My Schedule Should Be Terrible…
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.
The system work as follows:
- Choose a schedule of work hours that you think provides the ideal balance of effort and relaxation.
- 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.