If I consistently completed “Deep Work” a few hours in each day, then I may have a little less stress to juggle. I definitely plan on scheduling these work hours into my week! Thank you for the great advice!

  24. Eurobubba says:

    SHRUTARSHI BASU — I wouldn’t want to speak for Cal, but I think he’s talking about scheduling blocks of time for deep work, not necessarily scheduling the specific tasks or work to be accomplished during those time blocks.

  25. kajol jain says:

    It is an amazing and very interesting blog. This blog is very useful for the one who are very keen about their work. Focus on our work will increase and it will be done time to time.

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