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Edsger Dijkstra’s One-Day Workweek

Within my particular subfield of theoretical computer science there’s perhaps no individual more celebrated than Edsger Dijkstra. His career spanned half-a-century, beginning with a young Dijkstra formulating and solving the now classic shortest paths problem while working as a computer programmer at the Mathematical Center in Amsterdam, and ending with him as a renowned full professor holding a prestigious chair in the computer science department of the University of Texas at Austin.

During this period, Dijkstra introduced some of the biggest ideas in distributed and concurrent computing, from semaphores and deadlock, to nondeterminacy and fairness. In 2003, the year after his death, the annual award given by the top conference in my field was renamed The Dijkstra Prize in his honor.

This is all to say that I was intrigued when an alert reader recently pointed my attention to a fascinating observation about Dijkstra’s career. In 1973, fresh off winning a Turing Award, the highest prize in all of computer science, Dijkstra accepted a research fellow position that the Burroughs Corporation created specifically for him. As his colleagues later recalled:

“[Dijkstra’s] duties consisted of visiting some of the company’s research centers a few times a year and carrying on his own research, which he did in the smallest Burroughs research facility, namely, his study on the second floor of his house in Nuenen.”

Dijkstra maintained an academic appointment during this period, but ramped down his involvement with his university so that he only visited campus one day per week, on Tuesdays, during which he would gather likeminded colleagues to read papers and discuss ideas. He even pulled back on the time-consuming task of preparing papers for peer-reviewed publication, capturing more of his ideas directly in hand-written, sequentially-numbered reports that he called “EWDs”, referencing his initials.

At this point, Dijkstra had become the opposite of busy. He spent almost all of his time thinking and recording his ideas. He only came to campus on Tuesdays. And yet, as Dijkstra’s colleagues noted:

“The Burroughs years saw him at his most prolific in output of research articles. He wrote nearly 500 documents in the EWD series.”

In this specific case study we see hints of a general observation about slow productivity. Busyness is not the engine of production. It can, in many cases, instead be the obstacle to accomplishing your best work.


As you may have noticed, this newsletter took a little break over the summer, during which time I’ve been serving as a Montgomery Fellow up here at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. As the summer quarter winds down, and me and my family are preparing to move back from the idyllic Montgomery House here on campus to our home in Takoma Park, I’ve now restarted the newsletter, which should return to something like its normal rhythm of 2+ essays per month.

A couple quick administrative notes to share:

  • The second edition of my Time Block Planner is launching on August 15th. I’ll probably post more about it closer to that date, but I’ll mention now that the new edition has spiral binding (!), a beautiful new grade of paper, and an extra month’s worth of planning pages. If you’re already thinking about ordering one, you might consider pre-ordering it, as my editor warned me that once we sell out the first printing it might take a minute until we receive the next one (due to supply chain nonsense).
  • We recently revealed the cover for my upcoming book on Slow Productivity, which is scheduled to come out in March. I made a conscious choice with this design to separate myself from the standard vernacular of business and advice guides and instead emphasize this book’s aspirational focus on crafting a more humane and sustainable life. I’ll of course be talking a lot more about all of this as we get closer to the release date next year.

15 thoughts on “Edsger Dijkstra’s One-Day Workweek”

  1. Busyness is the norm of corporate environments as small tasks accomplished by different people keep the machine going. This slow productivity concept, which is quite interesting to me as it follows the natural process of learning, is to be applied on our own outside of a corporate structure, and if possible in the most comfortable environments we can find for ourselves.

  2. From Andalusian, Spain, thanks, Cal.
    I found Dijkstra’s handwritten record of all his thoughts interesting. Do you exist or do you know any photographs with their annotations?

  3. Wondering why they address you as Cal Newport ’04 on the Dartmouth Montgomery page. The 04 prefix has been used liberally to the point someone would really believe that’s an inseparable part of your name. Found that hilarious!

    • It’s the year that Cal graduated from Dartmouth. It’s a very Dartmouth thing where every college graduate introduces themselves as NAME ‘YEAR.

  4. I had the honor of being a student at the 1985 North American Summer School on Program Construction (Techniques?) described in EWD 923 (among other topics of that memo). I’m sure EWD wouldn’t have known me from anyone else, but it was an intellectual challenge and a delight.

  5. Hi Cal

    Greeting from the UK.

    Having followed the link to to pre-order the new Time Block Planner, I can’t find an equivalent link on Tis is strange because they are usually identical except for the suffix, but in this case substituting the UK suffix takes me to a page for the first edition, not the second – and I can’t locate any equivalent on the website. Is this an oversight?

    If you could please provide a link for the listing I’m sure both I and all your other UK followers would be grateful.

    Many thanks in advance

  6. I’m interested in what led the ‘busyness’ expectation?
    Most corporations and businesses want to make money now and in the future,
    most agree that quality work moves things forward, what led to the admired ‘busy and happy doing it’ state?

    Feels like there’s tragedy of the commons where each employee wants their stuff answered quickly/ to show the are efficient, which leads to everyone trying to do that.

  7. I wouldn’t really call his arrangement a One-Day Workweek. It sounds more like an hybrid-remote approach where he only visited the “office” one day of the week and worked from home the rest of the time.


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